The Joys of Desert Dry Washing

This might seem to be a weird topic to bring forward as winter rapidly approaches and the weather turns colder and more unfriendly for many of us. In fact as I write this it's snowing pretty darn hard here where I live in Northern New Mexico, a state that has numerous dry placers scattered about it's length. But you desert rats in parts of Arizona, southeastern California, and elsewhere can kick back and smile some since many of you are out there shoveling dry gold-bearing dirt as I speak.

No Complaints

Once again (for the umpteenth time?) let me preface things by saying when I first started my convoluted path as a small-scale gold miner I did so as an aspiring desert rat working dry placer ground in California, Arizona, Baja California, and Old Mexico proper. I was pretty green back then but had some good mentors who knew the dry washing score and instructed me well. I would also add that I'm a quick learner when it comes to getting the gold, no matter where that yellow can be found. My weapon of choice back then and all through my dry washing days in the 1980s and early 1990s was a motorized, "puffer" type dry washer custom-built for me by Sam Radding who has left the deserts to become one of the best underwater gold snipers that ever came down the pike in the Northern California Motherlode Region (or elsewhere for that matter). I still look back on my full-bore dry washing days with fondness and a library full of good memories. Sure, like all things gold mining I had my share of ups and downs running that puffer for desert gold, but in the end it was all good. No complaints.

A Land of Extremes

Getting back on track here, in the title of this post I mentioned the "joys" of dry washing. Of course, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder in this regard. But overall I took great joy in my dry washing days...good, bad, and indifferent all bundled up into one. For one thing, any reasonable person who loves desert terrain will find joy in just being there. Yes, deserts can be inhospitable and even deadly, but there is a unique beauty to be found in the desert that you won't find anywhere else. So I took joy in that uniqueness and beauty and still do. The sunsets, the sunrises, the pure blue skies, the geology, the critters, the hardiness of the plant life name it. I've been in the desert when it was brutally hot during the day and icy cold at night. In fact one time out in the high desert of SoCal I awoke in the morning shivering uncontrollably until I could get a good fire going and sip my first hot cup of cowboy coffee. There was a frozen white rime on the ground and the water in my panning tub had a quarter-inch of ice layered over it. But once the sun rose high enough to radiate its heat it became shirt-sleeve weather once again. Go figure. Another time in the Colorado Desert of Arizona it became so hot during the day you couldn't even work for fear of heat stroke. But the nights were balmy. You see, the desert is a land of extremes in all respects. But I took joy in those extremes for the most part. Throw some coarse desert gold into the mix and it doesn't get any better brothers and sisters.

In a Different Light

Those people who haven't spend much time in deserts (let alone digging for gold in them) only see the desert as an alien, ugly place as they attempt to race through it on an interstate highway or state road. They shudder inside themselves at the lack of water and vegetation, and the tales of unfortunates who perished out there in that endless sea of rock and sand without water or sustenance. They fear the desert and could care less that those volcanic-looking hills off in the distance once produced millions of dollars in gold. They only want to get through the desert as quickly as possible and back to the big city where they are anonymous but consider themselves safe. Me? I've never looked at deserts this way. I don't fear deserts or going after the gold they contain, but I do respect them. This is another thing that brings joy to me. I see the desert in a totally different light than those folks racing back to tract homes, dead-end jobs, and cell phone coverage. After all, a day without texting or phone calls is a day filled with anxiety or worry. But for me, I want to go deeper into that desert. I want to explore it, see old mine workings, camp and shovel powdery dry dirt for hours on end. And that's one thing about small-scale gold mining most of you have already realized. There is joy in working hard for your own benefit and not the benefit of some a-hole, Type A boss. Especially when you're not stuck in some sterile, partitioned office but out there in the wide open spaces. Hell, I've shoveled bone dry gold-bearing dirt all day long in desert locations and loved every minute of it as long as I could turn a bit of color in that dry washer's riffle tray. You desert rats out there are nodding your heads in silent agreement because you know, don't you?

Another Dimension

Another thing about dry washing in the desert is that it will eventually introduce you to various desert critters. Those folks I mentioned who are blowing down the interstate only think of snakes and scorpions as far as the desert is concerned. They are partially correct because those types of critters can be plentiful when you're working dry gold ground. In places like the Sonoran and Coloradan Deserts you really have to watch your step or where you place your hands or plop your butt. Now there is little joy in getting bitten or stung by one of these desert denizens, but there is joy in learning about them and studying their behavior in the wild. Ditto for the tarantulas, the kit foxes, lizards, and coyotes. I remember getting up to pee in the middle of the night in the desert outside of Yuma, Arizona and seeing a kit fox in the bright moonlight studying me all the while. There is joy to be taken in these little experiences. And in case you don't already know it, the desert comes alive at night with all sorts of critters...big and small. One time I laid awake in my tent listening to the rustling and scrambling of field mice, kangaroo rats, and other small critters as they frantically searched my campsite for water or "goodies." I wasn't irritated by their comings and goings because my food was packed away or in coolers. And the water in my concentrate panning tub? Why those little beasts were welcome to get a drink in that dry and otherwise desolate location. Their antics that night made me smile at the time and still do. Another joyful experience. On the flip side of this coin I nearly sat down on a sidewinder one morning and was warned off by a big rattler another time when reaching behind a small boulder. My bad both times. Oh, and you should never place a lantern too close to the ground in certain desert locations. One night when I was working the old Potholes District a cloud of insects began flying madly around the lantern I'd set on the ground and not long after, a parade of small scorpions showed up. It was dinnertime for those scorpions and I was the owner of the restaurant! But all that said, I take joy in each of those instances. They added another dimension to my dry washing experiences. Crazy am I? You bet.

The Joy of it All

Good gold can be had in desert locations for those with knowledge and experience. And running a dry washer is the way to get it most efficiently. There is joy to be taken when you have that little puffer or electrostatic unit up and running and are shoveling gold-bearing dirt into the hopper. Sure it's hard work, but what aspect of small-scale gold mining isn't? I used to get into a sort of trance "zone" when working dry desert ground...the sound of a smooth running motor and the bellows of my puffer "slap-slapping" away, swinging a pick into a hard-packed desert bench, shoveling and classifying gravel coated with caliche, and slowly feeding five-gallon buckets of dirt into the hopper. I took joy in the sounds and the physical rhythm of it all, even the clouds of fine dust that swirled around me. Except for momentary water breaks to keep myself hydrated, I remained in that trance zone as long as I continued to work away. But there was also joy to be had when it came time to shut that puppy down and let the desert return to its own silence again. And joy when I dumped the last riffle tray of concentrates into my five-gallon bucket. Then it was off to the water tub to pan those concentrates out. Of course, there came even greater joy when those pieces of coarse desert gold began peeking through the heavy black sands that had accumulated over the course of the day. So the joy of gold recovery was ever present, but it never blinded me to the joys of being out there and dry washing the desert. Sure I was dirty, smelly, and my mouth and nostrils clogged with fine grit. But that was all part of the deal. The joy of it all.

I will tell you this brothers and sisters. Those days flew past me far too quickly and they will for you too. So take joy in what you do out there, even the little things. Every sound, every landscape, every critter, and every speck of gold you recover. Also remember that the desert can be your friend or your enemy depending on your perspective.

Ditto for the life you now lead...

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. Hey Jim...thanks again for something very interesting to read. I was born and raised in the desert (Phoenix) and I can appreciate the love you have for it. I never mined out there though. My uncle and I did a lot of camping and fishing in Arizona when I was a kid. I think I was the son that he never had. Come to think of it he never had any girls either.
    He was a long haul truck driver and my folks and us kids had not a clue about my uncle Virgil's working schedule. But about once a month he would pull into our driveway in his '55 Ford pickup bright and early on a Saturday morning, and then I knew it was going to be a fun weekend.
    We kept all of the gear at our house.
    My younger brother and sister were never interested in camping and fishing so they just stayed home.
    But for me I discovered a connection within and quickly grew to love the desert outside and the mountains too. Arizona has plenty of forest in the northern half.
    I think it was during these times that I just dreamed of living in the wild. My plan was to finish high school and get any kind of a job that I could which would pay enough to save up for a horse and saddle, a six gun and rifle and the rest of the necessary gear and I was just going to live off the land and avoid big cities altogether. That was my plan but life didn't quite work out that way. Probably at least 100 years too late.
    So question for you : While mining in Mexico did you ever have any run ins with the Mexican authorities?

  2. Jim, by far my finest memories come from working the dirt out at Goler Gulch. At one point I was going out there every other week for 5 straight years! So heck yeah I know about the intense heat of the summers there and working there in the dead of winter -snow and all. I also bought into the KGB claim which was at the end of Sand Canyon. Man the good gold that came out of that claim. Funny story, I took a friend to my claim and we drywashed hard. Then got in my Grand Cherokee and went to the house at the beginning of Goler that has the windmill and panned the cons. For some reason I set the gold pan with our gold in the window sill in the garage or shed there just for a moment and wouldn't you know it a strong gust came out of nowhere and blew that gold pan right over!! My Grandfather moved the family out there in the early 1930's and worked for the Yellow Aster Company's Placer claims in and around Benson Canyon. My dad was 7 and learned to swim in the well water pond up on the hill where the big well head is and the house and all that mining equipment is stored. Dad used to walk all over picking up nuggets he saw on the ground. He and his 2 sisters attended the Goler Gulch School taught by Miss Meyers whom I got to meet in 2004. I haven't been out there in years but now am making plans to do some seismic surveys, Magnetometer and mercury surveys to narrow down the best potential spots to claim on one of the areas where the Ancient Riverbed uplifts in the Goler area. What motivates me is I got a guy that is willing to Grubstake me on this now which is what has held me back all these years. Here's hoping he doesn't change his mind (<:

    1. Boy Randy, your mention of Goler Gulch brings back lots of memories for me. Working a claim at Randsburg and driving up Goler on occasion when I wanted some new ground to see. Your connection to that area runs deep and long it sounds like. Again, I have nothing but fond memories of my time dry washing those areas. But the years fly and then catch up with us, don't they?

  3. Jim,
    so Sam Radding built you a dry washer. One of my partners had a hand crank one that Sam built, and it worked like a charm. My partner got a lot of gold with it. He prospected a lot in California and ended up in Las Cruces so he worked near Caballo Lake and Hillsboro.
    My old partner Jack Ward ( Buried in the Cemetery at San Pedro, NM), built a gas motor version similar to yours except the screen moved to break up the material some. He wanted me to take over building them when his health got bad. I regret I didn't do that.
    I spent lot of time in Arizona and California dry washing and detecting the deserts in the winter. One time I stopped at Goler Gulch on my way back from visiting Stan Meager in northern California, and promptly got stuck in the loose sand; because I forgot I was in my wife's truck and it only was 2 wheel drive. Lucky for me a fellow came by and helped me get out. About 1987 or so, Jack Ward and I met up with "Woody" Woodworth right off of Goler Gulch. Woody had found a 9 ounce nugget the day before, and he called it the El Paso Camel. ( "Woody" wrote articles for Western and Eastern Treasure Magazine about using metal detectors to find gold nuggets) "Woody", Jack, and I made many trips together over the years, many places in Calfornia and Arizona.
    J.R. it's still a small world isn't it?
    Best wishes to all!
    Rattlesnake Jim

    1. It's a small world indeed Jim. We probably crossed paths prospecting and mining in Cali many times in the 1980s without knowing it. I had a claim at Randsburg for a good part of the '80s and periodically ventured up Goler but never spent much time mining there. Those were good times with good people and they went all too fast. It's also interesting that we both ended up in New Mexico! Who woulda thought??

  4. I am from Ontario Canada and spent 4 winters near Apache Junction Az. Dry washing is just as you described,,it is hard but awesome,,love the wildlife, the locals are the nicest people you can find anywhere,,I did notice that the free range cattle in the desert are probably some of the toughest animals in the world, surviving on what ever they can find with a nose full of cactus spines. Certainly enjoy reading your articles, brings back golden memories,,please keep it up....Bob

    1. Hi Bob...always a hearty welcome here for Canuck miners. It takes a tough individual or animal to live and roam and mine in the desert, as you rightly point out. But miners who have never dry washed for gold in the desert are missing something unique and quite special. Thanks for your comments and your good words my friend.


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