Fallout in the Family

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When peacetime came, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission mounted a publicity campaign to attract treasure-hunters to the Four Corners, hoping someone would find a rich stash of uranium. A wave of people armed with newfangled Geiger counters joined the hunt.

Charlie Steen liked that idea. He was a trained geologist; he ought to be able to find it before a bunch of amateurs could.

In 1950 the Steens scraped up enough money to buy a red Jeep and a trailer, and Charlie headed to Dove Creek, Colorado, near the Utah border, to start his search. He had just a drill and his knowledge of geology; he couldn't even afford a Geiger counter. Two months later, when the youngest boy was old enough to travel, M.L. and the whole brood joined him. The family had next to no money, and Charlie bagged wild game to put food on the table.

With winter approaching, Charlie was advised to get out before he was snowed in, so he hauled the family over to Utah, north of Moab to a place called Yellow Cat Wash, seventeen miles from a spot in the road called Cisco, where about thirty people lived. The Atomic Energy Commission had called the area "barren of possibilities," but Charlie didn't think so.

Although she was living in the wilderness, M.L. never seemed stranded, recalls Sue Brown, now a Denver health-care executive. When the Steens moved to Yellow Cat, Sue was a five-year-old girl living in Cisco; her mom was justice of the peace and her dad worked for the railroad. The families hit it off. "I remember their little red trailer," says Brown. "My mother and I would go visit, and I'd go rock hunting with the boys. They were very poor, obviously."

But M.L. was a valuable resource. "She was a well-educated woman who used correct grammar," says Brown. "And she inspired me to go to college. I spent a lot of time sitting with her, talking about art and literature."

When they talked to each other, M.L. and Charles, as M.L. always called him, mused about striking it rich.

"It was like dreaming," M.L. recalled for Westword more than forty years later, sitting with Charlie in their modest townhome in Longmont. "We had a dream, as Martin would say. And I believed anything that Charles said. I don't care what it was."

"She wasn't smart back in those days," Charlie cracked.
"Anything he told me, I believed," she said, "and he said, 'We will be rich.'"

At the time, M.L. was raising four boys on nothing in the middle of nowhere, hauling water, sewing Bull Durham tobacco bags into quilts, scraping together eight cents to buy tobacco for her and sweets for the boys. Still, she was ecstatic about life with Charlie. "He's really wonderful," she wrote to a friend, "and if we never have money, I'm rich with him."

The other miners thought Charlie was nuts. Charlie just knew there were underground reservoirs of uranium on downslopes, thousands of feet behind the rims where most prospectors focused. In April 1951, in a place called Big Indian Wash, he staked out a dozen rectangles, each of them 600 feet by 1,500 feet. He gave each claim a Spanish name as a tribute to his South American mining days; one was Mi Vida.

But when he returned to Yellow Cat Wash to tell M.L. the hopeful news, he found out that his mother had suffered a heart attack in Texas, so he took the three older boys and headed to Houston on a bus. He left M.L. behind with baby Mark--and a shotgun to guard the drill and their few belongings.

While Charlie was in Houston, M.L. struggled on. Sue Brown remembers hearing one harrowing tale that M.L., a masterful raconteur armed with a Texas twang, repeated often. "It was in Yellow Cat, and Mark was a baby and they were out of food," recalls Brown. "She was really on her own. So she started off in the little red Jeep and ran into a bad sandstorm. She got stuck."

M.L. bundled Mark up and walked through the storm until someone picked them up.

"When she told the story," Brown says, "she gave all the details--she needed cigarettes and the kid needed food. Always self-deprecating. But she was a very strong woman. That was one of the reasons Charlie loved her."

Love, however, wouldn't buy repairs on the Jeep, which had to be towed. This time the Steens were really out of money, and Charlie's mom, Rose, had medical bills. So the family hitched up the trailer and moved to Tucson, where Charlie had found work as a carpenter.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy