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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The original Diggins Campsite today…
The same road back in the day…
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.
Here’s a shot of Minnie Haha in its prime taken from the opposite shore…
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.
The original grizzly was located right next to Minnie Haha – its foundation is still visible today…
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.
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.
Camp life in the 60s typically took place in June and July – a bit more arid than our Memorial day trip.
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.
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.
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!).
Max was shooting some of these beauties…
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The hilltop afforded us this view…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.