Going about my business downtown one afternoon, I glanced up again to the collection of buildings halfway up Winnemucca Mountain, the clot of tiny rectangles stashed among the distance-faded delicate folds of a sagebrush blanket covering the side of the mountain.
Obviously the remains of mine workings, the buildings had caught my eye soon after I moved to town. In the months since, a curiosity had grown inside me, a feeling that something interesting might be up there. I seemed to notice things that others rarely found noteworthy. Maybe that’s why I ended up working for a newspaper, where it was my job to find interesting stories. My own story is pretty boring. Maybe that’s why I gravitated to journalism — so I could tell stories that were more interesting than my own.
Sometimes when I looked up at the old mine site, I could barely make out the shape of a truck or car. At five miles distant from downtown, details weren’t visible. Only mysterious hints of what might be. I imagined that the group of misshapen buildings, which altogether appeared no bigger than a fingernail at that distance, would be fairly large close up. I wondered what mineral the mine had been built for, when it opened, how many men it had employed, when it closed. I asked around at the office. No one knew, and no one cared.
A visit to the library revealed that Humboldt County was the second-largest gold producing county in the nation. Gold first was discovered there way back in 1863. I also discovered Humboldt County was the oldest county in Nevada, having been established by the Utah Territorial Legislature, five years before the state of Nevada was created. When Nevada was established in 1861, Humboldt became one of the state’s original nine counties. There was a lot of history there.
One Saturday morning with nothing better to do, I drove across the river, turned off the pavement, followed a dusty gravel road a couple of miles along the base of the mountain, then turned up a likely looking two-track that slithered between the four-foot-tall sagebrush like a dry brown snake wandering up a slope of sun-baked grass.
A few miles up the bumpy track, I rounded into a draw and the mine buildings suddenly came into sight a mile ahead. They were massive, much larger than I had imagined. I drove on. There was no fence, but there was a battered no-trespassing sign. Fifty yards farther ahead, I could see a 20-year-old Ford pickup beside a tiny hut with a wisp of smoke curling out of a tin chimney pipe. About a hundred yards past that was a metal wall that stood maybe five stories tall at the front, hunkered down close to the steep mountainside, its striated sheet steel siding punctuated by a series of small windows. Pieces of rusting machinery littered the gravelly ground around the raw edifice.
I pulled ahead, parked a few feet from the pickup truck, turned off the ignition and waited. I wondered how seriously the person in the hut took the “no trespassing” sign. Would he come out with a shotgun or a smile?
A minute passed. I was sure the sounds of my engine grinding up the slope would have been heard.
The door swung open toward me, followed by a grizzled face covered in two days of white stubble. A grimy baseball cap with a Detroit Tigers logo shaded eyes that featured a permanent squint against the high desert sun. Below that was a smile.
“What can I do fer ya?”
“I work for the newspaper and was just curious about the mine,” I said. “I asked around down there, and no one seems to know much about it.”
He looked past me down the slope at town. I turned to follow his gaze and was surprised by the new perspective our high vantage point offered. My experience in town so far had been at ground level. Winnemucca was a typical small town with a grid of streets, a brick downtown surrounded by neighborhoods with only the occasional tree. Spreading from the central district, tentacles of tawdry commercial development following the highway at each end of town on the east and west, where I-80 connected the enclave with the rest of the world. The town seemed raw despite its venerable age, tending toward sprawl, and desperate to make a buck.
But from up there on the mountainside, it looked … pretty. The Humboldt River, though brown with dissolved sediment, wore a cloak of green foliage from one end of town to the other. It was roughly paralleled by Interstate 80, a four-lane ribbon of economic life, cars speeding along west and east like blood cells pumping along an artery, bringing cash to town and taking away spent tourists. From up there, the sparse tree cover blended together into a comfortable blanket of green that softened the hard outlines of pavement, brick and commercialism.
“I love the view from up here,” the man said.
“It is beautiful,” I agreed.
I introduced myself and explained that I just hoped to learn a bit about the mine’s history, maybe write a story about it. He seemed open to the idea.
“The owners don’t want anybody in there. The insurance, you know. But I can talk about it.”
I pulled a notebook and pen out of my jacket pocket and asked him his name.
“Hank Fordyce. I’ve been caretaker here for 12 years.”
He told me the mine had ceased production 30 years before, had been sold three times since then to different consortiums, each of which had plans to reopen it. But the property itself hadn’t been touched since the day the miners were let go three decades ago.
“I get down into town once or twice a week for groceries,” he said. “But I like it up here.”
“What do you do to pass the time?”
“Oh, I read. Go for walks.”
I took notes as we talked for a few minutes about his former life as a long-haul truck driver, always on the road, always away from home. About how his wife got sick of being alone so much and eventually divorced him. About the daughter, now 24, who wanted nothing to do with him. About how the divorce soured him with life on the road. About how he had fled from memories and ended up in this lonesome outpost shack on a lonesome mountainside near a lonesome desert town.
I looked at the tar paper shack from which he had emerged. I guessed it to be 12 feet by 16 feet.
“This is where you live?”
“Yup. Would you like a tour?”
“Sure,” I replied.
He opened the door and gestured me in. The main feature was a homemade woodstove constructed from a 55 gallon steel barrel, laid on its side and fitted with a hinged iron door on one end and a tin stove pipe leading up to a 90-degree bend and then through the wall. A flat steel rectangle had been welded to the curved top of the barrel, and on it sat a greasy cast iron frying pan, a cheap aluminum percolator and an ancient aluminum saucepan deeply encrusted with the burned overflow of hundreds of meals. A neat stack of split wood stood next to the stove. Above the woodpile were two open shelves stocked with three cans of pork and beans, two cans of peaches, a box of saltines, a one-pound coffee can, one tin pie plate cradling one spoon, one fork and one steak knife, a blue enameled tin coffee cup, and a mousetrap baited with a single baked bean. A cheap twist-handle can opener hung from the shelf by a length of bailing wire.
Behind the woodstove was a narrow cot, parallel to the stove, presumably to maximize the use of heat while sleeping. Two neatly folded olive drab wool blankets sat in the middle of the cot, a flattened old pillow near one end. Nearby, an open shelf held, neatly folded, a pair of blue jeans and two plaid shirts and; loosely rolled up, two pairs of boxer shorts and two pairs of socks.
Against the right wall was a rickety old folding card table and one battered and scratched metal folding chair. Above the table there was a bare wood shelf screwed to the wall. It held five threadbare old paperback books, a stack of four decades-old National Geographics and a single Boston Globe newspaper that was a deeply faded, nearly the same yellow as the Geographics.
Just the place for a worn-out man to come to try and forget a haunted past. I was sure that he spent his days and night in this spare space doing nothing but thinking about that past, reliving the joys and pains of personal history. He had said he spent his many hours reading and taking walks. Walks, maybe, but the books were covered by a half inch of dust.
The floor was unfinished plywood, dark gray from years of wear. Nearly black paths traced the traffic patterns from door to table to stove to bed. There was a small window, insulated with two layers of tightly stretched plastic, above the bed, with an opaque view of a sagebrush slope leading up the mountain. A larger window allowed anyone seated at the table to gaze left at the gigantic behemoth mine building towering about the length of a football field distant. Sitting in the decrepit folding chair, you could look straight ahead through the third and largest window in the hut and see an expansive view of the town below, the valley in which it was centered, and a panorama of mountains to the south, perhaps 10 miles away.
The view was to die for.
“Hank,” I said, “the view is wonderful.”
“It’s one of the two reasons I’ve stayed here so long.”
“What’s the other reason?”
I waited for an explanation. Hank just stood there, eyes locked on mine, smiling. I waited. He remained mute and patient, waiting for me to ask the inevitable question. Northern Nevada is not a wet place. Sure, there was the Humboldt River down in town, but it was not the kind of water you love. It was an opaque ribbon of mud-colored liquid, slothfully pushing itself westward between the brown mountains, pushing itself away from here, offering little to those who remained here. Other than that, most of northern Nevada is parched.
“What water?” I asked.
“The best water in the world,” he said.
His eyes, bright with expectation, waited for my next question. I glanced around the sparse interior of the shack and saw no indication that water existed on the planet.
“Do you have a cup or something?” he asked. “Let’s get a drink.”
He retrieved the blue coffee cup from the shelf near the woodstove. We stepped back outside. The only suitable receptacle I could find in my truck was a waxed cardboard cup left over from a stop at the local McDonald’s a couple of days earlier. I held it up so he could see it.
“That’ll do,” Hank said.
He led me past his truck and on down a narrow footpath among the sagebrush to a spot about fifty feet from his shack. He stopped, turned, and smiled mysteriously at me, then pointed at a thin gray iron pipe that emerged vertically from the ground, took a ninety degree turn two feet up, then ended a foot later, the end stoppered by a cork. A rubber mallet dangled from the pipe, hanging by a length of baling wire, just like the can opener inside.
“This is the best water in the world. It’s one of the two reasons I’ve stayed here for so long.”
He gestured for me to hold my cup near the pipe. He used the mallet to gently tap the cork first left, then right, to loosen it. Then he grabbed the cork between thumb and forefinger and twisted, hard at first, then with increasing gentleness as it loosened.
“Don’t lose any. This is precious stuff.”
I moved the disposable cup to capture the artesian water. He delicately eased the cork out of the pipe and water filled my cup. I moved it out of the way as Hank, spilling no more than a drop or two, gracefully moved his cup into the stream, then quickly replaced the cork and tapped it firm with the mallet.
Hank, again looking me in the eye as if he were sharing one of the great truths of the universe, took a sip from his blue cup. His eyes closed in what appeared to be ecstacy.
I tipped my unworthy container to my lips. The water smelled like boiled eggs. It tasted like tin foil had been dissolved in it, with a slight overtone of vanilla — surely a remnant of two-day-old milkshake.
Hank watched me, smiling.
I took a second sip.
“Wow,” I said. “That is something else.”
“Like I said, the best water in the world.”
People get used to things they have, and grow to either love them or hate them. Hank had grown to love the peculiar taste of this groundwater. We stood, both sipping from our cups, both looking down at the town below, both breathing the clear desert air filled with the gentle odor of dry sage. He was perfectly at home, seemingly perfectly content, despite the fact he lived in a filthy shack with virtually no possessions and no visible human connections.
“A perfect view and the best water in the world,” Hank said quietly to himself.
Copyright Daniel C. Nielsen