A Pile of Rocks

During the 1970’s I worked at was then known as The Uranium Capital of the World, Grants, New Mexico. There was large sign just off of I-40 that told everyone that as they approached town. I don’t know if it was ever true but there sure is a lot of uranium buried close to Grants in a huge mineral belt that stretches for many miles.

One of the more productive pockets of uranium ore was found at Ambrosia Lake where there were over 100 mines. It’s not a lake at all but rather an ancient sea bed. Still, along with the uranium capital sign there was for years another sigh along I-40 that directed travelers to Ambrosia Lake, forgetting to mention that there is no lake. I told many a disappointed fisherman that fact until finally someone in the highway department thought to remove the sign.

Prior to the discovery of uranium in the 1950’s Grants was a very small town mostly known for carrot farming and the railroad. Grants is in an interesting spot in western New Mexico in the middle of a field of lava generated by Mount Taylor, a now dormant but not extinct volcano.

When uranium was discovered the town was overwhelmed with prospectors and mining companies large and small and miners from all over the country and the world. One thing about miners; they go where the money is and that means from one boomtown to the next as long as their careers last. As the uranium boom gained momentum the small companies were gobbled up by the much larger and well known outfits like Homestake, Kerr-McGee, Ranchers Exploration and whole bunch of others.

I happened to end up working for Kerr-McGee or as it was known then simply as Kermac. I worked underground in a few capacities until I finally became a certified miner. Miners are quite different from laborers or helpers underground and it takes a while to become one. I wasn’t aware of that when I started and it’s a good thing too because had I known what was required to become a miner I may never have gone underground. I’d assumed if I worked underground I was miner. I was way off on that one.

There’s nothing very interesting to me about uranium or for that matter any other metal or mineral. Well, if you own stock in gold, silver, copper or something similar I suppose the end products of mining become interesting in a way. I just never found a pile of rock that interesting, and really that’s what it is that’s extracted. It’s never pure uranium or solid gold or silver but just a pile of rock that contains a usually minuscule percentage of whatever is to be refined. Just a pile of rocks. What was interesting were the people that mined uranium and how they did it.

Kermac had an interesting system of paying miners that was based on how much they produced as opposed to a flat hourly rate. That kind of system leads to individually innovative mining techniques unique to specific miners personalities. Speed was of the essence so forget safety. While there were a hundred state and federal mine safety rules to be followed underground it cost money to follow the rules because they slowed down production. Some of the rules seemed to make sense like wearing safety glasses. Nobody did because they fogged up so fast they were useless. Take ventilation with you by means of large plastic tubing. Few did because hanging that stuff paid so little and took so much time it cost a miner a lot of money to do it. Always work under supported ground so as not to be crushed by a large slab of rock. Ore extraction paid by the carload so miners frequently ignored that rule. Don’t smoke underground. Why not? Well, it turns out that radon somehow sticks to the smoke from a cigarette and that’s bad for the lungs apparently. Oh, and there’s a lot of dynamite being used underground and having an open fire source like a lighter or a match around could be a problem. Nevertheless, I often saw miners smoking not only underground but sitting atop a pile of dynamite while they did it. Had a pile ever gone off that definitely would have slowed that miners production somewhat.

Kermac basically told miners how much they’d get paid for extracting x amount of ore, gave them millions of dollars of tools and equipment and let the miners figure out the actual mining part of it. There was no rulebook on how to do anything as far as ore extraction was concerned. That led to some really innovative work and what I found to be interesting stories.

So, when I think about underground mining I’m always thinking about what the individual miners, laborers, helpers, underground geologists and all the others down there are going through. I find their stories to be fascinating, as hard labor often is.

Eight Speed Garbage Collector

I had job driving a dump truck one summer. There were a few of us hired by the plant where I worked doing outdoor maintenance, paint, lawn mowing and similar jobs.

One morning the boss asked me if I knew how to drive a dump truck. I lived in a suburb of Chicago and I was 18. How would ever have known how to drive a dump truck? “Yeah, I  can drive a dump truck,” I said. “You know how to double clutch an eight speed?”, asked the boss. “Yeah, I know how to do that” I didn’t know what a double clutch was let alone drive an eight speed.

The boss put me in charge of the truck and gave me a helper and the two of us were to visit each of the many buildings on the hundred-acre property collecting bags of trash and loading them onto the truck.

My personal car at the time was a three speed Chevy with a clutch so I knew what a clutch was but as for a double clutch I had no idea at all. Still, I managed to get the truck into the lowest gear which did make the vehicle move but just barely. Dump trucks are made to carry very heavy loads and are geared in such a way that the lowest gear will get the truck just barely moving at about 1 mile per hour. Then you have to shift to second, third, fourth and so on. When a truck starts out that slowly you really have to be fast at shifting so as not to lose the momentum of the preceding gear otherwise the thing will chug along and usually stall on you.

I managed to get the truck up though the first 4 gears alright but unless I wanted to do all the garbage pickup at top speed of  10 mph I’d have to figure out how the other 4 gears worked and that’s where the double clutch came into play.

I deduced through trial and error that in order to get to gears 5 through 8 I’d have to push the clutch down twice and then go through the normal H pattern of with the shifter. I found out that had to be done quickly just as the single clutch was in order not to lose the small amount of momentum generated by the previous gears.

I stalled the truck and number of times while I furiously tried double clutching and ground the gears pretty well doing it but finally managed to get the truck running. So off we went to collect garbage.

I thought it was great job. I got to drive a large truck around visiting all the buildings on the grounds and meet a lot of people doing it. It was garbage collection but to me it was one heck of a sweet assignment at the time.

After making the rounds we had a rather full load of garbage in the bed of the truck and the truck was loaded down enough so that we actually did need all the gears.

The grounds included a huge pit where clay for brick making had once been dug out. At the bottom of the pit was a huge incinerator in the shape of a tee-pee. We were supposed to dump our large load of trash bags next to the incinerator where later that night another crew would load the tee-pee with all the trash. They did it at night so as not to attract attention to the burning that was probably illegal. Sure saved the company I was working for a lot of money collecting and burning their own trash.

One of the key advantages of a dump truck is the dumping mechanism that lifts the large box full of, in our case trash, dumping it on the ground. It saves having to unload everything by hand that way. Naturally I didn’t know how that worked either but there was a well-marked lever in the cab so it looked pretty easy.

After I got the truckload of trash down into the pit I back it in and prepared to dump it all next to the tee-pee. It looked too easy to screw up. Well, I yanked on that lever to lift the truck bed and it worked like a charm alright but unless you want problems it turns out you need to finesse the load slowly off the truck. I just tried to dump it all at once and ended up unbalancing the load which lifted the front end of the vehicle, including my partner and I, straight up into the air giving us a great view of the sky that day and nothing else. After a moment of panic I returned the dumping mechanism lever back to its starting position as quickly as I’d lifted it and down we went very roughly bouncing off the ground a couple of times in the process. With no seat belts on we of course smacked our heads against the roof of the cab of the truck at which point the value of the mandatory hardhat became quite evident. It hurt a little but that was all.

Soon I learned to finesse the unloading of garbage and drove that truck around like a seasoned pro garbage collector. And now, if I ever run into an eight-speed dump truck with a double clutch, I’ll know what to do.


Underground and Radioactive

In my soon to be released book, Underground and Radioactive, I talk about what it was like working underground mining uranium at Ambrosia Lake, NM during the 1970’s. It wasn’t until recently that I looked into how uranium is mined today. I guess I assumed that although there aren’t any working mines in the Ambrosia Lake area today that wherever the new mines are the process of extracting the ore is the same or similar. What a shock to learn  of the improvements in  the mining process. Today it’s a much more efficient process and highly mechanized as opposed to the more labor intensive ore extraction techniques we used. Mining uranium 40 years ago seems almost prehistoric compared to today. People still go underground to get at the ore and while it seems routine to the people doing it the reality it is not. I’m sure todays miners have some interesting stories to tell just like I do.

At The End Of The Trail

I wasn’t impressed much by the Grand Canyon at first. Walking around I thought, That’s a big hole, and? Well, it took a while to appreciate but eventually I came around.

At one time, I lived about 3 hours away from the canyon and I’d take a drive just to see different views that constantly change depending on the time of year and the time of day and weather. But what I found especially entertaining were the visitors. They come from everywhere so you hear many languages spoken and sometimes even English. Some people stop by for a very short time and other wander around for hours. The really adventurous take a hike to the bottom. Yes, you can take a donkey ride down but unless you have too I’d say make the trek. Just don’t do it the way I did.

For a while I’d amuse myself by patiently waiting close to the one the trail heads at the top of the south canyon wall, usually the Bright Angel trail. There, I’d see hikers dragging themselves up the final hundred or so yards and the sight never failed to amuse. Once and while a truly experienced hiker or runner would come by who didn’t seem to be much put out by their run or walk to the bottom but I’d usually ignore those people.

Finally, after a few years passed of observing, I decided maybe it would might be fun to go to the bottom of the canyon myself. Do make a hike like that properly and safely requires planning, preparation and the right kind or equipment. At the time, I decided to make my own trek I had none of those, but it didn’t stop me. It should have, but it didn’t.

There’s a nice little developed campground at the bottom of the canyon called Bright Angel close to the Phantom Ranch. You’ve got to make a reservation to stay at Bright Angel quite a while in advance of your hike down. If you don’t you’ll find yourself at the bottom with no place to stay and since you can’t just camp anywhere legally, you’ll be faced with a long slow hike back to the top. For some reason, I did make a reservation although I’m not sure why since that’s about the only smart thing I did.

Ideally, it’s important to have a good pair of hiking shoes or boots, a lightweight pack, a tent, a sleeping bag and plenty of water and food. I had a pair of converse tennis shoes an old Boy Scout canvas pack and a homemade tent I devised using a tarp and PVC pipe. Clothing is something to be careful with as the temperature can vary greatly from top to bottom not to mention possible rain and snow depending on what elevation you’re at. I had a flannel shirt and a poncho that was far too small. But, I wasn’t expecting any rain as there was none forecast. Snow? Please, it was mid-October.

Food and water are a real concern on any overnight hike and especially so on a strenuous hike. While you always have to be concerned with how much weight you carry, skimping on water to save weight is a really bad idea. Since I didn’t have any fancy water carrying gear I did what I’d observed so many illegal aliens doing in the Arizona desert and carried my water in a plastic gallon jug. Knowing nothing about freeze dried food I cobbled together things like a few cups of rice and some canned food and protein energy bars. I had a little one burner propane stove definitely not made with the weight conserving hiker in mind. Of course, my sleeping bag was made for car camping and not backpacking.

When I had everything put together I bet that old pack weighed 80 pounds. Even with no fancy padded shoulder straps I figured I’d be ok.

Ideally you do need to prepare physically for hike like a trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon so I took a few short hikes in the mountains close to where I live, the longest of which may have been a couple of hours.

More or less completely unprepared I arrived at the Grand Canyon ready for a pleasant sightseeing trip to the bottom, a good night sleep at the Bright Angel Campground and a somewhat strenuous hike back to the top of the south rim.

I’d decided to take one of the shorter trails down to the bottom of the Canyon called the Kaibab Trail. It’s quite steep compared to the Bright Angel with fewer rest areas and less access to water refills. But, I figured it wouldn’t take too nearly as long as the Bright Angel so good idea by me. Not that good and idea by me as it turned out.

There’s a hiker check in area at the park and then a shuttle bus to the Kaibab trail head. I, and my fellow hikers loaded up on the bus and off we went. When we arrived at the trail head everyone took their time preparing and arranging their gear and packs before starting the descent.

I’d never seen the Kaibab Trail so really had no idea how steep it really was. It’s steep. Standing there at the top with my 80 pound back already digging into my shoulders I suddenly realized it may have been a good idea to have taken a look at the trail earlier. Too late now though so I waited at the top watching all the other hikers take off. When everyone else was long gone, I started down.

The forecast that day was for clear weather all day and about 70 degrees on the top and around 90 degrees down at the bottom. Knowing that, I wasn’t too concerned about the dark clouds and distant thunder our west of the canyon. The forecast called for a nice day so it’ll be nice.

The raindrops started after about a half mile down what was now very clearly a really steep trail. It may seem easier but hiking down a steep trail with a lot of weight on your back is very difficult and at times very painful. I could feel right away the strain it was putting on my calves. You’ve really got to train for that kind of stress and if you don’t you’ll pay for it.

The rain steadily increased to the point where I had to break out my tiny poncho that really only was good for covering my pack. The rest of me was soon soaked. The good news was the nice warm temperature. My no tread left converse high-tops weren’t exactly gripping the trail either and while I wasn’t slipping around, each step had to be taken with care.

I spent the entire trip down concentrating on where I was stepping and keeping my balance so much that I never did see much scenery. It wasn’t until I actually reached the bottom that I actually saw anything and by that time my feet and calves were causing me so much discomfort that the scenery didn’t matter very much.

When you’re hiking down and very steep trail there isn’t much you can do to keep your toes from constantly jamming the front of you shoes. Maybe if you have great hiking boots it’s a different story but from what I’ve read it’s rough on everybody no matter what you’re wearing on your feet.

I reached the Bright Angel campground in a downpour. My little poncho had kept my sleeping bag dry so I was thankful for that as I began assembling my little tarp and PVC pipe tent. I’d cut the PVC into foot lengths and then assembled the lengths into poles that I stuck into the ground and laid the tarp over and under so I’d have a floor to lay my sleeping bag on other than dirt. The tent worked pretty well I have to admit but I bet it must have been a sight to the campers with the expensive super lightweight backpacking tents.

After I had my tent set up it was time for some chow. There being no cover I set up my little one burner stove in the rain and after lighting it the thing work flawlessly. I cooked up some rice and green beans and a decent meal of it along with a protein bar. It seemed OK at the time but it wasn’t close to enough food.

The rain continued on as I crawled inside my tent. I soon discovered that the strain I’d been feeling on my calves was for more serious than I’d thought as my legs tightened up severely making for an incredibly uncomfortable night.

When I finally got up around 6am or so the rain had stopped but the pain hadn’t and was in fact so bad I wondered if I could even walk out as I need to. You find out almost right away that rescue from the Grand Canyon trails is reserved for the injured and not for people with sore feet or backs or legs. And even if you are injured, sure they’ll come get you but it’ll cost a whole lot more than you probably want to spend. It ain’t cheap. There are a few signs on the way down the trail that make the hiker aware of that fact.

Even though I could barely stand initially, I knew I would have to walk out myself. One other problem is that the limited campground space is in such high demand that once at the bottom you can’t just decide to stay there a couple of extra days to recuperate at the reservations are made far in advance. So, I had to leave.

My plan was to take less strenuous Bright Angel trail back to the south rim so I slowly packed up all my gear and after an inadequate breakfast of a protein bar started my slow and very painful hike out of the campground in search of the Bright Angel trail head.

In retrospect and considering I was staying at the Bright Angel campground and looking for the Bright Angel trail head I should have had no difficulty finding it. I guess having had inadequate nutrition and being in considerable pain contributed to my completely missing the sign indicating where the trail head was. I assume there was a sign somewhere but I don’t know. In any case I never saw a sign and just started hiking out in the direction I assumed the trail must be.

When I came to a bridge crossing a small tributary of the Colorado River should have been my first clue that I was heading in the wrong direction. Missed that clue. Then I crossed it again and then again until I didn’t know which side of the river I was on. But, I was hiking on flat ground and that was a most welcome respite. In fact, for the next 5 miles I almost started to enjoy some of the scenery. Then the trail started up but at I was on the way home.

I’d now been hiking for a few hours and I’d say it was about noon when I thought something might be wrong. I was on a nice developed trail but I had no idea where I was. I’d seen no signs but since I was headed up I must have been on the right trail. Something didn’t feel right about though and those few crossings of the river had gotten me confused a little.

I came to clearing in the trail that was somewhat level and thought I’d wait for someone to come along who might know where they were and I could tell me.

About a half hour later a couple of Australian hikers came by and the first they asked was if I was OK. That should have been a clue as to my condition but I felt sort of OK so I said, yeah, I’m OK, and by the way, where are we? That’s when one of the hikers told me we were about 7 miles or so from the north rim. The north rim? But I’d headed to the south rim. “Well then”, said one guy, “you’re about 25 miles or so from the south rim.”

Talk about a shock. So, then the choice was to spend the next few hours hiking up to the north rim or the next 20 hours hiking back to the south rim. The north rim it is then.

The north rim of the canyon is about a thousand feet higher than the south so the hike up the trail would be longer and steeper than it would have been had I found the Bright Angel trail. I continued on up the north rim trail having no idea really how far it was or even what the name of the trail was or if there would be a water station anywhere.

That was the longest most strenuous most painful day I ever experienced on any trail anywhere. All I saw for the last couple of miles where the tops of my feet as I was looking down all the time and very, very slowly putting one foot in front of the other a step at a time.

The frustrating period was when I could actually see the top of the rim but the constant switchbacks seemed to be endless.

Finally, I thought I heard another person on the trail and I looked up and there coming down the trail I saw a priest. I know that because he had on the whole priest outfit with the color and whole deal. When we passed, he stopped said simply, “only 700 feet to go.” Meaning 700 feet in elevation. That’s all he said and he was gone. I was buoyed by that somewhat although 700 feet or switchbacks and a half a mile and hour is a long way. It wasn’t until I saw a few people on the trail with no backpacks carrying water bottles that I thought, I’m almost there.

One person stopped to chat with me and although I didn’t feel much like chatting I too stopped. Whoever it was then asked if I hiked up from the bottom wearing the shoes I had on. It seems kind of obvious to me but I said, Yes, I did to which they seemed astonished and told me I was about 100 feet from the top. Great news finally.

Seeing the top gave me a little extra energy and enthusiasm. Soon I was at the trail head and could clearly see the north lodge and headed for that.

When I arrived at the lodge I asked where the campground was. I had no money for a room even if they’d had one vacant so upon receiving direction I made my way over the campground, paid the small fee and set up my little PVC tent again.

I went back to ledge for a small meal and asked about transportation back to the south rim since I had no intention whatsoever of hiking down and across, assuming I’d even been physically capable of doing that the next day which I would say was doubtful. It was fortunate that the ledge was even open as it was the final day of the season for them. As it turned out there was a shuttle that left the ledge at 6am for the 5-hour drive around the canyon to the south rim. Fortunately, there was still room on the van for one more so I bought a ticket and headed back to the campground.

That was one rough night. It got very cold and in fact snowed off and on. Since I was worried about missing the van I barely slept and at about 5am I was up packing everything up for the walk over to the ledge and the pickup point for the shuttle.

I made it and sure enough at 6am along came the van and the few of us there waiting boarded and off we went. It was a warm and enjoyable 5 hours. The van made one stop for rest and those of us who got off were able to purchase a snack.

A couple of hours later the van dropped us off near the Mather campground and I was back.

I sometimes see stories of people getting lost in the Grand Canyon and now I understand how it happens. You don’t prepare properly or have the right food or gear or even so much as a map and throw in a little pain and utter exhaustion and those things will happen.