I have spent a good deal of time in the deserts of the Southwestern United States during my life. It was a favorite thing of my parents to visit and dig in the abandoned mining camps and ghost towns of California, Arizona, and Nevada. It was a family tradition that I was happy to continue as an adult. In the last several decades my trips have mostly involved hunting for meteorites. I have been pretty lucky at that too. With a couple of hundred meteorite pieces found and a couple of new locations discovered by me.
Something else that is fun accompanies meteorite hunting. All the other stuff that you metal detect up out of the ground and the interesting things you see as you hike the desert and dry lake beds. Sometimes it is ephemera that is related to meteorites but more often it is old mining, military, or railroad artifacts. Some of it is just plain old junk and trash. Old motorcycle parts and car parts are usually just things to remove as trash from the area and throw away. Other stuff is worth keeping if you were trained as an archeologist and are now a hoarder of useless desert relics. The thousands of lead bullets recovered make for interesting and weighty displays in an office. Mixed into everything that one can find are a few nice antique things that stir the imagination. Who used it, and why were they at the place it was found?
Many people who have hunted at Holbrook for meteorites have found a glass marble. There is debate about where these came from. I like the bounced out of the freight car hauling the glass cullet across the country theory best. They make for a nice moment of fun when looking for increasingly scarce meteorites out at that famous location. The occasional musket ball is also there if you have a sharp eye. Only my imagination can guess why they are there.
Bits of old broken china and glassware are common things to find. Old glass was formulated with lead in the melt. Over time in the desert exposed to the sun the glass turns purple. It is rare to find a whole bottle but it does happen if you hunt long enough. You have to have a wider focus than just meteorites to see some of this other stuff. I love these old bottles and have written about them before. As a tektite collector the crazing of man made glass bottles after only a hundred years of exposure gives me much to think about. Glass is tough stuff but in the past, the ingredients were not mixed as well as in today’s glass. The areas more susceptible to etching show very well sometimes. Tektites are often deeply and beautifully eroded by chemical etching. Of course, they had thousands or millions of years to be etched.
Railroad junk is always fun especially when the actual tracks were torn up 80 or 100 years ago and the remains are just a sand filled bump of rotting wooden ties in the middle of a dry lake miles from anywhere. Looking up the history of where the tracks came from and where they went is easier now with the internet and all the information that has been shared.
Visitors long ago were allowed to explore the area around Meteor Crater and the Ninninger Museum Ruin. There was fun junk there for the observant hunter. Across the tracks from Meteor Crater at the Sunshine Station location the remains of the station and platform are strewn about. It is where all the materials for the south rim drilling operation one hundred years ago were delivered by train. I doubt many people visit there anymore. But it is a fun stop when you are out at the crater. Especially if like me you enjoy walking in obscure historic locations. Meteor Crater and the area around are closed to hiking and exploring. You can not even drive down Old Route 66 anymore to get to the Ninninger Museum building’s remains.
As a young kid, I always had my head down when hiking in the desert. Growing up part-time in Bullhead City in the mid-1960s there was nothing there to look up for. The population was probably a couple of hundred at the most. I hunted meteorites everywhere I walked. I did not drive yet but had some freedom to go where I wanted in the few miles nearby on my bike. One of my adventures got me out to Oatman and the ruins. The ghost town the last time I drove through it had a few businesses and a tourist trade. There was nothing there in the 1960s. At the end of town was the old mine and the remains of the head-frame and other wooden structures. Below that was the dry wash and I used to walk it looking for meteorites and artifacts. The area around our house was all basalt and quartzite cobblestones. The only sandy areas where I thought I might find a space rock were in the washes. The wash below the mine ruins was also where the dump had washed out. The wash had junk and trash a hundred years old and unfortunately, no meteorites I could find as a kid. But it did have bottles and interesting other things. I was a collector of all interesting things and it probably annoyed my parents that I brought the “junk” home. I still have the wonderful objects today. But my collecting was their fault. My mother and father loved to dig in the old dumps of ghost towns looking for bottles. My brother and I of course had to dig too. I guess it got into our blood he became a geologist and I pursued archeology. Both of us diggers in the dirt.
I still have bottles I found as a kid. My father wanted to go to Chloride Cliffs which is a ghost town, a lot of mines, and an actual cliff. We never quite made it to the town with its dump. We had a flat on the truck and went back to town to have it fixed. We headed out again a little later in the day and had another flat and went back to town. On the third try we got part way and my parents decided it was too late to try and go all the way to the major mining area. We stopped at a cabin we passed on the dirt road and explored around it. Some cool stuff was there and we had fun and I found a complete small bottle. It might once have held perfume or medicine, impossible now to know what for sure.
After meteorite hunting for a weekend on Alkali Dry Lake, I persuaded the rest of the group to stop briefly at the old stamping mill up the road from Goldfield, Nevada. Always fun to go look at some abandoned mining sites. Some are working again out there now, but they were not back then. Along the sides of the dirt road I walked along to the stamping mill I found some pieces of oriental china and a fragment of a crucible used in assaying the rock. I would have liked to hunt for a long time for more little bits of old junk, but the rest of the party was eager to get to a big town and have pizza. And since I had found several pieces of weathered meteorite on Alkali the pizza and beer were on me.
Meteorite hunting can cost a little money to do. Sometimes you get a little break on the expenses. I have found coins on many dry lakes but my best day was finding a dollar bill in a rather deep crack at Lucerne Dry Lake, then later a dime. Of course, being a hoarder of things I did not spend them and put them on display in my office instead. It would have been nice to find a meteorite on Lucerne. I hunted there enough times I should have. But I never did.
Sometime all you find are old lead bullets lying on the surface of the dry lakes. I usually pick them up and take them home. It works out to a few hundred bullets for every meteorite found. On El Mirage Dry Lake I found no meteorites but a load of bullets. I put a few on display since Paul found the first meteorite ever recovered on El Mirage that day.
For me, all this stuff just heightens the fun and the memories of my meteorite-hunting adventures. The bottles of recovered bullets from trips. 50 caliber shells, ammo belt links, and armor-piercing slugs from Franconia were for a long time the only thing I found there. But finally, I started finding meteorites after many trips and weeks of hunting. That area can be annoying with all the bits of old target screens in the dirt. I learned a lot about metal detecting there and dug up a big pile of 50-cal bullets and learned to distinguish the sound the short lengths of screen wire made. It was one of the training areas in World War Two.
For many people this stuff is trash but for me, it is part of the fun. Good hunting.