GSN

Faces of GSN

Mia (Cowgill) O’Neal (Published in April 2015 GSN Newsletter)

On a sunny afternoon in the summer of 1999, I sat by myself beside a small stream high in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Around me in the duff were laid my water bottle, a sleeping bag and sleeping pad, a tarp for shelter and a few bikkie crackers. I was 16 days into a 21 day Outward Bound course, halfway through the mandatory three day solo. As I listened to the muttering of the creek over my shoulder, I re-flected on the previous two weeks I had spent mountaineering with a group of eight strangers with whom I had quickly become closer than I could have previously imagined. Never before in my life had I had an experience so physically and emotionally demanding. The wilderness course turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life and it mo-tivated me to embark on outdoor adventures the next three summers in Colorado, Georgia and Washington.

I grew up in Mokelumne Hill, California, a gold rush town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, the same town where my mother had attended elementary school in a one room school house some thirty years before. When I was growing up we had a bigger school, but it still had fewer than a hundred students, the population of the en-tire town being only about 500 at this time. It was, coincidentally, enough to meet my future husband. I would have never thought then that that dorky, curly haired boy would end up being the person with whom I would one day wish to spend the rest of my life. After we spent a year together in Ms. Streamfellow’s fourth/ fifth grade combination class, how-ever, he moved on to another school and it would be eleven years before we would meet again.

When my two sisters and I were growing up, the family budget was always pretty tight so camping and backpacking were the natural choices for vacations. We camped on the northern California coast and Yosemite, but the most memorable vacation we took when I was little was a trip to La Paz, Mexico. The five of us loaded up into the ’79 Ford F150 pickup with a cab-over camper on the back and began our road trip. For the next month we explored the beaches and hiked in the mountains of southern Baja. The evenings were spent around the campfire on the beach singing Van Morrison’s “Moondance” as my dad played his old beat-up guitar.

It was my junior year in high school that I figured out I wanted to be a geologist. That year my high school offered a science course in which the first semester was astronomy and the second semester was geology. I took the class because I was interested in the astronomy portion, but ended up falling in love with geology and the Earth’s processes. At that point I had completed two Outward Bound courses, one in California and the other in Colorado and I couldn’t get enough of the outdoors. I was surprised by the realization that people actually practiced geology as a career and could be outdoors in the wilderness as part of their job.

When I was applying to colleges I had two criteria: it must have a geology department, and it must be far enough away from Mokelumne Hill that I would not be tempted to come home on the weekends. My grandfather suggested that I apply to Millsaps College, in Jackson, Mississippi. He had worked as a civil rights attorney in Jackson in 1964 and re-called having enjoyed interacting with the staff and students at Millsaps. With a tiny geology department made up of three professors, Millsaps met my two criteria so I applied and ended up attending the following fall. Getting my geology degree at Millsaps was a wonderful experience. The classes were small and I was able to get to know my professors outside of the classroom, even babysitting occasionally for Dr. Harris’ two daughters.

The summer after my sophomore year I accompanied one of my geol-ogy professors, Dr. Stan Galicki, to Mexico. Millsaps had an archaeological project in Yucatan, and we went down to do some soil sampling on the prop-erty. Access on the property was limited so we spent hours bumping around in a Jeep on roads that looked like they had not been used for years. Stan took me to a Mexican market, and to the Mayan Ruins at Chichen Itza and by the end of the trip I wasn’t ready to leave Mexico. The culture was so interesting that I decided I had to return. Upon returning to the states, I signed up for a semester abroad.

Ciudad de Guanajuato in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico is where I ended up spending the first semester of my senior year. Unfortunately my Spanish language skills were not good enough to attend any geology courses at the Uni-versidad de Guanajuato, but I did manage to tour many of the old Silver mines upon whose wealth the city was built. I spent my days learning Spanish at the university’s language school and the evenings were all about Salsa dancing!

During my final semester at Millsaps I lived with one of my music professors, Dr. Nash Noble, and her many dogs. Nash is a generous woman who takes in dogs and students. While I lived with Nash, one other student was stay-ing with her. The dog population in the house, however, was a different story. Canine occupancy generally fluctuated between 7 and 10, reaching a peak of 12 when a pregnant dog she took in had a litter of puppies. Each morning around 5 am, I would get a wakeup call from a bunch of howling dogs, ready to take their daily trip to the cemetery. A few times I accompanied Nash on these early morning jaunts. When we arrived at our destination, it was fun to watch all of the dogs piling out of her car like a bunch of clowns. The dogs ranged in size and number of legs. No matter what condi-tions the dogs may have had (deaf, blind, three-legged, sores that wouldn’t heal) it didn’t matter when they got to run in the tall grass of the cemetery.

After graduation I had no idea what I wanted to do with my geology degree. Unlike many geologists I have met during my career so far, my BS was not in economic geology and at this time I knew practically nothing about the industry of mineral exploration and mining. After hanging around my par-ents’ house for a few weeks I was desperate to find a job. I applied to be a tour guide at Sutter Gold Mine, a small underground mine about 25 minutes away from my home in Mokelumne Hill. By pure luck, the tour manager, seeing that I had a degree in geology, passed my application to Mark Payne, a geologist who was running a two rig core program in the mine. It was such a relief when Mark called and offered me a job at Sutter. I started out cutting core and even-tually worked my way up to logging. The spring after I was hired, Mark took a few of the young folks out to do a little prospecting and showed us how to map an adit. I could not believe they were paying me to be outside exploring.

Sutter is also where I became reacquainted with the man who is now my husband. I was sitting at the lunch ta-ble on one of my first days on the job when two guys who looked to be about my age walked in. One of them looked vaguely familiar. He had curly brown hair, a round face… It was Danny from the fourth grade! He had changed a lot since then. He was no longer the dorky kid that I remembered, but had changed to a kind, if not slightly awkward, adult. After a few months of working together Danny and I started going on adventures together after work. He showed me around the back roads of Amador County. We explored old head frames and hydraulic workings, almost always accom-panied by a couple of Coors Light tall boys.

After a year and a half at Sutter, the drill program was wrapping up and work was getting slow. Luckily Sutter had just entered into a joint venture on the Santa Teresa project in Baja California with Premier Gold Mines. Having spent time in Mexico and Central America, I was a natural candidate to help set up the new project. We found an old Tortillaría to serve as the core shed and logging facility. The little town of Ojos Negros was in an agricultural area that grew mostly onions. At harvest time the town would fill with transient farm workers and new folks in town would stop by the core shed many times each day wanting to buy some fresh tortillas. They would often appear slightly confused as they peered in through the barred window to see only cinder block core logging tables and stacks of core boxes.

While the Santa Teresa project finished up their drilling program I started working at Premier’s Hardrock project in Northern Ontario. Hardrock was a much faster paced project than I was accustomed to but after a while our team became a well-oiled machine, peaking at 11 drill rigs. Occasionally I would log over a kilometer of core in a single day. Despite the busy schedule we still found time to adopt myriad animals in the time I worked in Geraldton. There was the litter of bunnies that grew from tiny puff balls to full sized rabbits, the duck who would wander in from Lake Kenogamisis, and an assort-ment of cats and dogs. One of the cats, we called him Fat Billy, was a lazy tomcat that hung around intermittently. Upon his return after a six week disappearance (he was probably lost in the bush) we had to re-name him Skinny William due to the drastic change in his stature.

After three and a half years working in Northern Ontario, I was ready to be a little closer to home. My commute from California to Geraldton, Ontario usually took around 24 hours so the 7.5 hour drive to Premier’s Elko office was much easier. At this time, we were working on the Saddle Project, south of Carlin. The Premier office later moved to Battle Mountain upon the company’s acquisition of interest in the Cove Mine. After I’d been commuting back and forth between Nevada and California for two years, Danny and I de-cided that it was time to make the move. Danny got a job with IDS and a few months later we bought a house in Spring Creek. As I approach the end of the first year living in North-ern Nevada I have begun to settle in to our new home. Though there are not as many trees out here as can be found back home in California, I have really come to appreciate the naked beauty offered by Nevada’s landscape.