WILDCAT AT DAWN
The wildcat emerged from his lair to be greeted by the dawn, with the Sun just peeking above Mount Tobin, two mountain ranges away, and forty miles distant. Mount Tobin was as far as he could see, the extent of his vision being limited only by the curvature of the Earth. The nearly total transparency of the dry Nevada desert air would allow him to see forever if not for our planetary geometry. The wildcat peered down on Buena Vista Valley, a high desert valley whose lowest point was still more than four thousand feet above sea level. The wildcat stood on a ridge on the side of Cow Canyon, perched halfway up Buffalo Mountain. The rugged mountain, standing over eight thousand feet high, was situated near the south end of the Humboldt Range in northwestern Nevada.
Over the eons, as the Earth performed its tectonic dance, the mountains and valleys of Nevada aligned and folded together in a repeating pattern like the corrugated bellows of a saloon singer’s squeezebox. This area became know as the “Basin and Range”, so named after this distinctive geological undulation. The wildcat was not here by chance, for it was among these mountains, and their tortured formations, that the wildcat’s favored prey resided.
As the sun continued to rise, the wildcat casually surveyed his domain, with his gaze pausing at a group of eight wild horses quietly moving across the opposite side of the canyon. The mustangs saw him too, but they were used to his presence and knew they had nothing to fear, so they continued to graze peacefully. Suddenly, a jackrabbit burst forth from the cover of a nearby sagebrush, having been spooked by the wildcats quiet movement. The rabbit swiftly departed in a crazy zigzag pattern, but the wildcat failed to pursue. The wildcat had easier and more delicious quarry on his mind. He turned and reentered his lair and sat down in his usual place. His father approached and placed a steaming plate full of bacon and eggs on the small table. Yes, this was a great way to get a start on another day of “wildcatting”, the name for a specific type of hard-rock mining. After breakfast, the wildcat and his father would go in pursuit of their ultimate prey — silver ore.
I am afraid at this point I must delve into a little history and definition. This is necessary in order to provide some context for what is to come in upcoming episodes of Life on Buffalo Mountain. After this historical diversion, I will concentrate on the content and meaning of my memories, as that approach is likely to be more entertaining and enlightening.
In mining, as in life, there are many ways to go about getting what you most desire. Open-pit mining is the technique used to extract most metals in the 21st century. I could talk about open-pit mining, with all of its pros and cons, but that is not our story here. Our story also does not include gold panning, or dredging and sluicing. Our story is about underground hard-rock mining, and in particular, wildcat mining. A wildcat miner, usually called a wildcatter, is a miner who works alone or in small groups. The wildcatter works his own claims, and reaps his rewards or suffers his losses depending on the success or failure of his mine. Historically, most underground miners were not wildcatters, but instead worked for mine owners and were paid wages. You could call this type of miner a company miner. In the old west, company miners tended to work in brutal conditions and were paid wages that didn’t go far in the hyper-expensive boomtowns that surrounded the big company mines. However, there were a few individualists who didn’t want to work for the big mine owners, and they became wildcatters. They did their own prospecting, staked their own claims, and worked their own mines. Only a miniscule number of wildcatters succeeded and hit it big, while the vast majority failed and returned home, or became company miners, or drank themselves to death in the local saloon.
The era of mining boomtowns eventually came to a close in Nevada around the end of the eighteen hundreds. The nineteen hundreds was a period of transition, with some wildcatters still working independently-owned underground mines, while the big companies began working huge open-pit operations. Today, the days of the wildcatter are essentially over in Nevada, and the big corporate owned open-pit mines are producing billions of dollars in gold and other minerals.
The upcoming series of posts will be the story of life at an independently owned underground silver mine located on Buffalo Mountain in the waning days of wildcatting. The story is set in the year 1974, and the featured wildcats are your author and his father. The story just happens to be true, or at least as true as forty-one year old memories can be. Much of the story is about mining, but a major part of the story is about transitions and discoveries that have little to do with mining, and much more to do with life.
It is my responsibility as a memoirist to invite you, my reader, to join in my memories and to make them your own. How you do that is up to you. Perhaps, like Carl Sandburg‘s fog, you will want to come on little cats feet. It is my hope that you will be more like Katy Perry, and with the eye of the tiger, roar, and make the leap complete. Whichever approach you take, please join me in becoming a wildcat by exploring Life on Buffalo Mountain.
As a teaser, and in no particular order, here are the probable titles of some of the upcoming episodes: Zen and the Art of Rock Drilling – BOOM! – You Turn Me On – The Wildcat with Nine Lives or Casting the First Stone – From Don Draper to Dad – On the Road Again – Night On Buffalo Mountain – Mucking It Up – Desert Hermitage – Hey Buster, What’s It Worth to Ya Anyway? – and other titles yet to be named.
I am looking forward to seeing all of you wildcats up on Buffalo Mountain.