In the 1970’s I played my show in Colorado. Autumn was preferred. Instead by hubris in winter late near midnight I drove Highway 160 over Yellowjacket Pass in thirty below. I made Durango that night for a show the next day. My teeth chattering, I climbed into my goose down bag tossed a blanket over my dog. Getting out of my bag at daybreak was agony.
Four decades later Colorado mountain towns have swelled up and are too big. Roads are full of vehicles. Hillsides are dotted with second homes. While there are still vast sweeps of undeveloped landscape there are fewer to be found and their unbound nature has been nibbled on by the crush of humanity seeking a piece of their own.
A westerner understands what I mean. Emptiness is essential. Mustangs need room to roam. So do prospectors, outdoorsmen and curmudgeons.
Michael’s Diesel Truck
In Ely, Nevada I had the pleasure to speak with a retired military man. The mother had not much cared for Ely and had run off with another man leaving Michael and the children. Everything about life in Ely is hard including finding a reliable wife. So, it was to be the father completed the task of raising his sons.
For twenty-four years he worked at the Robinson Mine four miles west of town. This is an open pit copper mine. Gold is also found in the ore as well as molybdenum. There are no easy jobs when you hire on to work at an open pit copper mine.
Strolling the Neighborhood
Luck is changing for this Ely, Nevada resident. South 216 miles is St George, Utah. Michael has become partners operating a big rig diesel service shop. Putting the finishing touches on his home in Ely our military veteran is ending all these hardscrabble days preparing to sell his property and move on to life’s next chapter.
He’ll be leaving behind 4000 of Nevada’s most remotely located citizens to take up a new life in St George where near 88,000 Mormons, near Mormons and never will be Mormons reside. Michael’s servicing long haul trucks means he’ll be wrenching on equipment one quarter the size of the behemoths he kept serviced at the mine in Ely. Cracking off a two-inch bolt is that much more work from removing a three-quarter inch piece of hardware.
Backbreaking awaits high desert immigrants wanting to make a life out here. Punching water wells, wrenching on studded snow tires for the season, or assembling a Quonset hut will humble the uncalloused hands of a Great Basin newcomer.
Cooking beneath Cottonwoods
Michael invited us to remain parked right where we had stopped to make dinner and sleepover beneath the cottonwoods. Social distancing being what it is Michael explained most of what I’ve retold here. Michael’s veteran military status had provided him with a healthy skepticism. Politics and rattlesnakes were both to be sidestepped, left alone so that a citizen could move on to better things to do with a mind and a life.
Wandering into the least parts of the American West is where I often find the most durable characters. Keeping intact this emptiness makes room for those few odd citizens that seek to build a life as near to civilization’s edge as a soul may travel.