Nevada is 87 percent public lands. That means the federal government owns the deed on most of my state. And since they could, they leased big chunks of it to anyone who wanted to dig it up for about 140 bucks. They called these chunks mining claims, and they still go for less than an RV space. If you have a claim, you have to maintain it (dig holes in it) and follow some other rules. But what it boils down to is this: the government doesn’t appreciate sagebrush and dirt.

Nevada was granted statehood because the Union needed our silver and gold in the Civil War. Everyone wanted our silver and gold. Everyone wants our silver and gold. Some things don’t change. But not every hole dug turned up precious metals. That’s why folks had to buy a bunch of claims and get fancy equipment and professionals and maps and computers. Or just get a dousing wand like one of our state’s successful miners.

What happened to the holes that didn’t strike gold is this: they stayed holes. Until about a decade or two ago there was no requirement to fill in the holes you dug if you didn’t want to. No matter how big the holes were. So, go figure, my state is filled with holes. Technically, they are mine shafts and adits. Shafts go down, adits go in. The way the holes were kept open is by framing the dirt with timber. Just about every forest in the state was reduced to stubble to meet the requirements of hundreds of miles of underground mining. There is no old-growth forest in Nevada.

The timber used to frame the tunnels was treated with tar. Components of that tar are carcinogenic – they give you cancer. But only technically. Technically, so long as you don’t burn the timber and inhale the tar you won’t get cancer. Technically, so long as you don’t absorb that tar through your skin you won’t get cancer. It’s the same tar they used to treat railroad ties. It’s the same tar they still use on all those decorative railroad ties folks use for landscaping their suburban yards.

Problem was, the mines caught fire. All that tar-soaked timber went up like so many charcoal briquettes. But if you were a miner, fire wasn’t your only worry. You had to worry about being scalded by underground steam pockets, suffocating, poisoning by gas leaks, being crushed by collapsing tunnels or having your partner hammer a steel pike through your head because you were working in near-complete darkness in a space about as wide as a shower stall and half as tall. As many as one in five miners died within six months of joining the rush for gold. When you die before you’re old enough to have a midlife crisis, you don’t worry so much about cancer.

Once the mines were worked clean, once there was no more gold or silver or barite or copper or lead or zinc or manganese or tungsten or lithium or diatomite to make it cost-effective to keep digging holes, once that happened, the mine owners just closed up shop and moved on, taking the miners and the economy with them. What they left behind was crumbling mine shafts and adits, a couple of “caution” and “beware” signs, some barbed wire and a lot of dead and dying towns. The ones constructed of wood are called ghost towns, and tourists take pictures and accidentally burn them down with discarded cigarettes. The others are primarily made up of listing trailers with broken windows, and empty schools. They are called the rest of Nevada except Reno and Las Vegas. These are the parts of the state with legalized prostitution. Legalized prostitution, rattlesnakes and big gaping and crumbling holes in the ground. All in all, a great environment to be a kid (that is not sarcasm; it rocked to be a kid in rural Nevada – no pun intended).

Even in the sort of trailer-park suburb of Reno that was Sun Valley, even here there lurked abandoned shafts and adits. Every kid over the age of about six knew where to find them. We hiked on out to the best ones – the ones off Seventh Street — carrying our frayed ropes, temperamental flashlights and extra water.

The holes off Seventh were mostly shafts – they went down. Barbed wire drew us in, rebar stakes with bullet-riddled warning signs told us there was something good to be found. Dirt long grown to brush mounded around the edges like a scabbed but open wound. You didn’t want to stand too close to the edge for fear of the rocks and dirt and brush sliding toward center and taking you with them. Every family had gleeful gruesome warning tales of kids falling into abandoned mine shafts never to be heard from again. That’s why we brought rope. If you fell in, you could get pulled out. If the whole shebang collapsed, the search and rescue guys could follow the rope through the tons of rock to your dirt-covered body.

The best time to go shaft-spelunking was right around noon, when the heat made it feel so good to descend into the darkness and when the sunlight pierced as deeply as possible. Seventh Street was only about a five-minute bike ride from where my family lived and another ten took us along the old access road to the mines. Just beyond the mines were The Pits where people shot bottles and targets, watermelons and a whole lot of dirt. The bottles were always beer bottles. Bring your own.

On the other side of The Pits, stood the Castle. In my memory it is stone and iron with turrets and a widow’s walk. But I think I’m confusing it with Stokes Castle in Austin (Nevada. I didn’t know there was one in Texas until near-adulthood). The Castle in the Sun Valley (Nevada. Didn’t know about the one in Idaho either. My grasp of geography has always been sketchy) desert is actually two floors of corrugated tin and plywood. Graffiti, used condoms, dead wine bottles, a needle or two – layers of delinquency. When my brother- and sister-in-law bought a brand new track house about half a mile from there I went and checked.

The Pits are right off the main road now, a holding area of gravel and those big decorative boulders people use for landscaping. Tractors, backhoes and big yellow dump trucks park haphazardly. A huge U has been gouged from the side of the hill, obliterating all those spent shells and broken bottles. I like to imagine them mixed in with the gravel used as a poor excuse for xeriscaping in the public areas of that housing development.

Back then, it seemed all we had to do was walk out into the desert, and we’d flat-out stumble upon abandoned mines, rattlesnakes, blasting caps. Blasting caps were currency. Fireworks for the mining set. Most of us in the valley knew blasting caps by sight. Hardly any of us were from the valley. We’d all done our early years in other podunk, low-rent trailer towns, all knew about changing schools when the mines busted, knew about airplane glue and brush fires, knew about black eyes, knew AA was for pussies.

But when I went back, I couldn’t find the old adits. I’m sure they’re still there, but I’ve lost that kid radar for dangerous places.

The Js at an adit at Berlin, Nevada

The Js at an adit at Berlin, Nevada

Stokes Castle, Austin, Nevada

Stokes Castle, Austin, Nevada

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3 Responses
  1. Rita says:

    This made me remember how much I miss Nevada. Great piece!

  2. Bobbie says:

    Cindie Cindie Cindie – I love your writing style. This particular piece really captures the sense of place, mood and rough charm of the Nevada story – It was a trip through time captured so beautifully trhough the eyes of one who has really experienced it.
    Keep on girl – and, would you mind sending me your mailing address. I have something I want to send.

  3. Des says:

    kompletely kewl!

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Cindie Geddes

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