Friday, December 25, 2009

Finding the 'Real Nevada'

Several years ago, a Canadian writer asked me to take him on a trip to see “the real Nevada.” In particular, he wanted to see a ghost town and wild horses.

He also said he would like to meet someone who lived in a ghost town—although, of course, if someone lived there it wouldn’t be a ghost town—because he had always wondered what it would be like to live so far from the loud noises, traffic and crowds of cities.

We set out from Tonopah on a cool October morning, driving east on Highway 6, then north on state route 376, before turning northeast onto the road leading to Belmont. We passed no traffic that day; our only companions a handful of bleached, cotton-swab clouds floating overhead.

The land was wide and open, so much so that the writer remarked that he was working on a book about the Trans-Canadian Highway, of which he said the area reminded him.
“Sometimes, you can see wild horses out around here,” I said, eyes scanning the seemingly endless miles of empty, rolling hills. “But probably not today.”

Suddenly, a small herd of seven horses led by a beautiful white stallion, appeared from behind one of those hills and began pacing our vehicle.

"“Do you want me to stop so you can get a picture?” I asked.

“No, they'll be gone before I could shoot it. Let’s just keep driving. They’re very beautiful,” he said.

“I wish I could take credit for them,” I said as I silently thanked whatever higher power had produced these magnificent animals at the moment I needed them.

For another several minutes, we watched in silent admiration as the horses raced across the sagebrush. Then, they disappeared in a hidden creek bed and were gone.

A few minutes later, we reached the outskirts of Belmont. We spotted a stout red brick smokestack and decided to investigate. Parking the car, we walked through the sagebrush to the ruins of the Belmont-Monitor Mill.

As we gingerly stepped around and over the scattered chunks of wood and piles of what appeared to be crushed red bricks, I heard a slapping noise overhead.

I looked up into the cloudless blue sky and saw a bird flying overhead. I realized the source of the strange sound: it was so quiet and peaceful that you could hear the sound of a bird’s wings hitting the air.

We returned to the car and drove to the center of Belmont. Ahead, we could see buildings strung alongside the road and, behind them, other structures—some looking relatively new and others appearing to be very, very old.

We parked the car just west of the buildings and, as we climbed out, a man with a thick, gray beard, wearing a red-checked shirt with suspenders holding up a pair of baggy, gray pants, appeared from a small, green trailer.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. There was the strong smell of sagebrush about him—as if he’d just rolled in the stuff.

“We just wanted to do a little exploring and take a few pictures. We’re writers,” I explained.

“Well, okay, but just don’t touch anything,” he said gruffly, then disappeared into his trailer.

Careful to respect his wishes, we gingerly walked the main street. A handful of crumbling brick and wooden facades stood on either side of us. Most seemed ready to topple. North of the main street was the two-story brick Belmont Courthouse, built in 1876.

We circled the ruins, each shooting plenty of photos, entranced by the mood of the place.

After a time, we both started back to the car. There was a cemetery near the entrance to the town we wanted to visit. I turned the car around and started to head away from the main street when the old man, who appeared to be the town’s only resident, appeared from his trailer and waved for me to stop.

“Excuse me,” he said, after he walked over to my open window. “Could you please tell me what time it is?”

“It’s about four o'clock,” I answered.

He thanked me and turned to walk back to his trailer. I started to drive away, then saw him in the rearview mirror, again waving to get my attention. I backed the car to where he was standing.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Could you tell me what day it is?”

So I told him.

That’s when we both knew what it must be like to live so far away from loud noises, traffic, crowds—and, obviously, clocks.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mysteries and Legends of Nevada News

The Western Illinois University University Relations office put out a nice release on "Mysteries and Legends of Nevada." Check it out at:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nevada's Bawdy Basque Carvings

Bright sunlight filters through hundreds of towering, bare aspen trees. A soft wind shakes the rounded leaves, causing a few more to join the crunchy carpet of fallen plant debris covering the ground.

Then I see what I'm looking for and begin to chuckle. It's a crude, stick figure carving on one of the aspen of a man sitting before a piano on what appears to be a toilet seat. Carved above the foot-high image are the words: "E.M. 1932 . . . Playing the piano."

High above the east shore of Lake Tahoe, near Spooner Summit, is one of those unique places that make Nevada such a fascinating place to live. In this case, it's a grove of aspen trees in a high mountain meadow that once served as a summer range for Basque sheepherders and their flocks.

While not the only one found at the lake—in fact, aspen groves featuring Basque "graffiti" can be found in dozens of mountain ranges in the state—this particular place is one of the older and larger of these outdoor galleries.

The origin of these drawings has to do with the long stretches of time that Basque sheepherders spent alone, tending their flocks.

To pass the time, many would carve initials, dates and other messages in the white bark of the aspen trees. Naturally, like spray-painted graffiti on a building wall in a large city, some of these doodlings would pertain to what was on the mind of the artist.

Wandering through the Spooner aspen grove (as I'll call this area), it's possible to find dozens of carvings. While a few are rather ribald -- and reveal an excellent grasp of both male and female anatomy -- others offer more intriguing information, such as initials and dates going back seventy and eighty years.

My particular favorite, apparently also carved by the multi-talented "E.M.," depicts a man riding on a horse. Dated August 21, 1932, the drawing is detailed enough to reveal the hat and scarf on the man as well as a saddle, whip and reins.

Another interesting carving shows a fairly detailed representation of the flag of Spain, with the words, "Espana, June 25, 1939," followed by words that are difficult to decipher (possibly Basque or Spanish words). Still others simply show carvings of men in striped shirts with cowboy hats.

After weaving for a time through the thickly wooded grove, it becomes apparent that the trees are a veritable white bark chalkboard of designs, words and drawings. In a few cases, the trees have become so old (aspen live to be about 90 years) that the bark has grown around the carvings, making them impossible to read.

The Spooner grove, like others in the Sierra Nevada, were part of a cycle common among those raising sheep in Nevada. In the winter, the sheep would be kept in the desert valleys, which were warmer and more habitable than the higher elevations.

However, in the summer months, the sheepherders would move the flocks into the mountains to fatten on the thicker grasses found in the mountain meadows.

To reach the Spooner grove, travel west of Carson City on Highway 50. At the point where the road splits, heading north to Incline Village and south to Stateline, continue north for about a quarter-mile. Turn left just before the Spooner Summit Nevada Department of Transportation Maintenance Station and drive to the back of the facility.

There, you will find a paved road identified as Road 14N32. Follow the road for about three-quarters of a mile (it quickly becomes a dirt road). At that point, you reach a fork in the road and take the route to the right (you will pass a "1" painted on a tree about a fifth-of-a-mile from the fork).

From here, continue for about a mile, making sure you go left when you reach a second fork in the road (there are orange and black signs with arrows pointing to the left road).

About another quarter-of-a-mile from the second fork, you'll see a large lava rock formation to the right and the Spooner aspen grove on the left.

While the road is passable for vehicles with high clearance, a good way to visit is by hiking in the two miles from the maintenance station.

For more information, contact the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, 1536 S. Carson Street, Carson City, 775-882-2766.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Fading Ruins of the Old Mining Town of Seven Troughs

The site of Seven Troughs is evidence of the temporary nature of mining camps. With only a few stone foundations and a rusting headframe to mark its location, it won’t be long before it is completely unmarked.

Seven Troughs is located about 30 miles northwest of Lovelock. To reach the site, head directly north of central Lovelock on State Route 398 (North Meridian Road), then turn west on SR 399. Continue for 27 miles, following the signs.

Gold was discovered in the Seven Troughs Canyon in 1905 (the surrounding mountain range is also named Seven Troughs). Within two years, the area experienced a boom, which attracted several hundred miners.

The mines were considered reasonably remarkable, producing more than $100,000 per ton (in turn-of-the-century dollars). By 1908, a town had developed that included a post office, saloons, cafes, hotels, a school district, a water company and various shops.

Regular freight wagons carried supplies to and from the railroad station at Lovelock. In 1911, the "Kindergarten Mill," a 50-ton cyanide processing plant, was built at the east end of the town.

Photos from that time (several are featured in Stanley Paher's excellent book, "Nevada Ghost Towns and Mining Camps") depict a substantial community of more than a dozen wooden commercial buildings, lining the canyon, with a handful of homes on the surrounding hillside.

The town prospered for nearly a decade, then began a rapid decline after 1918, when the ore was depleted. By the 1920s, Seven Troughs was abandoned.

Today, visitors must travel a fairly lonely road to reach the remains of Seven Troughs. After first driving about 12 miles on a paved highway (399), you must turn right (there's a sign indicating the way to Seven Troughs) onto a maintained dirt road.

Continue for about 10 miles across the wide expanse of the appropriately named Sage Valley. At this point, you will see a small cluster of buildings under some mature green trees. This is the site of Mazuma, another early 20th century mining town.

The homes and buildings are on private property please so don't disturb the residents.
The dirt road to Seven Troughs continues northwest from here (you'll find another sign). These last few miles are more rugged and a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.

You start passing some of the visible "trash" frequently found near these old mining camps, including an old safe, piles of rusted metal refuse and mounds of mineral tailings lining the canyon walls.

About two miles from Mazuma you reach the stone foundations of an old mill site, adjacent to the road. Scattered throughout the area are other fragments, including old wood, tin sheets, brown rusted metal hoops and other materials.

On a hillside, across a deep gully in the center of the canyon, is a rusted headframe, which, upon closer scrutiny, appears to be of more recent vintage (it doesn't, however, look to have been used in at least a few decades).

Next to the headframe is an old metal shack that appears to still contain a generator with cables leading into a vertical mine shaft. Naturally, be very careful when exploring any site, like this, that contains open mine shafts.

Farther up the canyon are a couple of mounds of weathered wood, which, from studying the old photos, seem to be the collapsed ruins of two old miner's shacks.

From the look of the canyon, it was probably fortunate Seven Troughs didn't develop into much of a permanent community. The terrain shows indications of having been scarred by flashfloods that have swept through the area over the years.

For more information about Seven Troughs, contact the Lovelock/Pershing County Chamber of Commerce, Box 821, Lovelock, NV 89419, 775-273-7213.