Black Sand and Gold
By Bill Gann
Camped in the shade of a creosote bush, with an electric guitar hooked to the battery of a 1961
This was the sort of scene that would attract my photographic eye and journalistic spirit back in my younger Desert wanderings. I pulled my old bus over to his camp and introduced myself.
Clifford was on his last legs and so was the old
We shared a bottle of blackberry brandy and I pulled my acoustic guitar out of the bus. We sang Hank Williams songs all day long. "I'm so lonesome, I could cry…" never had more meaning.
Clifford eventually found his own way down the canyon to Bickel Camp and Walt and he became soul mates. Clifford spent the last four or five years of his life at Bickel Camp. When Clifford would see my bus come up Bickel's drive, he'd pop his car's hood, take out a bottle of brandy and his guitar. He's stand there with a knowing grin, and I'd shake his callused hand.
He wrote songs about his life, which was quite colorful. He'd traveled and worked and played in honky-tonk bands. How I wish I had written some of his songs down. One song was about a battered guitar in a honky-tonk bar that told stories. He had the job of cleaning the bar at 2 a.m. after closing time. The guitar stood on a stage and was "beaten and tattered like me." He said when the place was empty and quiet, he'd pick up the guitar and it would tell him stories. As he played the songs just seemed to flow.
Another of his songs was about gold mining and he wrote it while living and mining in the desert. "Black and sand and gold, it's hard to separate em, like the good and the evil in my soul…" As he spent more time in the desert, his songs talked about the beauty and wonder around him, and he sang less of beer joints.
He and I would do a bit of gold mining and even though his lungs were going, he still could turn dirt and work at a steady pace. Dry desert air and hard work seemed to give him new life.
He always wore this silly straw hat. This was one of those hats with plastic sun glass material in the front of the bill. The hat was worn and tattered with a large hole in the top and most of the sun block material cracked and gone. There was something about that hat that said homeless and poor. That, and Clifford wore shiny old dress pants he had bought from a used clothing store.
One day we were turning dirt up on my Mesa Springs claim and Clifford was working the gold machine and a slow, steady pace. His old hat allowed the sun shine down on his bare skin.
My own hat was a real beauty. My brother-in-law, Jerry Butterfield, was a State Farm Insurance agent in Victorville and had ordered several John Wayne commemorative hats that had the State Farm logo on the hatband. He had given me one of these hats and I made a new band for it out of the skin of a Mojave Green Rattlesnake. I had found the snake as desert road kill, cured the skin, and left on the rattles. One could have great fun shaking the hat and yelling, "Snake!
I had also sewn an eagle feather on the side and fancied myself as quite a striking figure in the wilderness. I asked old Cliff if he wanted to trade hats. "Hell yes I would," he answered wide eyed. After that, he was never seen without that hat and I wouldn't be surprised if he was buried in it.
Bickel's cats eventually attacked the snakeskin and destroyed the eagle feather, but as the years went on, the hat became part of brother Trussell. On the right side of the front bill there a soiled spot where he would reach up and adjust the hat as he worked. The hat aged with him and told wordless stories like the old guitar he had told about.
He would go to town to cash his Social Security check and told me how the ladies at the bank started to flirt with him, saying he looked a bit like John Wayne in that hat. In fact, when he put on the hat, he seemed to grow. He was no longer a back country drifter, but a true desert rat.
One day he followed me part way out of the canyon, stopped at a crossroads and said his goodbyes. He was leaving the canyon. He went home to
Anybody ever meet him? Well, now you have.
The photos of Clifford Trussell on these pages were taken in the four or five years he lived at Bickel Camp. I notice the first slides of Clifford and my son Billy goldmining were taken in 1980, and this would have been shortly after I met him. The shot of Clifford in the hat at the top and the sleeping photos were taken in 1984.
|©Bill Gann Copyright.|