Tall Tales from the Big Fish

Today my Pops would have turned 75. The King of Isabelle Avenue left us far to soon. And while I am wistful on his birthday, I like to remember the man for who he really was. He was a backyard adventurer, a big spender, a mountain man, an ear piercer, and a fabricator of tales of wonder. He could tell you something completely absurd with such conviction – I always worried that the one time I called him on something would be the one time it was all true.

I'm sure your dad probably fought a goat in buckskins on any given Saturday.

Pops was a man for all seasons – even goat fighting season.

In 2003 I received a call from my brother Max. He asked me if I had seen Big Fish yet. I hadn’t even heard of it. He said I needed to see it. A couple of days passed and my nephew called and told me the same thing – I had to go see this movie. They offered no clue as to why, just that I must see it. I made the drive to Fayetteville with a friend and bought a ticket thinking this was just another movie. As I watched the movie I was stunned. At times I laughed so hard that my sides hurt. My friend was puzzled – it was funny, but not that funny. Each scene cracked me up, but I also felt deeply for the son – he lived in the shadow of his father’s larger than life personality. He had known this man his whole life and still had no idea of who he really was. He had decided that none of it was true, that it was all a giant tall tale. I knew exactly where the son was coming from.  I saw my father as a modern-day Peter Pan – telling tall tales while his audience was transfixed, all the while knowing that it was probably all a crock.

These fish tales hit a little close to home...

These fish tales hit a little close to home…

When I was 10 my teacher asked me to write a report that would explain what Watergate was. I, like many kids in class, looked to an adult to help me make sense of the daily news reports. Unfortunately, of all the adults in my life, I asked Pop. He told me a story that more closely resembled a James Bond movie that one of political corruption. I paraphrased what he had told me believing it was fact, and was rewarded with my first and only “D”. A note at the bottom of my report admonished me to “Check your facts!!” Clearly, Pops was not the best clearing house for the procurement of actual facts.

Tricky Dick or Ian Fleming?

Tricky Dick or Ian Fleming?

Sometimes his “facts” were better than the real ones and his delivery made his fabrications seem so real. It was hard to doubt him. That day in 5th grade I came to understand that it was all baloney – his remix of truth and fiction was designed solely for his own entertainment. In retrospect even Watergate makes me smile – his version actually made a lot more sense.

Here are a few of Pops’ most memorable whoppers:

The first Corvette was not fiberglass, it was made from stainless steel. The costs were too high to manufacture so they had to go with fiberglass. Serious collectors still look for those rare steel prototypes.

Looks like plastic to me...

Looks like plastic to me…

As a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps, Pops was on a transport ship where he encountered an Admiral who told him to put out his cigarette. He dropped the cigarette and crushed it with the toe of his shoe. Then he took the Admirals hat and threw it in the Atlantic Ocean. He was sent to the brig and got out of work for the duration of the trip.

Adrift on the high seas?

Adrift on the high seas?

There are morse code signals being sent out through the Television. You can also hear it in the background when the car radio is on. Sometimes Pop would tell you that we were hearing secret messages meant for the Nevada Test Site while watching the Rockford Files. This one may actually be true.

If you listen very closely and drink a few Buds you might here the dash-dot-dash of a secret message...

If you listen very closely and drink a few Buds you might hear the dash-dot-dash of a secret message…

He and his friends once kidnapped Elvis from a casino and made him play a concert in the parking lot of Las Vegas High School. Elvis was flattered and happy to oblige.

Sure Kid, I would love to put on a concert for you in a parking lot!

Sure Kid, I would love to put on a concert for you in a parking lot!

He was pursued by a princess while he was stationed in the Philippines. She was a beautiful woman who was rich beyond belief.

Unlike the movie, Pops was courted by just one princess who was not a Siamese twin...

Unlike the movie, Pops was courted by just one princess who was not a Siamese twin…

While stationed in Okinawa he was living in a barracks with his platoon. The guy on the bunk above him had terrible gas. One night pops and his buddies waited for the gaseous one to fall asleep and lit matches and held them close to his boxers waiting for an eruption. When he finally did pass gas it lit up like a flame thrower. The gaseous one never even woke up during the spectacle.

Pops at Home on Leave

Is this the face of a marine who would light his comrades boxers on fire? If this story were true wouldn’t barracks all over the world be blowing up just from the volume of methane?

He once played chess with Bobby Fisher on a Lear Jet and beat him. Specifically, he said that he lasted over 21 moves – to last longer than a dozen was technically a draw. At 22 moves Bobby would tip his King over and concede.

I actually read about a real contest where Bobby Fisher played 50 people at once, I wonder if there is a grain of truth to this tall tale?

I actually read about a real contest where Bobby Fisher played 50 people at once, I wonder if there is a grain of truth to this tall tale?

He was discharged from the Marine Corps after wrecking 13 Jeeps (Something about 13 wrecks seems to be a constant in his life story) They wanted to give him a dishonorable discharge for drunkenness but he threatened to re-enlist if they didn’t give him an honorable one.

A Jeep is one tough vehicle, unless you let Pop drive it...

A Jeep is one tough vehicle, unless you let Pop drive it…

When his parents were away for a weekend he chopped, dropped, and channeled the family sedan – a 49 Chevy.

Here's that Chevy in 1957 after my Pop decided to "customize" it while his folks were out of town.

Here’s that Chevy in 1957 after my Pop decided to “customize” it while his folks were out of town.

He and a buddy also took a pool liner and completely lined the inside of his parents’ convertible with is so that they could fill the car with water and drive it down Fremont Street like a mobile swimming pool. I wonder if this is what they were driving when they encountered Elvis?

Cruising this in a swimming pool makes you extra cool...

Cruising this in a swimming pool makes you extra cool…

After he left the Marines he became a police officer in North Las Vegas, he didn’t serve very long. He had 13 wrecks (again with the 13?) and was fired for shooting the Chief of Police’s cat with a pellet gun.

Did he get fired for wrecking too many of these or for harassing a cat?

Did he get fired for wrecking too many of these or for harassing a cat?

I didn’t learn the traditional lessons from Pop that most kids learn from their fathers about hard work and clean living, but I did learn some very important things. I learned that every story is important and probably bigger than it looks at the time. I learned the importance of having a good mechanic. I learned how much fun gunfire can be in inappropriate places. I learned to always keep a supply of Phillips screwdrivers handy. I learned that even someone’s flaws can be endearing at times. I learned about how important it is to really let someone off the hook. I learned that love is not a straight line – it’s a delightfully crooked path. I learned all of that and more from my Pop, the King of Isabelle Avenue.

Tales from the Diggins – Part 3 – Then and Now

The Last Summer

Around 1973 our summers in the wilds of northern Nevada came to an end. That summer Grandma and Grandpa made two trips north. On the first they went alone and met Uncle Ronnie and Herb the geologist to do the required assay work. After a week assaying Ron and Herb headed north to their homes in Oregon. Grandma and Grandpa spent another night before heading south to our home in Las Vegas – at least that was the plan.

In the morning they got into the pickup, and it wouldn’t start. Grandpa was pretty mechanical so he spent a couple of hours trying to get the engine to turn over, but it was no use. By noon they made the call, they were going to have to hike out.

In the days before cell phones there were few options. The truck had a CB in it but they were down in a valley and were unable to raise any response. Since they needed the truck to power up the CB, hiking to the nearest rise was not an option either. They decided to hike to the nearest ranch homestead hoping to find a telephone. The nearest paved road was 60 miles, the nearest town, Midas, was 25 – so they headed in the direction of Midas.

We did not have “hiking” gear at the Diggins. We wore heavy work boots to protect our feet and had shower shoes for showering in the spring. Grandma and Grandpa made that trek in those heavy boots carrying as much water as they could manage in the canteens. When they came across a homestead that night, they had walked 17 miles and their feet were blistered and bleeding. The rancher let them use the phone and they spent the night. In the morning the rancher took Grandpa back to camp to get the truck running. They had to put it in 4-wheel drive, lift it off the ground, and wrap a rope around a suspended wheel several times – they put the truck in gear and did a mid-air version of a push start with the rope on the tire. Once it was running Grandpa went back to the ranch and picked up Grandma and headed for the nearest city to seek medical attention.

Pops and a buddy had driven north and met Grandma and Grandpa in Battle Mountain, Nevada – a bit over 100 miles from the mine. They were both in a lot of pain and were in no shape to drive. Once they could travel Pops got them both home safe and sound where they recovered from their ordeal. I remember running into the house to see them and both of them had bandages on both feet. Grandma said that even her blisters had blisters. Hearing the tales of their trek only magnified both of them in my view – they really were amazing, they could do or conquer anything.

Late that summer they took what would be their last trip to the Diggins with my youngest brother Ronnie. He recalls this trip as the beginning of our grandmother’s progressive illness. She had rather suddenly developed swollen joints that her doctors assumed were caused by rheumatoid arthritis. They were actually caused by a toxic drug interaction – Grandma’s doctor had prescribed 2 meds for her that were toxic together. We later learned that they were listed in the Physicians Desk Reference as toxic in combination. Even though her pharmacist tried to alert her physician to the dangers, he arrogantly insisted he was the doctor and knew what he was doing. His arrogance and ignorance cost my grandmother her mobility and nearly her life before it was over. In less than a year we would be waiting at Loma Linda as a doctor told us she might last 24 hours if we were lucky. She did last another 25 years, but her life was changed forever after that summer and our memories of our Grandma changed from those of triumph and wonder to memories of hospitals and nursing care. Being the oldest, I have always been unwilling to set aside the wonderful woman who inspired me in place of the reality of her declining condition. I needed that woman who could do anything in my life, to see her reduced to a woman who could not stand without assistance was heartbreaking for our entire family.

She fought the good fight against her symptoms – she survived because of her own stubborn will to live. At Loma Linda she told me, “This crap won’t kill me, I won’t let it”, and I believed her. As her body declined she fought on, but when I think of her whole – strong, vital, and loving life – I think of those summers at the Diggins.

Uncle Ronnie continued to keep the claim active until the mid 80s. Going there without Grandma and Grandpa didn’t seem right for us. The Diggins faded into the place where childhood memories are stored. The chapter was closed.

Our Return to the Diggins

In 2009, my brother Max and I made the trek back to the Diggins. He and Pop had made the trip a couple of years earlier – they mailed me a box of rocks and a bottle of water from the Spring that I still have at the house. They had scouted out the route and spent a part of a day up there. I was so excited to hear that they had found it – Max and I began to plot a return ourselves.

I took my vacation over Memorial Day that year and we made the drive north. We made arrangements to stay at the Midas Saloon – the very same spot where Grandma had taken me to buy a creme soda on our weekly drives for supplies and to make phone calls.

The Midas saloon is virtually unchanged. You can still get a cold brew and some ice. The have guest houses and we stayed here during our visit.

The Midas saloon is virtually unchanged. You can still get a cold brew and some ice. They have guest houses and we stayed here during our visit.

When we were kids Midas had 11 school aged children in town. This was one child short of the requirement to keep their one-room school-house open. At the height of the Gold Rush there were 30,000 people living in Midas. Today there are 11 year-round residents. Summers see about a dozen more. The Saloon is the hub of the town – they serve dinner, drinks, and great conversation every night from May through September.

Max reflected in the mirror at the Midas Saloon

Max reflected in the mirror at the Midas Saloon

We ate there and slept in the guest cottage in the back. The whole town came out that night and we made connections with people whose parents and grandparents were in the area when we prospected on our claim in the 60s and 70s. Apart from Las Vegas and Reno, all of Nevada is really just a very spread out small town. Connections are everywhere. In that little Saloon I met people who lived on the same street where I bought my first home, I met a guy who knew my Uncle Ronnie, I met people who knew where our claim was because they had explored and loved those same hills. Nevada is like that.

This is the lock on the door of the Midas Jail - the door was open when I visited.

This is the lock on the door of the Midas Jail – the door was open when I visited.

Midas has modern homes and very old structures – the original jail still stands. Sadly the school-house burned down a few years ago. My Grandma took me to see it when I was about 8 years old and it was sad to learn it was gone.

Midas was known as the Gold Circle during the boom years of the 19th century. This supply shack has obviously been rebuilt recently. The owner carefully replaced all the old steel license plates. I have one of those plates on my wall, my Grandma talked the owner out of it on one of our visits.

Midas was known as the Gold Circle during the boom years of the 19th century. This supply shack has obviously been rebuilt. The owner carefully replaced all the old steel license plates. I have one of those plates on my wall, my Grandma talked the owner out of it on one of our visits.

After a night of catching up and telling stories, Max and I headed out to find the mine and make our own connections. As we left Midas we passed a colorful barrel mailbox – there are many like it up in the wilds – a home-made box that can hold lots of mail.

This is a mailbox outside of Midas - I wonder if it was a barrel box like this that my grandparents saw after that long hike, letting them know that help was close by.

This is a mailbox outside of Midas – I wonder if it was a barrel box like this that my grandparents saw after that long hike, letting them know that help was close by.

One of the first familiar sights we saw was a sheep herder’s camp. It has been in use as long as anyone can remember. I remember seeing these pens filled with sheep on the Jeep rides into the Diggins – the fence has been moved because the course of the creek was altered by a flood some 20 years ago – but it is essentially in the same spot.

This is the old sheep herder's camp - it's still in use when they bring the herds down from the hills. You can get a sense of the size of the sage from this shot - Max is 6 feet tall an the sage comes up to his shoulders.

This is the old sheep herder’s camp – it’s still in use when they bring the herds down from the hills. You can get a sense of the size of the sage from this shot – Max is 6 feet tall and the sage comes up to his shoulders.

Our first stop was Rock Creek – the very same spot where these adventures took place. The creek swells to a level that is impassable when the snow melts and the effects can be seen in the deterioration of the road.

Rock Creek today - the course of the creek has changed - in the 60s the creek was about 50 feet further back. Our camp was on the other side of the creek nestled in against the tall sagebrush.

Rock Creek today – the course of the creek has changed – in the 60s the creek was about 50 feet further back. Our camp was on the other side of the creek nestled in against the tall sagebrush.

Another view of Rock Creek Campsite – that taller brush midway up on the right was the site of our camp, the site of toilet accidents, snake sightings, and practical jokes on Uncle Ronnie.

Rock Creek today - still about 2-3 feet deep.

Rock Creek today – wider than it is deep at this time of year.

After getting the lay of the land and comparing recollections we loaded back up and pressed on into the hills to the Diggins where these adventures took place. The site was recognizable from the road – this reversed guard rail was used to guide the Caterpillar and was probably placed here in the late 70s by Uncle Ronnie.

This guard rail in the middle of nowhere was designed to keep the Caterpillar from edging too close to camp.

This guard rail in the middle of nowhere was designed to keep the Caterpillar from edging too close to camp.

The original Diggins Campsite today…

This is the road that runs right through the DIggins - the same road that boasted a Lake Minnie Haha sign back in the day.

This is the road that runs right through the Diggins – the same road that boasted a Lake Minnie Haha sign back in the day.

The same road back in the day…

Welcome to Minnie Haha

This sign welcomed visitors to the wonders of Lake Minnie Haha.

We camped to the left of the road, the Lake was to the right. Lake Minnie Haha is still there, though 40 years of snows and sediment have reduced her size considerably.

Over the years it's filled with sediment, but the mighty Toejam has not completely reclaimed Lake Minnie Haha.

Over the years it’s filled with sediment, but the mighty Toejam has not completely reclaimed Lake Minnie Haha.

Here’s a shot of Minnie Haha in its prime taken from the opposite shore…

Grandma in ner namesake lake with the first grizzly in the background.

Grandma in her namesake lake with the first grizzly in the background.

We built structures for working the mine on site. One of them was a grizzly. This one was likely built towards the end of our time at the Diggins.

This is the grizzly - it's basically a sifter for large rocks. They would use the loader bucket on the Caterpillar tractor to dump a cut of ground over - the large rocks slid down the rails the smaller when through and would be processed in the sluices. These things were constructed onsite.

This is the grizzly – it’s basically a sifter for large rocks. They would use the loader bucket on the Caterpillar tractor to dump a cut of ground over – the large rocks slid down the rails the smaller when through and would be processed in the sluices.

The original grizzly was located right next to Minnie Haha – its foundation is still visible today…

This is the first grizzly on the banks of Lake Minnie Haha - Circa 1967

This is the first grizzly on the banks of Lake Minnie Haha – Circa 1967.

Toejam creek fed into Minnie Haha at one time, but today the course of the creek is changed – it runs about 30 feet beyond Minnie Haha.

On the banks of the mighty Toejam we staked our claim - today the creek is almost unchanged.

On the banks of the mighty Toejam we staked our claim – today the creek is wild once again.

May remnants of our time at the Diggins remain – the signs of daily camp life are everywhere. The arid nature of the high desert allows metal to degrade very slowly. I found one of my galoshes over near the creek. These items are still there – it’s like our own private ghost town.

The remains of many meals of beans and wienies.

The remains of many meals of beans and weenies.

My Grandma loved Squirt - and there is still evidence of her here at Minnie Haha.

Litter does not ordinarily make me smile. My Grandma loved Squirt – and there is still evidence of her here at Minnie Haha.

Primitive Potty - apparently Uncle Ronnie left this for us - it beats squatting

Primitive Potty – apparently Uncle Ronnie left this for us – it beats squatting. No pooping by the creek – you had to carry off your own waste to a better place.

Camp life in the 60s typically took place in June and July – a bit more arid than our Memorial day trip.

Camp in the late 60's just above Lake Minnie Haha

Camp in the late 60’s just above Lake Minnie Haha

This tailings pile sits on the site of the original camp – we moved camp to Rock Creek in order to make room to work with heavy equipment.

This is a tailings pile - the processed earth.

This is a tailings pile – the processed earth.

One of of the things I remember were the giant bumblebees and wildflowers along the creek. In the Spring the wildflowers are still stunning. Some things never change.

Wildflowers on the shores of Minnie Haha

Wildflowers on the shores of Minnie Haha

After surveying camp and finding a couple of arrowhead tips we ventured up to the spring where we would get fresh water and the meadow where we hunted game birds and shot jackrabbits (and where we shot the window out of the truck!).

This rusty pole is a survey marker for a section of our claim. Max is shooting flowers in the meadow.

This rusty pole is a survey marker for a section of our claim. Max is shooting flowers in the meadow.

Max was shooting some of these beauties…

Wild irises filled the meadow.

Wild irises filled the meadow.

The spring is on the hillside above the meadow. This is a view from the meadow up towards the spring on the left side of the photo. The red rock is where we got our drinking water, the dark rock halfway down the hill is the site of our shower.

This is a view from the meadow up towards the spring on the left side of the photo. The red rock is where we got our drinking water, the dark rock halfway down the hill is the site of our shower. This quaking aspens have been there for over a century. My grandfather carved our names into one of them near where he saw names of pioneers with dates from the 1840s. He also found a wagon wheel hub up there when I was a kid.

This quaking aspens have been there for over a century. My grandfather carved our names into one of them near where he saw names of pioneers with dates from the 1840s. He also found a wagon wheel hub up there when I was a kid.

Toejam Creek runs through the meadow and it was a bit marshy so we left the Jeep on the far side and hiked across the meadow and up to the spring. You can just barely make it out at the base of the hill. We spent evenings here racing the Jeep across this vast meadow and shooting up jackrabbits. Today the meadow hosts cattle and wild horses.

This is a view back towards our Jeep in the far distance. We are at the red rock on the spring.

This is a view back towards our Jeep in the far distance. We are at the red rock on the spring.

After a day of adventure we headed back to Midas for another evening at the Saloon – we headed home the next day and took a more eastern route through Elko where we encountered this confusing signage configuration…

So should I enter or not - Nevada is typically less passive-agressive than these signs indicate.

So should I enter or not – Nevada is typically less passive-agressive than these signs indicate.

So Close, but Yet So Far

The summer of 2011, the year after Pops died, we decided to make another trip back. Both of my brothers wanted to make the trip and we wanted to introduce the Diggins to the next generation of Carters. Max, his youngest son, and I would ride up and scout the route in from the east via Elko. Ronnie and his kids would join us the next day at the highway and we would all travel into the Diggins together from the west.

The Saloon in Midas had no vacancies so we stayed the night in Elko before heading into the Diggins. We had mapped the routes in and out on a GPS on our 2009 visit so it was as simple as selecting the location from our POI list on the Garmin, or so we thought.

As we left the highway we passed through the community of Tuscarora. There is an artsy feel to this little burg in the middle of nowhere.

As we left the highway we passed through the community of Tuscarora. There is an artsy feel to this little burg in the middle of nowhere.

In the distance you can see snow on the peaks of the mountains – this looks pretty innocuous, but up close the snow caused issues that we had not anticipated.

This is an example of the roads we encountered - this one was actually pretty good. Some required us to get out and see if we could spot the tire tracks.

This is an example of the roads we encountered – this one was actually pretty good. Some required us to get out and see if we could spot the remnants of tire tracks.

As we got higher into the mountains the snow became more ominous. We would take a route and find it blocked by snowdrifts 6 feet deep. It seemed we would spend a fair amount of this trip backing down hillside trails. Eventually we decided to just go to the top of a hill and take a look back to see if we could find a way through.

We drove to the top of this ridge to scout a way past the snowfall - it was like being on top of the world.

We drove to the top of this ridge to scout a way past the snowfall – it was like being on top of the world.

The hilltop afforded us this view…

On top of the hill we can see the road we need to get to - that sagebrush before the road was 4-5 feet tall.

On top of the hill we can see the road we need to get to – that sagebrush before the road was 3-4 feet tall.

We sent Brian out to scout ahead and we drove down the hill – this is true offloading. At one point we were driving over sagebrush 3-4 feet deep. but we managed to get to the road below.

My nephew Brian scouts ahead to see if we can navigate to the roads below.

My nephew Brian scouts ahead to see if we can navigate to the roads below.

Once we hit the road we drove through a quaking aspen grove and into a meadow. We could see that the road was being cleared ahead of us. We met up with Bob – a miner from a family who owned the nearby Falcon Mine claim. Our grandparents knew the Falcon owners as neighbors. It was another small town Nevada connection.

We met up with Bob in the meadow and compared notes

We met up with Bob in the meadow and compared notes.

We met up with Bob along the trail - he was starting to work his parents claim that they have been working since the 20's. From the stories he told I think my grandparents could have played cards with his parents on those summer nights so long ago. He guided us through the maze of old mining roads.

This is Bob – he was starting to work his parents claim that his family had been working since the 20’s. From the stories he told I think my grandparents could have played cards with his parents on those summer nights so long ago. He guided us through the maze of old mining roads.

Bob and his crew gave us a tour of the Falcon Mine and Camp – they had a permanent camp, something I think we would have had eventually if my Grandma had not gotten sick.

So close, but yet so far. The diggins is about two miles from this spot - just on the other side of the second ridge. This is part of the nearby Falcon Mine Claim.

So close, but yet so far. The Diggins is about two miles from this spot – just on the other side of the second ridge. This is part of the nearby Falcon Mine Claim.

During the snow melt in the spring the creeks can really move - this bridge leads to an old miners camp.

During the snow melt in the spring the creeks can really move – this bridge leads to an old miners camp.

You might want to make a visit to the powder room before we venture further into the sagebrush.

You might want to make a visit to the powder room before we venture further into the sagebrush.

In the desert metal like this can stay outside for decades - these shoes were hung outside of an old bunkhouse near the Falcon

In the desert metal like this can stay outside for decades – these shoes were hung outside of an old bunk house near the Falcon

Midas Nevada mining equipment parked at the Falcon Mine's camp.

Midas Nevada mining equipment parked at the Falcon Mine’s camp.

Earthworks like these mark the locations of older claims - this is likely a part of the White Horse Claim

Earthworks like these mark the locations of older claims – this is likely a part of the White Horse Claim

One of Bob’s buddies offered to guide us towards our claim – the water levels were high and eventually we had to give up. They had also tried to get in from the west through Rock Creek earlier in the week – getting to the Diggins was just not going to happen on this trip.

This video shows a bit of our adventure to find the mine – we didn’t get there but we had an amazing day.

On the way out of the hills we encountered some of the wildlife that makes this area so very special…

Antelope are everywhere these days - during our mining days they were a rare site because ranchers thought them to be a nuisance.

Antelope are everywhere these days – during our mining days they were a rare sight because ranchers thought them to be a nuisance.

Our home away from home is now where the deer and the antelope play

Our home away from home is now where the deer and the antelope play.

On most of our trips we catch a glimpse of some wild horses - these magnificent animals run in herds all over northern Nevada.

On most of our trips we catch a glimpse of some wild horses – these magnificent animals run in herds all over northern Nevada.

Like all my trips, I indulged my passion for rocks – the Diggins is the place where I fell in love with rocks – the variety there was and is so stunning.

I may be dumber than a box of rocks - but who could leave these lying out there in the desert.

I may be dumber than a box of rocks – but who could leave these lying out there in the desert?

Beyond the Diggins

One of the things I take away from our adventures in the north is a sense of independence and self-reliance. I like to think that I have followed in Grandma’s footsteps and found a path by trying things I never imagined I could do. I still love a challenge and I know I got that from her. Her powerful influence on me as a young girl informed the way I think about women and about myself.

Scenes like this made me believe that my Grandma could do anything - after all here she is literally shaping her world.

Scenes like this made me believe that my Grandma could do anything – after all here she is literally shaping her world.

Furthermore, I believe these experiences have shaped my brothers as well. They were younger, but the experience of living in the wilderness – hunting, working, exploring – has shaped us all.

Recently my brother Max wrote a post about a sexy tractor. My eyes filled with tears as I saw his granddaughter riding on a tractor with his wife Karen – one of the captions read “Karen showing that she can do anything”. I thought back to how much that image meant to me, and now Alexa will have that same image of a wonderful crazy woman who can do anything. I hope that one day Alexa can share that same wonder and independence with her granddaughter.

Here Karen, Max's wife shows her granddaughter that she can do anything.

Here Karen, Max’s wife shows her granddaughter that she can do anything.

This is a wonderful gift, more precious than any gold or silver you might dig up – and it’s a gift I hope is passed down forever.

Just looking at these photos is making me long for the hills – I feel the need to get back to my roots, I hope that we can make that trip again soon and take Alexa with us.

Tales from the Diggins Part 1 – Camp at Toejam and Minnie-haha

Grandma and Grandpa - at about the time they became Grandparents.

Grandma and Grandpa – at about the time they became Grandparents.

Our grandparents set out to really enjoy their 40s and 50s. Grandpa had been with the Union Pacific Railroad since his early 20s and had a bent towards entrepreneurism. He was always talking about opening a combination restaurant/laundromat in Bullhead City, Arizona. He was looking to fill a need in place where there was opportunity. He was so serious that at one point we planned to pack up our stock on Isabelle and head to the Arizona desert. Later he took an upholstery class along with my Grandma and my Pop who used his GI benefits. He really dreamed of building a family business that he could leave behind. Carter’s Custom Upholstery was a great success. They did furniture,  airplanes, custom hot rods, Wayne Newton’s horse trailers – just about anything you could think of. At one time Grandpa had a contract to recover all the Eames lounge chairs in municipal airports on the west coast. Even while he was succeeding in business he was still looking for the next big opportunity.

Grandma and Grandpa working in the upholstery shop.

Grandma and Grandpa working in the upholstery shop. Grandma is ready to pitch in with the tack hammer.

Opportunity knocked in the form of his nephew Ronald Owens. “Uncle” Ronnie, as we called him, had been researching mining claims in northern Nevada. He needed funding to file papers, Grandpa anted up, and Cartron Mining was born. To maintain the claim they would have to do annual assay work in the wilds of the high desert.

Grandpa purchased this Jeep Gladiator pickup to haul gear up to the Diggins. Uncle Ronnie took this shot on their first scouting trip.

Grandpa purchased this Jeep Gladiator pickup to haul gear up to the Diggins. Uncle Ronnie took this shot on their first scouting trip.

What started as a business venture quickly became a family affair. The mining claim was our summer home. We would bug out of our Isabelle Avenue home base with enough rations to last a month if necessary. We would take fresh provisions for the first week and brought canned goods, dried fruits, and powdered milk and eggs to last beyond.

One of the sleeping tents at camp on the creek.

One of the sleeping tents at camp on the creek. I love that we used Samsonite suitcases to pack for the trip.

The trip to the mine was an elaborate caravan. A Jeep pickup with a canvas camper shell lead the pack with a little Willy’s Jeep in tow. My parents, brothers and I rode in this rig along with the bulk of our supplies. Next my grandparents drove a 1940s era semi tractor with a flat-bed trailer that hauled our Caterpillar bulldozer.  We held this formation until we left the pavement. At that point Grandma and I would take the Willy’s off of the tow bar and we took the lead as we headed into the mountains. Grandma had outfits for us – goggles, bandanas, and wind breakers kept us warm and allowed us to breath through all that dust. Next came the semi followed by the Jeep pickup. About 5 miles from the claim we took the Caterpillar off the trailer and left the semi behind. My pop brought up the rear in the Cat and we worked out way deep into the hills.

Mom and Pop on the Caterpillar Tractor, heading into camp.

Mom and Pop on the Caterpillar Tractor, heading into camp.

The claim was a mere 60 miles from the nearest paved road. It was 25 miles to the nearest town of any kind. Midas Nevada was a living ghost town. Once home to 10,000 miners, by 1966 only 17 people remained. Midas had few amenities, a saloon, a one-room schoolhouse, and a telephone. When Pops and Grandpa went up alone to do assay work we would hear from them once a week when they made the trek into town. When the whole family was at the mine Grandma would make a run about once a week to get ice. We would stop by the saloon for a cold creme soda. One time while we were in town Grandma convinced a resident to let her take an old license plate off of his shop. It dated from 1922 and it still hangs in my living room today.

Grandma did everything at the mine - she drove the Jeep, operated the sluice, and drove the dozer. She also made mean pancakes every morning.

Grandma did everything at the mine – she drove the Jeep, operated the sluice, and drove the dozer. She also made mean pancakes every morning.

Our claim was on Toejam Creek – as a child I thought this was one of my Grandma’s imaginative nicknames, a couple of years ago I learned that Toejam is a real place on a map. My grandfather created two ponds by diverting the creek. The first he lovingly named after Grandma, Lake Minnie-haha – it was the pond where we worked the sluice boxes. The second pond was one he made for us to swim in.

Grandma swimming in Lake Minnie-haha. It seemed like a real lake to me at the time.

Grandma swimming in Lake Minnie-haha. It seemed like a real lake to me at the time.

I was relentlessly trying to swim in Lake Minnie-Haha while they were processing dirt. The sluice pond made for a muddy swimming hole. One day Grandma and I took a hike to look for arrowheads – when we came back my grandfather showed me his latest creation – Lake Lorri – our very own swimming hole. Grandpa built a welcoming arch out of timbers – “Welcome to Lake Minnie-haha – Minnie the Moocher, Proprietor.

Grandpa erected this sign to let everyone know who was boss at the Diggins.

Grandpa erected this sign to let everyone know who was boss at the Diggins. Next lodging about a bazillion miles.

Life at the mine reminded me a lot of life at my grandparents house, structured, organized and fun. There were 3 large tents. One for sleeping, one for cooking, one for just hanging out in – like a living room. In the sleeping tent we were all up on army cots to avoid the dangers of scorpions and rattle snakes. The cooking tent had long folding picnic tables inside holding up multiple camp stoves. Ice chests were stored inside under blankets. Just like at home we were urged to get what we needed out of the ice chests quickly – it was just like the fridge at home, without a light. Dried foodstuffs were housed in wooden boxes or metal chests to keep out animals and pests – just like the kitchen cabinets at home. The third tent had folding tables and chairs inside for playing cards and board games inside, out of the dust and the weather.

Just like the ancients that once inhabited Toe Jam, we had a vinyl dinette to play cards at.

Just like the ancients that once inhabited Toe Jam, we had a vinyl dinette to play cards at.  Seated are Uncle Ronnie, Herb the geologist, Pops, and Grandpa. The shadowy photographer is Minnie the Moocher.

Each day we woke up and had a hot breakfast. My grandparents even had an old dinette set outside for us to eat on. We did dishes in the creek and they started the assay work. If there was heavy machinery moving Grandma would take the kids on an adventure away from the chaos. We would all pile in the Jeep and go someplace to hike or explore. We would pack a lunch and explore all day.

Lake Minnie-haha was so vast that we had a raft used to cross it - it was actually more work that walking the 25 feet around to the other side, but we were adventurers.

Lake Minnie-haha was so vast that we had a raft used to cross it – it was actually more work that walking the 25 feet around to the other side, but we were adventurers. The field beyond the lake was where Grandma and I found treasures – rocks, arrowheads, fossils – it was paradise.

It was a time of wonder for me. I saw wildflowers and developed a lifelong interest in rocks. Grandma encouraged me in my rock collecting much to the chagrin of my mom who didn’t see why anyone would ever need more than a handful of rocks. Each time we went to the mine I brought home about a hundred pounds of rocks – my mom made me keep them in the backyard and she did her best to dispose of them little by little thinking I would never notice. Of course I did notice, just like I noticed when she made my favorite jeans, or t-shirt, or pet turtle disappear.

Grandma working the sluice box - she was at her best when she was doing new things.

Grandma working the sluice box – she was at her best when she was doing new things. There’s gold in that there mud!

In the evening after dinner we would all pile in the Willys Jeep and go to a spring where my grandpa had built a tin shower. We would bathe and we would get fresh water for the next day from the spring. All clean in our jammies we would head back to camp by way of a large open field full of jack rabbits. The local ranchers encouraged us to shoot them. They were there in such huge numbers that there was no end to them and they damaged the grazing land. So the evening was made for entertainment. Instead of watching TV we hunted down jackrabbits from a moving Jeep. Grandma was a crack shot and loved to stand up in the passenger side and shoot over the windshield. In the back seat my brothers and I would watch her with our ears covered. She was like Annie Oakley to me – it seemed that she never missed.

My brothers and I at camp - we found a patch of shade. I never could figure out how to work that lounge chair.

My brothers and I at camp – we found a patch of shade. I never could figure out how to work that lounge chair. Note the ammo can – shooting jackrabbits was on the menu.

One night we took the Jeep pickup instead of the Willys open Jeep when we went for the run to the spring. As always on the way back to camp Grandma was in the passenger seat with her eyes peeled for jacks. I was seated on the Jockey Box in between the seats with my grandpa in the driver’s seat. Grandma spotted one and took aim. KaBoooom!

Jackrabbits beware - Minnie's got a gun and she's gunning for you!

Jackrabbits beware – Minnie’s got a gun and she’s gunning for you!

Unfortunately she forgot to roll down the window first and it broke into a million pieces. The sound of her 45 inside a closed cab of a pickup was the loudest sound I have ever heard. My ears rang for days and the 500 mile journey home to Las Vegas in the pickup was a windy one.

In case you were wondering, she made the shot, and the windy and dusty drive home was worth it – that busted window was the mark of a great adventure.