“In the early 1900s, the town of Tobar was here. Railroad officials named it Tobar because a sign at the Western Pacific Railroad station said ‘To Bar’ with an arrow. A local hotel owner put out advertisements that said Tobar, Nevada was ‘Home of the Big Apple.’ Almost 500 farmers moved here. They couldn’t grow apples in the desert without water, so most eventually left. The last business closed in the 1940s, and it was quiet all the way until 1969 when a railroad car of bombs on their way to Vietnam exploded a mile west of town. After that, it was quiet again until Pattie and I moved here in 1981.
I grew up in Texas and left home when I was fourteen. I worked ranching and construction jobs and saved enough to buy this property. Now, my driveway is a mile and a half long and my backyard is 2,000 acres. Behind that are a few million acres more of mountains and sagebrush.
The nearest store is 18 miles away, but we don’t buy a lot of groceries. We put up hay to feed our cattle. We hunt. We butcher rabbits. We raise chickens and get fresh eggs. At every meal, we eat something from the greenhouse: potatoes, spinach, chard, beets, beans, carrots, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries… It might be six weeks before I go to town. If I need to see the doctor, it’s about 140 miles round trip.
Cowboys are still the symbol of the American West. We’re famous, but it’s damn hard to make a living raising cattle. We’re outside from daylight until dark. Drought or an early frost can knock out a year of work. Then there’s the cost of utilities, equipment, cattle meds, labor, and transport, plus the interest rates on bank loans. Some ranchers raise too many cattle, trying to stay afloat. They end up overgrazing pastures, and that doesn’t help anybody.
See that tractor? It’s been sitting in that spot for 19 years. It belongs to Dick Moon. He left and went to Montana. That other one belongs to Segulia. And that combine was Westwood’s. Those vehicles over there belong to Jones. That’s what? One, two, three, four, five, six vehicles. They left them and haven’t come back to get them. Between the weather and the economy, most ranchers have moved away.
People who grew up here helped their parents ranch. They know what it feels like to feed cattle when it’s 30 below zero. They know that life, and many don’t want it. Our kids figured out that life’s much easier if they live in town. They can put in 12-hour shifts at the mines, turning the steering wheel of a truck that’s bigger than my house. They can earn 400 dollars and go home to prop their feet up and watch TV.
The mining industry is booming. Companies make serious money extracting bits of gold that are not much bigger than the particles in cigarette smoke.
The problem is that mining goes from boom to bust. I’ve watched the cycle. A company opens a mine near a small town. The mine brings out-of-town workers who need stores, schools, and doctors’ offices. The boom ends and the company leaves. The miners leave and then the other jobs leave, too. The land is scarred and the town is scarred.
Newmont Mining Corporation found gold in the mountains all around here. Now they post armed guards to keep us off. That sounds like something out of a country music song, doesn’t it?
A few years ago, I was chasing wild horses and my horse got tired. When I stopped to let him blow, I got to looking around and I found the footing of an old shack. Buried underneath where the floor had been was a metal lard bucket. In the bucket, wrapped in newspaper, was a dynamite cap tin with 21 ounces of gold inside. I couldn’t believe it. Why would anybody leave his gold like that? Either the guy died or he went to prison. Who knows? That gold had been there a long time.
I kept it in that dynamite cap tin. I’ll never sell it. Whoever left that gold there probably mined it himself. I’m the second man to ever handle it. Brand-new money. I know that’s something.”
Essay by Olan Clifford Teel, Wells, Nevada 2012
High Country News, Colorado
Northwest News Network, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington
Montana Public Radio, Montana
Nevada Public Radio, Nevada
New Mexico Public Radio, New Mexico
ProPublica Fracking Investigation, New York
StateImpact Texas, Texas
Texas Tribune, Texas
Wyoming Public Radio, Wyoming