Inyo County, California
By John Cornish


It was early and it was still dark outside. Other then Keith's banging around out at his truck, it was peaceful, nice and quiet. But with all the commotion, I'd guess we've just concluded our last night at the old mining ghost camp of Darwin, California. I groped for my headlamp, found it, turned it on and got up. It was a little chilly fresh out of the sleeping bag and I shivered a bit while dressing. But with that done, it was actually quite comfortable. Like Keith, I started packing.

It took us a spell, but eventually we worked all our gear together and stowed it in the back of Keith's truck. Keith is Keith Wentz, my friend, and together he and I, we're in the midst of a fantastic mineral collection and exploration odyssey. Keith and I met earlier this year in Tucson during the Worlds most spectacular gem, mineral and fossil show (Tuscon 2007 Report) and there we made plans to get out and do some collecting!

In April, just a few months after the show, we set out to do exactly that. I'd been working in Utah and when my first shift ended, I made the jaunt over to Keith's place where together over the next several days, we went out and collected some incredible pseudomorphs of bones and teeth completely and faithfully replaced by turquoise.

After enjoying a very successful pseudomorph dig, we hit the road again, seeking more adventure. We next set our sights north and west, focusing on the historic mines of Darwin (Darwin Report). And it's here that our current final adventure begins. We'd had a great time here in Darwin and I found myself feeling kind of melancholy as we opened, closed and locked shut the private gate leading into the old mining camp for the last time. Then we drove away. Still, there were new adventures awaiting us and soon, happily, I found myself looking forward to all that lay ahead rather then focusing on everything we'd left behind.

Our next destination lay further north and west, in the Owens Valley. It took us a couple of hours to get there, but our timing was perfect and we were able to find a spot where we could stop for breakfast. With our little feeding frenzy completed, once again we hit the road. We didn't have far to drive this time, especially considering all the traveling we'd done thus far to get here, and soon we were pulling off the highway onto an unmarked dirt track. This time we were heading towards the Inyo Mountains, towards our next mining/ collecting adventure.

We bounced down the relatively flat road and crossed over the Owens River before starting to gain elevation, climbing the western flanks of the mountains. As we came closer, hugging the lofty exposures, the ruins of ancient mine structures and foundations could clearly be seen, this was our destination. We ascended the hill and parked on an old cement pad. All about us was scattered a mish-mash collage of miscellaneous and metallic mining debris and I'd bet there's been more then one tire that's been punctured climbing that hill!

We opened the doors, stepping out from the safe comfortable confines of the air-conditioned cab of Keith's truck, and were immediately assaulted by the heat. It rose up off the rocks and the place just sweltered. Our hike lay just before us and as I gathered my stuff, enough for a multi-day collecting attack, I noted it was all vertical! With everything gathered, my pack was a real knuckle dragger and Keith's, his pack made mine look sissy!

We started our hike and Keith scampered ahead of me all gazelle-like, bounding from stone to stone. These same rocks, everyone, seemed to have been solid for him and yet for me, everyone slipped and twisted and my ascent was a real misery-whip that soon had me huffing and puffing like a big, what was the word, oh ya, sissy! Thank goodness I had the excuse to stop and take a couple photos to mask my out-of-shape plight.

Eventually, agonizingly, one foot after the other, inch by inch, I made it up the mountain. We'd left the gully after a bit and had scaled the rocky face along side the old mine building and kept ascending, coming into an area with numerous open portals, everyone leading into black depths. Keith steered us towards the special adit he'd been seeking and there, we dropped from sight and descended into the darkness.

Just like Darwin, these were old mines. Innumerable drifts and crosscuts, levels and sub-levels, spoked out seemingly everywhere. These could be dangerous workings in a heart beat, anything could happen, best to stay alert here, this was an unforgiving place. And all the while, we continued onward going deeper, ever deeper.

Much of the underground work I've done has been in western Washington State. There one typically finds wet mines, decaying mines. Their timbers are often rotten and fungus-ridden and are more often then not, collapsed. Ladders are as equally compromised. In comparison, the mine here and those at Darwin that we'd explored are all dry. As we continued descending, I found comfort in these thoughts. The timbers about us were solid and most importantly, they were still supporting what they'd been placed to support ( thank goodness )!

And down and down we went until finally, Keith leveled out and made his way like an arrow towards his favorite collecting area. There he'd indeed found treasure. All about was a monstrous quartz structure spotted here and there by gapping pockets up to four feet long, all showing the activities of past collectors, associated with massive iron-oxides and rarer gorgeous, colorful oxidation minerals. There were numerous exposures of bright blue chrysocolla and there were rarer places which were yielding much more desirable minerals, species such as caledonite, linarite and brochantite!

This was an awesome place! Everywhere my headlamp lit, the walls just glistened with treasure and the colors, those beautiful blue colors! We don't have color like this back where I come from, this is really super pretty and I was ecstatic! We wrestled out of our packs and leaned them against the tunnel walls. We'd brought a ton of stuff as we'd planned a multi-day assault...

"We'd planned", unbeknownst to us, we'd set the time bomb ticking with these two words, in dangerous places like this, things can change in a hot second and for us, they did, irregardless of what "we'd planned"!


I unloaded my pack and began hydrating and eating some food, using the time to cool down after our hike. My water bottle clutched tightly and unwilling to call it quits and start working just yet, I scrambled up and began exploring our surroundings. They were spectacular! Off to the side, Keith settled down and was getting his gear out in anticipation of continuing work in a zone he'd previously collected, here he'd found some incredible specimens and today, he hoped to find more!

While checking things out, Keith pointed me towards an area just below his working level. It was a sweet little spot about thirty feet away and maybe eight or so feet lower then where he'd be working. Perfect! Plenty of room for both of us to have lots and lots of fun! Being so new to the land of colorful minerals and knowing we'd have plenty of time, I took my time and really enjoyed working the rock and barring the wall. Afterwards, I hunkered down and trimmed my specimens, wrapped them and then carefully moved them up to my pack.


Where I was working, the rock was heavily altered and cemented by massive, pockety quartz with abundant infilling iron oxides, sometimes encapsulating prismatic clear quartz crystals up to several inches long. In this area, remaining voids and fracture surfaces were coated most often by massive and pseudomorphic chrysocolla. Massive chrysocolla was recovered as fracture fillings up to an eighth of an inch thick silicified enough to accept a beautiful polish. Pseudomorphic chrysocolla was actually quite common in this small area and specimens varying from micro to small cabinet were happily recovered. Highly elongated unknown precursor minerals with extreme height to width differences up to 20 to 1 were observed and recovered. And the hours quickly passed.

Keith had been working his area much more aggressively then me, really moving the rock and just wasn't having the luck he'd hoped to have, even if he had found some great brochantites. After a time, he opted for a break and I stopped too, we yakked while refueling, getting another bite to eat and drinking more precious water. Afterwards, I headed back down to my area and started banging away, after a bit, Keith came down to see how I was doing. We talked while I worked and he explored about me. I was in a small landing area within a kind of trough-like structure which accessed a lower underhand stope to my left, and led to a death pit on my right. There, the sloped floor led to a dark gaping hole, an ore chute, which dropped for who knows how far? Both of us, we avoided this place like the plague!

I'd pretty much gotten everything workable off the wall and had broken down all the material I'd dropped earlier. I had most of my treasures wrapped and was considering where to work next when in a moment, everything changed. Keith was up above me, a bit to my left, in an area I'd also explored, when all of a sudden the world fell apart with a roar and a huge enveloping cloud of choking dust and falling rock fell, collapsing with Keith right in the middle of everything, down into the trench only feet away. In the confusing rush of darkness I jumped, spinning towards the fall and Keith. He was down among the boulders falling, when he came to a quick and sudden stop. His leg pinned. Moments later, another big rock came down and slammed into the back of his leg. At that moment, instantly, everything changed from bad to worse!

And it all happened so fast too, and yet at the same time, everything seemed to slow way down and it was like Keith had been dancing in slow motion with the tumbling rocks and rising dust and then, everything just stopped. When that last rock slammed hard against the back of his leg, that was it, the damage was done. His stifled groaning cry was the last sound I remember. As the last of the rocks tumbled to a rest, I moved to get him out!

Everything was so surreal and yet like crystal, I knew what had to be done. As I was moving, Keith had already pulled his leg free. Working on adrenalin, he was soon hobbling back towards his pack and there he dropped flat, lying prone on the hard rock, his face ashen. No doubt he was hurt and we both knew it. Words passed rapid fire between us as I accessed the situation. Next, I started packing. And there was sooo much stuff!

I took Keith's monster pack to hike down and began stuffing it with all our tools and the few rocks I'd additionally accommodate. Keith began moving, getting a few things together before taking off, beginning his hike out of the mine. I hurriedly finished packing and then grunting and cursing, I shouldered that load and stumbled along, trying to catch up. It was a long slow hike out. Keith seemed to be able to get about and then all of a sudden wham, he'd step wrong and all but drop to his knees, the pain a scar across his face.

We moved slowly, the rocks were treacherous and our descent was extremely steep, a fall in the wrong place would kill. Keith was doing great, almost too good and I fretted silently that he'd be o.k. Me, that pack was killing me. One slip and the packs weight would twist me into space. And the sweat just poured from my brow, as the pain occasionally seared Keith's. Eventually, agonizingly, one foot after the other, inch by inch, we made it off the mountain.

Keith had done unbelievably well and I'd even managed to hold my own. As I finished those last few yards before the truck, I was truly thankful we'd made it. Keith was a bit subdued, but he was still his good natured self, kidding me for taking so long, and on such an easy hike to boot! Finally, I swung that big ol' bugger of a pack off my shoulders, heaving a deep and satisfied sigh of relief.

Soon thereafter we were back on the road. Irregardless of what I offered, Keith opting to drive. We made a quick stop for dinner and then flew down the highway to Darwin. There we held up for the evening. In the morning we took off straight for Keith's place. Once there Keith laid low. I let him be and went back to my room and started packing, this time for home.

In the morning I woke early. I finished gathering my stuff and loaded everything into my S-10. Afterwards, I unloaded Keith's truck. One less thing for him to worry about. When he did finally wake, I told him of my decision. He smiled, knowing this best, and wished me safe travels. We said our goodbyes and I promised I'd be back. There were still too many good times for us yet to share and I was looking forward to him being 100% again so we could get out for more adventures. This had been a close one and the worst collecting accident I've been a participant to since that other time, probably fifteen or more years ago, when a spalling chunk of chisel had broken off and flown, embedding itself into another collectors eye. After surgery, he was able to keep the eye, being unbelievably lucky. I hoped this same good fortune would bless Keith and that he'd have the chance for his own happy ending. As he walked across the courtyard to open the gate, he stepped wrong and again all but dropped to the ground. I scolded and told him to get off his leg, he smiled and waved while I took off, my sights set happily for home.


Later, after Keith had visited the Doctor and after they'd taken x-rays and had run their tests, Keith officially found that he'd been very lucky and had fractured his fibula in two places and had smashed and displaced his gastrocnemius. The Doctor mentioned his amazement that the bone had not shattered and acknowledged that while a concern, that it was the muscles that were Keith's biggest problem. They'd been smashed like meat with a hammer and had separated and torn. The injury, depending on how things went over the next couple weeks would possibly require surgery and would positively require physical therapy.

Back at home, Keith unfalteringly worked his injury and was able to successfully recuperate his muscles back to health without surgery. This is exceptional news!

Be safe everyone, take care, and all the very best,