The hills are filled with rust and gold.
It’s funny how one has a tendency to become the other, in a roundabout way.
Not so long ago passage across this Great Basin was a risk that claimed many. A landscape that is both enigma and canvas, intangible and predatory. Using stillness as barrier – anything that intrudes upon its terrain must be willing to endure time. Summers its heat can turn glass to liquid, winters can fall like a blanket, perfect and absolute.
To walk in this desert is to feel suspended within a held breath, a landscape mercurial – solid and definite until one tries to grasp it.
Distance bound us on every side, and beyond that distance the mountains towering to the clarity of the late-afternoon heavens. In silence. In layers. A sheer immensity that reflects vulnerability. The exposed layers in the stone hold time on display in jagged bands.
A story is as a landscape, made up of turbulent and often contrasting forces. It’s the visible lines, the apparent details, that get told, that are charted and recorded in the histories and biographies. But it is the unseen, the tides and currents beneath the surface, that govern the narrative.
History – memory rewritten and enforced. Though, as is unstated in all texts but always true, its validity is only as authoritative as one’s acceptance of it.
Dig beneath the layers and you will find the veins, the stories.
Nevada. The name encompasses risk and masquerade. Lawlessness and a human coexistence with the desert as fragile as the sullen feminine vibrato voice of an old blues record, crackling, ethereal, unable to leave the haunting fringes of a tragic serenity.
Frequently I wonder to what degree an environment is shaped by those who inhabit it, and to what degree the opposite is true.
Some people can’t be bound by conventional notions of work, of security, of love. What is it about the desert that draws the gamblers?
We situate ourselves beside the highway, somewhere between the violet skies and the silver veins, in the safe path carved out by other trespassers, autumn air crisp as disintegration, facing the vastness…
Nevada, tell us a story.
‘Y’all are welcome to a beer’ he said, motioning to the case of Budweiser sitting on the seat between he and us as he opened one himself and drank.
Speed limits in Nevada are 75 mph, meaning a driver on a crowded highway could hit about 85 and not worry about police. A driver on this desolate open stretch – such as a beer-swilling miner by way of Texas – could hit the upper 90’s without thinking about it.
‘What brought you to Nevada?’ we asked.
‘Racing’ he answered briskly. ‘My dad built engines for racecars. Traveled all over the country and ended up here. Live in Winnemucca. But you’re looking at the largest gold deposits in North America up in these hills. So I got into mining.’
Maps like memories can tell of the towns that this desert has consumed. If one were to compare the maps of this landscape over time, one-time towns would be absent from future editions. This landscape can swallow them up, make them disappear, leaving rusting machinery as the only landmarks of these settlements, steel and cement skeletons of the boomtown gone bust. Airstreams and mattress coils framing the sagebrush that grows from within its decomposing ribs. All along this highway are settlements spanning the phases of collapse, the ghosts of the map.
I wonder if time itself has a memory. That intuits when to bring the freezing nights and inclement storms. If the unseasonable weather is merely an experiment carried out by the heavens with the ease and curiosity with which one may add a new spice to a familiar meal.
People defend the theories of civilization the same way that at one time they would laughably dismiss challenges to the idea of the flat earth.
That the earth is flat is recorded in the texts. Another landmark rusting off the map. A notion collapsed except for the ink that remains, authoritative, when the only consistency throughout time has been that no rule has gone unbroken.
‘Open pit mines. I drive the machines. We got machines that’ll level the earth down to two inches. From there we load it into trucks and ship it off. Got no old lady or kids. Been here five years now. I’m going to get my check right now and it goes straight to the bank. I’m set to retire in three or four years.’
He couldn’t have been past his early forties.
‘What are you planning to do once you retire?’
‘Don’t know. Maybe get some land away from everyone. Maybe I’ll just work more. There’s one old guy that’s there, been there 57 years. Still working. He puts me to shame. I wish I had his talents.’
He had a crazy grizzled miner’s laugh. And he’d burst into quick laughter without provocation.
Solitude has a way of uncovering your weaknesses.
Maybe this is why this landscape carries with it an air of tragedy, a way of creating mythologies of vice where others have their heroes. Those who are canonized out here are the self-made individualists. The courtesan given the key to the city. Those who squatted the land abandoned by Mormons fleeing back to Utah Territory, turning an opportune river crossing into a metropolis. The criminal money that turned a railroad stopover into a billion dollar tourist destination.
The desert’s mythologies evoke highwaymen and lushes with the same celebration that other places praise physical strength or virtue.
Disaster-struck, it wears its scars of pit mines and nuclear test detonations. Though what is disaster but an event that shakes people from the direction they’ve become comfortable in.
The gold is there, in the veins beneath the surface. Therein lies the hope that brings the gamblers. Riches have been found and lost in these mountains.
Rust and gold.
There are those who have dug for gold and struck madness, those who hit rust, or those who hit nothing at all.
There are those who invested their time and money, striking a vein of rust, another cast-off layer in a desert full of valueless expanse. They gave up and moved on. They challenged time and were defeated. It wasn’t until later when the rest was examined that it was realized that what they had abandoned was the largest silver strike in history.
These mountains can hide veins of precious metals, or sometimes nothing save for the remains of steel spade and weathered bone. Towns that were built to withstand time lie like bodies fallen. Time has moved on. The maps have followed. Their stories have dispersed, or disappeared altogether. The phases of collapse.
Other towns remain standing, where glitter and neon dance for non-existent cars. They would have died too were it not for the tendency of cars to break down on the highway or that habit of hunger to beckon at regular intervals.
‘These are the biggest deposits in the country right now. Last year these hills produced 800,000 ounces of gold. Now 800,000 ounces at three to four hundred dollars an ounce, up to five hundred during the wartime, for some reason war increases the price of gold, and that’s just one of the companies. I work for a smaller company based out of Canada contracted out to these larger companies. It’s better than working for the big companies.’
I asked if there were any small mining operations or if it was primarily larger corporations.
‘A lot of it is for the government. It’s mostly big corporations, along the lines of the government, and practically as stupid. One company has a nineteen-year contract, and that’s just to process what’s already been turned up. The money’s here. You see those mountains? Just behind them are some open pits. They’re all over these hills.’
The desert is a landscape that keeps no secrets, but whose terrain itself is barrier. Carrying vastness and patience the way one makes visible their talons or incisors, this distance has been able to hold at bay the civilization that has asphyxiated so much of the rest of the country. Calm and violent, as the tides of the sea. Standing like a dare to those who wish to conquer land – the prospectors, the mapmakers, those who sought to turn the wild into a garden. This landscape has seen the creation of what were amongst the most modern and decadent cities in the nation, and also seen them fall into dusty stopovers.
A stranger’s truck barreling through the desert.
Layers like time. They each have a tendency for movement, re-formation. The land changes, shifts, collapses – as absolute as disaster. The maps follow, the surface layers of the past.
It’s a mistake to imply that the story has an ending, that any history is definitive. For it’s only the surface of memory, while the hidden tides of rust and gold, of stories and landscape, of disaster and tragedy deep as the desert remain unwritten.
It’s no secret that stone is more malleable than a photograph.
‘The government gets the gold. I don’t know what they do with it. You know those Wells Fargo armored cars? Out here they have big rigs like that. And they say for every one they send out full of gold, they send out three that are empty.’
What is it about the desert that draws the gamblers. For whom disaster is contained in their veins as surely as the gold lies beneath the surface. For if survival were enough you wouldn’t challenge death.
‘Have there been any successful robberies?’
‘Well the one I heard about, there was this man who worked in the melting area. And when they pour it, some splashes out and dries on the ground, and they’re supposed to scrape it up and melt it again. Well he was taking that and hiding it in his thermos. Just somewhere in there. So when he went through the metal detector, it was a metal thermos, no one looked at it. Seems he was able to do this for a while.’
He pulled over, an offramp marked by a lone road sign and the road immediately turned to gravel.
‘Ain’t no traffic out here but you got fifteen minutes down the road and a beer.’
Mountains bound us on every side. Desert and sage in shades of frontier and isolation, the sky a boundlessness you can taste and the air a scent of being forgotten, and being satisfied with that.
Crossing northern Nevada by way of small towns and strangers’ cars. Through highwayside waits and 2 am casino diners, we passed our time with stories and memories.
Gamblers have always occupied a fascination of mine. Those who wagered despite risk, despite precedent, despite convention. For the history that you find in the texts is often the self-congratulatory banter of the victor. I’ve always been drawn to the tragedy and desperation, the acts that fringe on – and oftentimes are fully indulgent in – lawlessness and utter abandon. A gut reaction to the rationalized constraints of civilization. My heroes have always been the ones who defied those who wield the authority. Those who set aflame the machinery, those who have taken knives to the slaveowners’ throats.
Rust and gold.
Here’s the rest of the story…
‘Seems he was able to sneak this gold out for a while. And no one would’ve known except for his wife and he got divorced and she went and told them. Now gold’s all regulated by the federal government, fell under federal jurisdiction.’
It’s funny how one has a tendency to become the other.
And then falls the night. Showing stars that were never gone, only hidden for a time. The hum of day is replaced by the lonely and debaucherous language of the insects. We awaken at night – on desert floors and theatre rooftops. The desert concealed by darkness and our world what lies in each others’ arms, and the night gives cover to those scavengers who move invisibly throughout the tides beneath the surface.