Prospecting with Ebby and Ralph

Prospecting for gold seems to be a related endeavor of the rockhound. While I've not been bitten by the bug that motivates a person to sift dirt for tiny particles of the yellow stuff, I'm not without my experience. I prefer the colorful rocks that are a little easier to spot, and take a good polish.

Memories of my uncle Ebby (dad's brother) include a prospecting adventure in the hills outside of Moab, Utah. I'm sure you're probably thinking about the great Moab gold rush of 1949. Well, neither am I. When discussion of motherload surfaces in a conversation between gold bugs, I can't say Moab is usually a word heard. Moab is known for Arches, red rock, slick rock, upper Colorado river portal, Canyonlands, but gold country?

What Moab gold looks like

Ebby was (I say 'was' ... he's still alive, but doesn't get into the hills much anymore) a long-shot kindofa guy. Whether it was real estate, cattle, or gold prospecting, he wasn't much for taking the beaten path. I suppose this was his reasoning for exploring Moab for gold. If it was there, not only would he find it, but in unexpectedly large quantities.

I'm thinking of the year and would have to guess I was about 13 or 14 years old at the time. This would put the era right around the flourish of disco and celebrating the country's bi-centennial. Uncle Ebby had registered a gold claim in the hills outside of Moab and needed a couple coolies to help him explore the area. Dennis, my older brother, and I would meet Ebby and his business partner Ralph in Moab for further instruction.

I was feeling queazy having eaten an ill-prepared burger at a drive up burger joint in Green River. My pale and weak self stood off to the side while I watched Ebby hand a grocery list to Dennis and then proceeded to peel off six Franklins to cover the tab. We were given directions to the campsite and split ways to meet up later in the evening. I was already self-conscious and could feel further contempt from my uncle as my state of nausea only reinforced his opinion that I was some spoiled sissy boy who needed some ranch living to jolt me straight. The problem was, he was right. I was a spoiled kid and wasn't too keen on manual labor. Since my dad couldn't get out in the sticks due to health problems, I figured he tasked his brother Ebby to put hair on his son's chest. This little gold prospecting trip would constitute some man training.

We walked into the grocery store and Dennis started reading down the list. 32 porterhouse steaks, 25 pounds of ground beef, 5 dozen eggs, 40 pounds of bacon, 100 pounds of potatoes, two dozen onions, three gallons of lard... and the list went on. We were bewildered, but in 1976, $600 would handily cover the list so we figured it wasn't a mistake. We did as we were told expecting perhaps the supplies were meant for a prospecting crew of 10 to 15 men.

It was twilight by the time we loaded the back of the Ford Courier with the provisions and started up the road following the Colorado river to the main camp. Twisting up the river, the road didn't do much to settle my stomach. I hadn't eaten since lunch and had no desire for food of any kind.

We arrived to Ebby and Ralph sitting outside their camper. It was one of those cabover jobs hauled up to the mountains with Ebby's green Dodge Power Wagon. Off to the side was a big cylindrical contraption that looked like an iron lung. A big funnel in the top end, and a tongue out the other end to a sluice board. A blue hose attached to the side of the drum and ran down 20 feet into a cattle tank. A portable generator and pump sat at the side of the pond. Ralph was introduced and cited as the inventor of the Tote Goat, which was a 2-wheeled motor scooter powered by an oversized lawnmower engine. I concluded he was the camp engineer.

Somewhere, somehow, Ebby managed to put all the meat on ice and squirrel away the rest of the groceries into various nooks in the camper. I recall Dennis asked how many other were expected on this excursion. Ralph and Ebby shrugged and said nobody else. Prospectors must eat a lot of food.

The next morning I awoke, still feeling like I would puke at any moment and now had an added headache to my symptoms. I was determined to not pussy out in front of my uncle though. I needed to prove that I wasn't the skinny slacker he was convinced I was. I ate very little while Ralph and Ebby hoovered stacks of bacon and shovelled scrambled eggs into their food holes.

Our orders were simple... Dennis and I would drive the green Dodge to various locations on the claim map, shovel dirt into the bed until we had about a yards worth, drive back to base camp, and shovel the displaced dirt into the funnel at top of the iron lung. Ebby and Ralph would operate the equipment and assay the result.

I remember wretching many times while I strained at the shovel. I was all of 98 pounds at that point in life, and jumping on the back of a shovel simply didn't result in much. I was determined not to show my weakness, however I remember being so sick upon returning to base camp one time that I passed out in the cab of the truck, doubled over. I was sure Ebby was feeling vindication at my physical breaking, suspecting this was probably the first physical labor I'd ever experienced. In looking back, it probably was, but I would be doing much better if I wasn't still rejecting an A&W maggot burger from the day before. I was having delirous hallucinations of biting into that burger and seeing little white larva halves wriggling out of the meat patty.

Much of those four days were a blur, and I didn't start feeling better until late in the trip. In the evenings we'd play Rook (mormon version of Bridge) in the camper. I could never figure out the game (still can't) .. I just remember that Ebby and Ralph insisted that Dennis and I were always a team, and Dennis constantly yelling at me for playing the wrong card. I didn't know what I was doing, and was apparently born without the part of brain that would let me understand the game.

Besides eating, all I remember Ralph and Ebby doing was futzing with the equipment and the occasional panning of the result from the iron lung. I don't remember seeing any gold.