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Better Than a Gold Strike to Jennifer Roy Is the Lode of Freedom She Found in the Hills

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From the moment she rode a white horse into her seventh-grade classroom for show-and-tell, Jennifer Roy has relished doing the unexpected. For years Jennifer, 54, played Super-mom: She had 38 foster kids and three of her own, plus one adopted, and a husband who was a Los Angeles fireman. Then, in 1970, she was divorced. “I didn’t want it to be the end,” she says. “I wanted a life with challenge. I wanted everything different from what I’d had.” Six years later, to celebrate the Bicentennial, she walked from California to Texas with her burro, Walter. Today, a grandmother of seven, she lives in the rugged mountains near Lone Pine, Calif., with burros and dogs as her only companions. She has no electricity or hot water and packs a .45 for protection. Jennifer Roy is a miner of silver and gold.

If she isn’t yet minting millions in the current gold rush, her stake is worth protecting. Roy keeps a wary eye (and gun) out for claim-jumpers. One night five men drove up to her cabin. “Why do you have that gun?” one asked. “We’re friendly.” “Yeah,” said Roy, brandishing her weapon. “But I’m not.” Getting the message, the interlopers moved on.

Roy’s aptitude for prospecting was established early. At 5, she found a pair of eyeglasses in a trash bin and took them to her father, a well-to-do Pasadena jeweler, claiming there was gold in them. He laughed, but a test proved she was right. Years later, after her divorce, she lived in Long Beach with her adopted child, Jeff, and commuted to her stake on weekends. “What do you have up there anyway?” her neighbors asked. “A bunch of rocks,” she told them. In 1973 she moved to her Golden Lady Mine in the Inyo Mountains (Jeff now lives with her ex-husband), and has been mostly alone ever since. “A gold mine is developed and worked, it doesn’t just happen,” she says proudly. “To start, you carry a little rock-hound hammer with you, and your magnifying glass, and you just go out and crack open anything that looks interesting.” After that comes the dynamiting, which Roy does herself.

Ironically, for a woman who has chosen a harsh existence, Jennifer still enjoys primping. She wears lipstick even when grubbing around on her hands and knees in a mineshaft. And she has her bouffant hairdo tended to once a week at a Lone Pine beauty parlor. However, the only men she’s interested in nowadays are disabled veterans. She has long cared for the abandoned. At 5, she used to fetch home stray cats in her doll buggy; as a young mother, she rounded up unwanted children. She began visiting the veterans on her trek to Texas. “Our hospitals are so full of fellas with arms and legs blown off I couldn’t help but go by and let ’em know I appreciate ’em,” she says. “They feel the whole country’s forgotten ’em. But I haven’t.” In fact, Roy has set up a tax-exempt fund to build something called New Life Camp. She explains, “It will be a place for paraplegics and quadriplegics in the mountains, out in the wild, but have the facilities they need. The vets are the most important thing to me right now. I am going to rollerskate across the country next summer to raise funds for the camp, and all the money from my Golden Lady Mine goes to the project—all of it.”

Jennifer is deliberately vague about how much money that is—though rarely about anything else. “If you’re trying to find out what I’m like, I’m a warm person,” she says. “I love people. I have compassion.” But she snorts at the idea of remarrying: “All the men I’ve met want my undivided attention. They want me to give up the vets, give up mining. Men are so selfish. The last one was jealous of Walter. Can you believe that?” And she has no intention of ever going back to “all that pretentiousness” in the life she left behind. “My favorite thing now is watching the snow fall on Mount Whitney, from my tin bathtub, with a fire in my wood stove,” she says. “This country is what I was looking for.”