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GOLD COUNTRY : Surely a Fellow Could Find Some More, if Only He Had a Decent Grubstake

October 13, 1985|CHRIS HODENFIELD | Chris Hodenfield is a Los Angeles writer

When a car comes down the street in the high-desert community of Randsburg, the local citizens look up to see what's going on. There can't be more than 150 people living in this tumbledown gathering of miners' shacks. When you round the bend and first see the tilting maze nestled against a rocky hillside, it's like stumbling upon a sprawling anthill. It was once home to wild and bustling days of fast fortune, but although those days are long gone, the town's considerable reputation is carried with a rugged pride. The citizens know that they live on an unbeatable mother lode.

Randsburg has weathered many a boom and bust. Gold put it on the map in 1895, and the discovery of tungsten 10 years later really got it going. When silver came along in 1918, there were perhaps 2,500 people tented in this remote outpost. At the northern edge of the Mojave Desert, in the first foothills of the Sierra Nevada, it didn't have a lot of what you might call restrictions. The law was 90 blistering miles away, in San Bernardino. During Prohibition, Randsburg and its sister cities of Johannesburg and Red Mountain entertained pilgrims from Los Angeles with 30 or so wide-open saloons. Bawdy houses were plentiful, too, unofficially sponsored by the potash works in Trona, where the workers were in dire need of entertainment and didn't need a single earthly reason to stick around.

The hanky-panky wasn't cleaned up until the 1950s, but by that time Randsburg was already withering away. The government had clamped down on gold production during World War II, and a good number of miners left to find their fortunes in factory wages. The bunch that stayed were the hardest bitten of the desert rats, who held on just to see the big mines open again. Legend said that the Yellow Aster mine, named after a florid dime novel, had in its time delivered maybe $20 million in gold--and at the old prices, too. Surely a fellow could find some more, if he only had a decent grubstake.

The town has always been heir to a combustible mixture of energies. Even these days, a half-hour journey down the hill brings you to Ridgecrest and the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, where scientists work on the Cruise and MX missiles, where Star Wars lasers are tested, where Tomahawk missiles fired from the Pacific Ocean crash onto the desert floor. And yet you can wend your way up the road to Randsburg and nearly find yourself back in the Bronze Age.

In the humming indifference of the steady sun, the shadows run deeper, all sounds carry farther. From old warped wood to corrugated tin siding, from the acres of rusty sardine cans to the outcroppings of ancient car carcasses preserved in light sheens of oxidation, everything seems to be working toward the same color--the thick red-brown of creosote and old telephone poles.

Early Saturday morning breaks over Randsburg with an unworldly silence. At half past nine, the bossy knock of a carpenter's hammer intrudes into the air. The distant drone of a motorcycle rolls in from the hills. On the main street, a portly, bearded man known as Big Ray Galbraith erects a tent over his pickup's tailgate. He sets out his jewelry and pans of dirt that may or may not be bursting with boulders of gold, then sits down in the shade and waits for tourists to snap at his lure.

Also parked in the shade are two dust-caked desert motorcyclists who have just come 25 miles overland from California City. They appear to be wrung dry and stare off in exhausted blankness. Until last spring, a Randsburg weekend meant that more than 100 dirt motorcyclists from all over would descend on their mecca like the range riders of old. A few complaints here, a little police enforcement there, have reduced their number to a handful of wily old pros who know the territory and know how to make a discreet entrance.

Big Ray can speak their language. He was once a boilermaker in the big city, and once he lived the Southern California high life. A divorce and some accumulated health problems brought him out here in the 1960s to live. Now the talkative gent is getting by, and he's glad to tell you that he "owes nothing to no man."

"Been here since '66," says Big Ray. "My wife said she didn't want to be married anymore, so I said fine and came out here. I've always loved it out here. I do wish, though, that Randsburg had more to offer to the visitors." He waves a meaty paw toward the hills. "The government's near made it impossible on the miners."

At mention of the government, the bikers perk up. "You're not kidding!" they chime in. "You can't go anywhere around here anymore." And they are off in a rhapsodic description of what it's like to fly over the desert floor. It couldn't be an act more unlike mining, but the dusty men are now united in common purpose.

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