Some time around 1970, I’d fixed up the old Black Panthers van for mobile living. I’d gotten the old Chevrolet panel van for free. The Panthers had abandoned it by the side of the road, likely because it had been involved in something that was somewhat less than legal. When I heard the word through the grapevine, I went out to where it was, hotwired it, and eventually got the ownership papers because it had been abandoned.
The van was full of surprises, mechanical and otherwise. After I’d owned it for about six months, a poster-sized sign fell out of the headliner. It said
A FULL STOMACH IS HEAVEN.
THE REST IS LUXURY.
Hard to argue with that. I took it as another of my rules of thumb, and it has served me well throughout my life.
I put a bed in the back, with boxes for my tools and a rack for my welding gear. We heard from our friends Mel and Andrea that they had bought a place outside of Lindreth, New Mexico. Forty acres of land, no water, in the high mesa country in the northwest corner of the state. Molly and I decided to go there and see what it was like.
We drove to New Mexico, stopping at a number of trout streams that happened to be in the way. By chance, we pulled up at the Sun Farm north of Albuquerque just as our friends Mel and Andrea and the Sun Farm folks were ready to move all their stuff to the new place, which they called Stone Mountain … an appropriate name. When we arrived there was … well … nothing. Some stones. Some loam-free shallow rocky stuff masquerading as soil. We loved it. We were colossal idiots. We thought we’d arrived at the new frontier. The land in that area looks like this:
So we set up camp. We had a big old army tent to shelter us in the sudden afternoon thunderstorms. There were about a dozen adults there. One of the guys from the band “Sunburst” that I’d played in and his girlfriend, and some other couples. Plus four kids. We set to work to transform the desert and make it bloom.
Making deserts bloom, we found out, is damned hard work. The main issue was water. There was an old man around there who was a water witch. He walked around with a forked stick and told us the spot to dig. He used a small bottle on a string to give us the depth. “Forty feet down, there’s water,” he assured us. Turned out he was like my old slide rule—he had problems with the decimal points. But he looked the part, something like this guy:
How could you not believe an old guy who looks like that? So we figured, forty feet, how tough can it be? We built a wooden frame to stabilize the top edge of the well hole, broke out the shovels, and started digging the well. We were idiots … but I repeat myself.
The first six feet or so weren’t too bad. But then the sand started slowly turning to sandstone. Over the next six feet, it gradually got harder and harder, as if evolution were slowly turning sand into rock. Soon, it was too hard for the pick. I built a human-powered digging bar, an ancient design shown in the old picture below. The rope runs from the digging bar in the well up to the pulley, and then horizontally from the pulley to the tree in the distance. Rather than pulling on the rope, you push down on the rope to raise the digging bar. This gives you a huge mechanical advantage in lifting the digging bar. Then you release the rope to let the digging bar drop.
That got us down another couple feet, at which point we encountered real rock.
Now, I’d dealt with rocks before. You get dynamite and you blast your way through. At 23, I’d done my share of blasting, and some of it was actually done with dynamite that wasn’t stolen. I figured this was a thin layer of harder rock. You could see such layers in the walls of the mesas around. Once we got through that layer, I figured, no problem. I went to town and bought some dynamite and blasting caps and fuse.
I broke out my torch and made a star drill out of an old car axle to drill the hole for the dynamite. We modified the human-powered digging bar to use as a drill hammer. Laboriously, we hand-drilled a hole two feet (600 mm) deep into the rock layer at the bottom of the well. I made up the charge, put it in the hole, and pushed it to the bottom of the drill hole. I filled the rest of the hole with clay and tamped it solid.
Now, I’d never set off a dynamite charge down in a well before. I found out that it’s different from setting off dynamite in the open air, say to build a road. In the open, you can light the fuse and run away. At the bottom of a well, you have to climb out the ladder first, which definitely increases the pucker factor. I lit the fuse and fairly flew up the ladder, ran to a nearby log, hid behind it, and waited.
BOOM! With a satisfying thump, the charge went off. I looked up in the sky to see if anything was blown out.
I figured the charge had shattered the ledge of rock. I went back down in the hole. It looked totally unchanged. I mean totally unchanged. Nothing was out of place, except there was no longer any dynamite in the hole. The rock was not shattered. The hole we had drilled was still there. No change at all.
OK, we considered the situation. I figured the drill hole wasn’t deep enough, and we hadn’t tamped it in well enough to contain the explosion. As a result, the dynamite treated the drill hole like the barrel of a gun, and just shot the clay out of the end.
So we got out the drill again, and we drilled down another two feet so we had four feet of hole. I made up a new charge, put it in the hole, and used a wooden stick to push it to the bottom. Then I carefully and solidly packed the rest of the hole with well-tamped clay. Once again I lit the fuse, scrambled up the ladder like my hair was on fire, and ran for safety faster than a cockroach fleeing from the light at midnight.
This time the result was different. When the charge went off, pieces of rock were blown hundreds of feet into the air, falling near us. “That’s done it properly,” I thought, and went to investigate.
The only change at the bottom of the hole was that what had formerly been a rifle barrel was now more like a blunderbuss barrel. The explosion had widened the drill hole as it rose up from the deepest part, so now it was maybe six inches (150mm) wide at the top and tapered to the bottom. A few chunks of rock had been cracked and loosened right around the drill hole, but that was all … colossal failure.
So at the end of a month of endless backbreaking work, we’d dug about 12 feet (4 m) down, and that was it. I calculated our well drilling rate at about six inches per day …
Out of ideas, we called the well driller man.
He came out with his drilling rig and asked where we wanted him to drill. We told him to dig right by our dry hole, because we knew there was water there forty feet below the surface. He said “Forty feet down? Riiiight!”, and started up the rig.
It was a fast rig, but it still took him some days before he finally struck water … at 400 feet, not 40 feet. That’s the decimal problem I alluded to above. It turned out that the “thin” layer of rock that I’d been trying to blast through was over 200 feet (60 m) thick … did I mention we were idiots? But at least we now had water, so life got better.
One day one of the young kids got sick. His mom said “He’s got bubonic plague, we’ve got to get him to the hospital.” Bubonic plague? The famous “Black Death” that wiped out half of Europe? No way, I thought. I argued that she was overreacting. I said the plague was sooo 14th century … but I drove her to the closest medical facility anyways, a clinic in the nearest town with sidewalks. It was about an hour away …
The doc took one look at the boy and said “Your child has bubonic plague, lucky you caught it so early.” I found out that the Black Death is not uncommon in that part of New Mexico, but that antibiotics mean that it’s not a problem if it’s treated soon.“That’ll teach me to be dogmatic”, I thought, a valuable lesson which of course I did my best to subsequently ignore … can you say “idiot”?
With the water question settled, we moved on to constructing the main house for the commune. At the first place that we settled on to build the house, we started to dig the post holes for the structure. In about the third post hole, we dug right down into an ancient skeleton. I mean, what are the odds that digging a few holes in the desert you’d drop right in on the final resting place of someone from another time?
That spooked us completely. The posthole landed right on the poor man’s (woman’s?) skull. We dug the skull out of the ground and handed it around. We all looked at the skull kinda like the guy above, saying “Whaaa???”… and then, without much discussion, we put the skull back into the hole right where it had come from, and covered it back up, and abandoned that site entirely. We moved to a new site to build the main house.
Here I had better luck with the dynamite, which we needed to dig the basement. Dynamite’s a handy tool in the high desert. In that part of the world, a basement is a huge advantage, cool in the summer and warm in the winter … but the ground is very hard. The blasting for the basement went well, and soon the house was nearing completion.
With the house basement excavated, I volunteered to use a couple of extra sticks of dynamite to see if I could aerate what was lightly called the “garden” and perhaps reduce the average rock size there to something resembling actual soil, but the ladies turned me down … no sense of fun, those women.
Molly and I didn’t plan to stay the winter, so we didn’t build a house. Instead, we built a bed out on the very lip of the mesa, with a hundred foot drop right at the head of the bed. We suspended a clear plastic sheet over it to keep out the rain. At night, we’d lie in bed and look over the edge of the mesa. The thunderstorms would walk right up to us in the night. We could see them for miles from our bed. They’d get closer and closer, with the lightning fizzling and snarling, then break over us in a great crashing wave of sound and rain and light. We’d lie in bed under the clear plastic and drink in the fury of the storm. Maybe we weren’t total idiots after all.
Towards the end of the summer, I started missing the ocean. It was the feeling I had as a kid on the cattle ranch, dreaming of endless waters. The land around me took on the aspect of an ancient sea bottom, lacking only water. Autumn brought cool weather with the promise of winter. I had no desire to see a winter at Stone Mountain, and I had a huge desire to see water actually running across the surface …
We said goodbye to our friends and drove back to California. We stopped at the first stream we came to. I sat and just listened to the water burbling and splashing over the rocks for what seemed like hours. I hadn’t realized just how much I missed that lovely sound …
And what is my conclusion from all of this?
My conclusion after all these years is that yes, we were indeed total idiots … but glorious, joy-filled idiots drinking our fill of this wondrous world. And looking back, is there something better to do when you are young, foolish, and full of fire?
My best wishes to you all, for smooth sailing, quartering winds, and a day like today, with sunlight far-reaching on the sea …