Rock On Morongo! An Interview With Morongo Valley's Only Active Mineral Claim Owner
We recently sat down with Ken Gentry, our local prospector and the artist and collector of the gems, minerals, and other neat stuff you can find in Cactus Mart's boutique, to find out more about him, his interests in the mineral world, and his advice for those who wander and appreciate the high desert area like he does.
What got you into mining?
Ken: I've always been interested in the outdoors. 100%. I went to Canada when I was a real small kid with my parents and my whole deal there was figuring out what forest I was going to live in, how I was going to live off the grid. I was as tall as that doorknob [points to door to office where doorknob is 32.5 inches from ground]. So from a very early age I've always wanted to go outside, live outside, do everything outside. But I had a girlfriend who lost one of the rings I gave her while she was doing a photo shoot down in Desert Hot Springs off Indian Canyon. So I, uh—this is a long time too—I just Googled how—it's a gold ring—I Googled how find a gold ring in the desert and [the search results] didn't include "ring". Instead, it searched "how to find gold" in the desert. And yeah, that just kind of lead to that. I went out to look for the ring. I never found the ring, but I found plenty more.
How many claims do you have on mines?
Ken: I have 2 active claims right now. One in Morongo and one in Johnson Valley.
For people who don't know, what is a claim?
Ken: A claim is a federally granted right to lease the land for the minerals—if you're talking about a mineral claim—on the land. I personally have the mineral, timber, and water rights to my claim. A lot of people when they buy a house... I should say when they bought a house back in the day, they would buy mineral rights too so technically they would have a mineral claim. Basically what it does is says you're paying for the rights to... you're claiming it. The thing is, back in the 90s they kind of stopped telling people that they wouldn't—it used to be something that was included in the sale of the house whether it was going to be disclosed in the sale. In the 90s they kind of stopped including that on the sale of the house so it went over everybody's head and a lot of people don't own the mineral rights. I know very few people here in Southern California who own the land that their house is on even though they... own the land that their house is on.
What do you recommend to someone who wants to start mining?
Ken: First Class Miners. Yeah. First Class Miners all the way. They are an organization up here. They are the first class—or the first organization, sorry—that was developed from the Geology class at the Copper Mountain College. It's the first class not because as in "the best," it's because the members are from the very first class. All the old-timers out here they have been her 100 times as long as I have. They know everything. They have active claims even in the monument. We're surrounded by monuments now. They kept claims on everything.
Forty bucks a year. They have monthly meetings. The BBQ you get at the monthly meetings is worth the $40 the very first time you go. They have annual and biannual outings to clubs where if you don't have the 4-wheel drive to get there, they'll take you. Especially if you're younger. They are really focused in trying to get the youth involved. Best resource I can imagine for any first miner.
How do people reach them or how do people become a member?
Ken: Website is the best way. firstclassminers.org
Which of your 2 claims the largest?
Ken: They're both 20 acres, 20 square acres. I really need to get on it and claim the rest of the land here [Morongo Valley]. I am the only active mineral claim here in Morongo Valley.
How often do you visit your claims?
Ken: At least once a week. If it's raining I try to visit them more. Over the past couple of years what I've been doing is literally trying to monitor to see how things change. My goal there is to take iron mainly out of the ground—but to find treasures one way or another—so knowing exactly what water does to it is a great way of discovering where things are. And especially too if there is a big storm coming and I know this one particular bench is going to wash away and I want some of it. I have to get it. I try to monitor it a lot and these days. I'm not afraid of people messing around there so much. Nobody really has too much except neighborhood kids. But what I'm really worried about is if you walk in an area I'm trying to monitor. I'm not a tracker—I'm not looking for footsteps—I'm looking for big things. I'm out there at least once a week, if not more.
Do you ever give people tours?
Ken: Yeah! I try to. Nobody ever wants to go. I would love to show my parents but they are both old so they don't want to, like, go outside. I tell people I'm the only active mineral claim and even at the First Class Miners they are excited, but nobody has ever really been motivated to go. I've toured it plenty of times with other people but it doesn't seem to be as popular as I thought it would be.
The house that started the fire—it's not the Sawtooth Fire—but I want it say it was in 2002... somewhere around there... the one that burned the greater portion of this [Morongo Valley area] and over to Covington... burned up this whole place good. It started right next door. That house was on the corner marker of my claim so my claim was the very first part to burn down to the ground. So there's a couple of Joshua trees left and there's a couple of—oh gosh, there's literally just a couple of Cottonwoods. And so it's really interesting because unlike everything else out here, it's scorched earth. There's more ash than there is living stuff but if you go to the freeway [Hwy 62] where the wash goes underneath, my claim is where the mouth starts. That's where everything focuses on my claim and then goes crazy. Well, if you're in the wash that's on my claim and you're walking down it, since all the trees are burned out but not burned away it's straight out of Nightmare Before Christmas or something. It's these huge, tall trees on both sides that used to be a canopy all the way over but now they're just these long skeletons burned up and filled with beehives. I love it.
What kind of prospecting equipment do you use?
Ken: Very little. A couple of buckets and I will take a shovel but more often I will use these puppies [holds up hands]. I don't work in very hard ground whatsoever. It's mainly just the wash and whatever gets washed there. So I really do use these [looks back to hands] more than anything else.
I have one bucket I have in an Army bag so I can sling it over my shoulder because they end up weighing like 100 pounds by the time I've filled them up.
A retriever magnet. I work a lot with iron and that's one of the main things I'm looking for. If I'm looking for gold, I'll go for a lot more but more often all I'm looking for is iron and with that I'll need a retriever magnet.
And if I've got a poor soul who's willing to help me for the day and with them I bring a scraper so they can scrape it off the magnet, and a classifier so they can classify it. I use my hands for all that, but...
A shovel, bucket, hands. And water.
What is the most interesting thing you found mining?
Ken: That's a fun question. I couldn't just name one thing. I mean the first thing that came to mind wasn't necessarily mining. When you say mining—I'm just generally rock collecting, prospecting. I don't technically do mining because that's hard rock. I do placer [mining] — whatever's on the top.
Cactus Mart: Is that called prospecting? Or what's the term for it?
Ken: Prospecting would be a better term for it. You could say mining and get away with it but most people will think you're going down. I mean I dig holes and whatnot but I don't dig through hard rock.
Cactus Mart: Ok. Like you don't use dynamite and blast away...
Ken: Exactly. That's [a different type of mining] when you're taking out boulders. I take out shovels worth of dirt... To be honest it's not a "one" thing. Places are at the top of the list, but the very first thing that came to mind was a postcard that I found one time. I wasn't going to be able to prospect for the whole day. It was right on the top of that hill right before you get to Yucca Valley [from Morongo Valley]. I found a postcard from 1979 from a kid who lived in Indio and was sending this postcard to his parents. It was written in pencil. The picture was gone and I was totally able to read it, but the stamp it said the date and everything. It wasn't what I was looking for, but I have it framed in my bedroom right now.
Cactus Mart: What was some of the message?
Ken: It's hard to decipher it because his penmanship was lacking but it was something like: Hi Mom and Dad. Nice to be home (or here). Or something like that. I don't remember exactly what it said but it was legible in the sense that I was able read what it said. Somebody else wrote the address. It's right over there in Indio, but how it got from Indio to—it was at the very top of that mountain. I was leaving because it was starting to rain. It was going to rain hard, but it was starting to rain. It's '79. It's 5 years older than me, man, and that it was hanging out in the desert is pretty weird. I mean, I could go on for days.
And then a Ford with a stove on it.
Cactus Mart: A stove?
Ken: Yeah, a cast iron stove. Like that's why the Ford broke down because they were driving with it. But why would you leave it, or how?
What are some common minerals found in the Morongo Basin?
Ken: The San Andreas Faultline—that's what we're a direct result of—with that being the case you can find just about anything under the sun out here. We have plenty of igneous for sure, plenty of sedimentary because of floodplains at the higher levels and at the lower levels—we have floodplains all over the place out here. We have igneous—which is to say we have volcanoes right over there and we have volcanoes that didn't actually explode down there... absolutely anything you can think of. I tell people that at one time those Pinto Mountains... they wanted to lock up the entire Pinto Mountain range just for the industrial diamonds there. The Pinto Mountains or the Morongo whichever you want to call them—for diamonds.
Cactus Mart: So we have diamonds somewhere?
Ken: Yeah! Industrial grade. It's what you would use for blades and stuff like that, but you're not going to make rings out of it. But as far as gems.
Cactus Mart: Like for durability and hardness type of thing?
Ken: Yeah, yeah. We might not have the best quality of everything out here again especially because we are the direct result of that faultline and we're right next to it so it's like getting stuff right out of the oven. And with this oven being as hot as the center of the earth, we don't have the best quality but we have the diversity for sure.
What is your favorite mineral?
Ken: Magnetite. It's my bread and butter. I've searched for everything out here. We have so much iron that no matter what you're looking for, you're bound to come across magnetite. Hematite... magnetite... we have just about every iron ore source out here but magnetite is what I use for my magnetic zen gardens. It's what I've used for just a ridiculous number of art projects. It's magnetic sand.
Cactus Mart: Hmmm... I think I've sifted some sand and gotten some. Is it like black material after sifting?
Ken: It's black. Drop any metal on the ground that has any kind of static charge whatsoever, out here you're bound to find some—even scissors at the very tip—you're to find some. Have you ever seen ferromagnetic fluid?
Cactus Mart: Yes.
Ken: The liquid magnets? That's magnetite ground up as thin as you can possibly get it just mixed with oil. That's all it is.
What are some things people should look for if they are out exploring?
Ken: Geological diversity is something I always pride this area in so you could literally just sum it up with geological diversity. Look in any direction here and you actually see far enough to see mountain ranges in every direction. And every single one of them is different. The San Bernardino Mountains are transverse compared to every other one we can see like San Jacinto and whatnot. They like go towards the ocean—east to west—as opposed to north to south like everything else around the San Andreas faultline. The transverse ranges are something to appreciate for sure because so many animals live on there and cannot really live anywhere else in Southern California. There are areas that get trapped ecosystems, like right here in Morongo Valley where every single thing that lives out here goes to Covington Park to get water because... that's where they get water out here. But as well you can see so much diversity, not even with the mountain ranges and geologically speaking, but the altitude here. In Palm Springs, take the tram up to the top of the mountain and see how different it can be just going a couple thousand feet up. And if you're out here, take the Pioneer Pass up to Big Bear and see how cool it is to see Joshua trees just as tall as pine trees. And some palm trees actually! There's palm trees everywhere out here.
Cactus Mart: Are those natural? Or did someone plant those?
Ken: Oh, no, no, no. Those aren't natural. They were probably dropped while people where walking through using it as a trail. That's still badass if you ask me!
What are some of the more unique geological features of our area?
Ken: Diversity. If you're going up to Pioneertown especially. That area was chosen for its diversity. The exposed granite right next to the floodplains right next to the buttes, the Flat Tops. You can't find those in one particular area. You go to Utah for one or you go to Arizona for the other. Just being able to see the diversity in one place is all you got to look for out here.
And meteorites. How about that. Meteorites. It's kind of a joke... you can find plenty out here, but we have 14% iron out here so to be able to distinguish between the two is almost impossible.
Which local mineral do you wish people knew more about?
Ken: Whoo! That's a tough one. I don't know if I could answer that. I mean, for personal reasons, for legit reasons... for... Personally I don't want people to know about the first one I thought of—magnetite— because that's mine. [Smiles and laughs]
Cactus Mart: Well you just talked about it earlier.
Ken: Oh, they won't look it up. Look at that calculator over there. Anything with a LCD screen. That's the ferromagnetic fluid we were talking about. They just send a charge through it against two screens and they can pre-program it to go to specific areas. So we've used magnetite in so many practical applications. It's what they.... Ok, to answer your question. Magnetite. There, magnetite. It's what makes our steel or any man-made metal magnetic. But it wasn't named magnetite because of its magnetic qualities. The person who found it was named Magma. So it's totally coincidental that it ends up being the only naturally magnetic material out there. There. Magnetite. Just go to my website: [laughs] magneticzengardens.com—the only website you can get legitimate magnetics in gardens.
You just published a new book. What is it about? Could you tell me a little about it?
Ken: It's about Pioneertown California. Pioneertown was established in '46, and over the past 70-something years a whole bunch of stories have either kind of gotten construed or misreported or lost in the times so I just wanted to take everything I could and sum it up into one source. It's 300 pages over everything you've ever wanted to know or needed to know about Pioneertown. 70-something years overdue.
Ken's new book, Pioneertown, USA. The Definitive History of Pioneertown, CA: Where the Old West Lives Again, can be purchased at Cactus Mart or through Ken’s website, highdesertvarnish.com.
April 30, 2018
Cactus Mart is a Cacti, Succulents, and Plant Emporium located in Morongo Valley, California.