“Just Where Is the Other Half?”
California, Dynamite, Misspent Youths
Old, Discarded Sticks of Dynamite
Vanderleun‘s boyhood had a good deal in common with mine, despite being set in California.
Sometime later my parents bought a house on the edge of Butte Canyon out on the fringes of Paradise. My father built a new bedroom for Tom and myself at the back of the house with its own entrance stairs that incorporated the trunk of a black walnut tree. There was a cherry tree in the backyard along with a brick barbecue. Beyond the backyard was an acre of wild oak, madrone, and manzanita. Behind that was an old dirt road that ran right at the edge of Butte Canyon. The canyon here was draped everywhere by frozen flows of black lava in all shapes and often precipitous drops. Nearby there were trails branching out and down into the canyon. On weekends and in the summer, our parent’s instructions to us were simple: “Home before dark.”
I was 9 and my brother 7 and we set off every summer and non-school morning with a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to explore this strange landscape of lava beds, High Sierra forests, and streams, and abandoned gold mines.
For there were abandoned gold mines everywhere in the sloping walls of Butte canyon. You found them by following old almost erased trails that slowly slumped downwards on the canyon walls. One particular site boasted a mine with three entrances branching off into the darkness under the canyon. Some mines were said to go back several miles but they were always too spooky and our flashlights too dim for us to venture very far inside.
Whenever we could we’d escape out our private entrance and ramble about the canyon under the watchful eyes of buzzards roosting atop dead pines waiting for a meal. It’s strange now to say we skipped along the edges of the paths oblivious to the potential for becoming buzzard food, but children are immortal in their own minds, are they not?
One day in (was it late autumn or before or after?) we were following a new path when we came upon a wide and long lava bed somewhere midway down the canyon. The lava was coal-black and had many lichen-covered stones protruding out of the crust. And in the midst of it all, there was one large lava spire that rose high above the bed below; a monolith that had felt the splash of the molten lava but had survived in a cooled lava shawl. The spire rose at least 20 feet above the canyon floor. At the top, the spire forked into several shards on all sides leaving the top open. And somehow in the top, there was enough earth for, strange in this High Sierra pine forest, for a stand of green bamboo to grow tall all around. It was like a giant lava planter with just a bit of a Chinese landscape at its top.
There was a hand-over-hand way of getting up into the bamboo at the top. We found it through the kind of determined trial and error a boy can have on a summer afternoon with nothing to do and the whole local wild world to explore. At the top, the bamboo thinned towards the center and we squeezed inside to be able to see the whole wide world of the canyon around us without being seen at all. It was a boy’s summer dream. It was impregnable. It was
“This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,”.
And so we did what any two young boys would do. We improved our fort and hauled in supplies. With some pruning sheers that my mother convinced herself she must have mislaid, we carefully trimmed out the inside stands of bamboo until a comfortable space was made (invisible to outside eyes) for two brothers to relax in a comfortable manner. We hauled in some water in bottles and some “rations” consisting of apples, jelly sandwiches, and chocolate chip cookies. These “rations” did not last the afternoon when we would pour over our latest comic books bought at the Paradise drug store and soda fountain.
After sober consideration, Tom and I decided that grown-ups could not be allowed to know what we were up to and where our fortress was located. To heighten our fortress security measures we named the place: “X.” After that, we always referred to it as such confident that no eavesdropping adult would be able to break our code.
Bored with being the only unattacked fortress in California we would sally out from the bamboo and climb down onto the lava flow to pick through the gold rush garbage dump at the bottom of the flow.
The considerable garbage tip of gold rush detritus had been formed when the various gold mining operations in Paradise had been producing in the mid-1900s to well into the beginning of the 20th century. The rush for gold was over but there was still gold in them thar hills and many prospectors still worked the streams, rivers, and canyons. Up and down the streams and canyons of Paradise, there were still places that were showing enough color for man to get enough of a poke for his whiskey and fixings and other needful things in their ramshackle camps along the canyon’s edge. When such needful things were used up or the gold played out, the garbage was taken to the top of the lava flow and disposed of by just chucking it over and watching it tumble until it disappeared into the tangled madrone and manzanita at the rock-studded bottom.
But what was garbage to a gold miner was gold to a couple of young boys. We found old whiskey bottles and jars of uncertain provenance. We found rusted metal sheets and rods that we fashioned into a lean-to deep inside the bamboo walls of “X” so we could store our comic books and other treasures. We found many things and then…
Then there was the day when we cut back a bunch of manzanita branches and pulled out a tightly dovetailed and nailed wooden box with the top stove in. Tom pulled back the shattered wood of the top to reveal a torn sheet of stiff brown paper. Widening the rip in the paper we looked in and saw about half a case of dynamite composed of broken sticks on the top and whole sticks of TNT on the bottom of the box. Read the rest of this entry »