Story by Amber Cole
Photo by Debra Josephson
My brother Josh and I sat at a red light, waiting to cross the bridge and continue his impromptu tour of Elko, Nev. So far, he’d shown me the new housing development and the Home Depot where apparently citizens of Elko spend their free time on the weekends. As the light turned green, I looked to my right at the entrance to I-80 West. Until then, my bearings weren’t set; the small mining town was mostly a maze of streets and houses, but driving across the bridge, I recognized the road that lead to my hometown of Winnemucca, Nev.
I lived in Winnemucca until I was 15. My dad changed jobs and we moved to Arizona and then to Colorado, where I now reside. I remember being told most of my life how terrible Winnemucca was and how it was the town where dreams went to die. It was after all where Butch Cassidy robbed a bank in 1900. Back then it even had a thriving brothel district. It was the only home I knew. It was hard to believe what people said about it. Sure, the police racially profiled, my 8th grade English teacher was arrested for cocaine possession, and a Hispanic gang threatened to shoot up my high school, but no town is perfect.
One of the positive about Winnemucca is its predictability. Kids went to public school, the only option. After graduating the class split in two: Much of one half went to work in the mines and much of the other attended the University of Nevada, Reno. Once the college-bound finished school, many returned to Winnemucca, of course.
In a way, Elko is a bigger, more commercialized Winnemucca. With a population just more than 18,000, it has not one but two Starbucks. Other than that, Elko is a small town that survives on mining. There are two big players: Barrick and Newmont. Without the presence of these companies, both Winnemucca and Elko would shrivel up and cling to casino revenue to pay the bills.
“There’s the new Newmont building,” Josh says as we continue our tour. He had spent the summer months working at one of their mines. “Dad’s office is in the basement.” I nodded. The shiny new edifice, a symbol of the company’s power and influence, was likely the most expensive building in the town.
The tour concluded at the hotel where Josh and I met up with our parents. After the tour, I concluded that dreams died in Elko too. I can’t help but wonder if my father’s are buried somewhere in the basement of the multi-million dollar Newmont building.
I spent the entire next day thinking. When Josh told me that he would work for Newmont over the summer, I wasn’t happy. I now realize why. I was afraid that he would be sucked into the mining bubble and never leave Nevada. I was afraid he would be the man we encountered at the post office, picking up his 30th anniversary coin commemorating his time with Newmont. A generous gift for his loyalty.
As I left and distance swallowed Elko up in the vast nothingness of desert, I saw the curse of the mining town. While under it, I had no aspirations for myself. My life goals included graduating from high school, going to the University of Nevada, Reno, and moving back to Winnemucca where I would spend the rest of my life. At the time, it seemed like a good life. It was the same life so many of my friends were going to live. As for making money, I was going to write books and most likely teach. Then, when I turned 60, I would be like my physics teacher, telling my students what their parents were like when they were in my class.
Leaving the mining bubble gave me a chance of having an actual life. Had I stayed, I wouldn’t be at the University of Oregon. I wouldn’t want to be a journalist. The experiences I have had in my college years would be nonexistent. I wouldn’t have morphed into a Whovian (a fan of the British television show, Doctor Who)and met my best friend and partner in crime, Sam. I would have been spending weekends at the Home Depot.
That’s not to say the mining industry would have ruined my life. On the contrary, the industry tethered me to rural Nevada but it also it sent me away. In doing so, it put me on the path I am on now. It sheltered my family from the Great Recession. And most importantly of all, it pays my tuition. Literally, Newmont gave me a scholarship. A symbol of its power and influence.