The State of Nevada turns 135 years old today. I've lived here all of my life and enjoyed so many fascinating experiences, met so many diverse and interesting people, and seen so many beautiful things, that I have never even considered living anywhere else.
I remember the time I found my first arrowhead. The feelings I had were
the same as when I've discovered an old coin. But then, the realization came
that I was holding in my hand a tool held in the hand of a man who lived
maybe hundreds, or even thousands of years ago, whose culture was as foreign to me as mine would be to him. Yet, we shared a common bond. We were both children of the same desert, natives of the same land.
In a Pioche cemetery, I watched my children's white-haired grandfather
stand over the grave of his grandfather, buried more than three-quarters of a century earlier. Much of his family is buried there. Pioche is where he was
born, and where he too will someday, like his ancestors, be buried.
I watched his face, which expressed the flood of memories passing through his mind: of a time when he was the child, and these people, now represented by only gravestones and memories, were his family; of a bustling mining town with all its virtues and vices. There, in the company of his posterity and the bones of his ancestors, he reflected on his life spent in Nevada - for graveyards are strong reminders of our own mortality and the circle of life.
I've had the privilege of meeting many "important" people - governors,
senators, CEOs, but the most colorful people, the ones I remember most and in whose company I enjoy being in, are the "ordinary" people. Such as the old miner and his toothless wife, still eking out a meager living from their
mining claim in a canyon in the Nevada desert. Their slow, unhurried
conversation contrasts sharply with the stress filled, rush-rush world most
of us live in day after day.
I descended the shaft of the mine, which followed a beautiful vein of copper-lead-silver ore. The shaft had a wooden ladder along one wall with landings every 15 feet or so. Going down this ladder to the bottom - about 250 feet - was the equivalent of climbing down the side of Harrah's Hotel/Casino, but in the complete darkness of the mine, it didn't seem so frightening.
I temporarily succumbed to miner's fever, chipping away at the vein with a chisel and hammer. After an hour of hard work, and a handful of success, my fever subsided. I still marvel when I see all those old mines scattered around the desert, realizing that most were dug using single jacks, chisels, picks, shovels, and black powder - with candles for light.
Another colorful character in this Nevada mural is the now 94-year-old
trapper, Eddie DiBernardi. Eddie is a living link to our past, a man who made
his living as a fur trapper in the western tradition of Kit Carson and Jedidiah Smith. Born and raised in Newark Valley, Nevada, Eddie has been a bachelor all his life.
The changes during his life span are difficult to fathom. He first started trapping on horseback before World War I, then used a Model T, then a Model A, and so on. In his head is more real knowledge about Nevada's wildlife than the best of our university educated, textbook biologists. Despite being almost a century old, he still rides horses, mends
fences, helps with cattle roundups and lives by himself at Beaver Creek near
The land itself is an experience. Few places on earth have as much diversity as Nevada. Many regard the state as bleak and lifeless, and whizzing by on a highway could leave one with that false impression. But for those willing to search it out, the deserts are in fact a vast panorama of life.
For example, if you enjoy botany, a trip I have taken many times is for you. In a section of Esmeralda County you start out in the pinon-juniper forest and in the space of 10 miles descend to the north end of Death Valley. In that short drive you will cover all the major ecosystems of Nevada, from pinon-juniper to the Mojave desert plant communities composed of mesquite, blackbrush and joshua trees, pass four ghost towns, and see some truly spectacular scenery.
My most enjoyable memories of Nevada are based around my experiences
with its wildlife. There was the time I took my two oldest boys to the marshes on a local ranch and observed ducks, geese, shore birds, a bullfrog,
hawks, muskrats and even some pelicans. We spooked a marsh hawk from a
freshly killed mallard drake and observed coyote sign all around. I've sat on
a small stream bank, at the headwaters for the Owyhee River and watched over 200 sage hens slowly work their way down the hill, warily drinking, ever
observant for predators.
There was the time a herd of 75 antelope passed in front of my vehicle, gently loping, single file, up Spanish Springs Peak. Or, the time on a mountain near Goldfield when I climbed through a small pass on the top and looked down on five bighorn rams, all standing broadside not more than 75 feet from me, their heads locked and eyes clearly focusing on me, their massive horns silhouetted in the rising sun.
Perhaps because I was born here, and spent so much time exploring her
mountains and canyons and small towns, I know Nevada is about so much more than its shallow image as reflected in the tinsel of the gaming industry.
The very vastness of it all, 110,000 square miles is difficult for our minds to
comprehend. You can still practically disappear, swallowed up in its seemingly limitless depths. This can be intimidating or exhilarating, and at
times both. But on a more personal note, Nevada means much more than gambling or ranching or the great outdoors.
Nevada is my native land. My family has lived here for many years; my roots go deep. My grandfathers are buried here, and my children were born here. Nevada has shaped and molded me into what I am, and provides the future for what I may be. Our futures and our pasts are intertwined. Her ups and downs will reflect my own.
Maybe you have to be born here to love the smell of a rain soaked sage flat, or appreciate the vista provided by a lonely windswept mountain ridge, or watch a distant blizzard cross a seemingly endless valley, as a winter sun shines on you, but I suspect not.
For many, Nevada is a land to pass through as quickly as possible; but stick around for a while and learn the native Nevadan's secret - to know her is to love her.
Ira Hansen is a columnist for the Sparks Tribune and Elko Daily Free Press. His radio talk show can be heard on KKOH 780 AM at 11 a.m. on Saturdays.