A Cowboy, a Silver Mine, a Shotgun, and Some Compost

Growing Up in the American Desert

My father was career military man which meant that growing up, I got to travel all over the U.S. and the world. That was awesome except that I never really got to call any place home for very long. I do not have a childhood home that my parents still live in, and but for my brothers and sisters, I don’t even live close to any of my relatives. I was fortunate however in that I got to spend all four years of high school attending the same school, Buena High in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Go fighting colts!

Sierra Vista was then the one-stoplight town that had grown up outside of the U.S. Army post of Fort Huachuca. My father was stationed there during the latter portion of his military career. I suppose when I think back to ‘where I grew up’ I mainly think of Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca. I often reflect fondly on the stark beauty of the American desert and especially Sierra Vista, where we also had canyons and mountains to go along with the desert. As a teenager I loved to hike and camp so the options were many and varied.

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Goofing Off and Good Times

During my high school days, I had two really good friends, Gary and Carl; we were hiking and camping buddies and were always looking for an excuse to get out and explore. Although we would often pass our time in Huachuca or Coronado Canyons, or in the Mule or Mustang Mountains, or out searching the hills for Lost Dutchman’s Mine, we spent most of our time exploring the old abandoned silver mines that dotted the landscape between Sierra Vista and Tombstone, Arizona. Oh yes, Tombstone is a real town; “the town too tough to die” they call it. Boot Hill Cemetery is real too, but I’ll save that for another story.

On the 4th of July in 1981, my hiking buddies and I decided to go off for a day’s explore; an abandoned silver mine was our goal. Oh, how I loved hunting for a new mine to explore – a very dangerous thing to do and I certainly DO NOT recommend anyone explore old deserted mine shafts – but we were young and dumb and that is what we often did with our time. On this trip we were off in the hills closer to Tombstone than to home and we spent a good six hours or so exploring an old shaft we had discovered on a previous scouting trip. It was great fun and as always it was a fascinating adventure. But the best was still to come.

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An Unexpected Encounter

Whenever we explored we always followed two simple hiking rules; first, if you pack it in, you pack it out and second, respect the site – never remove anything you find. On this trip it was a good thing we always stuck so rigidly to those two rules.

As we exited the mine shaft we were all somewhat blinded by the bright sunshine so you can imagine how surprised we were when a grumbly old voice called out to us to, “Stop or I’ll kill you where you stand!”

We stopped all right! As our eyes adjusted to the light, we saw an old cowboy staring at us from behind the biggest shotgun I had ever seen. It turned out that this was not an abandoned mine after all, though you couldn’t tell that from the condition of the place.

“You trying to jump my claim? Huh? You boys thinkin’ a stealing from me?” the grizzled old cowboy asked, taking a step or two closer to us. Somehow, that shotgun got to looking even bigger!

The Long Road Back Home

In the end it all worked out. We told him we were just out exploring and after he had us empty our packs and pockets to be sure we really hadn’t stolen anything from his mine, he told us we could go. But what he failed to tell us was that he had let all the air out of the two back tires of Carl’s car, so that we couldn’t “make our getaway,” as he later explained.

Seeing our problem, he grudgingly waited while we put the spare tire on one side of the old Chevy. He then told us to pile into the back of his pickup along with the flat tire because he said he had an “old air pump back at the house you boys can use to pump that tire back up.”

Making Some New Friends

A few miles down the road he pulled off into the driveway of a nice old homestead, with an old picket fence, screened-in porch, rocking chairs, you know, the works.

When the truck rumbled to a stop we all tumbled out of the back just as sweaty and dirty as three teenage boys could possibly get. He grumbled for us to wait in the front yard while he got the pump. But just as he turned to go we were all stopped by a small, sweet little voice that turned out to belong to an equally small and sweet little old lady. “Now Jacob, you know dang well that ain’t gonna do. You bring them boys up here into the shade and I’ll go fetch some iced tea and cookies.”

The old cowboy did as he was told, but he groused about it as he directed us to the porch. “Go on now, get up there. She ain’t gonna let us do a damned thing till she gets to socialize a bit.”

This is how I met a very wonderful couple of folks named Jacob and Miss Lilly van der Vliet; wonderful people whom I would return to visit many, many times during the next couple of years.

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The First Time I Learned About Compost

Oh, and my introduction to compost? Well, on one of my return visits Miss Lilly took me out back to find Jacob, where there was a garden that changed my entire thinking on what a garden should look like. As we casually strolled behind the old house, we soon passed an equally old vegetable garden that, to this day, is one of the most lush gardens I have ever seen. Keep in mind that this was in the desert of southern Arizona where water isn’t very plentiful and temperatures in the triple digits are common! The secret to the garden, Miss Lilly explained was the compost pile in the far back corner of the yard.

I can still hear her telling me, “Most folks think black gold is oil, but it ain’t, it’s this!” she said as she scooped a handful of amazing compost-rich soil up from the nearby bed and put it in my hand.

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