A Man Out of Time

I used to know a guy named Jack VanSickle; Mr. Van we used to call him. The chatter around Blue Water Lake is he died a lonely and miserable drunk. So naturally, I’m looking for the punchline.

I met Mr. Van in 1971. He was my group leader at a backpacking camp in New Mexico called Cottonwood Gulch a.k.a. the Prairie Trek Expedition. We traveled around the four corners area, so called because of the the right angle joinery of the four states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. We were in search of good, off the beaten track backpacking and adventure. Mr Van was a bachelor science teacher from Rushville, Indiana and this was his summer gig.

I spent three summers with Mr.Van; my last two as his quartermaster. This promotion came with the perks of lower tuition, greater responsibility and while not exactly a councilor I was not exactly a camper either. An early step, if you will, in my long ascent to world domination. My job was to pack, unpack and generally keep organized, Mother. Mother was a motorized Conestoga wagon. A large, rumbling, slat sided truck with arched hoop roof covered in old fashioned oil canvas. She held our gear and food and water. Often times, while exploring the dessert, the water from her side tanks was the only water we would have for weeks. Strictly rationed. No washing. Her petcock was our nipple of life.

There were 16 campers as well as three other counselors including Kurt Vonnegut’s nephew, Ricky Vonnegut. We called Ricky, Choo Choo, because he was obsessed with taking pictures of freight trains as we drove in our van from one spot to another. Nobody would have noticed this, we were self obsessed teens after all, but Ricky had figured the best way to get a clear shot was to match the train’s speed, lean out the window, face glued to the viewfinder and ever so carefully focus and then wait for the engines to align with the mountainous background to form the perfect composition. The problem was that we were doing 70 miles an hour in an effort to overtake the train’s engines and get everything just so. Ricky was the only adult in the van and consequently the driver. Take it from me, regardless of claims to the contrary, teenage boys do scream like little girls.

There was a cook named Tom Hyde. Tom’s secret to perfected eating habits, which was no secret at all, was that whatever didn’t get eaten at dinner, was included in the next morning’s breakfast. This was before nouvelle cuisine so Beef Stew Pancakes and Barbecue Chicken Oatmeal were not considered delicacies.

The peculiarities of memory allow me to remember Ricky’s name because of his famous Uncle Kurt. I remember Tom’s name because of a single piece of junk mail. I was the quartermaster and therefore I called out the weekly mail from stops that were arranged before the beginning of the summer. Tom was a botanist and this was in the early days of automated mass mailings for credit card applications. One day Tom received a letter from a credit card company. Showing off their intelligence network capabilities of combing data for worthy credit card recipients the letter started out as follows.

T. Hyde Botany

We know who you are and We know what you do.

From then on he was known as T. Hyde Botany.

There was a third counselor but I don’t remember his name. No stories attached themselves to him therefore no memory cues. All I do remember is that he left at the end of camp and went directly to Amsterdam. At 13 that didn’t have any meaning for me. Now I understand that he was off on an adventure of his own.

We picked up mail along our travel route at these one room post offices; sometimes nothing more than a desk in a store or the front room of somebodies house, in towns that probably no longer exist. The southwest was full of ghost towns but there were an equal number of fringe communities. Clusters of old houses and shuttered businesses; wooden mausoleums that were waiting for their elderly inhabitants to die, so that the buildings too might finally rest in peace.

Most of these towns had grown up in the 1870’s and 80’s around mines and mills producing silver. Silver and gold, the so-called bi-metal standard, had been used in US coinage from the beginning. The use of gold and silver allowed for large and small denominations of coins, before the introduction of paper money in 1862, without resorting to gigantic and minuscule coins minted from a single metal. That sounds good. Exchange rates between the two metals were set by law. That sounds bad.¬† Laws are the kind of thing that markets are notorious for ignoring.

Then along comes the California gold rush of 1849. So much gold gets introduced into the market that not only does it damp the value of gold it undermines the value of silver. The good news is that with more metal you can mint more coins. Instant prosperity. Simple! Silver mining remains profitable enough and towns here grow. That was good news.

However, as I understand it, which is just another way of saying that I don’t really understand it, the constant recalculation of value between the two metals by speculators¬† was becoming unmanageable. That was bad news. Hoarding and dumping were a constant strain on economies and in 1873 the US Congress, along with most of Europe, followed England’s half century lead and tipped towards a gold standard. If you were big into silver, a so-called Silverite, you would have called this The Crime of ’73.

Silver was still used in coinage (that was good news) and it would be, in ever more dilute amounts, until 1965 but a one to one correspondence between the metal value and coin denomination was on the wane. The demonetization of silver, along with the great silver strikes here in Colorado that flooded the market in the last quarter of the 19th century, further eroded prices. That was bad news.

The good news was that help was on the way in the form of The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, whereby the government promised to buy silver. Lots and lots of it. 4.5 million ounces a month more than it was already buying for the purpose of coinage. That’s over 280,000 pounds! A Month! The miners took a moment to wet their pants, jack up the price and then dig like mad.

Of course for every profitable action there is an unprofitable reaction. All this government support for silver caused a flood of silver in the market that eventually undermined its value relative to gold. As they say, or more accurately as Gresham’s Law states, “Bad money drives out good” which means that overvalued money drives undervalued money out of circulation into hoards. Everyone ran to the bank to trade silver for gold. That was bad.

At the same time, all this unexpected federal support for silver undermined confidence in the promised gold standard and the Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893. The market was flooded with cheap silver and everyone holding Treasury Notes, which were redeemable in silver or gold, ran to the banks to get the gold. That was bad too. The resulting run on gold brought the United States to the brink of bankruptcy before the jolly joker himself, J.P. Morgan, and a syndicate of his pals stepped in with a loan of gold, on attractive terms naturally, that saved the nation from insolvency. Not a great guy to owe money and favors to. Nope, not a good situation to find yourself in and one I personally have tried my best to avoid by consolidating all my gold holdings into a single low karat ring on my left ring finger.

In 1900 the Gold Standard Act made the gold standard official but in these parts the steep decline had already taken hold. Mines and mills, banks and railroads throughout the region were shutting down. When the money left, the people left. Silver camps shut down all over and real estate values simply dissolved. Other metals of value, Lead, Zinc, Molybdenum for high strength steel, saved some towns and slowed the demise of others for awhile. But by the time of the Great Depression, when metals demand all but disappeared, many towns throughout the region had been abandoned. The days of mine camps and remote mountain towns was over.

But there are always those few souls who root easily and deeply; those who never leave, preferring to tend the graves of their loved ones while waiting to join them. Enter Mr. Van. It seemed to us that Mr. Van knew everyone in the southwest worth knowing. Tribal elders, shop owners, nomadic prospectors still panning for gold. He knew everybody that was nobody. Old old people; the children of boom and bust. These ancients had stories to tell about the mines, the ore crushing mills, the tribes, the rustic living homesteads, the tragic deaths of loved ones.

And then there was the backpacking. Caves and canyons, lava beds, rock formations, mesas and mountains; we covered them all. Mr. Van was our Wagonmaster; we were his pioneers; Mother and the two Ford Econoliners were our wagon train. For us, every road was a back road, every town, every pueblo, was in a state of ruin and every ruin was open for exploration. Hiking in the San Juan’s? Mr. Van knew people at the San Juan County Historical Society. Of course he did! So we went following the trail of a doomed 19th century expedition. Of course we did! We were looking for the remains of the definitely lost and probably cannibalized Fremont Expedition of 1848-49. It was all directly under foot; a finger touch away.

Mr. Van had nothing but contempt for what he called GAT’s; Great American Tourists, enveloped as they were, in the fatness of their luxury. He hated their crass ignorance of this holy land; a land they ignored in favor of cheesy roadside attractions offering cheap imitation mementos of the vanished and vanishing cultures he held in such high regard. For Mr. Van, and therefore us, authenticity was the law. He was right but he was also a man out of his time.

After setting up a base camp in a new location we, the boys, would break out the topographical maps, plan a trip and pass it by the counselors. The counselors would point out that we had the map upside down and were planning a trip over a cliff. After a brief lesson in topo map reading we would plan again, get approval and the following morning set out with tents, sleeping bags, food, water, stove and toilet paper. Everything but a counselor. We were on our own, unsupervised for a few days. We’d walk through deep waterless canyons, along high desert cliffs and over windswept mountaintops thousands of feet above tree line. Not for a moment did this strike anyone as unwise or unusual. Up until this moment I never gave it a second thought at all. But I will say this; Every bit of self confidence I have springs directly from those formative times, the responsibility that Mr. Van put on us and the prize of winning his trust.

And it’s not like we didn’t get lost once in awhile. But when we did, we figured it out. Poured over the maps, checked compasses and backtracked or set out on a new route. It was a thinking man’s game entrusted to a bunch of 13 year olds. Genius really, when you think about it.

Mr. Van would stay back and drink scotch while the other counselors did the same or borrowed the Ford van and went in search of a town with a bar and a girl or set out with a group of the boys who hadn’t proven themselves. The name of the game was Wingin’ it and nobody did it better than us.

One afternoon, after I was done setting up camp and supervising the digging of the pit toilet, Mr. Van called me over. “Art, do me a favor. Go get me some snow for my drink.” We were camped beyond Mayday, a ghost town in the San Juan Mountains of south western Colorado. Our base camp was at about 9,000 feet. The snow pack was directly up the almost vertical mountainside at about 10,000 feet. I never would have thought to question Mr. Van. I was happy to do it for him. Things are different now aren’t they; the expectations of children and grown ups. But I’ll tell you what; if he asked me to do it again tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate.

The second to last time I saw Mr Van was 1973. It was my third year; my second year as quartermaster. I was already being groomed as a counselor although I never did become one. We did the desert loop. Keet Seel ruin in Navajo National Monument, the Gila Wilderness, Canyonlands, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay), El Malpais Lava Flows, Arches and more. We saw ancient Native American cave paintings deep underground in a cavern on a reservation ranch that nobody saw but us because these were Mr. Van’s people. He was like a white medicine man who held respect wherever he went because he valued that which every other human had passed by. He was not so much the story teller but he knew where every story was hidden.

He took us to see very old people, sitting in dusty yards or on the rough porches of their tiny desiccated towns. Our job was to listen. The land, the houses, these shuffling relics were all equally dry. The people and their stories would soon disappear but not the towns. The buildings, in this arid environment, will last for another century at least. I have stood, at a steep angle, in a miners boardinghouse, half slid down a talus slope, that had not slept a soul in any living persons memory. And of course the land. The land would remain; little different than when these people’s grandparents had arrived a century ago.

Dust devils, cholla cactus, dead grass, tumbleweeds, open sky and light. So much light that an Easterner’s eyes become thirsty for color. Touching down in Philadelphia at summers end, the lushness was an ocular plunge into cool waters.

It would be 20 years before I saw Mr. Van again; it was also the last time I would see him. I took my wife to visit the camp when we were backpacking in the area. I was in my mid-thirties. We pulled up and he was sitting on the porch of the log cabin mess hall. Camp had ended for the summer. Hummingbirds were whizzing around; all else was quiet. We got out of the car and approached him. “Hello Mr. Van. It’s Arthur Mednick. I was your quartermaster back in the early seventies.”

“I know Art. I’ve been expecting you.”