The Little Old Lady with the Real Big Gun

One of the really fun things we used to do was cruise around the desert, looking for ghost towns. You’d be amazed at what remains, often not the things you’s think would stand the test of time. We found an old, out of print book published in the forties that was excellent, giving detailed directions and little known facts about mines and small towns from the gold and silver rush era. This complemented the Sunset Magazine set of books on the subject, which tended to concentrate on the better known places.

The most famous, of course, is Bodie, maintained by the state in what they refer to as “arrested decay.” It is fascinating mostly because an awful lot of it is still there. Much of the wallpaper is still on the walls, houses and stores are where they originally stood, and the guidebooks relate a lot of interesting stories.

But these are exceptions, usually what you find is far more modest. There were few permanent structures of concrete, and the most common we found was a jail. In a time of widespread lawlessness, jails were a necessity. A wooden jail wouldn’t fare too well, so most were concrete, with iron bars on the doors and windows. We never saw more than two cells, often there was only one, and they were small. In those days I doubt they cared much about the comfort of the prisoners. “I think we should give him a fair trial and then hang the SOB” was a pretty common theory.

Another thing we found several places were platforms for the stage, a long low structure about two and a half feet high. In one of the stranger deja-vu feelings I’ve ever had, we were looking for a small town, and our reference book had a picture of the first day the platform was in use. Stacks of refined gold and silver were on top of the platform, surrounded by miners. When we looked closely, we could see the imprint of burlap from the bags into the cement, and it perfectly matched a photograph one hundred and forty years old – I guess they couldn’t wait for it to dry to set down their loads.

The desert has few sources of wood, so when a vein played out, the miners would tear down everything made of wood and take the materials with them, to be thrown up in the next hastily set-up town. But one thing they never took with them. Very often, we knew we were in the right place by the presence of a two- or three-hole seat for the communal toilet. This was a better method for confirming our location than the GPS. It must have been quite an experience sitting there with a friend, talking over the events of the day while moving your bowels together. I truthfully don’t know if there were any provisions for separate but equal, or if everything was unisex. I suspect the latter, but then most mining amps were all-male anyway, so it probably wasn’t an issue.

One day we were looking for a small town that was on the site of an abandoned mine. We worked our way down seldom-used roads that were little more than memories of vehicles long gone, at least forty miles from a crossroads that passes as civilization. As many mining towns were, it was located part-way up a range of mountains, wherever the ore was found, and it took a while to work our way there. When we finally came around a sharp corner, we were surprised to find a working mine, a couple of beat-up pickup trucks, and several disreputable men who eyed us suspiciously. Property rights are something you have to be very careful of. People looking for high-value things like gold and silver are no less enthusiastic about defending their property than they were a hundred and fifty years ago. They might well have been inclined to shoot first and ask questions afterwards.

We climbed out of the Jeep carefully, not wanting to start anything stupid. Both of us were wearing guns. I’m not crazy about it, but snakes are a very real threat. The two legged kind are less common, but they exist out there too. The first two rounds were a special surprise for a rattlesnake, the rest were for the human variety. Bear in mind you are hours from an answer to a 911 call, so it makes sense to be prudent. Both the men who walked over were armed as well. So we stood there like four desperadoes, chewing our way through the problems. Once everybody relaxed, we explained what we were looking for, and they told us that the mine had been abandoned, they had bought the claim, and they were working on a new secret process for extracting silver from the worked-out tailings (what’s left after the miners in the 1880’s had finished using the technology of the day) They allowed as how there were a few old things down yonder, and Mom could take us down to look. She’d be watching us to make sure we weren’t doing anything funny to their claim. (I’m not making this up)

Mom bore a striking resemblance to Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies. She couldn’t have been over four feet eight, she had to be ninety, and she wore (so help me) a bonnet. First, before anything else we had to look through her collection of figurines, which were available for a small fee. She cast, painted, and glazed foot-high statues of women in lovely skirts from a century or more ago, mostly a standing pose. I think I counted six or seven different molds, although she didn’t show us her workshop. We were only admitted to the “sales room” which housed at least fifty of her works. Her painting and artistry was excellent, and the figures were interesting, but totally unexpected in an old mining office out in the middle of nowhere. I bought two of them, without having any idea what I’d do with them.

She wrapped them for me in newspaper and paper bags, then we got ready to walk down to the remains of the town. She reached up to a peg on the wall and pulled down her gun belt, and buckled the strap around her waist. Her pistol was huge. I was surprised she could carry it around, much less shoot it. She leaned over to me. “You have to be careful, Honey, there are still bad men out there. Just two weeks ago they did some very bad things to a woman who lived on a ranch down the road, not more than ten miles away.” We didn’t even know there was a ranch that close. We walked down the path, wanting to see what we came for, but by this point finding the few remnants of the town was an anticlimax. To quote Gertrude Stein, “There was no there, there.” We took a few pictures, mostly of each other since she didn’t want to be included. We climbed back up the trail, and waved goodbye. She did too, enthusiastically. For all I know, we might have been the only company she’d had for a while.

After we got back on the trail, Soulmate was laughing. “She was packing a .357 Magnum. I can’t believe she could fire that thing without getting knocked on her behind.”

I smiled. “Maybe, but I don’t think anyone would want to mess with her. I wouldn’t want to be in front of her when she pulled the trigger.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

This was an adventure we’ve often laughed about. She was a mix of pioneer woman and artist, of power and vulnerability. She wasn’t giving up on anything. She was sure an interesting woman.

4 Responses to The Little Old Lady with the Real Big Gun

  1. Great story, Tom! Loved. it. I’ve been to Bodie, and Old Jerome and a few other Ghost towns in Arizona. You are far more adventurous than I am!

  2. MonaKarel says:

    Do you still have the figurines? Pictures?????????

  3. Ha, Tom! When I read the title of your blog I thought for sure it was about me! 😉

    What a very interesting blog. You were smart to be armed out there. You never know – maybe your watch, your car, or your wife would have tickled their fancy…

    After watching this season of Gold Rush on television I keep telling my husband we should go to Alaska and start hunting for gold. He rolls his eyes in disbelief because I dress like I’m going skiing when the weather hits 65 degrees!

  4. Ericka Scott says:

    Tom –

    Wow, what an interesting adventure. The closest I’ve been to a ghost town is Calico, and it’s more of a tourist site, but it’s great to walk around and relive, if only in imagination, a time gone by. I, too, would love to see pictures of those figurines. What a unique memento of the experience.

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