Oh hunger that crosses the bridge between
—Susan Howe, “The Birth-mark”
Over the land over the land
I walked at morn
Singing and trembling with cold
—Southern Paiute, “A Morning Walk”
“Prepare for misery,” my client had said of the spring weather before sending me to Elko, Nev., to research community life. She neglected to tell me that the people were among the friendliest I would ever find. Small-town familiarity knits Elko’s residents in communal warmth. Hospitality exceeds town boundaries; it spills out to entice visitors and new residents to this unlikely hearth. A booming economy stokes the hospitality Elko boils with lucrative work due to a recent low-grade gold-mining boom in nearby Carlin and an indigenous tourist industry grown from legalized gambling. The Red Lion Casino on the north side of town flies in three full 747s of eager gamblers to Elko’s tiny airport daily.
An unexpected oasis in a state of desert and high plains wilderness, Elko is a late-blooming promised land. It draws emigrants from California’s urban sprawl and Colorado’s uncertain economy. “Everybody and their dog are tired of taxes and expenses,” declares Laura Mandros, a chamber-of-commerce official. “We can’t build hospitals and schools fast enough. When Newmont Mining boomed in the ‘80s, we had trailer parks and tons of new babies. They must have put them in drawers.”
A superficially sleepy community in which parents raise their children in relative safety, Elko’s history bespeaks fast-paced economic growth that allows those in mining, grazing and gambling to change their futures from broke to hopeful almost overnight. Still, Elko defends its aura of extended family. “Most of us are homebodies,” explains Laura. “Parents get involved in everything in this community. Everybody knows everybody.” Except for the high-tech mining boom nearby, Elko remains warped into the ‘50s. Coffee here is never cappuccino; it’s the regular java served with small-town warmth.
The Humboldt River parallels the town’s boundary; two bridges straddle the current. Although Nevada records the lowest precipitation level in the United States, with an average of 6 inches per year, statistics seem irrelevant today at these particular bridges. Standing on the southern bridge looking north, I feel the insistent slivers of chill, wet wind penetrate eyes, skin, even clothing, like one-penny nails. Lamoille Canyon, just east of Elko, records the state high of up to l8 inches of precipitation annually, and today that drip shifts slantwise across this bridge.
It is early morning in late March of 1995. In dazed amazement at being here, I stare at the slate current churning underfoot. Although I am both a writer and a landscape architect with strong environmentalist leanings, I have accepted an assignment from a mining company to do nothing more than interview area residents. The contract pays unbelievably well. I am recently divorced, with sole custody of two daughters under 7 years of age and an astonishingly meager bank account. One foot in poverty, the other in my values, I straddle an uncertain economic future for my family. I consider this as thoughts of coffee draw my eyes to the Humboldt’s northwestern shore, where the town’s brick buildings huddle around Idaho Street, the historic main thoroughfare. Short and squat, with many of them built far before the turn of the century, the structures look like snowsuited children waiting to be called inside for hot chocolate when sent out to play in bitter weather. With a population of approximately 30,000, including its outlying suburbs, Elko hasn’t many buildings.
Craving hot coffee, I linger on the bridge, inhaling this lucrative and contested terrain. The Ruby Mountains parallel the eastern shore. In the mist, they bunch into humped pachyderms. Once the sun clears, they metamorphose—exclamatory sculptures against pollution-free azure. Except near Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada’s skies evade contamination. Beyond the Rubies stretch still more parallel mountain ridges. To the west, even more mountain chains—“an army of caterpillars” according to geologist C.E. Dutton—interspersed with valleys and high plateaus striate the state from border to border. More than 160 mountain ranges define some 90 drainage basins, which add up to the Great Basin.
Originally a self-contained land of interior river drainage, what is now Nevada first lured migrating Indian tribes and then a population of tough, independent Caucasians, all of whom nonetheless respected the physical terrain. The territory’s first residents of European descent —miners, traders and farmers—followed the early explorations of John Fremont, Peter S. Ogden and Joseph Walker looking for land and a future that belonged solely to them. They formed an independent territorial government in the 1850s before the discovery of the Comstock lode in 1859. However, geology defined the people even as they attempted to define themselves. Ancient and unsettled soils and substrate with a history of uplift, faulting, flooding and drainage nurtured above-ground inhabitants. The restless rocks endowed early settlers with the country’s richest mineral deposits: gold, silver, copper, manganese, tungsten and mercury. Once gold surfaced and shone from the Comstock area, the secret spilled over territorial lines. Any hope of quiet self-sufficiency splattered clear to Washington, D.C. Dropped into the national political sieve, Nevada blossomed from a territory in 1861 to a state in 1864, sought after for the taxes on its minerals, rights to its land, its anti-slavery status during the Civil War and its support of the Republican Party.
Although the ruling national political parties seesawed during the following decades, the struggle between the state and the federal governments over Nevada land escalated with entrenched heel-digging on both sides. Environmentalists upped the stakes with a romantic insistence on returning the land to a “natural” state, rescued from mining and grazing. Even Nevada rivers, which once siphoned into the state’s interior basins, have since been partially dammed and drained to California.
Elko’s residents work with the earth, relying on grazing and mining. As resident custodians and cultivators of the resources that benefit the federal government and neighboring states, as well as their own families, they resent the interference. The people embody the state’s independent stance. According to Laura, my chamber-of-commerce informant, “The local attitude is, ‘Leave us alone. Let us do our thing.’”
From the bridge, I notice the railroad tracks that parallel the Humboldt on the town’s side of the river, recently moved there from the center of town. Transportation molded the town after 1859, when the Canadian Pacific Railway’s system spidered nationwide, weaving a web of gold mines and cattle ranches. Now, Interstate 80 and the Elko Airport have preempted the tracks. Although destined to become a major copper-mining site around 1900, Elko’s prominence on the transportation system in 1868 transformed it into a party town for herders. Over the weekend, cattle and sheep men would drink in the town’s saloons and brawl over women in the adjacent brothels. Come Monday, they returned to fighting over grazing rights in the nearby valleys.
Gold and silver strikes in nearby Tuscarora in 1867 and extensive grazing acreage nurtured the nascent town and its unusual genetic mix. Chinese railroad workers moved to Elko when the completion of the Canadian Pacific system left laborers out of jobs. The Chinese immigrants planted the town’s first gardens and established its water-supply system. In addition, the Canadian Pacific management cultivated a friendly relationship between Elko and another colorful contingent— the western Shoshone, Northern Paiute and Owyhee Indians—whose ancestors had arrived there 12,000 years before the white settlers. The railroad company gave each Indian chief free passenger status and allowed tribal members to ride without charge in the freight cars. Finally, in the late 1880s, Basques from the Pyrenees fleeing the fascism of General Franco immigrated to Elko. Joining the other sheepherders, they became major players in town development.
Adolescent Elko flourished, becoming the county seat and home to 2,000 individuals by March of 1869. Within five years, its residents built the brick county courthouse that remains today. More noticeably, the town residents concocted their complex and spicy character. Elko mixed traditional mining and grazing interests with an odd scramble of entertainment acts and family living. Booking big-name casino acts began here. Celebrities included Lawrence Welk, Sophie Tucker, the Dorsey Brothers, the Andrews Sisters, Chico Marx, and Bing Crosby, who was named honorary mayor. These days, the town hosts more legalized brothels than any city in the United States.
In many residents’ view, these industries contribute economically to town life—good neighbors in a family community. The mining taxes and donations support schools, highways, police and youth activities. Newmont Mining subsidizes education in advanced technology, keeping the youth in town after high-school graduation and the average family income of $38,000 (1995) higher than anywhere else in the state. Appreciative of the land that feeds them, the cattle grazers initiate statewide conservation practices and legislation protecting the industry and, thus, town residents. Basque family money underlies much of the town’s retail and restaurant base. Gambling income cancels the need for state taxes. Even prostitutes donate generously to community causes. If residents agree on nothing else, they insist that recent government and environmentalist interference is unwelcome and destructive to family life because it restricts income and eliminates jobs through stifling legislation.
Pausing on the bridge, I recognize the issues that straddle the people and their land. As a landscape architect, I think first of the needs of the land. A passionate walker, I welcome the first sunrise hours of every morning as I walk the land outside town. However, in the course of four days of interviews with miners, grazers and town residents, I keep seeing the people and their struggle to raise families and build futures. Theirs is the same struggle of any person trying to earn a living. In Elko, for my client’s purposes, I am a writer and must make sense of these competing needs. The land, the people. The town, the federal government. The sides seem clear, but my perspective is not. I wonder, need this be polemical, or is there hope for some dialectical evolution beyond stalemate? Sooner or later, I have to leave the bridge and begin interviewing again. Despite the cold, I cuddle against the bridge’s metallic railings. An odd aerie, this, an exposed perch that posits me precariously close to nature and people.
Only by “taking sides” from a removed vantage point off the bridge might I perceive the whole of stream and bridge. The “big picture,” though, is an illusion. Perspective is a chosen view. Designers select perspective drawings, with their distorted scales stretched to reflect the architect’s vision, as the persuasive graphic tool for convincing a client to buy into a plan. In perspective drawings, we vividly see what we are meant to see.
Life resonates with complex sensuality. We hunger, taste, hear voices of friends and songs of birds. We feel hot and cold, love and hate. Land layers below us in rock, above us in leaves, around us in wildlife, friends and family. No single perspective can encapsulate our lives anywhere, including in Elko.
On the bridge, I detach from all sides, suspended in judgment. I fish down from the arch and catch myself and the universe reflected back. This is the designer’s cross section, in which an unbiased scale applies equally to people and nature. Water, stream, arch, memory and anticipation infuse me. All moments collapse into one, as horizontal path and hourly progressions snap. My spirit dissolves with spirits of place and people behind me and beyond. All melts into the bridge. As technicians, we bring the bridge to nature. Gazing into the reflective waters beneath, the bridge inescapably brings us back to ourselves and links us to “other”—organic, inorganic and political.
“The bridge does not happen without the stream beneath it,” observes Jeffrey Robinson. He reflects on common images in English Romantic poetry that juxtaposed nature imagery with the industrial changes occurring simultaneously: “A bridge seems an animated path, we feel life and movement in the bridge itself….Suddenly the bridge is flooded with questions about human beings, questions that seem to erupt from no recognizable point in the bridge’s history.” In Elko, the landscape has changed, but the issues persist. The people need to work, the land needs to thrive, and the government seems to need to control this dynamic. The people—local, federal, environmental— and their overarching conflicts are nothing without the land. Bridge as metaphor, uniting disparate individuals in an overriding purpose. Bridge as metonymy, allowing separate interests to form connected but discrete identities. Which is it? Is this only a turf battle, or is some larger issue at stake? Do I have to choose one perspective, one side of the construct? It is time to leave the bridge and see the people. The bridge is not part of the assigned journey, but it floods my thoughts. With no answers, at least I do know where to find coffee, and I thoughtfully leave the arch’s refuge.
People and Mining
The highway leading to Carlin humps over high plateaus and past the pillars of the Adobe Range. Victim pillars lean abruptly. The predator wind tears down from mountain ridges and sculpts whatever lies in its path. It gulps the land, rocks my car, howls victoriously and rushes on. Dutton’s “caterpillars” guard arid spaces and protean plateaus, all shifting with the vehicle’s rapid progression. Stunned by the unusual beauty, I can barely keep my eyes on the road. However, I must. Heavy trucks hauling ore and mining products have reshaped the pavement as dramatically as the wind remodels the landscape. I stop four times between Elko and Carlin, thinking that my rented vehicle has four flat tires.
Ten miles outside Carlin, the monolithic mine structures erupt. The mustang road bucks more abruptly; the landscape melts to moonscape. Nature and man conspired here to create feelings of awe and trepidation of the pure power of the mining operation and the inconceivable wealth lying beneath the surface.
Generally, visitors cannot enter Newmont Mine. However, my client has arranged for me to spend the day touring the facility. Many of Elko’s and Carlin’s residents have worked at the mine since the company bought the TS Ranch, which included the old Carlin Mine, in the 1960s. Newmont milked the Carlin trend and developed state-of-the-art technology for leaching low-grade ore. Booms resounded in the mid-’80s with the improvement of the technology and the opening of plants two and five. Now, hyperscaled structures defy measure—roasters, mills, even mammoth garages housing two-story trucks larger than my house. Quarries within the mine move hundreds of thousands of tons of dirt each day. Everything surrounding me is on a scale so incomprehensible that I find it far easier to focus on the human faces explaining all of this to me.
Bob Harris, the mobile maintenance supervisor, looms over me like the mining structures, a smiling giant with broad shoulders and weather-beaten face. Twenty-seven years ago, he started as a quarry worker. Mining, he says, pays better than any other area job and offers far more opportunities for education. Much has metamorphosed since he first came to Newmont. Ranks of colleagues multiplied from 175 to 2,050. Technical changes shot Newmont from a mine that merely blasted or panned to one that could process tons of waste ore in hours. In the early 1970s, the company developed the heap leaching process. Before this, waste material was siphoned into the rotating cylinders of ball mills. Rock and a water solution were added and ground to a slurry. The mixture was pumped into leach tanks, followed by carbon. Now, plastic shrink-wraps slopes of material once believed to be “waste.” Mountains of crushed rock are piled on top and sprinkled with a cyanide solution, leaching the gold onto the plastic. The sprinklers remind me of irrigation systems for growing perennials. Here, they cultivate gold. Four times cheaper than milling, the process allows Newmont to treat refractory ores containing sulfites or organic carbons, “turning gold into rock,” grins Bob, by collecting the gold onto hardened carbon clusters.
“A war is being waged here because of the federal land issue,” Bob says, echoing Laura. “Nevada is contesting the government. Only one-tenth of 1 percent of the ground surface in the state is disturbed by mining. Nevada was brought into the Union for mining in the 1860s. Now the government is reversing its position.” He refers to what he sees as prohibitive taxes on mining products and equipment, which undermine the industry’s ability to fund community schools, educational activities and youth programs. While acknowledging the necessity of environmental legislation designed to control the spilling of the chemicals used for leaching and blasting into underground water, he appears skeptical of the laws’ severity. Silently, I accept his dismay. I do not tell him that as a landscape architect, I have had to help reclamation projects and address resource pollution. Bob’s and others’ stories of improved family lives with the advent of Newmont continue to dilute my rabid ‘70s environmentalism, although my love and respect for the land remain intact. I am continually reminded that people here work intimately with the land, while many environmentalists I know spend most of their time on computers and in meetings.
Kent Ames, who oversees truck and vehicle operations, takes me in hand for a tour of the south area of the quarry Truck here does not resemble anything I conceive of as truck. These two-story, mechanical monsters have big feet. In order to drive, the operators climb 18 feet on external ladders, past 12-foot wheels. Their vehicles haul 190 tons of fill in each load, burn 25 gallons of diesel fuel an hour, and can drive only 36 miles per hour. Made by Caterpillar, these 54-foot-long behemoths weigh 428,000 pounds. I think of my economy Eagle Summit hatchback in Colorado and wonder what it would look like under one of those tires.
To the tune of Kent’s laughter, I scale a “truck” to ride with Thelma, the operator. Part Paiute, part Basque, this tiny grandmother less than 5 feet tall pilots the world’s largest truck. Recognizing more money in the mines than she earned as a nurse, she had learned to drive 12 years prior. “The attitude toward women really changed since I started here. Back then, men treated you like dirt, expected you to lie down so they could walk over you like some carpet. Then they saw that women were operating the equipment just as good as them, so now we’re equals, just friends.” She waves to passing drivers as we talk and observes wryly, “’Course, men are men and women are women, and there’s always going to be different ways of communicating. But it’s better than it used to be.”
Thelma’s move to mining came at great cost. Her tribe disowned her, and she aches with the loss of her heritage. Still, she sees her kin as people with “lots of drinking problems who would rather live on government money because they don’t know no better. I’m showing my kids a different way. They’re all working and going to college.”
Comparing child-rearing notes, we watch another monster dump its load. I peer over the sheer drop that parallels the road. “We have to drive on the left for better visibility,” grins nonchalant Thelma as I gasp. The minicomputer screen over Thelma’s head directs her to her own unloading site. As I leave the truck, what I saw as my challenging single-parenting in Boulder diminishes into the prosaic.
Anchored to the earth, huddling in my jacket against the raging wind, I return to Kent. The quarry edge on which we stand rims a layered hole hundreds of feet deep—driving down to Hades. We watch a blast. Again, my vocabulary quarry-warps. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, blast here connotes multicolored columns of dirt, earth rainbows, shooting hundreds of feed skyward. “It’s quite an art,” Kent tells me. “College-trained technicians set different patterns for different breakage of the rock. It’s done by remote control. The blaster and the powder man lay the pattern and turn a key that activates the battery. There is a five-and-a-half-minute lag time, then five numbers are keyed into the remote control, another lag time, then a sixth number, and the blast goes off. Only one person knows the sequence of numbers, which changes each day.” Newmont not only metamorphoses dirt into aerial mountains but also turns the entire event into a company picnic. Families pick a vantage point and watch the earth blow up.
Leaving the bitter blasts of wind, I gratefully re-enter office space to meet with Mary Korpi, Newmont’s articulate spokesperson for the Women’s Mining Coalition. With a degree in chemical engineering, Mary joined Newmont 19 years ago and moved to the Carlin mine in 1987. She hungers for challenge. “There’s more high tech here, more training and developing people. When I first came here, you got 10 warm bodies. Now we have experienced, committed workers.” Echoing Kent, Mary resents the attitude that “people in mining are hired from the neck down.” Although the coalition began as “a very idealistic movement,” Mary describes it as “a highly organized working effort with a coalition of women from many mining companies. We educate freshmen senators that we’re not a pick-and-shovel industry. The emphasis is on education. Miners are environmentally oriented people who fish and hunt every weekend like everybody else and love the outdoors.” I quietly wonder how Thoreau, who regarded hunting and fishing as “every New England boy’s” province, would respond to an educated group of women discussing hunting and fishing.
Women bring a sixth sense to mining and an appeal to home. The coalition devised a dollhouse display showing items, such as baby powder, adjacent to the rocks from which they were derived. It’s all there—the linoleum on the floors, the Sheetrock in the walls, the computer chips, the microwave, makeup, cleansers—home sweet home, straight from the quarries. Science teachers receive rock samples related to household use for classroom purposes. “Where do they think they get this stuff?” Mary demands.
Women and community profit from mining. “When I started, there were very few women,” Mary explains. “Now they say there’s about 30 percent, but it’s very biased, as those numbers come from the clerical pool. There isn’t anybody in senior operational management. I hope it comes in my lifetime. Women are being hired as lawyers, though. Before, women had to work three jobs. Now, they’re getting paid; they pay taxes; they go to college. They have a very valuable trade. Mining is a vital, active part of the community. Newmont’s scholarship program for dependents of employees provides up to full room and board at colleges. Newmont makes a lot of donations to various sectors of money, equipment and trees. They sponsored the Handicapped Fishing Derby and the Big Orv playground. It’s not done for attention or for an article in the paper, but because people want to do it.”
“People” want to do it. “People” have more opportunities. The refrain returns with rhythmic insistence. “People” are living on this land, have been since the first Indian tribes crossed Nevada 12,000 years ago. Working “people here” are at odds with “people out there” in the legislature and in environmental movements. Rhetoric reverberates. I am dizzy with it all. The quarries inflict dismaying damage to the land. Yet these people stand before me; their needs reflect my own as a mother supporting daughters.
I recall “Sophie’s Choice,” but at least I have more time to choose. Leaving Newmont, I look for older voices. First I stop at the bridge and feel my head clear. The murky water gurgles. No reflection, mine or the universe’s. Only the bridge casts a shadow.
Next to the bridge, I find Marj-n-Al’s Mining Supply, owned by the Tussing couple. Al Tussing devoted 30 years to prospecting and spent 10 with mining companies. Eagerly he shows me a pan he used for harvesting gold and mercury from streams, tracing its dents and scratches. Picking up mineral samples and tools, he cradles each one in hands as rugged as the landscape surrounding Carlin. His voice hums, soft and enthused. He caresses each word. Relaxing, I lean into his lyric.
Prospecting requires mind and muscle, he says. “When I first started, I didn’t know a dang thing about it. The first trip out, I hired a backhoe and said, ‘Dig here, dig there.’ Found nothing. So I read a lot of books, took a lot of courses, and learned to identify rocks correctly. Up until a few years ago, you could do a mineral homestead. It was the same as claiming 160 acres of land in Oklahoma. There, you built a house, improved the land, and got the land for a ridiculously low fee. Here, you put stakes right on the land; you got the rights to a mineral, not the land. You had to work to prove that a reasonable man could get a profit. To keep a patent, you had to keep the assessment work up and develop the property. This allowed somebody like me to stake a claim.” Working first with a consortium of friends and then with his partner, Al sought uranium. “Prospectors were encouraged by the government to look for uranium. Now you have to pay $100 a claim to the Bureau of Land Management. The government wanted to raise money for itself and actually lost it by knocking all the small individuals out of prospecting. They raised royalties from 2 to 8 percent. A lot of Nevadans still consider Nevada to be public lands. The BLM thinks it owns it.”
Al left prospecting inadvertently. He sought the perfect mercury pan and only unearthed it by starting a store—with an unexpected price. “I meet a lot of people, get new play-toys, and have no time to prospect. I have to see what other people found,” he chuckles. He insists that I contact John Alla, a “real prospector and businessman” who “has made and lost millions” prospecting. He scratches John’s telephone number on a paper shred torn from a receipt; he is not the kind of business owner to keep letterhead memo paper. As I leave, he is smiling and fondling rocks.
Thursday morning, I wind through suburban streets lined with small homes and well-kept lawns. Tips of bulbs poke up from flower beds surrounded by gravel, though nothing blooms yet. Proserpine lurking among the rocks—why not? I park the car at John Alla’s address, a modest, ranch-style house. At the door, a big, bald man with a shotgun travels tandem with the largest boxer I have ever seen. Right house, wrong reception. Gulping, I whisper my name to the concrete porch and turn around. “Come in,” Big Man says to my back. His voice sounds gentle, like AI’s, so I risk it. The screen door is open, the shotgun relaxed, pointed groundward, the dog already halfway out the door and sniffing my hand. “Just wanted to make sure you weren’t from the government,” he says. “Want a cup of coffee?”
We sit in a tiny kitchen around the small table—John, Buster (who keeps licking my hand) and me—as 78-year-old John talks. He waxes grandfatherly, pats the dog, refills my coffee cup, tells jokes. I wonder what happened to the guy who answered the door. “I hate the government,” he explains, redundantly. “They’ve been trying to get my money, my claims, my equipment for years. I deceased myself in 1982. No more taxes. I have a good life, three grandchildren. Everybody should have as good a life as mine.”
Working first for Barrick Mining in Utah in 1939, John served in the war, then returned to the mines. “I’ve been 42 years underground,” he recalls. “It’s nice. It don’t rain. I liked the graveyard shift. There’s nobody breathing down your neck. You could come out in the morning, get drunk, go back to work. I started prospecting in ‘82. I’ve made three or four fortunes—lead, silver, then a lot on barite. Lost a lot, too. Never go prospecting until you can afford it.”
John seems a balanced guy. Hate for the federal government (“You sure you aren’t from the IRS?”) matches loathing for environmentalists. Both curtailed his own mining operations on more than one occasion. “Go to these environmentalists. Take their water, take their car, turn out the light. See how they like living without mining. Me and the BLM don’t get along. North of Wells, when we were mining barite in ‘79, five guys from the BLM were stuck out there in the snow, snapping pictures. I made them walk. They said, ‘Boy, am I glad to see you,’ and I said, ‘I’m not so sure you are.’ They said, ‘You aren’t going to push us out?’ and I said, ‘No way! Push your own snow.’ They said, ‘You got no heart.’ Hell, they had no heart when they shut me down! So I made them walk 10 miles back through the snow.”
Humor and money remain intact and untracked. Many thousands of John’s dollars lie in “Post Hole Savings and Loan.” Once a heavy drinker, John quit alcohol 30 years back and now enjoys meeting friends like Al Tussing for coffee. He escorts me to the door, without the shotgun. “Come back next time you’re in town,” he waves, dog by his side. “But only if you’re not with the government.”
People and Grazing
Like community bedrock, mining grounds and subsidizes Elko’s activities, college tuition, roads and playground equipment. Its organic counterpart is ranching, one of Elko’s traditional meal tickets, its first Thanksgiving. The indigenous muse sings each January at the national Cowboy Poetry Gathering held in Elko. Standing on the bridge in the early morning, I remember that I have not eaten meat for 20 years. Still, looking at my reflection in the moving water, I appear diffused, broken up, fractal prisms of once-entrenched thinking. I accept what I see and move into my day.
By the time I visit Norm Glaser, a cattle rancher and former state senator, the cold, wet weather has lifted from Elko and drifted elsewhere. I drive through rolling ranchlands that parallel the Ruby Mountains, heading northeast toward Halleck. It is a chamber-of-commerce day; the light bounces off the stunning Rubies and sparkles in the Humboldt River at their base, and I find myself again falling in love with the land. The wind has dissipated; the road seems better surfaced; mining is a recent dreamscape. The earth has not quite woken up to spring yet; dormancy lasts all but the 80 days available for the growing season. Still, the landscape exudes an awakening exhilaration. Proserpine crawls out from under the rocks. John Alla told me that miners are underground creatures of night. Diurnal cattle ranchers inhabit the sunny-side-up of the same earth.
Norm Glaser presents the vision of the cowboy rancher—tall, lean, muscled, wind-leathered skin over sculpted cheekbones, devastatingly handsome even at 73 years old—but lacks the cowboy drawl. He is one of the most intelligent and speedily articulate people I have ever interviewed. My hand scratches madly across my notepad, chasing his thoughts and experiences. So much for Westerns and Roy Rogers.
Ranching flows three generations deep through his blood, he tells me. “My grandfather was on his way to California to the gold mines in 1852. He worked as a freighter, teamster, and on ranches in California and remembered camping at the confluence of the North Fork and Humboldt Rivers. He thought of the valley panorama and the view to the Rubies. So he bought a herd of Durham cattle in Oregon and drove over Applegate Pass. He homesteaded in 1869 and was first on the tax roll in 1871.” According to Norm, mining and livestock grazing have supported his family and the Nevadan economy since the 1860s. Lewis Rice Bradley, a successful cattle rancher, became state governor in 1870 and built a political infrastructure supporting ranching that lasted for decades, until 1933.
“At that time,” Norm intoned gloomily, “a cowboy from Winnemucca named Phil Tobin, who was a senator—and he never lived to see Las Vegas—introduced a bill to legalize gambling. Actually, it was only legalizing what was already going on in the back rooms. If I had my choice in the legislature, I would have said we have a bear by the tail.” Unlike other Elko residents, Norm views gambling skeptically, seeing it as a cause of juvenile delinquency and crime. Unlike mining and grazing, which are based on the land and, “historically good,” gambling, he insists, is uncertain. Reliable work comes with the solid earth.
The cowboy resurfaces as Norm recounts stories of looking for water, sleeping with snakes, and traveling with wagon trains. I smell campfires, hear “Home on the Range.” Three generations of his family have ranched, camped and raised cattle together; the herd now numbers around 2,200 head of cattle, with about 1,000 new calves branded each year. Although he employs airplanes and four-wheelers for some scouting, Norm insists that “there’s no substitute for horses. We’ve been ranching traditionally here for a hundred years. The government does everything but leave us alone. My brother and son, who ranch with me, and I are all conservationists with degrees in agricultural engineering, animal husbandry and veterinary science. We create retention ponds and duck ponds wherever we can. We have won numerous awards for conservation. We have a stable and static operation. We’re limited by the amount of hay, land and water that’s available. The government hassles us even more with permits, grazing fees and the like. Their object is to get rid of sheep and cattle men. Ranching is dependent on grass, which is a renewable resource, whereas minerals are finite. Agriculture generates about $500 million of wealth every year.”
As there is so little rainfall for farming, Norm reasons that grazing constitutes a logical land use. He cites the historical respect that the government had for Nevada-controlled grazing, which reversed with the advent of environmental movements and the worries over endangered species. Whereas once Nevada owned most of its land, now the government owns roughly 90 percent of state land, rendering a very slender state tax base and depleted economy. A former state senator, Norman waged a legal battle with the federal government over ownership by initiating the Sagebrush Rebellion. “According to the Constitution, all states come into the Union on equal footing,” he rages. “Well, it didn’t work out that way. When Texas came in, the government didn’t lay claim to one acre of land.” While still pending a ruling by the Supreme Court at the time of the interview, Norm was confident that his Sagebrush Rebellion would remedy all that.
If cattle ranching is imperiled, sheep grazing suffers a still more precarious future, in Norm’s view. Sheep have dwindled from roughly 1 million to one-tenth that number. Although sheep, who munch forbs, herbs and broadleaf plants, and graze symbiotically on the same land with cattle, who eat tall grasses, they compete less well with the wolves and coyotes that are “re-introduced” by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Norm scoffs at the research carried out by Stanford biodiversity scientists. “They already know the conclusions that they want. Scientific mockery: Just tell me what you want, and I’ll develop the facts.” Still, he smiles as he invites me to tour his ranch on my next trip to Elko.
As I leave Halleck, the late March afternoon darkens toward an early sunset. The sun no longer illuminates the mountains. Clouds shroud the mountains and cast dark shadows on the Humboldt. The plateaus stretch, vast and empty. From the bridge, I see little but stars and partnering water sparkles.
Back in Elko, I learn that sheepherding here dates back as far as cattle ranching. Protected by Governor Bradley’s policies, ranchers built small, stable operations. As sheep often seek grass all year, smaller operations insure a flexible survival for both sheep and herder. As I learned at the chamber of commerce, many early sheepherders were Basques who had herded in the Pyrenees before fleeing Franco’s regime. Knowing this bit of history eases my jaw-drop at finding Basques in what seems to be the least likely of places. The genius loci in Elko laughs easily, producing odd moments of surprise and ethnic diversity, while remaining friendly—like the people.
Basque names are prominent in local lore. Pedro Altube was regarded as the “father of Basques in America.” Hot-tempered multimillionaire Pete Itcaina, another Basque sheepherder, waited seconds too long for a drink in the Silver Dollar Club. He bought the saloon and fired the bartender. For years, the Basques herded traditionally, using covered wagons, docking lambs’ tails to obtain a count, and castrating lambs with their teeth. Then the number of Basque families willing to herd sheep dropped as federal regulations proliferated and permit prices rose. Most Basques now run stores or restaurants.
A first-generation Basque, Anita Franzoia owns Elko General Merchandising. As we talk, nimble-footed Anita simultaneously directs an employee, straightens bolts of cloth, and throws darting looks and smiles to customers who come and go. No wonder the Basques are so skilled at keeping track of mischievous flocks of sheep cavorting on high plateaus, I think, knowing the problems I have tracking two daughters. Although she speaks Basque and has been president of the club that sponsors the National Basque Festival, Anita tells me that few people use the language in Elko today. “At least my kids speak and understand it,” she says and smiles. For years, her family owned stores and supplied the herders. However, “There’s not many sheepherders left. There’s some in Utah, some in Austin. The economy is bad for them.”
Now, the largest sheep ranch lies near Tuscarora, owned by DeLloyd and Connie Sattherthwaite. Even before coming to Elko, I had known of Connie, who is president of the Woolgrowers Association. Actively working with environmentalists, Connie constantly reassures the government of the low impact of traditional methods on the land. She emphasizes the obvious omnipresent uses of wool and donates generously—quilts, blankets, wool, coats—to various charitable organizations. However, her battle remains that of Sisyphus, as environmentalists continue to introduce predators, and the government raises permit fees and seizes land.
Walking the streets of Elko, seeking the bridge for fresh air, I have an uneasy certainty of why the town has so many Basque restaurants. These people, too, need to eat.
You, moving down the road
Must have a code
That you can live by…
Teach your children [parents] well…
—Crosby, Stills Nash and Young
Before I leave Elko, I return to the bridge. Avoiding the pavement, I approach on frozen earth, nubbled clods of mineral potential. The denuded bank slides into the river as I ascend the arch. Liquid bubbles and hums underfoot. My thoughts descant “People? Land? Water?” Back in Boulder, Colo., lines seem clearer cut. The city’s tourist economy thrives on visitors who come downtown to shop after hiking in protected open space. In fact, fields, trees, mountains and their inhabitants regularly receive more tax support than the city’s schools. Boulder’s is an idealized, romantic ethic, privileging nature as Edenic open space. In Boulder, nature is the sublime wilderness. Here in Elko, nature is where Adam and Eve find themselves after being ejected from the garden. Here, nature is what one knows by the sweat of one’s brow. Here, nature means work.
I feel unnerved by what I have seen. The blast at the mine was too literally mind-blowing and earth-shattering. The plateaus often seem bleak, overburdened. With a designer’s eye, I see protected fields, reclaimed quarries filled with grasses, trees and uncontaminated water with paths alongside.
My other eye envisions John Alla, father and grandfather, drinking coffee with Buster. Norm Glaser reminds me that reliable work grows from the land. The fathers at Newmont shine golden with the knowledge that their children are receiving a high-quality education and will remain in town. Even Wendell Berry supports that. Anita Franzoia, Thelma, and Mary Korpi echo my feminist need to support my daughters with my talents.
Yet either eye’s vision is as much a construct of work as the landscape I mentally redesign. Neither Elko as it is nor Elko “returned” to managed open space with introduced predators is the pristine wilderness lauded by outspoken environmentalists, a group with whom I have always associated myself. Until coming to Elko, that is, and meeting the people whose needs for survival are as real as those of the land and seemingly more tangible than those of legislators in Washington, D.C. However, I do not want to stand on a polemical bridge, whose opposing urban and open-space shores cannot withstand a political flood. Right now, Howe’s “hunger that crosses the bridge” seems a human, devouring drive to dominate the land according to a single ethic, whether survivalist or environmentalist. Feeling that rapacious approach from either shore, I question a single vision, a bridging metaphor, to solve this standoff. I look for ways to connect the issues. Perhaps I seek the bridge of metonymy, touching parts that spiral into some larger whole.
Richard White offers one way of rethinking the political, human and landscape issues that pervade Elko. A historian, he locates the controversy in the perception of humanity as existing outside nature, which is “other” and conceptual. How one constructs “nature” reflects the way one personally experiences nature, physically and mentally. Whereas once that experience was in backbreaking labor, now it is usually in hiking, skiing and other forms of recreation. Describing the logging controversy over clear-cutting in Washington state, White cites the prevalent bumper sticker, “Are You an Environmentalist, or Do You Work For a Living?” According to White, we have shifted from a world that valued working physically with the land to one that holds itself apart from blue-collar labor such as mining and logging, which is seen as despoiling nature:
Most Americans celebrate nature as the world of original things. And nature may indeed be the world we have not made—the world of plants, animals, trees, and mountains—but the boundaries between this world of nature and the world of artifice are not very cleat Are the cows and crops we breed, the fields we cultivate, the genes we splice natural or unnatural? Are they nature or artifice? We seek the purity of our absence, but everywhere we find our own fingerprints. It is ultimately our own bodies and our labor that blur the boundaries between the artificial and the natural….We cannot come to terms with nature without coming to terms with our own work, our own bodies, our own bodily labor.
According to White, environmentalists refuse to acknowledge the blurred boundaries, and they construct a pristine nature only accessible for leisure. They say little about humans and work. White suggests focusing on exactly what environmentalists ignore—the knowing of nature through work—to create the dialectical spiral that will move the polarities beyond their static position. Even environmentalists and writers, he says, affect nature through work; they just may not see their effects. He describes the process of his own writing:
I cannot see my labor as separate from the mountains [outside his office window], and I know that my labor is not truly disembodied.… The lights on this screen need electricity, and this particular electricity comes from dams on the Skagit or Columbia. These dams kill fish; they alter the rivers that come from the Rockies, Cascades, and Olympics. The electricity they produce depends on the great seasonal cycles of the planet: on falling snow, melting waters, flowing rivers. In the end, these electrical impulses will take tangible form on paper from trees. Nature, altered and changed, is in this room. But this is masked. I type. I kill nothing. I touch no living thing. I seem to alter nothing but the screen.…My separation is an illusion. What is disguised is that I—unlike loggers, farmers, fishers, or herders—do not have to face what I alter, and so I learn nothing from it.
White suggests that as long as we separate ourselves from nature and do not come to terms with our work, we will continue to create false dualities between nature and work. These are the kinds of dualities I have seen daily in Elko. Without realizing that we all work to survive within this landscape—miners, grazers, legislators and writers—and shape our land physically and mentally, we cannot evolve positively beyond the polemic. Thoreau was right. Soul and soil remain the defining dialectic of human survival.
The water stills into sunset. My reflection from the bridge is clear, multichromatic. In a few hours, I return to Boulder, to my children and my client’s deadline. Most of my clients, excluding this one, seem to require endless upgrades of my computer to fit their technical and cyber needs, costing countless computer chips, endless energy. I rarely get things right the first time and write innumerable drafts on limited trees. I do not eat meat but let my children choose their own preferences. Fast-food hamburgers have crossed my linoleum-floored, Sheetrock-walled threshold. I recognize my footprints on the earth leading to the bridge. I wonder how I will get to the other side.
With White, I believe that no simple or stark choices provide paths to stopping environmental havoc. One set of footprints or fingerprints is not better than others. Pointing fingers does not do it. Three fingers will always point back to ourselves.
Now the arch proves a metaphoric bridge, an unbiased position where those who walk on the land and those who work with it unite in caring for that gift and for each other. That is, if we really care beyond rhetoric. Parenting has taught me that only by caring can we become accountable. I clutch the familiar metallic bridge rail. I look from land to town to mountains and then sink my gaze into the water. My face and the universe look back pensively. For the sake of the land and my daughters, I hope fervently that sooner rather than later we reflect on bridges and then relocate ourselves healthily in our landscapes.