chapter 52

The Mines on the Old Mines Road

    The old Laredo Airport was located on a Farm and Ranch road that left

Laredo and headed up the river toward Eagle Pass. Although this old road

headed toward Eagle Pass, I don't think it ever actually got there. I know

that the pavement ran out after 15 or 20 miles and the gravel road that

continued split in several forks and finally became various trails wandering

off into the brush country.

    A hundred miles up the river, a similar road headed south out of Eagle

Pass in the direction of Laredo. That road passed through El Indio, and

soon it too turned into gravel and wandered off into the brush country.

    It is likely that in earlier years those two segments of roads joined

together, so that a man on a horse, or a bullock pulling a cart, could travel

north from Laredo and follow along the banks of the Rio Grande all the

way to Eagle Pass. It is even possible that that can still be done, if a man

knew just exactly which little trails to follow, but I doubt it. I made that

trip many times, flying, more or less, parallel to the river, and if any such

continuous trail existed, I never discovered it.

    Anyway, the road heading north out of Laredo was known as The Mines

Road. This name had been continued from an earlier time when there had

been mines located somewhere north of Laredo along the Rio Grande. I

wasn't sure exactly where those mines were located, or what kind of

mines they were. More than once I made a reconnaissance flight along

that route in hope of discovering some visible trace of what might have

been old mines. But I never did.

    I was curious about those old mines, and I asked any number of people

where they had been, and what kind of mines they were. I got all kinds of

answers. Just about everybody was emphatic that they had indeed existed.

Why else would it be known as "The Old Mines Road?"

    And where were they located? Well, shucks, just about everybody knew

that answer too. They were located "Out on the Old Mines Road,

somewhere up there, somewhere up there on the river." And what kind of

mines were they? "Well, they were just mines. They dug stuff out of the

ground. Somewhere up there. On the river. It was a long time ago."

    No doubt there were many people in Laredo who could have told me all

about those mines. They probably had old maps, and knew just exactly

what was mined, and by whom, and where the product went, and why the

mines ceased to exist. Somebody knew all those answers. But I never

talked to any of those people. I guess I could have talked to them, if I had

tried, but I never tried.

    There was a Chamber of Commerce in Laredo, and a community

college, and there was probably some kind of historical society located

there too. Any of those people probably could have given me all kinds of

information on those old mines, if I had asked. But I didn't.

    For some reason, I didn't want to learn about those mines from all the

folks who already had the correct answers. I wasn't interested in knowing

what they already knew. I wanted to learn about the mines from all the

people I encountered on and about the Old Mines Road. I wanted to know

what they knew about those old mines. And I wanted to fly along the river

and stare at the gullies, and the brush and prickly pear, and the leftover

traces of old trails along the rocky out-croppings of the dry creek beds.

    And in time, I think that I came to know the story of those old mines,

although I never learned their exact location. And the story that I came to

know was at first a disappointing story, for I knew all about old mines in

Texas and in Mexico. When I say that I knew "all about old mines," what I

really mean to say is that I had read just about everything that J. Frank

Dobie had ever written. I knew about Apache Gold, and I knew about

Yaqui Silver, and I knew about Coronado's Children.

    I knew the stories. I knew the tales of the Conquistadors, and the

Spanish priests, and the French armies. And I knew of the Yankee

adventurers who had come from Los Estados Unidos in search of land, and

fortune, and buried treasure. I had read all about El Camino Real, and had

actually traversed on a bit of it. And I had heard the stories, and the

legends, and the mixed up tales of that fabled roadway.

    I had read the historical account of the men who had traveled along

that roadway across the centuries. I knew that El Camino Real -The King's

Highway- had led from that great city of Cuidad De Mexico, northward

along the desolation of the Sierra Madre, to the dusty banks of the Rio

Grande. I knew that that trail had struggled every northward, across the

wooded prairies of the Brazos and the Colorado to the eastern forests

along the Angelina and Sabine.

    And as a boy I followed the movements along that road. I followed them

in my mind. I followed the creaking of the packsaddle harness on the

burros, the tinkling of the Spanish gold, the shining of the silver bars. I

had heard the muskets, seen the glint of sunshine upon those metal

helmets, shared the anger of the red men along that way, known the

loneliness of the Vaqueros and the Yankee cowboys.

    As a boy, my mind had wandered far along that road, north into the

new land, from the mountain plateau of Saltio, to the Presidio San Juan

Baptisto, to the struggling little outpost of Nacodouches deep in the piney

woods. And I had dreamed of the bullion and the bones scattered along

that trail to San Antonio. I had followed the pack trains and the armies

into that new frontier. I had read the stories, heard the tales, dreamed the

dreams.

    So that years later, broke, cynical, lost, when I heard that there had

been mines, "somewhere up there, somewhere up there along the river,"

my mind fell open to the pages of my boyhood. My mind fell open to the

pages of a happier chapter of my life. And deep within my soul that

long-dead dream shivered, that boyhood dream of mystery, adventure,

and romance. And slowly that dream kindled again as it had done so many

years before.

    And I began to ask questions. Not too many questions. Just a few. I

really did not want to know too much. I really did not want to know the

truth. I was afraid that the barren truth would strip away the living dream.

I was afraid that somewhere I might stumble on the facts of those old

mines, and the living dream floating in my boyhood mind would wither

into dust.

    So I only wanted to learn a little bit about those mines. I only wanted to

learn a little bit, and I did not want to learn from the PHD who headed the

Department of Historical Studies.

    I wanted to learn from the sons of that land, from the sons of

cowhands, and farmers, and smugglers. I wanted to learn a little bit from

the men who mowed the weeds, and pumped the gas, and turned the

wrenches, at The Old Laredo Airport.  I wanted to hear from the men who

worked the fields, and drove the trucks out along the river, out along The

Old Mines Road. I wanted to listen to the children of Francisco Coronado.

    And I began to learn about those mines. And the things I came to know

about those old mines were not the things that I had hoped to know.

    For those old mines had not been gold mines. No, not gold. Not even

silver. Not the fabled lost mines of ancient peoples. Not the searches for

lost bullion, nor the desperate hunt for buried treasure. There were no

armies in this story, no musket fire, no charging men on horseback. No

fight for glory. No struggle for empire.

    No, those mines had been coal mines. Just coal. Just old black coal. And

at first I did not want to know this. I far preferred the tale concocted in my

boyhood mind.

    But that's what they were. Coal mines.

    But in time, that turned out to be a far better story anyway. For the

story of those long abandoned mines turned out to be a story not about

coal, but about men.

    I never learned a great deal about those coal mines. And the things I

learned were unlikely things. For they were things told to me

second-hand, not clearly recalled, just odd strange things that had

accidentally been left in the memories of the men I talked to.

    But these were the very things I needed to know. I needed to know

those scant tales, those single little accidentally remembered stories,

those inaccurate little facts. I needed to know those unimportant, gone

forever little things that had drifted like smoke through the memories of

the folks along that river.

    I needed to be told of those smoky memories before they vanished

forever along the dry creek beds of that land. I needed to know those

unimportant little things, for they were unimportant things of my finding.

They belonged to me. Nobody else knew those things. Nobody else wanted

to know.

    For the things that I yearned to know about those mines, and about

those men, where the things that had no significance in the history of the

great events that had swept across that land. Those vague memories,

drifting like smoke across the years, would never be recorded in a book, or

taught in a classroom. There would never be a monument, or a day of

historical remembrance to commemorate those memories. For they were

lost memories, lost because they were so unimportant.

    They were coal mines. The men who worked them found traces of the

coal along the dry arroyo's leading out from the Rio Grande. They mined

them deep into the hillsides. Digging shafts so low that a man could not

stand upright in them. Digging shafts that were only tall enough so that a

little burro could walk into them and pull the coal carts up into the

sunlight.

    And the shafts were supported with wood. But the wood was not

sawmill timbers. The wood was cut by ax from the live oak trees that grew

along the banks of the less arid creek beds. And the timbers were dragged

into place, and hewn with axes, and shaped and fitted.

    And as the years went by, those mines led deeper into the hillsides, and

shafts were put down deeper to find the lower strata of coal. And it was a

poor grade of coal. And the stratums were very narrow, so that much rock

and dirt had to be removed in order to dig out the narrow little band of

coal.

    It was poor coal, but it had value. It went somewhere. There was a

market for it, somewhere. I don't know where. None of the men I talked to

knew about that. No one had ever said. No one had ever asked. The old

grandfather, or great aunt, or long-dead vaquero who had told these

stories, who themselves had heard these memories from their fathers, and

mothers, and other old vaqueros - no one had ever said anything about

"markets." "Markets" didn't have anything to do with the old memories.

    The old memories were of the shafts, and of the men who entered

them. And the memories were of how a man could never stand upright

within those shafts. How men spent their days, their lives, stooping over

in those mines, sifting out the low-grade coal from the rock and the dirt.

The memories were of burros and the ceilings that fell, and the men who

had never come out of the mines.

    And the memories were of the two kinds of burros. There were those

burros who worked above the ground and only occasionally entered short

distances into the shafts.

    And then there were those burros who worked inside the mines. The

burros who lived their lives below the surface of the earth. Those who

were blinded at birth with a knife and never saw or understood the

meaning of the sun. Those burros spent their entire lifetimes pulling carts

along narrow shafts totaling no more than a few hundred yards in length.

Black shafts that were their black world, widened areas that were their

stable, twisting earth-walled paths that were the only knowledge of the

universe scored into their burros' minds.

    And in reflecting on those blinded beasts, I could not help but wonder of

the man whose job it was to gently slip his knife into the eye sockets of

each newborn foal. Did he flinch each time that duty was performed? Did

he think upon the moral consequences of his actions? Did he wonder? Did

he care? Did he know remorse?

    And there were other men there, too, in the old memories. They were

the white men. But the memories of those white men were very vague.

The white men did not go into the narrow shafts. Nor did they separate

the low-grade coal from the rock and dirt.

    The white men were in charge, and they took the coal away. Somehow.

Somewhere. And they paid the men who went into the shafts, and the

men who cut the timbers, and the men who drove the bull carts. And they

paid the man whose job it was to slip his knife into the eye-sockets of each

newborn foal.

    But the memories of the white men were very scant. There were no

memories of who the white men were, or where they came from, or where

they went.

    And the scant memories of the white men were not bad memories. They

were not bitter memories. The white men had simply come, and paid the

sons of the land to dig the shafts, to sift out the coal, to work all day,

stooped over, side-by-side with the blinded burros, in the coal mines north

of Laredo.

    The white men had been there simply because they had to be there.

They had come from somewhere to get the coal. It was necessary that

they be there, or the mines would never have been there. Without their

knowledge of coal seams, and shafts, and markets, there would have been

no burros, or timbers, or pay. There would have been no mines, up there,

somewhere, on the river.

    There were no bad memories of the white men, or the narrow shafts, or

the years spent sifting through the rock and coal. They were just

memories. Smokey memories. It was a long time ago.

    Hearing of these things, piecing together these images of laboring men

and blinded burros from long ago, it was impossible not to see the stark

metaphor that extended into our own lives, into my own life.

    And so I learned, a little forgotten sketch at a time, of the men who had

gone into those mines and scraped the coal from the narrow seams sliding

off into the earth. And I wondered about the limits of their lives. And I

wondered about their blindness. And I wondered about my own.

 

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