Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Remembering My Own Past

In the months following my high school graduation, my parents bought a VERY strange and VERY old place in Silver City, Nevada that we moved into and then proceeded to remodel. The requisite title search of the property revealed it had been there prior to 1850; the earliest owner of record being Hosea and Ethan Grosh, the two brothers who found the first silver of what would eventually become known as The Comstock Lode, giving rise to the wealth and boom that built Silver City, Gold Hill, and Virginia City. Yep, the Virginia City of Mark Twain legend...that one.

Rustic in the extreme, the original part of the house was built into a mine drift and had 2 foot thick adobe walls! A drift is the part of a mine that goes straight back into a mountain, as opposed to a shaft, which of course goes either straight down or at a steep angle. You know the mine the Seven Dwarves go Hi-Ho-ing off to each morning? That's a drift style mine. Our house also had a wooden addition of living room and two bedrooms on the front, but NO bathroom at all. Well there was an outhouse, but that's not really a bathroom, now is it? The bathroom was the first thing dad worked on, and it was built in the space that opened to the drift. My bedroom looked out on the hill behind the house, and when the snows arrived in Fall my window was covered until Spring thaw. We actually ended up using the old mine drift as a pantry and cold storage area...would've been a brilliant wine cellar! Of course we also had to wipe out a healthy population of rats who'd been living there for ages, too. Not much fun. Our place was at 5,200 feet, at the foot of a set of igneous rock outcroppings called "Devil's Gate." I learned to bake in that house, too. In an antique cast-iron coal stove at high altitude. That's right, I know how to tell the temperature of an oven by throwing a little flour in and observing the colour. If you can bake in those conditions, modern appliances are, well, a piece of cake!

Living in Silver City in the early 70s was about as remote as it gets. We had one of the very last hand-crank telephone systems in the country. We all shared one line and had to signal the operator to place a call and signal again when finished! The only way to get any radio reception in our mountainous canyon was by climbing to the top of a hill. Early mornings the Carson City station played old Swing music of the 40s, so I'd climb up there at daybreak and dance to the sounds of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw. A wild young thing dancing atop a mountain in an equally wild place..what a vision I must have been! Evenings found me taking a different path on the mountain to a very different destination. Around the back side of the hill was a cave that overlooked the green valley of a single farm - built on the one creek that ran through the area. The cave was decorated in petroglyphs and pictographs left by some ancient tribe, and became my safe haven and escape from the madness of my parent's house. It was my habit to arrive there in late afternoon, then watch as the sun dipped slowly below the horizon. A red-tailed hawk and I became great friends during that time, arriving in the valley each afternoon about the same time, then me quietly watching him weave and lift and glide and soar in a lovely sunset ballet right at my eye level. I have very fond memories of those quiet moments.

Other strange things happened in Silver City, too.

There was the morning I deviated from my normal hike to the top of the hill for Swing music and instead chose the route through the more-populated part of town (a total of some 70 people lived in Silver City when I was there). As I walked past the last couple of houses and headed into a completely unpopulated and remote area, a weird, disembodied voice spoke in a rasp from a faceless house "Hello pretty girl..." I kept walking, every sense aware, not even turning to look back. I only got a few feet further when my survival instincts kicked in. I took a very quick turn and then a headlong dash through a yard and a down different hill to get myself back to the safety of my own house and my dysfunctional but not murderous parents. I never went up that road again.
And there's the summer spent learning all about adobe as my dad and I rebuilt two of the other three adobe cabins on the property, using the third for brick and making some bricks ourselves, then mortaring them into place and finally painting the structure with lime-based whitewash. After my experience with THAT nasty stuff, I had a very fresh appreciation of why Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into doing the job of painting Aunt Polly's picket fence.

Or I could tell you about the time the stranger came to the door, something that SELDOM occurred because we were WAY out in the mountains, and you had to park your car and walk across a bridge to get to our house, a distance of some 100 yards or so - not terrifically inviting all in all. We saw him coming, and my mother had me train dad's loaded 22 pistol, with the safety off, on the guy, with instructions to "shoot if he tries ANYthing." He didn't, but there were some hairy moments.

And of course there's my own private Androcles and the Lion-esque tale of the wolf who came to the door one morning for help with a porcupine quill in his paw! Or at least, he was the size, shape, and had the obvious intelligence of a wolf. I was known by the locals as someone they could take their hurt animals to for care, and I guess word had gotten out within the wild animal community, too. This beautiful fellow just showed up one morning, standing on his hind legs, front paw on the glass of the kitchen door, looking me dead in the eye as I rounded the corner. You'd think I'd have screamed at such a sight, but I didn't. Instead, I went to the door and opened it...the animal slowly backing away as I did, noticeably not putting weight on one paw. I asked him what he wanted of me; he held that paw up and whimpered slightly. I could see the tip of a quill sticking out between his pads, so I turned for a set of pliers and approached him carefully. And he lay down and put his paw out to me. I quickly pulled the quill out, and he growled sternly from the pain, but immediately dropped his head, gave my hand a single lick, and then turned and disappeared into the hills. I never saw him again.

And I haven't told you about helping move the bodies from the old cemetary to make room for roadwork, or learning to handle and use dynamite, nor have I begun to tell any tales of my time down exploring the old mines...the big square shaft room into which I had to repel - one slip and I was gone forever. After doing all that, I went to the Mackay in Reno to learn the history I'd seen, first hand, and only then did I realise just how incredibly dangerous what I had been doing was. Wild, crazy, young and immortal.

Oh, the stories I shall take to my grave! Yeah, it was a VERY wild place, and but for being a 20 year old without a single friend in the area, and living with two constantly difficult people, I loved it.

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