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Coast Chronicles: At the Center of the Earth

By Cate Gable

Observer columnist

Published on November 21, 2017 4:50PM

Retired miner Don Cabajal explained to participants in the Copper Queen Mine tour how drill patterns were created and dynamite was placed in the rock face. (The “tails” you see are fuses.)


Retired miner Don Cabajal explained to participants in the Copper Queen Mine tour how drill patterns were created and dynamite was placed in the rock face. (The “tails” you see are fuses.)

Snowbirds Gary and Marla McGrew have headed north, and I’m about to as well. I’m mapping out my route and planning my return to coincide with Turkey Day since “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.”

Goodbye to the desert

I’ll be saying goodbye to my Rancho Linda Vista hosts. The birds seem to know I’m leaving too because they’re giving me a grand send-off. This morning I had not only the usual suspects — cactus wren, crested sparrows, quails, and jays — but also the roadrunner, charging across the patio in a classic I’m-late-I’m-late-for-a-very-important-date mode with tail flared.

Last night I also had three javelina, the wild collared peccaries of the desert, snuffling for scattered birdseed on my lanai. These large creatures look like wild boars with bristly hair on the backs of their necks, cloven hooves, and a round pink piggy-looking nose. These trotters are at the same time funny but fierce if cornered, with long fangs that get sharpened every time they open and close their mouths.

Yes, it’s also goodbye to the tiny golden scorpions — Jackson found one between the cushions of the sofa (yikes!) — and the tree lizards, which nonetheless live on the west-facing wall inside my guest house. It’s farewell to the Teddybear cholla, the deceptively fuzzy, friendly-looking cactus that has horrible spines with barbs that instantly stick into your flesh and are impossible to extract. (This is one of the most “formidable and respected cacti of the Southwest,” says the Audubon guidebook.) And it’s fare-thee-well to the rattlesnakes. (Fortunately, I have not seen any on this trip, though last visit one of my best friends trapped a sizable one in her laundry room.)

When I leave, I’ll be trading the sun — and all the pleasantries of the desert cited above — for the moisture and 38 shades of green in our beloved Pacific Northwest. My skin will thank me. (I haven’t actually counted all my new wrinkles, but I know I have them.)

But before I go, let’s review some of the real wonders of the Sonoran Desert.


When one looks at the rural desert landscape of Arizona, one immediate question comes to mind, “What do folks out here do for money?” The longstanding answer has been mining. Charming Bisbee, a couple hours south of Tucson, now full of artists and tourist stops, was once the largest city in Arizona. Mining created a boomtown here around 1870 when copper, silver, and gold was found in “them thar hills.” The town was named after a local judge, DeWitt Bisbee, who was one of the moneyed-backers of the Copper Queen Mine (www.queenminetour.com/History).

Now the mine is closed, but for $13 hot bucks you can don a hard hat, a reflective vest and a miners light and descend into the bowels of the earth with a retired miner, in this case named Don Carbajal. Don’s father and grandfather were also miners, so he is eminently qualified for the task.

“Is anyone claustrophobic?” was the first question he posed to us before we entered, because once that heavy mine door is opened, then closed, you find yourself in a dark, cold, dusty underworld for an hour or more. In the old days, hapless miners worked 12-hour shifts for 34 cents an hour. (Oh, but hey, they were each given four candles!)

Miners had lots of ways to die: lung disease from the dust thrown up in drilling; fire underground; dynamite blasts; mine shaft collapse. As we trundled ever downward at a two percent grade into the bowels of the earth, we saw enormous timbers framing up the rock. These we were told came from our own Douglas fir and pine forests in Washington and Oregon.

“They tried hard wood, but that didn’t work,” said our trusty guide, “it would just snap suddenly. The softer wood had more give.” Don shared with us one of the mining mantras — “If the wood is talking, start walking,” meaning things were creaking and about to go. Looking up at those foot-square timbers, haphazardly shimmed and jointed, was little comfort I’m afraid. As our engine and its string of metal cars rattled along the track it was hard to listen for wood whispering to us.

As we dropped to the center of the earth, the temperature dropped too. Of course, I had the de rigueur Pacific Northwest hoodie on and it all felt like a walk in the park, despite the fact that there were approximately 1,000 feet of solid rock above us.

One of the most terrifying scenarios to contemplate was the placing of dynamite. Don gave us an elaborate description of drilling the holes in a particular pattern and placing the powder and fuses, each detonation timed to occur several minutes apart so that the rock face blew-up gradually. The fuses were 12 feet long and every foot took 40 seconds to burn. So after all 21 fuses were trimmed and lit, the main activity was getting the hell out of there!

But it was also someone’s job to count each charge. 1… 2… 3… 18… 19… 20… pause. Whoops, one didn’t blow. Then another exploratory adventure began. Once that errant dynamite blast was resolved, miners would open up the shaft by “bucking out the rock.” Everything loosened by the blasts was carted to the surface first by men, later by mules, and eventually by small engines. Smelting took place elsewhere.

By 1917 open pit mining — to supply the demands of the coming World Wars — began to overtake underground mining. (Bisbee also has the enormous Lavender Pit Mine with a toxic lake in the bottom.) As the mining economy collapsed mid-20th century, the Bisbee community took up the job of creating the heritage mine tours, financed in part by the Federal Economic Development Administration. I’m glad they did; the mine tour was one of the highlights of my snowbird adventures this season.


What was once considered just byproducts of mining, and maybe even useless ones, are more valuable today, especially to tourists. Bisbee Blue is a high quality turquoise. Other minerals include cuprite, aragonite, wulfenite, malachite, azurite and galena. Many Bisbee specimens can be found in museums around the world.

It’s a good thing I’m driving home because half of my luggage is rocks. Every rock shop was an excuse to pull off the road and meet the always fascinating and generally geeky rock hounds manning (or “womanning”) the stores. In Tombstone, Arizona, Pat sold me an astonishing 30 pound hunk of fluorite and quartz; and I am also the proud owner of a “copper splash” gift from a friend — one of the sloppy smelting drip-overs of copper and azurite, all polished up for display.

All this to say, early in 2018, Tucson Gem Show here I come!


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