Friday, December 28, 2012

Two metaphors for Congress as they deal with the "fiscal cliff"

Running along the lower elevation of the Sierra Mountains there is an extended region of highly mineralized metamorphic rock. Even today remnants of the old US mining laws still exist.  If you visit the US Bureau of Land Management it is possible to determine whether a piece of land has been “claimed” or if it is free for development. Free land can be prospected for mineral rights... and if you find a site that looks promising,  it is possible to establish mining rights. Prospectors frequently made test mine shafts into the mountainside to see what rich mineral deposits they might find.
Ruins of an early prospectors cabin made of stacked stones - no cement - the walls are 18" thick!
This is hard rock mining – which required driving a long steel ‘bit’, with a sledge hammer, into the rock producing a hole about an inch wide and extending back into the rock 1-2 feet.  A charge of dynamite it placed in the hole and the rock blasted out.  The loose rubble is cleared away and the process is repeated.  If the shaft goes back more than a few feet, it is practical to lay mining track on which a dump car is mounted – this could be rolled in and loaded with debris, then pushed out and dumped... causing a tailing pile to build up.

Tailing pile - You can judge the size of the mine by the amount of tailing
 When I was a young pup my friends and I were not interested in prospecting but I was fascinated by minerals and rock varieties. When my friends and I made excursions into the mountains,and chanced upon a fresh prospect hole or old mineshaft we often took time to explore. In the mine holes the exposed rock was fresh and unweathered and the best location to find really good samples of rocks and minerals.
Typical "hard rock mine"
We also found discarded copper wire used to ignite the dynamite – and this copper wire was a great resource used in building electrical circuits (this was in the era before circuit boards when it was still necessary to use wire to connect circuits.)  Most basically  there was something fascinating about these newly blasted entrances into the earth. Most  shafts turned out not to be productive and usually only went back a short distance - so we seldom needed light.

As the mine is extended it encounters different kinds of rock - leading to different colors of waste tailings
One of the most memorable mine shafts I encountered was in Death Valley – it was a borax mine. We encountered the shaft as we hiked up one of the many canyons in Death Valley.  Three of us went into a long horizontal shaft; we were prepared with good flashlights and backup light.  (Inside the mine it is the darkest of dark when the light is turned off!)

One of the many faces of Death Valley
The shaft was about 8 feet high and about 6 feet wide...After several minutes of walking we came to a vertical wooden ladder and decided to have a look ‘upstairs”.  After climbing up a level, we discovered a wooden trap door that could be pushed up to open... Above that we found another horizontal shaft, which we travelled until we found a second ladder.

Vertical shaft ladder
Some of the wooden steps here were a bit loose, so with great care we climbed and came though a second trap door into the third shaft.  This seemed to be the most recent working level, because here we found rails and dump cars, mining tools,  a “rest” area where miners had constructed a plank table and benches, and here were cups with coffee dried inside, and plates with dried up food. So we surmised that work had stopped here some months or years earlier.

An abandoned community of miners' cabins in Death Valley
About now we considered our best options for getting out of the mine – and rather than going back the way we had come we decided to follow the rails and see where they came out... After a good hike we came out into the sunlight – but now we were at the top of the large hill far from our starting point at the bottom. We found a rough pathway that seemed to go back in the general direction we wanted to go and we got back to camp with plenty of daylight to spare.

Metaphor #1 Conclusion:  When you have wandered into an unfamiliar situation, the shortest way out may be to not go back the way you came but to follow a new course.

Highly mineralized rock - this mountain is high elevation - and the surface contour has been shaped by glaciers

One of the problems of youth is that we think we are immortal and that we can do anything we can imagine.  One boring early spring Saturday afternoon my friend and I were tired of studying and when we considered the options, we remembered a tantalizing shaft that we had seen but not yet explored.  It was in the lower elevations not far from our homes.  When we reached our destination, we discovered that this shaft was nearly vertical and went down about 60 feet (half of a 120 ft. climbing rope).  From the large tailing pile near the opening,  we judged that it was likely that there were vertical shafts that went off once we got to the bottom.
Opening to a vertical mine shaft like the one I entered

The opening was situated in an open area with no vegetation suitable for anchoring a rappel into the shaft.  I suggested that my friend could serve as anchor and wrap the rope around his body and I (being the lightest) would quickly rappel down to check it out – and then perhaps we could think of a way to explore further.  So it was a simple matter – leading rope between my legs, around across my chest, over the right shoulder, down the back, one hand controls the leading rope, one the trailing rope... and over I went down into the pit mine. The descent was easy – one surprise – I discovered a nest of barn owls not at all happy with my intrusion... but on down I went.

Barn owl with back lighting

At the bottom I found a jumble of broken timbers, very jagged and irregular, and no vertical shaft... I concluded that the mine had been sealed shut with dynamite when it was determined not to be productive. Now my second surprise – the rock of the shaft  wall was very broken and crumbly – not at all suitable for climbing as I had been hoping.  Nothing to do but climb the rope hand over hand and rest whenever I reached any kind of foot holds.   Things got a little testy when the barn owls started dive bombing me and trying to drive me off by flying at me and squawking.   The problem with this procedure was that my friend above could not hold me on belay (take in the rope in as I climbed to give me protection in case I fell ). I climbed the rope hand over hand to the top.  I came crawling back into sunlight happy for my escape. And my poor friend had more reason to complain than me – because he had had to carry my weight on his ribs the whole climb out...  When I shut my eyes that night in bed I could see again those sharpened broken timbers at the bottom of the mine.

Metaphor conclusion #2:  Some situations that are easy to get into and much harder to get out again...

A gold mining town that continued into the 1950's

These days it is rare to find a mine shaft that hasn’t been sealed off – there are real dangers from a variety of mine gases that can build up in some say nothing about the instability of the rock, and unexpected vertical shafts found in some old mines. I had some fine adventures –and I am sure that I would most definitely make wiser decisions today -   Still, some of my hare-brained adventures do make such fine memories.

"Wild cat" explorations sometimes find great wealth but usually don't.

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