Thursday, June 28, 2007

Haircuts and Hillbilly Hugs, Part II

As Barry and I began our journey on U. S. Highway 50, I remember thinking, “Well, this is not so lonely.” Compared to Bluff; Salina, Scipio, Holden and Delta, Utah are literally sprawling. Once we left Delta, however, I began to understand the designation. Delta is on the eastern edge of the Great Basin; a large inland region comprising approximately 200,000 square miles with no external drainage. The Basin is bounded by the Sierra Nevadas on the west and the Wasatch Mountains on the east, and was named by explorer John C. Fremont, who felt it resembled a gigantic bowl; a gigantic, empty and sparsely populated bowl. The region is stark and solitary; at times overwhelming in its enormity.

Our destination was Nevada turquoise mines owned by rough and ready Tuffy C. Barry and I have been buying turquoise from Tuffy for many years, and enjoy the color and variety of his stones. Although dealing with the man is always a challenge, we have managed to stay on the inside longer than most, and Barry had recently secured an invitation to Tuffy’s mines. When Brother John Huntress, master bead maker, heard the news, he informed us we definitely did not want to miss the experience, so Barry and I fired up the Subaru and headed west.

Barry had ambitiously made reservations for us at the Lincoln Motel in Austin, just 20 or 30 miles from the mines. Since it was already 6:00 p.m. when we exited Delta and entered the Basin, I was pretty sure we would not make it to Austin that night, and so it was. Exhaustion forced us to stop in Eureka, a small town 70 miles west of Austin. Since it was late and the Best Western was full, we secured lodging at the Sundown. Reasoning that Barry had gotten us into this adventure so he should accept the higher risk, I advised him to make a run for the office while I guarded the car.

From the outside, the Sundown looked as though it had flamed out decades ago. Oil field workers in boxer shorts and tattooed and pierced women stood, reclined or slouched in many of the open doorways. Barry and I feigned courage and soldiered past them all. Locating our room, we were surprised to find it 1970s comfortable. The roughnecks and working girls retired about midnight and I slept peacefully, dreaming of inland oceans.

Early the next morning, with a loose description where to find Tuffy’s turquoise treasure trove, we were on our way to the mines. After a brief misfire, and a lot of bumping around on dirt roads, we finally arrived at our destination. I must admit, but for an an old Caterpillar track hoe parked next to the high wall, I would not have recognized the mine as being of any consequence.

View from Motel
View from the Motel.

When Tuffy finally arrived a few hours later and fired up the hoe, I told Barry I intended to drive into Austin to scope out the town and get a few supplies. Saltine crackers, sardines in mustard sauce, original Spam and white bread were high on the list. After our good luck at the Sundown Lodge, I had high hopes for Austin.

Upon entering the town from the east, however, my expectations were immediately dashed. Austin was founded in 1862, when a horse owned by prospector W. H. Talbott kicked up a piece of quartz containing gold and silver. That occurrence set off a mining rush that brought 10,000 people to the town and lasted until the early 1880s. Since then, Austin has been in steep decline, and the population had dwindled to about 200 souls. The junkyard on the east side of town set the tone, which continued the entire eight or ten blocks comprising the community. To say it was bleak would be a gross understatement. Spotting the Lincoln Motel, my heart sunk even further. From the highway, it looked as though the lodge had been abandoned in the 1880 mass exodus. After a little searching, I was able to secure a few necessities and a cast off Omaha Steak styrofoam cooler from the local convenience store and headed back.

During my absence, Tuffy had mucked out the mine, and he and Barry were beginning to probe the clay veins for mineralogical specimens. I made my report, and Barry looked at me the way he does when I am spinning one of my trading post yarns. It was not until we checked into the motel that he fully comprehended the vitality of my account.

After maybe a century of use, the mattresses at the Lincoln Motel looked as though they might have been slept on by Mr. Lincoln himself. Decades of use had compressed them to about three inches thick, and they sloped dramatically toward the headboard. The television was so old it had just one channel, which continuously broadcast an infomercial for 1950s music. Strangely enough, with my feet pointed towards the headboard to ensure the blood did not run to my head, I slept like a king.

The next morning, while the mining team organized itself, I went for a walk around town. Noticing a bottle and jewelry shop a few blocks up the street, I started in that direction. Since the “Closed” sign was still up, I just peered in through the glass. Alice, a woman in her late eighties, unlocked the doors and invited me in, saying, “Honey, there’s no reason to look through the windows when you can come inside.” I inquired how she was getting along and was informed that she was fine but for a back problem that had kept her down a while.

Lying on a mat just inside the front door was the oldest big dog I had ever seen; her coat and eyes were misty gray, her teeth were mustard yellow or missing and she had large growths on the only side I could see. “Eighteen years old,” Alice proclaimed. “She’s 18 years old and her name is Lady. Isn’t she beautiful? The Washington Post called and wants to do a story on her. She’s part hound and part rottweiler. Isn’t she beautiful?” I had to admit there was an unusual and exceptional beauty to both Alice and Lady. Lady rolled over so I could scratch her tummy, and Alice advised me that Lady was an extremely good judge of character, so I must be all right. Asking Lady if she needed to go outside to, “do her business,” Alice let the dog out. Lady’s business required a trip across Highway 50, which constituted Main Street Austin, to a vacant lot. Because Lady could walk only a few steps before requiring a long respite, I expressed my concern about her getting across the street safely. “Don’t worry Honey,” Alice reassured me, “that is the Lonely Highway.”

Small Town of Austin
Alice's shop in Austin, Nevada.

Lady returned and demanded another scratch, so I willingly obliged. In the meantime Alice had directed me towards two soda pop bottles I wanted to buy for our bottle collecting buddies. Once the purchase was consummated, I felt an overwhelming urge to give Alice a hug. She intuitively shuffled out from behind the counter, shyly embraced me and said, “That was a hillbilly hug. My old momma used to say they will keep you alive at least one more day.” Hoping to keep us both alive even longer, I gave Alice another hug and departed the store with a new fondness for Austin and its residents.

As Barry and I left for the mines that day, knowing I would likely not return for a long time, I drove slowly past Alice’s store. I felt completely recharged; fully satisfied that I had once again discovered an unexpected gem in the heart of America.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

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