Washed black sand.


          I am standing outside in the early afternoon sun of December. The light is slightly dimmed by the twin actions of the high flying cirrus clouds, heralding an upcoming change in weather, and the low angle of the sun, which is finally slowing in its descent to the upcoming solstice. I am panning for gold in my front yard. It is here that I wash the dirt that I collected from various stream beds and dry washes throughout our little corner of southeast Arizona.

          It is not an idle enterprise. I would seriously like to come up with a photo-worthy chunk, a picker, of the non-base metal that Warren Buffett has described as the one thing that mankind has labored at for years to bring to the surface only to process it to purity so that it can once again be put underground.

          I take and pour my dirt into a plastic mesh classifier that is meant to separate the largest rocks and debris and keep it out of my ripple edged pan. The science behind panning lies in the fact that gold is more dense than most other elements and will settle to the lowest point in your pan when you add water to your mix and agitate; by sloshing your slurry back and forth, each motion drops the gold down while floating all of the less dense material out of your pan. Frequently what is left behind is black sand: a heavy, partly magnetic mixture, that might include magnetite, which might be indicative of the presence of a gold placer deposit. When one has reduced the contents of the pan after numerous washes down to black sand, more swishing of water reveals your new found gold. I have yet to authenticate any flash in my pan.

          While washing the black sand and looking for gold nuggets I am reminded that the “colors” of the US Army are Black and Gold and I wonder about the origin of that.

          Understand that I view my hunt for gold not in terms of discovering riches. My pursuit is based more on an intellectual quest. People have come here, out west, for years armed only with some geologic knowledge and a deep desire for material gain and sampled these same streams and washes and yelled Eureka!. I too want to have a Eureka! moment.

          Today does not seem to be the day that my discovery is going to be made. I am washing, washing, washing and I wonder if the only thing of true value that I am contacting with is the precious water resource that is ending up on the ground, or the time that I am spending in this pursuit—which, upon reflection, is also something that is finite in my supply of it.

          My wife is still mildly amused by my search. She tells me, “You’re not finding gold because you’re not looking in the right places.” While it is an axiom that the best place to look for gold is in the places where it has been found before, and it is self-evident to me that I have not found the correct places to look for gold, I am also nagged by the thought that in places where gold has been found, whomever found it probably took it all because, well, why wouldn’t you?

          I finally exhaust a small collection of Planters Nut cans, with plastic lids, that had built up in the garage. Each can holds samples collected during one of my rockhounding trips. It is time to go prospecting again. Today I decide to collect at a place which has yielded an ample amount of black sand in the past: I am setting my sights on Duquesne in south central Santa Cruz County.

          The town once boomed. It boasted a population of about 1,000 over a twenty-year period from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The area is laced with mines. Just one, Holland Mine in Duquesne Gulch, produced 80,000 tons of ore. Located in 1880 by John Holland, it was worked into the 1970s as a small surface and underground zinc, lead, copper, silver, gold and quartz mine. Some of the claims in Duquesne are apparently still being worked. Access to the old mines and waste rock piles are pretty limited but I have found a place—on Smugglers Road on the south side, just beyond town limits, where public lands resume—where the washed dirt has yielded some very hefty quantities of Black Sand.


          I am driving south on State Highway 83 towards Canelo Pass. It has been awhile since I filled any sample cans from a small wash just south of Duquesne on Smugglers Road. I am returning there because this wash has yielded not gold but the black sand that is supposed to be the precursor to finding gold placers.

          Today’s drive happens to be one of my favorites. One leaves the relatively densely populated region of Sonoita/Elgin for the sparsely settled and vast expanse of the San Rafael Valley. Along the way are elevation gains and losses. The road curves and dips as it nears the Huachuca Mountains. I stop at a small roadside pull-off to take a picture because I am unaccustomed to seeing the wild west side of the Huachucas up close.

           As I pull over onto the dirt from the pavement I have to steer around a large gray rock that could easily do damage to a tire or a tie rod end and this rockhounding has already taken its toll on a perfectly good set of tires that left this world way too soon. The large gray rock gets my attention again when I step away from my vehicle to get a clean shot of the mountains. The rock appears to be mudstone from some ancient sea bottom. I roll this dense piece over and find what I think is a fossil of a shell which would be par for the course with mudstone. I look around for other similar rocks but there are none, in fact this is not a particularly stoney place. I am at a loss to explain where the rock came from but into my hatchback it goes. I take my picture and leave thinking that it has already been a good day.

          Canelo Pass Road separates from Highway 83 in Canelo and continues due south leaving the 83 to wander further east before plunging south itself to Parker Canyon Lake. The area is a treasure trove of mesquite and pine covered hills interspersed with the heaved meadows of the once monsoon fed lush grass. Vistas abound. Canelo Pass Road is a dirt washboard in places with deep red branches of manzanita and plump green prickly pear growing right up to the sides of the road. The Arizona Trail crosses over the road and a parking lot has been smoothed out for access to the Canelo Hills passage of the trail. The pass itself is a little over a mile high and the view that it provides looking south is dramatically different from what one has just behind.

          The vast expanse of the San Rafael, from which the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River emanate, is something that I never tire of experiencing.

          The first time we drove through it was in March in the early 2000s and it was quite by accident. My wife and I had come into Patagonia for our first time by way of Rio Rico. We had stopped at The Gathering Grounds and were very pleased to have found our first really great cup of coffee in Arizona. Note: Arizona does not have as high a need for coffee as does dreary New York or Seattle. The coffee was brewed delicious and served with actual half and half. While relaxing on McKeown Avenue, sipping, with our feet up, a woman pulled up in an SUV and on her way into The Grounds remarked, in a friendly way, that we should go see the San Rafael Valley, that it would knock our socks off. She gave us directions to follow Harshaw Avenue, which we did.

          First we passed Red Mountain, stopping to finish our coffee under the almost Hoo Doo formations of yellow, orange and red rock. Nice. We drove further along onto San Rafael Valley Road and saw what I took to be an idyllic little ranch in what I now know is Willow Spring Canyon. Very nice but I was beginning to doubt the veracity of the interloper from Patagonia as my socks were still squarely on my feet. The road continues on through, and into and then out of a wash and at about the point where we were looking to turn around it starts to gain in elevation. At the top of that rise up and out of that tiny canyon the road suddenly crests and my first and most lasting thought was: Oh. This must be the valley of which she spoke. I don’t know what the condition of my socks were but it was love at first sight.

          On today’s expedition to Duquesne for more black sand my socks are pulled up high and tight as I descend into the San Rafael from Canelo Pass. Not quite all the way down to the valley floor I pass a side trail on the left which goes in a short distance and then loops back out to the main road. I drove down there once in the mistaken belief, from something that I had read on mindat.org, that there was an old digging down there. I had also read speculation that from Canelo Pass and heading east that there were the remains of a very ancient caldera which could have made for some interesting rocks. The side trail did not yield a digging but there was some very old poured concrete and fencing that looked more like an old corral than an old mine.

           I pass through the site of a wildfire from last May when, before the arrival of the monsoon, over 14,000 acres burned over a period of two days. The fire had started after high winds had brought down some limbs and most of what I think was an old Cottonwood tree onto power lines a few miles south in Lochiel. When I first heard that a tree had fallen in a windstorm and started a fire I was a little skeptical as it is rare to see a tree hovering over power lines here. The remains of that conflagration, over a Saturday and Sunday, are hard to find today. These grasslands healed quickly when the monsoon hit, the grasses’ roots having been flashed over with no resulting damage.

          Further south, and lower down in the valley, I pass a man stopped on the road with his pick up truck. He is outside of his vehicle with a pair of binoculars mounted to a tripod and he is staring off into the distance. I have seen a similar scenario before in the Huachucas. Are they very serious birders? Are they border patrollers watching for migrants? Do birders wear camo?

          Moving along, on Canelo Pass Road, I pass some Border Patrol trucks and give them a friendly wave. I have tremendous respect for the hard working men and women of the DHS and I wonder if they are as in awe as I am of where they work or if familiarity breeds contempt.

          The sky is blue and cloudless as I continue south towards the border. The grasses have lost their bright green blush from the summer rains and have turned pure fall yellow. Between the sky and the grass I feel as if I am driving through a Ukrainian flag.

Grazers along San Rafael Valley Road.

          Our Sky Island grasslands are not the most drama filled vistas in Arizona. Think Grand Canyon. Think Texas Canyon. Think Salt River Canyon on Highway 60 between Globe and Show Low. These grasslands, though, are probably the reason I am here.

          My first trip to Arizona occurred in 2002. It was six months after the terrorist attack of 9/11 and the cost of flying was still inexpensive to encourage people to get back on airliners. My wife had been out here several times before that in pursuit of the ideal horse and had become convinced that we would retire here. I was a skeptic even though she had long ago corrected me on my mistaken belief that Arizona was all barren desert. Cacti and rattlers. I already knew where I wanted to live out my life. We landed at Sky Harbor in the afternoon and drove east on the I-10. My first introduction to a rural saguaro was in the parking lot of a Del Taco, itself a novelty to an easterner, out in Casa Grande. It was Taco Tuesday and for the following two years we flew on Tuesdays and would stop at the same place and take pictures in front of the same cactus. You may get the sense that I become easily entrenched in steady habits and would not be a good candidate for uprooting and moving.

          Continuing east we arrived at Texas Canyon at dusk and I had to agree that it looked exactly like the western landscapes I had seen in the movies as a kid and yes it was spectacular but I needed something more. That night we got a room in Willcox and headed for the restaurant and bar next door. The food wasn’t great but it was palatable and the beer was cheap. Even better was the crowd of regulars that peopled the bar that night. We were welcomed into a game of darts and made to feel as a regular ourselves. We had a very good time and I began to think that maybe the western zeitgeist, laidback and friendly, that I had heard about was a real thing.

          The next morning was a late sleep but once we finally got up and got going we headed southeast from Willcox. By coincidence the travel section in the Sunday edition of the newspaper that I had read the weekend before we flew had featured an article on the Sky Islands and Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona. They were majestic in the distance and they grew taller and more formidable as we drew closer. Somewhere along Highway 186, near Dos Cabezas, we stopped the rental and got out. I had never seen such an endless grassland, fenced and swaying in a light breeze. I listened and heard no planes overhead, no auto traffic, just quiet beauty and then it struck me. My epiphany: I could hear myself think out here and wouldn’t it be nice to live out a life someplace like this?

          Hearing myself think has now morphed into hearing myself write and is this what I was aiming for all along?

          I am jolted from this thought by the sight of some discards along the road through the valley towards Duquesne. I stop to pick it up and I see that it is a full gallon jug of water on the road, most likely bounced out of the back of someone’s side by side. Nearby, too, is a Natural Lite Beer can. I pick it up and invert it before I put it in my car and a very happy looking bug falls out.

          Canelo Pass Road eventually becomes Ranch Road. It is open range and the cows out on the road cast a leery glance as I slowly glide by. Hawks are looking for lunch. The road dips on its way through Mowry Wash in Sheep Ranch Canyon. A small sign announces the Santa Cruz River, here just a gentle stream nurturing some ancient cottonwoods.

A sign meant to warn drivers that there might be cows on the road. I want that sign.

          Less than a quarter of a mile after the Santa Cruz, Forest Service Road 799 ends and you have to make a hard left onto Christian Lane if you want to continue south. The lane marks the easternmost march of May’s wildfire. The fearsome blackening is gone here too as are the swirling dust devils that rose from the ground in the aftermath.

          Christian Lane becomes San Rafael Valley Road which becomes Forest Road 813 which ends in a T intersection about six miles south of where Christian Lane begins. That T intersection is only one and one half miles of open grasslands from the US/Mexico border.

          The fence in this area looks stout. It varies in its design with the underlying landscape. In some places it is chain link bent southward at the top with barbs on wire to discourage climbing. This is usually reinforced by rows of Czech hedgehogs designed to stop tanks or other wheeled vehicles. All of this is reinforced by the towers of a virtual wall with motion detectors and infrared cameras that are setup, well within the border, several thousand feet from each other. When passing through this close to the borderlands I try to maintain a well groomed look because I assume that I am being recorded.

          As I come down the road towards this T intersection I feel some apprehension. Is this pristine and beautiful vista, that I have come to love, going to be replaced by A Great Wall of China Shipping Containers?

          The first indication of something about to change came to me in early summer on a medical visit to Nogales. A yard down near the border that normally held many tens of these 40’ containers was in the process of being emptied out. I initially thought that it had something to do with the vagaries of international trade and supply chain foul-ups that were themselves a hangover from Covid Era disruptions. I had noticed a greater than usual number of these containers being trailered towards Sonoita and I assumed that they were empty because of the light end trucks being used to haul them. I didn’t think about it again until I saw the staging area for the containers on Highway 90, south of Whetstone. Then I noticed the same sort of convoy now traveling south on Upper Elgin Road. Why were empty shipping containers heading south?

          The answer now appears to be that an outgoing Arizona elected official wanted, needed, to make a political statement, environmental degradation be damned.

          I don’t know what the answer is to our border problem. I suspect though that the solution is political not physical. I do know that in June 2007 an immigration reform bill that would have tied tough border security and workplace enforcement measures with a plan to legalize the status of an estimated 12 million people here illegally, at that time, failed to pass the Senate. It would also have created a merit based system for future migrants and temporary worker program that business groups sought. Then President George W. Bush sought the legislation that had backing of the Honorable John McCain, Senator of Arizona.

          The bill was fiercely opposed by those that objected to the amnesty being proffered to dreamers and others here without legal status.

          15 years on and people are still here illegally and a labor shortage is driving inflation like a spike through the heart of the American Dream of orderly growth.

          Washington, we have a problem.


          The vista at the border is still untouched. I turn west onto Lochiel Road and after passing across the Santa Cruz River yet again and going past the locked gate to the Historic San Rafael Ranch House, a gem of a place that I wish were open to the public, the road turns south once more and the last mile to Mexico closes up.

          Lochiel has some inhabitants, I think, and a well maintained schoolhouse, prim and proper, that looks as though classes could be held there tomorrow.

          Across from the schoolhouse, on a grass island formed between branching dirt roads, sits a small cabinet on stilt like legs with a hooked door. If you open the door you find some shelves lined with books. A sign announces: LittleFreeLibrary.org and: We all do better when we all read better. It seems fitting in this place. Not quite a Statue Of Liberty but a firm statement of values to anyone wondering by.

          A little further west along this road is a large, 15-foot high, concrete cross and plaza. A weathered bronze plaque states that Fray Marcos De Niza, a Franciscan monk, entered Arizona at this spot on April 12, 1539 and was the first European west of the Rocky Mountains.

          Duquesne is about another three miles west from the De Niza memorial. If you take the left fork in the road you will turn onto Old Duquesne Road and after another three-quarters of a mile you come to a Y. A right here keeps you on Old Duquesne Road and a very short distance up that road you come across some very lovely old structures. Some are adobe but mostly they are wood and they look as if they are being readied for a much needed facelift.

          A left at that Y sends you southwest, back towards the border. An address sign, posted at the end of someone’s active driveway informs you that you are on Smugglers Road, and although I can find no street signs or atlas maps to confirm that name, it does seem logical enough.

          In less than a mile you are through Duquesne and back out on public lands. I park near a dry wash just beyond some stone pillars that mark the boundary between the places where I can prospect and the places where I cannot. I am careful as I walk up the stony wash with a small hand shovel and an empty Planters Nut can in my hand. The temperature is in the low 60s and that seems to be the borderline for snake activity.

          I am alone for now. It is a quiet road, although one time I did come upon Border Patrol about to launch a small drone for some local surveillance.

          This is a place that has yielded some dense black sand in the past. I look at the wash bed and try to imagine it as the riffles on the edge of my gold pan. If I were a nugget of gold where would I settle?

In a low spot made narrow by two boulders I sink my shovel into the gravel. I go as low as I can into the gravel and then begin scraping dirt into my container. It fills easily and I walk out and drive home and put the can into my garage. It still has not been emptied nor its contents washed.

          The gold, I guess, is in the prospecting.