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Arastre Creek Gold


Some time ago I met a man who lives in a semi-wild place called Big Bear Lake, CA. I lived there in the 1970s and early 1980s. Thinking of him brought back a plethora of memories, both good and bad. It is one of the good ones I share today.

Big Bear Lake is a mountain resort town in the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California. It has a history of gold mining, both placer and hard rock. The earliest evidence of gold mining and processing in the area is at a place called Arastre Creek. An arastre is a primitive mill for crushing ore, typically gold or silver. This particular arastre somewhere in the vicinity of Arastre Creek was put there by the Spanish in the 1700s, the first people to extract gold in the area. There were no settlements in the area except the San Bernardino mission over 40 rough miles away.

Arastre Creek is located past the north end of the Big Bear Valley and is accessed by taking the dirt road out past Baldwin Lake where the old prospecting town of Belleville once thrived below the Lucky Baldwin mine. The road continues on, descending the mountains deeper into the rain shadow where the land becomes more dry and turns into high desert. The Arastre Creek road comes off this main dirt track which is called Pioneer Town Road, and rambles off down a side canyon or two until it becomes quite steep and very rough. I have been down this road many times and hiked the canyons and side canyons for mile upon mile but never managed to find the arastre. After years of this and talking to many people in the area I just accepted the idea that time had taken its due and the old stone arastre had crumbled into oblivion.

In 1981 I met an grizzled old desert rat, part time prospector and full time drunken character called Riggs (not his real name). Riggs and I became friends and drinking buddies. He could hold forth on virtually any subject and could drink beer all day without ever getting up to use the restroom, (make whatever inferences you want here.) We went on several forays into the Anza-Borrego desert to look for the Bighorn sheep that are sometimes found in that area. We would rock hound a bit for agates, and I would seek rattlesnakes or chuckawallas to sell to the local leather artisan in Big Bear.

On one of these trips, at the campfire I mentioned Arastre Creek, and my frustration that I had never been able to find the arastre. Riggs said "Of course you can't find it" and then sat silent. Eventually I had to ask him why, and his reply "I know where the arastre is!" took me somewhat aback.

Old Riggs went on to say that twenty years before he had found the Spanish stone arastre, completely intact, and that he had buried it. He said it took him several days to bury it and make the area look natural. It was the type of thing he would do, so I did not question that he had done it, but I did question why he had done it.

He said "That's where I hid my plates." I sat in silence at this, with my own images and wonderings until I couldn't bear not to ask him why he would hide plates. As it turned out, Riggs had been a very prolific counterfeiter in the mid1950s until 1960. He did get caught after manufacturing a great deal of money and was sentenced to a prison term on Terminal Island, California. He got twenty years, he said, but only did one and escaped. They never got his plates and he was plenty proud of that and of the ingenious way he buried them with the arastre "just to save for later." Riggs has been dead now for over thirty years, and the arastre has eluded detection for longer that that by far. Riggs lived a solitary life on the far edge of Baldwin Lake, a hermit's existence except for his compulsion to go drink and talk story at the local bar. Late nights we would stumble from the barroom and eat Mexican food in a cheap joint. He would never ask for a ride home, but just cruised on by foot the ten miles out to his place, drunk, full and happy. My old buddy Riggs died with a smile knowing they never did find his plates. At least I think it was a smile. Nobody found him until a year after he had died in his old beaten down trailer. I wish I could have buried him in the arastre. Treasure is where you find it!

 

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