This photo of Barney the wonder truck in the foothills of the Cerbat Mountains near the site of Stockton Hill, an old mining town, was taken about a year ago. We revisited the site a few weeks ago as this is a delightful area for long walks on old roads.
What a difference one year can make! The road has eroded to such a point that the ground clearance of the old Dodge is now insufficient and four wheel drive might be a very good idea, especially if you are unfamiliar with negotiating deep wash outs and rock strewn roads with steep grades.
I have a long association with these beautiful canyons littered with almost a century of boom to bust mining activity. My first excursion into these hills was in the late 1960s as I sought to locate the site of an old stage station on the road that once linked the mines at the town of Stockton Hill with those at Chloride, Mineral Park, and Cerbat on the other side of the range.
For years Irene Coffer, a pioneer in the area with a family history that predated statehood by decades, had filled my head with stories about the frontier era. One of these tales pertained to the stage station, a robbery, and missing loot. As it turns out the story is one of the few documented tales of lost treasure that I know of.
I used that story as an excuse to spend long hours hiking and driving the old mining roads on both sides of the mountains. On one of these excursions, in about 1977, I experienced a Twilight Zone moment where the past and present collided in a very tangible manner.
It started as a simple Labor Day weekend camping trip, an opportunity to savor that special sense of timeless solitude that seems to only be found under the startling clarity of a starlit desert sky. However, instead of returning to Kingman via Stockton Hill Road I decided to see if the old road was passable to the summit and then down the other side into Cerbat, an abandoned mining town that once was the county seat.
At the time I was driving a well worn, very battered 1942 Chevy pick up truck that in hindsight was little more than a search and rescue vehicle, every time I left town with it there was a very good chance somebody was going to have to search for and rescue me. I spent the day under a blistering sun rebuilding the road and muscling the old truck over the trail created.
The reward was a delightful evening spent at the summit. Cool breezes, the companionship of my old dog, stunning views at every turn, and the aroma of beans, salt pork, and coffee mingling with the smoke from a cedar fire seemed to wash away all of the concerns and worries that had seemed so important just two days before.
We were on the downhill side of the mountain looking down on the forlorn, empty ruins of Cerbat when I stopped to move some rocks, fill in a particularly deep wash out, and add another quart of oil to the tired old motor that gave an audible click as it cooled. After adding the oil I sat on the bent, rusty old running board, wiped my brow, took a pull from my canteen, and examined the canyon and the road that twisted to the bottom.
As I stood for the next leg of my adventure a stunning site on the roadside grabbed my attention and I felt the hair rise on my neck and arms. There on a rock on the roadside was an oil can with a rusty pocket knife lying across the top!
Rust dappled one side of the can but on the other you could clearly read Penzoil and see a Ford trimotor airplane. This meant that someone, forty years or more before had stopped at this very spot to add oil to their truck!
Over the years and countless moves the can was lost. However, I still have the old knife and on occasion think about the previous owner and what led him to drive these rock strewn trails high in the Cerbat Mountains.
In some ways my next association with the Stockton Hill area was just as surreal. I had just signed on with a small Canadian outfit that was planning to reopen one of the old mines near the town site. In actuality it was a shell company and investment scam but I did not learn this until a paycheck bounced, the crew got a little violent as a result, and we were removed from Callahan’s Bar by representatives of local law enforcement. That, however, came later in the story.
I was still wet behind the ears and only thought about the jack in my pocket every week and not the danger of the job at hand. Our first project was to expand an old drift from a 4 x8 tunnel into an 8 x 12 one.
This was accomplished with the installation of a pump to remove water, removal of existing timbers, clearing old cave ins, emptying old stopes, clearing old air shafts, blasting, and then setting new timbers. In retrospect with the exception of the chainsaw used to cut timbers and the Bobcat used in the tunnel it could have easily been 1879 instead of 1980.
Put simply I was a stupid kid. The rest of the crew were old men who should have known better but simply didn’t care about much of anything except the next check and a weekend to drink it away.
On the second day, I was working to clear an old cave in which required extensive shovel work and muscling new timbers into place. One minute I was laboring away, sweating like a mule at plow on a hot summer day in Alabama, straining to see through the goggles and breathe through the respirator as the thick dust swirled about me. The next I was flat on my back in the gravel and a thick blanket of dust rolled across me, my light was as a headlight on high beams shining into fog.
Miraculously the collapse of the roof had resulted in a loose timber clipping me just enough to move me out of the way and to leave a very large bruise on my shoulder and upper arm. That was the first near miss.
If the first incident was not enough to kick sense into my stupid head the second should have. I had moved from mucking to working on the powder crew and learning to operate a jack leg.
We were on the second set of the day when I hung a steel in the top of the wall near the ceiling. I cursed and danced with the jack trying to break it free. The air hose hissed, the cold water from the water line ran into my sleeve and the sweat poured into my eyes.
Then the jack came free and knocked me to the ground. Again this proved to be quite fortuitous as a large section of the ceiling came with it and if I had not fallen to the side under the jack I would have surely been beaned with a very large rock that might have done more than knock sense into my head.
This whole project was void of safety inspection or even safety concern. I now see it was a quick buck operation and was most likely done with little or no inspection or even permit.
Suffice to say I learned many valuable lessons in this endeavor. Among these was don’t make the money received for a job your first focus.
Well, today this is one of our favorite areas for long morning walks even though a sea of housing development laps at the hills below and the old roads are filling with suburbanites in tennis shoes and jogging suits walking their poodles and terriers. There are just to many memories to keep us away and I still know of the secret places where solitude awaits those who seek it as they would treasures of silver or gold.