In the summer of 1973 Larry, a college buddy and I arrived in Salt Lake City. His brother Rick was away in Turkey so we were able to stay at his apartment in Sandy, Utah which was far nicer than the VW camper that the two of us were traveling in. We were low on cash so we had to find work. Larry was able to talk his way into an apartment complex manager job, God only knows how.
I checked the classifieds and found openings for river guides on the Colorado River with a river outfit in Vernal Utah. So off I went to become a river guide for the summer. Unfortunately by the time I got there they had filled up all their positions.
I was now in a bit of a bind being low on cash and I didn’t want to dip into my reserve funds. I asked the fellow doing the hiring if he knew of any other outfits that were looking for a good hand. He said he didn’t, “but ya know they might be hiring at the mine.”
“Ya, you just head out of town on 50 for a couple of miles and you’ll see the sign, take a right and it’s 25 miles out in the desert.”
OK, off I went. Following his directions, I got to the sign. It hung by one hook while flapping in the wind. It didn’t look too promising, but it was my only job lead, so I followed it.
The road seemed to go on forever. There was nothing but sagebrush, with antelope and dust devils churning up the sand in the hot dry wilderness.
Finally there it was!! American Gilsonite, hopefully my new employer.
I walked into the office and asked the fellow there if there were any job openings. He looked me up and down and said, “You look strong but did you ever work below ground?” I told him I’d only worked above ground but I was a quick learner. “Good”, he said, “be here tomorrow at eight o’clock sharp.”
Stepping out into the high desert sun I thought, Well I guess I’m a miner now. The next morning I showed up a little early and met an older fellow in the office who sized me up and shook his head. “Ever work below?” he asked, “no” I said ” but I can learn”. Shaking his head again he told me to follow him. As we were making our way to the locker room he pointed out a large depression in the ground and said “that’s the cave in from 61, lost a couple of good men there. Looking at the depression I’m wondered what I was getting myself into. I asked him what exactly is “Gilsonite?” He told me it was a soft hydrocarbon used for industrial lubricant in the oil fields. It was first marketed as a lacquer, electrical insulator, and waterproofing compound discovered in the Uintah basin of Utah.
In the locker room he threw my a pair of overalls, and said what I was wearing wouldn’t last a day.
He showed me how to protect my eyes nose and mouth by applying Vaseline around them. Then I had to rub talcum powder all over myself. By this time the place was filling up with other miners engaged in the same ritual.
It seemed surreal waiting for the elevator with what looked like a bunch of white ghost wearing work overalls, but soon enough the elevator arrived and the door opened. l had to take a step back when the previous shift of miners came up from the gates of hell looking like the Al Jolson review singing Mammy in blackface.
As the elevator dropped down into the abyss, I couldn’t help but think “What am I getting myself into!”
I stepped out into an eerie damp tunnel. It was like being in a bad dream. Suddenly I was grabbed from behind and pulled out of the way of a fast moving ore trolley loaded with Gilsonite. I turned and saw the old man I meet in the office, he was there to show me the ropes and make sure I didn’t get myself killed. He definitely earned his keep that first day.
Gilsonite flows along veins or dykes in the earth and the mine tunnel follow these fissures. Most of the work involved shoveling the ore in bags or wheel burrows and then dumping it into a trolley. Sometimes you had to get on your hands and knees to crawl to the next site. It was dark, dank and dirty. My , first day was hard and very disorienting, but I caught on quickly, I worked hard and I gained the respect of my crew.
They called me “college boy.”
Cleaning up in the locker room was an experience. We had to scrub the nasty stuff from the mine off with brushes, using lots of soap. We took turns scrubbing the back of the next guy over. If we didn’t, that black tar would cake up and you’d never get it off. It was embarrassing at first but that too you got used to.
Rather than drive back to town or to the nearest campground in Dinosaur Nation Monument, I just drove my camper down to the Green River about 20 minutes past the mine. I was miles from civilization; and the nights were lit up by a billion stars.
There was no sound other than the fast moving current of the Green River and the soft rustling of a coyote looking for scraps from my leftover can of beans and bread. I would have slept under the stars if it wasn’t for the mosquitoes.
They swarmed and would cover any exposed skin, even biting through clothing. It was unbearable, and I retreated to the protection of the camper. Each morning I would get up early, take a plunge in the Green River, make coffee with jam and bread, and then take a short hike through the desert wilderness with its strange rock formations that changed color like a chameleon as the sun appeared over the distant horizon.
Then it was back to the work – another day in the mine. The money was decent,and I was glad to have the job. The men I worked with were hard working and I enjoyed their bantering over the constant noise from the heavy machinery.
It was about the fourth week when I started spitting up black crap.Even my nose would run with black mucus. Then one of my working buddies got his hand really mangled while hitching the ore trolley.
I started thinking about Northern California where Larry had a sister living in a place called Marin County with views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. That evening I walked over to the office and said “I had it!” The manager who hired me said he was surprised I lasted as long as I did, as a matter of fact he had a bet with a few others in the office I wouldn’t last a day.
He mentioned that my crew foreman liked my productivity and told me that if I ever returned to Bonanza I could have my job back. “No thanks,” I said. “My mining career is over.”
Back in Salt Lake, Larry was ready to get out of town because he was having a bit of trouble keeping the apartment complex pool in balance and it turned green.
California here we come!