Life on Buffalo Mountain

An Online Series By Mark Stormon

From a miner with the soul of a poet, here’s a story about what it’s like to be a wildcat hard rock miner on a perfect Nevada day.

Episode 2 – Sensuality and the Art of Rock Drilling

THE INVITATION

You already know that one of the great rewards of the reading life is the opportunity to vicariously live the lives of others.  What a limited place this world would be if each one of us could only lead our own life.  For the next little while it will be 1974 and I will be a young and fit wildcat silver miner in the remote desert wilderness of Nevada.  What follows happened to me, and now you are invited to come along and join in my memory of a special day up on Buffalo Mountain.

THE CHALLENGE

….I stand at the portal to the mine and intuitively know that many others would be dreading what I am about to encounter.  When looking at the mine entrance the weak at heart might envision Dante’s inscription above the portal to the gates of hell — abandon all hope, ye who enter hereBut I have no fear, as an infusion of strength courses through my body in anticipation of what is to come.  I have faced this challenge before, and I know that the experience will be a test of my ability to withstand a prolonged assault on my senses.  I also know that occasionally, on very special days, what will begin as if it were one of the Seven Labors of Hercules will mysteriously morph into a transformative experience.  It is my hope that today will be one of those magical days.

BATTLEDRESS

It is a sizzling June afternoon on Buffalo Mountain, and I and my father, who is also my assistant today, have just finished loading our equipment into the ore car.  We are both dressed as if we were soldiers about to go into battle.  We are each wearing steel-toed boots, work jeans and a shirt covered by a heavy water-resistant padded jumpsuit, work gloves, a miner’s helmet with an attached miner’s lamp, a set of heavy-duty hearing protectors like the ones you see on airport runway workers, and thick plastic safety glasses.  Here, above ground, this battledress is hot and unnecessary, but below ground, it will be essential.

THE DESCENT BEGINS

My father engages the winch and the ore car begins its descent into the mountain with me trailing close behind, manhandling two long hoses, one an air hose, and the other a water hose.  The hoses snake their way through the inclined shaft as they are pulled down by the ore car, and I wrestle with them to keep them from tangling and snagging on the ore car tracks or the jagged walls of the shaft.  The inclined shaft that I am entering descends at a forty-degree angle, about the same steepness as a flight of stairs between floors in a house, but there are no conveniently level steps here, only steeply angled slick rock waiting to inflict painful falls.

During my descent, I have time to reflect on the two primary ways in which I, and others, experience life.  Most often, I inhabit the world of words.  During my recent stint as a student at the University of Nevada-Reno, and while working as a bookseller in a bookstore, the world of words was the focus of my existence.  But there have been times when the other world, the realm of the senses, came to the forefront and forced words to go and hide for a while.  These times were always special, and while continuing the trip down the shaft I embark on another journey, a journey of remembrance in the form of a daydream.  My vision is of riding a single wave during a transcendent day of surfing, back before I became a Nevadan.

RIDING A WAVE IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES

…. The ocean is a cerulean blue, a sky mirror of liquid glass.  I revel in these glassy conditions, with no wind chop to interfere with a waves perfection.  The smell of brine and seaweed permeates the still air.  I am not here to compete with anyone or anything, including the waves.  Instead, I am here soul-surfing, ready to embrace whatever the sea brings my way.  Straddling the board, staring out to sea waiting for the next big wave, my mind is empty and watchful.  I detect the oceanic horizon begin another of its heavenward ascensions as the swell I have been waiting for makes its approach.  Furiously paddling, I head for the prime position to make my drop into the curl.  Effortlessly coming to my feet on take-off, I perform a fluid sweeping turn and feel the rush of speed as I find the wave’s sweet spot.  Sensing the subtle changes in the shape and speed of the breaking wave, I deftly maneuver, rocketing down the fall-line of the evolving wave.  Scanning ahead, the sea is opaque with only its surface visible, but when I shift my gaze and look straight down, the water becomes transparent.  The seafloor here is a shallow shoal, and jagged rocks rush by below.  The danger of an uncontrolled wipeout on this reef of stone adds to the thrill of the ride.  Nearing shore, I sense that the wave is about to close out in front of me, and at the last moment I safely kick-out.  I slowly head back out toward the break, basking in the afterglow of the ride.  Emerging from the daydream, I realize that in the dream, as in the actual ride long ago, I had no need to enter the world of words.  The ride, like most intense experiences, was lived totally in the immediate realm of the senses.

CONVENTIONAL SENSUALITY AND A FINAL DAYDREAM

Looking around and seeing that there is still some distance to go before reaching the mine’s bottom, I consider returning to my reveries.  I suspect that the dreamscape that I wish to enter next, explores what most people visualize when they hear the word sensual, although this particular form of sensuality inhabits only a tiny fraction of the greater realm of the senses.  As I subconsciously manage the hoses while descending, I enter a new vision of a past memory, the dream begins ….

…. My college girlfriend lights the cinnamon scented candles and turns down the lights.  She slowly walks over to the record player, hips swaying like luxuriant palm fronds immersed in the trade-winds.  Sliding the album from its sleeve, she places the record on the turntable and puts the needle down gently to avoid scratching the vinyl.  The sultry voice of Roberta Flack enters the room…the first time ever I saw your face…emerging from the speakers.  Recognizing that this is my girlfriend’s romance record, the hair on the back of my neck rises.  She dances across her apartment floor with bare feet, her cotton candy colored toenails looking as sweet as spun sugar.  Arriving at the couch she enfolds herself into the curves of my body.  The vanilla fragrance of her perfume mixes with the waft of cinnamon coming from the candles, the combined scent that of nibblicious Christmas cookies.  I start to speak, but she quickly yet gently puts her fingers to my lips, stopping me before I can say anything.  I realize that she is right, no words are needed, or even welcome now.

record player

Her little kisses travel slowly up the side of my neck and come to a lingering halt at my earlobe, finally giving it a tender playful bite.  I can feel her warm breath in my ear and my breathing begins to deepen in response.  She slides around in front of me and reaches for the top button of my shirt.  Smiling saucily, she unbuttons the buttons slowly, deliberately pausing for a short time between each button to increase the anticipation.  The unfastening complete, she opens the shirt and ever so gently begins to run her fingernails over my chest, giving me goose bumps.  Detecting my response, she gives a short quiet laugh, delighted by her powers of seduction.  My excitement escalates as her painted nails take deliciously dangerous detours across my chest.  Finally, she begins to slide her warm fingers down in search of – wham, I slam into the ore car, which has come to an unnoticed stop at the bottom of the mine shaft.  The painful arrival here has brought an abrupt halt to my dreaming, but I am not overly disappointed as I know the memory is still available for future retrieval.  I realize that today when I entered the realm of the underground, I entered a world where the senses dominate, and that the likelihood of new sensory experiences can be just as enticing as dreams.

AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SHAFT

At a couple of hundred feet down, I have reached the working face of the mine.  I drop the hoses and face back up the shaft where I can see a distant circle of light that reminds me that another world awaits above.  Some natural light filters down from above, but most of what I see is brought to life by the beam from my miner’s lamp.  Every time I turn my head, new scenes are illuminated and old scenes recede into the deep shadows. Later, when my father joins me, the random movements and unexpected crossings of both beams of light, mine and his, will become surrealistic and kaleidoscopic.

This new world is both immediate and enveloping.  When I stretch out in the form of a cross I touch both walls at the same time, and when I reach overhead I place the palms of my hands on the roof and suddenly I am Atlas holding up the weight of the world.  I idly wonder why miners call the rock overhead a roof instead of a ceiling, but the question remains unanswered.  I do not fear the mountain, but respect it, always knowing that it could easily make me a permanent part of its being.  Dropping my hands to my sides, I contemplate that as long as I am down here I will continuously feel these walls and that roof and that even when I am not touching them, they will permeate my psyche.  At times the roof will become the sword of Damocles, hanging by a single hair from a mustang’s tail, precariously poised for a final downward thrust.  Moments later, the entire shaft might transform into an all-embracing womb.  I feel as if these vagaries of perception are the result of the uneasy treaty between me and the mountain.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE MOUNTAIN

Buffalo Mountain

I remember the conversation I had with the mountain when I first began mining its rugged slope.  The mountain and I came to an understanding back then.  The two of us agreed that if the mountain would refrain from killing me or my father, I would work to make the mountain greater.  I explained to the desert dome that I would gift it a cave and that mountains with caves are more noble than those without.  I promised that our digging would last only a geological heartbeat and that the manmade shaft we left behind would almost instantly transition into a nurturing cave.  I convinced the rampart that our gift was likely to last for millennia, and that as a result, countless generations of subterranean creatures would be able to dwell in its mountainous heart.  The cave would soon become home for bats, desert pack rats, mice, scorpions, spiders, and countless insects.  Other nonresident animals would be able to take advantage of its welcoming shade in summer, and the protection of its warmth during the killing cold of deep winter.  Snakes, lizards, coyotes, and jackrabbits would occasionally enjoy the cave’s protective embrace.  Perhaps sometime in the distant future the greatest of the desert predators, the mountain lion, would decide to make the cave its den.  The cave would then truly become a gift from one wildcat to another.

mountain lion on rock

I recall that the conversation with the mountain was completely one-sided, with the mountain remaining typically mute.  But I noticed that there was no negative response in the form of an earthquake, and willingly interpreted this inaction as the mountain’s agreement.  I would hold up my end of the bargain and trusted that the mountain would not renege on its end of the deal.

RUNNING HOT AND COLD

While on the surface I was hot with all of my protective gear on, but now welcome the perpetual 52-degree air found at this level underground.  Summer or winter, day or night, the temperature remains the same at this relatively shallow depth.  Only in very deep mines does the Earth develop a fever.  I spuriously speculate that the hellish heat of deep mines could easily be the result of the perpetual probing of the steaming fingers of Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.  Though the cool air at this level is refreshing, soon I will be wet and begin to feel the chill.

THE ULTIMATE INTIMATE ACT

For a moment, I am singularly aware of my surroundings, then my focus shifts to the task at hand.  I have come down here to participate in hard-rock mining’s most intimate act.  My father and I, and our machines are going to penetrate the mountain to prepare for blasting.  We are going to do this by drilling a number of holes in the working face of the shaft so that these voids can later be filled with explosives.

Blasting is dangerous but easy, after all, the explosives are doing all the work.  Mucking out the ore after blasting is hard physical work, but it is a mindless task that requires nothing but muscle. Drilling is different, it requires skill that sometimes rises to the level of art, and it is likely to be one of the most intensely sensorial activities I will ever take part in.

ONE MEAN MONGREL OF A MACHINE

I prepare to unload the equipment from the ore car.  Sticking out of the top of the rock carrier, and attached to the two hoses that were dragged down, is the most unlikely looking machine that I have ever seen, with the equally unlikely name of  a jackleg drill.  I reflect on the nature of the beast.  The machine is a mongrel, half jackhammer, and half rock drill, with a gigantic tail in the form of a telescoping air leg used for holding the machine in yoga-like positions.  This mongrel is no Poodle/Chihuahua mix, instead, it has the attitude of a wrecking yard Doberman, and the muscle of a Bullmastiff.

I believe that machines are either male or female in nature and that this machine is as masculine as it gets.  First of all, there is the name, it’s a Jack, not a Jill, but that’s the least of it.  I chuckle when considering what Freud would think about this tool.  When the air leg is fully retracted, and there is no drill steel attached, the combined length of the drill and leg is about seven feet.  But, when the air leg is fully extended, and a ten-foot-long drill steel is mounted in the chuck, the combined length of steel, drill, and air leg, grows to nearly twenty feet.  This increase in length might make even Freud a little envious.

man with Jackleg drill

The jackleg drill’s primary purpose is also decidedly Freudian.  It is designed to penetrate Mother Earth and help release seeds to be scattered across the globe.  These seeds of silver, trapped for millennia within the mountain, could soon be found in a beautiful silver and turquoise bracelet on the wrist of a Navajo woman, in the scalpel of a doctor in Africa, or in the electronic switches and wires that keep the world’s lights aglow.  I feel pride knowing that thanks to our efforts, the precious progeny of Buffalo Mountain will no longer reside just in Nevada, but will be found worldwide wherever silver performs its magic act.

READY – SET – GO

Like a bridegroom lifting and carrying his bride across the threshold, I hoist the 105 lb. drill out of the ore car and carry it to the working face of the shaft, setting it down gently.  I return to the ore car and extract three drill steels, probably better known as drill bits to the uninitiated.  I observe that these steels are two, four, and six feet long, and not surprisingly given their name, are made of steel.  These steels are no toothpicks, as they have enough girth to drill holes wide enough to welcome sticks of dynamite.  Each steel has a tungsten carbide rock bit at its front tip and a raised collar near its rear tip that keeps the steel married to the machine when the chuck on the drill is locked.  These steels have a small hollow chamber running down their length so that water can be injected at the bit face.  The injected water serves three purposes, it helps to cool the bit, it helps lubricate between bit and rock, and it greatly reduces the amount of rock dust that ends up in the mine shaft.  I carry the three steels over and place them next to the jackleg.  Due to their length, my father will have to bring both the eight and ten-foot drill steels down with him when he descends.

While I prepare underground, on the surface my father starts up the air compressor, a rackety but serviceable old machine about the size of a VW bus.  He checks gauges and turns on valves, assuring that the air that travels down the hose to the drill will have the necessary power to break solid rock.  He turns on the water feed valve on the water trailer, then grabs the two long drill steels and descends to meet me at the bottom of the shaft.

With my father’s arrival, I raise the drill into position steadying it with the extended air leg that I wedge into the shaft’s floor.  I place the rock cutting bit near the roof of the shaft, knowing that I must drill from top to bottom to keep residual water from filling the lower holes.  I open the tools water feed valve and water begins to travel through the drill steel down to the cutting bit.  My father sees that I am ready to begin drilling and responds by surrounding the shaft of the drill steel with his gloved hands, as he prepares to help hold the steel in place while the hole is started.  He nods his head, and I slightly nudge the throttle valve handle forward.  The drill steel begins to slowly rotate and hammer, spinning within my father’s grasp.  After a few seconds, the bit catches and the entrance to the hole begins to take shape.  As soon as my father sees that the hole is sufficiently deep to keep the bit from skipping across the shaft’s face, he lets go of the steel and I push the throttle valve all the way forward.

INTO THE MAELSTROM

Like the primordial Big Bang, a new universe explodes into existence and I am at the center of the maelstrom.  Air, normally gossamer and benign, slams into the piston inside the drill with the force of ninety pounds landing on every square inch of the surface of the piston head.  The piston furiously transfers power to the drill steel which begins to pulverize the rock at the tortuous rate of thirty-eight blows every second.  Both drilling and hammering, the tool becomes a bucking bronco.  Without the aid of the stabilizing air leg, even an unshorn Samson couldn’t impress Delilah by handholding this whirling dervish at the odd angles required.  Straddling the air leg and pushing against the drill handles, I add my weight and muscle to the power of the machine.  Like a boxer’s knockout punch, vibration is transferred into every fiber of my body yet I continue to stand.

BOUNCING TO THE BEAT

Added to the mayhem of the physical power of the tool is the deafening roar of the machine doing its work.  I am inundated by the sound of steel chewing rock, the piston slamming back and forth inside the tool, and pressurized air screaming from the exhaust port of the drill only inches from my face.  This cacophony is multiplied by the perfect echo chamber of the engulfing walls and roof.  The heavy-duty ear protectors can only provide something like the serenity of a Saturn-five rocket launch.  Like sitting three feet away from twelve-foot-high base speakers at a Rolling Stones concert, the sound cascading down on me is so intense that I feel the air in my lungs bouncing in time with the tool’s beat.

SWIMMING IN MALT-O-MEAL

The sensory overload continues to increase as water mixed with crushed rock forms a watered-down Malt-O-Meal textured slurry that pours out of the hole I am drilling and slides down the drill steel, onto and along the raised drill, down my arms and body, and onto my boots.  Much of this mountain ooze is caught and blocked by my jumpsuit, but as usual, some of the rocky syrup makes it underneath my battledress and intensifies the chill from the mine’s fifty-two-degree air.

PURPLE HAZE ALL IN MY BRAIN

The air pulsing out of the exhaust port has enough power to kick up the loose dust near the bottom of the shaft.  The exhaust air contains machine oil from the inline oiler that continuously lubricates the tool.  This machine oil exhaust looks like the smoke coming from an old car, and it rapidly mixes with the multicolored rock dust in the air.  The light from both of our miner’s lamps, and the sliver of light coming down from the mine entrance combines to illuminate the dust and oil cloud and the effect is that of a purple haze worthy of a Jimi Hendrix lyric.

Jimi Hendrix poster

THE SMELL AND TASTE OF DRILLING

The odors of vaporized machine oil, dry rock dust, wet rock slurry, unwashed miners, and explosives residue from previous blasting permeates the air.  This witches’ brew is strong enough so that not only can I smell it, I can taste it as I begin to breathe through my mouth due to my exertions.  Though I am chilled, I am sweating from my efforts and the taste of salt is added to the mix as a drop of sweat drips down into the side of my open mouth.

TWO DOWN – ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-EIGHT TO GO

The assault on my senses continues for the next couple of minutes as the steel plunges ever deeper.  When I see that the steel is fully buried, I pull back on the air throttle valve and the bull ride comes to a temporary end.  I have drilled two feet of hole, only one hundred and forty-eight feet more to go.  The prospect is daunting.

My father reaches out and unlocks the chuck that holds the steel in the machine, and I pull back the tool and move it to the side so that my assistant can remove the steel from the hole.  After extracting the two-foot-long steel he picks up the four-foot steel and pushes it down the hole until it contacts the bottom.  I lift the unwieldy machine back into place maneuvering it until the end of the steel slides into the drill chuck.  My father locks the chuck, I push the throttle all the way forward, my world explodes again.

The cycle of drill … change steels … drill … change steels … drill …. continues with each hole ultimately penetrating ten feet into the mountain.  Before I began drilling, I determined that I would have to drill fifteen of these ten-foot-deep holes to get the desired result from the next blasting session.  Experience told me that I would need more holes vertically than horizontally, to match the shape of the existing shaft which is higher than it is wide.  The necessary pattern would consist of three vertical rows of five holes each, with one row in the middle of the working face, and another row on each side of this central column.

MAN, MACHINE, MOUNTAIN, MAGICALLY MELD

I reflect on how each drilling session is different.  Most sessions are a battle from beginning to end, with me fighting some combination of the mountain, the machine, or even myself.  Today I am lucky, with the mountain putting up no resistance.  As more holes are drilled successfully, I begin to sense that rare transition that occurs on a few special days.  Combat becomes cooperation.  Man, machine, mountain, magically meld.  The act of drilling becomes an exercise in Zen meditation.  But unlike the quiet fusion with the world that you would normally associate with the essence of a Zen-like state, I have now entered a very intense relationship with the sensory world.

Without entering the world of words, I feel the changes around me.  The cacophony becomes a symphony and each time I slide the throttle valve open, the speed of the drill accelerates just as a musician’s pace quickens as the conductor calls for an ever-faster tempo from allegro, to vivace, to vivacissimo, to allegro vivace, to presto, and ultimately, to prestissimo.  At full throttle, I hear an ultra-powerful Kumi-daiko group performance of Taiko drumming in my head.  The rapid Japanese-like drumbeat being perfectly harmonious with this unconventional Zen meditation masquerading in the guise of rock drilling.

As more holes are completed my trance becomes deeper and my ordinary sense of time disappears.  I can no longer tell whether I have been immersed in this state of total sensory exultation for a moment or for many hours.  The narrow beam of my miner’s lamp seems to illuminate the entire world, and in a very real way it does, as my world has narrowed to the single act of rock drilling for the duration of this meditation.  My senses are on maximum overload yet my underlying state is one of complete serenity.  I have become one with the mountain for at least this undefined and indefinable moment in time.

A TIBETAN SAND PAINTING

As my father pulls the last steel from the final hole, I heft the jackleg drill back into the ore car.  Freed from the behemoth machine for the first time in several hours, I turn toward the bottom of the shaft and slowly sag to the mine floor.  I gaze upon my creation, a geometrically satisfying pattern of holes that looks something like a high-numbered domino piece covering the face of the shaft.  I have not yet reverted to thinking in words, but later I will reflect on how this creation is reminiscent of a Tibetan sand painting.  Just as Tibetan monks enter a state of meditation while creating the sand painting, I too have entered a similar state while creating this pleasing pattern of blast holes.  Both creations, mine and that of the monks, are meant to last for only an artistic heartbeat.  Just as the monks will intentionally sweep away their sandy artwork almost immediately upon completion, my father and I will blast away our rock and hole creation later today.  For now, I immerse myself in the pattern’s beauty without thinking about the transitory nature of its existence.

makiingDestroying Tibetan sand paintings

REBIRTH

My father begins his return to the surface as I load the remaining steels into the ore car and organize the hoses for their upcoming journey.  Upon reaching the surface my father turns off the air compressor and engages the winch to bring up the ore car.  I hang on to the back of the ore car as it ascends, while from the surface my father pulls up the hoses, keeping them just in front of the car’s wheels.  I feel as if I am undergoing a true rebirth, with the hoses acting as an umbilical cord as I make my way up the mine shaft, a birth canal leading from the womb of the mountain to the new world above.

INTO THE LIGHT

Still in a Zen-like sensory trance as I near the surface, I squint against the emerging brightness of the summer sun.  As in the reports of those who have died and then been revived, I have an enveloping sense of heading into a bright and welcoming light.  Finally, I burst forth into the nearly overwhelming surface world of the desert mountain.  Immediately upon my emergence, my father walks away heading for the trailer where he will collapse in his bunk.  His silent departure is welcome, as wordless solitude allows me to remain in my meditative state for a while longer.  As my eyes begin to adapt I am in wonder over the deep celestial blue of the high desert sky.  The air’s intense color is only exceeded by its diamond clarity.  I raise my eyes and gaze on the far distant mountains, their serrated ridges appearing sharp enough to inflict visual paper cuts.  The only thing moving is a distant dust devil, miles away on the valley floor. I timelessly watch as the desert wind does its preferred dance, the Coriolis twist.

EMERGING FROM THE COCOON

Like a desert butterfly emerging from its cocoon, I begin to shed my miner’s battledress.  Off comes the hard hat and ear protectors, and I immediately notice the absence of all sound except for the brief and rare song of a desert songbird.  I pull off my damp boots and struggle out of my soaked jumpsuit.  My remaining clothes begin to steam as they immediately begin to dry in the hot desert air.

THE LIZARD KING

Pleasantly exhausted, I lie down on a large flat boulder near the mine’s portal, welcoming the sun.  Stretching out, I notice a lizard frozen still on the edge of the boulder I am occupying.  He stares at me with his reptilian gaze, as the sun glints off the hypnotically iridescent scales on his belly and throat.  I am mesmerized by the flashing scales, the intense deep royal blue color of a fine lapis lazuli crystal.  I lock eyes with the lizard and instinctively perceive that he is the true king of this desert domain, and to him, I am just another one of his subjects.  Finally, he tires of granting me this audience and rapidly departs to wreak havoc on the nearby kingdom of the ants.

MY RETURN TO THE WORLD OF WORDS

With the mesmerizing lizard’s departure, and the sun’s welcoming heat slowly penetrating my weary bones, I gradually transition back to the world of words.  Although this total immersion into the world of the senses has come to an end, I revel in the afterglow of the experience.  During my dive into the sensual world of rock drilling, I lived in what Paul Tillich called “the eternal now”.  With my return to the world of words, I inevitably return to the worlds of the past, the present, and the future.  With the entirely verbal concept of the future back in play, I cannot escape its ever-present, and often oppressive shadow, planning.  A plan for the rest of my work day begins to emerge.  I know that after a brief break I will need to set my charges and then blast.  This chore must be done today for the noxious fumes from the blasting to clear out of the shaft overnight.  I know that tomorrow morning I can safely start mucking out the newly blasted ore.

FOREVER GRATEFUL

As I head for the trailer to take a well-earned break, I slowly realize that this was one of the few days when rock drilling became a sensual meditation.  I suspect that when I am much older I will look back on this day as one of the highlights of my time on Buffalo Mountain, and for that memory, I will be forever grateful.