A MONUMENT TO
DETERMINATION AND PERSEVERANCE
William Henry “Burro” Schmidt
took thirty-eight years to hand dig this
half-mile long tunnel—completed in 1938
born in Rhode Island, January 30, 1871
died in Ridgecrest, Calif., January 27, 1954
Burro was regarded by his contemporaries as a crazy person. In 1899, he had moved from Rhode Island to Last Chance Canyon in Southeastern California’s Mojave Desert, ostensibly for the health benefits of a hot dry climate, and set himself up as a desert hermit.
His only companions were two mules, Jack and Jenny. Alone, he spent several decades burrowing through Copper Mountain, building a tunnel that led nowhere significant. I had assumed “Burro” was a pun on “burrow,” but I later learned that his original nickname derived from his absurd choice of vocation and his nonhuman choice of company, was “Jackass.” This eventually softened to “Burro,” perhaps out of compassion.
In 1994, a cable access TV show called California’s Gold did a feature about Burro. The host interviewed a historian from Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, CA, who explained:
Well, he came up with the idea of building a tunnel starting a tunnel
through the mountain to make transportation
for the train lines for the ore more expeditious and less expensive
and once he got into the actual tunnel-building he kind of lost sight of the ore
and the process of getting the gold to the market and just got consumed
with the idea of finishing this tunnel through the mountain
It’s early spring of 2016, and I’m heading down to Last Chance Canyon to film a documentary with two fellow rock climbers and a videographer. We park our truck on a flattened expanse of rubble: the tailings-pile made of the estimated 5,000 tons of material that Schmidt had hauled out of the mountain in the course of his long endeavor. Here the scale of his work is made visible: Each chip and shard of this vast heap, each head-sized chunk and fist-sized stone, would have been shoveled by hand into his ore-cart somewhere in the guts of the hillside, and pushed by hand out to this repository.
And before each of these chips and shards were trundled into the light, they would have been loosened by dynamite. My great-grandfather was a gold miner, and I remember hearing his children (now in their nineties) describe the process of hard-rock tunneling: First, you drill a circular array of small holes in the rock—each a few feet deep, and roughly the width of a dynamite stick. Then, as you carefully pay out fuse, you push a stick of dynamite in each hole. And then finally, you bundle and light the fuses, and (I can still hear my great-uncle cackle as he tells it) you run like the dickens.
I’ve seen two old photos of Burro. In both images, he poses right here at the mouth of this tunnel, squinting into the camera.
As we unload our climbing gear and video equipment, we survey the landscape around us; it’s a beautiful and haunting vista. One or two abandoned shacks besides Burro’s are visible far down in Last Chance Canyon. There’s no tree-cover, just a scattering of tinder-dry sage scrub, and despite it being only early spring, the sun is baking the former seabed. Hot eddies of dust ride thermals in the gullies below.
From this vantage it becomes immediately apparent how ridiculous Schmidt’s original plan was: The mining operations in the valley were too scant to have necessitated a tunnel to transport their ore, and the train tracks to which Schmidt was ostensibly providing access were still some twenty miles (of steep, loose terrain) away from his tunnel’s far end.
My friend, himself a builder, also points out that to walk over Copper Mountain, rather than going through the mountain by the tunnel route, was a gentle and manageable stroll that, upon further investigation, takes us about fifteen leisurely minutes.
In other words, Burro’s achievement, made possible by a life’s worth of solitary, dangerous, backbreaking labor, is the most useless tunnel in the world.
Our climbing objective is a “bouldering traverse” from one end of the tunnel to the other. In the terminology of our esoteric sport, “bouldering” is a style of climbing where the climber remains close to the ground, making a rope unnecessary. Bouldering projects are often just a handful of moves long, but in this case, we intend to move laterally along the walls of the tunnel—not touching the flat walkway along the floor—for its entire half-mile length. If it works, the “Schmidt’s Traverse” will be among the world’s longest bouldering problems.
Making sure to avoid the shards of broken glass and malignant thorny scrub, we put on our climbing shoes and headlamps, and walk into the mouth of the tunnel. It has to be nearly a hundred degrees outside, but it is a brisk 58 in the tunnel; like the human body’s 98.5, we learn that this is the mountain’s constant internal temperature. A similarly constant cool breeze moves through the tunnel all day, and only tapers off in the late afternoon when the differential between indoor and outdoor temperature reaches parity.
The tunnel looks like the archetype of all mine tunnels; it’s five feet wide, seven feet tall, and dead straight as it vanishes beyond the headlamp’s reach. There’s a pair of ore-cart rails down the middle, which Burro used to haul out the rubble as he excavated. Enormous beams—repurposed railroad ties—support the loose material right at the opening, but otherwise, the tunnel is self-supporting, a ribbed granitic esophagus bound for the mountain’s belly.
From a climbing standpoint, the granite walls of the tunnel seem promising at first; in addition to the features one finds on naturally-occurring rock faces, the tunnel has drill-holes and cavities from the dynamite blasts, which make usable handholds and footholds to assist our progress.
But the rock quality soon reveals itself to be hugely variable; some stretches are beautiful, bullet-hard clean granite, but other stretches of the tunnel wall are friable and loose. At one point, as I shift my body weight onto the next handhold, a piece of rock the size of a microwave breaks off in my hand and shatters on the ground. We hold our breath, worried the roof will collapse.
This type of climbing is useless like Schmidt’s tunnel is useless: It follows the most difficult, dangerous, and impractical path from point A to point B.
It follows the most interesting, aesthetic, and memorable path from point A to point B.
Says Chris Sharma, regarded by many to be the best climber in the world today, in a recent interview:
We search out the most perfect pieces of rock
you’re taking these
random rock formations and you’re bringing to it this interaction
it transforms it from being
this random rock into almost this
piece of art it’s almost like a sculpture or something
By the light of the headlamp, flecks of quartz seem to leap from the tunnel’s surfaces. I come to recognize the rhythm of Schmidt’s work, the dynamite scars at even intervals in the ceiling and sidewalls. At one point, the tunnel opens up, doubles in height and widens into a kind of chamber; the walls here are exceptionally brittle, and we surmise that when Schmidt detonated his dynamite charge in this location, the blast cleared a bigger space than usual because of the rock’s softness.
Multicolored veins of varying minerality weave around the tunnel. White bands of crystal, red intrusions. A quarter-mile into the mountain I begin to learn the tunnel’s language; I know by sight whether a handhold will break off in my hand or remain in place as I use it, I learn how to distribute my weight evenly, how to move gingerly across the delicate rock.
More importantly, I begin to get the dimmest, faintest sense of Schmidt’s own labor. The climbing is strenuous and awkward, and every lateral foot takes its small toll. I’m reminded of a story, likely apocryphal, of a pilgrim who walked for years, from his home to a holy site thousands of miles away, touching his forehead to the ground in prostration in between each step.
When he arrived at last at the holy site, he had bone-spurs on his wrists and atop his third eye, from his thousands upon thousands of bows. Someone asked him what he had learned on his journey, and he replied:
Now I understand the width of the world.
Interviewers are always asking climbers why they do what they do.
After spending all day in the dark, cutting up our hands and bruising our feet, we emerge into the twilight asking ourselves the same question: why? And if one day in the tunnel, climbing essentially for fun, was enough to leave us this wrecked, why did Schmidt chip away at his project for decades on end?
As night falls, we make our camp atop the tailings pile. The first star comes out in the desert sky and, like an earthly reflection, a single light flicks on in a chain-link compound far down the valley; it turns out that one of those shacks wasn’t abandoned after all. The wind carries a dog’s bark to us, and my heart breaks a little for Burro as I imagine him clearing the last of a day’s rubble and emerging from his half-finished tunnel onto this lonely vista.
Photographs of Burro in profile reveal him to be essentially C-shaped. His back muscles are so overgrown that he himself has come to resemble his workplace: a cavernous, concave man.
It occurs to me that if Burro had struck gold in the tunnel, nobody would bat an eye at his having spent so many long decades there. And if I wrote screenplays all day, or best-selling vampire novels, nobody would bat an eye—but poems, lord Jesus, or climbing essays?
Then says my heart, which can’t help it:
A poem is useless as a tunnel is useless.
A poem tunnels for its own joy.
We gain a moment of joy by climbing through it.
it follows the most interesting, aesthetic, and memorable path from point A to point B.
After three days of tenuous bouldering in the underworld, more bruises, cuts, and rock-falls, we had to abandon “Schmidt’s Traverse”; the stone was so unstable in places that it would have been genuinely unsafe and irresponsible to hang our bodies on it. But the bizarre adventure did yield a short documentary film, and a long-lasting affinity for the Mojave.
I still don’t know why Schmidt did what he did, why he secluded himself in such toil. But, as I was sifting through biographical information for this essay, I read an account of his life whose first sentence offered more clarity than all my other research combined:
When his six brothers and sisters had all died of consumption
in his birthplace of Providence, William “Burro” Schmidt
escaped to the desert of California
to begin his life’s work . . .
which, I can now attest, looks a little like digging a grave and finding a light at the other end.