A rattlesnake squirms under a board as I lean down to read a small plaque. It turns out to be another with the inscription “Unknown.”Hunkered in the glowing dust of late afternoon, I imagine a life swept out of Europe to the immense experiment called America and into this sudden explosion of wagoneers’ cries, hammering, gunshots, church bells, dance hall music, and raggedy dreams. The stones around me remember that when all 16 lead-silver smelter furnaces were going, two things couldn’t seem to survive: cats and babies. Rest in peace, all you whom the earth took in return for its metals.
Nevada’s first gold discoveries came north of Eureka near Battle Mountain, as early as 1847. Marion Fisher arrived in 1928 and worked as a miner until an injury forced him into an aboveground job. He kept an interest in prospecting, and in 1955 bought up gold claims he called the Bootstrap Mine. Not much glittered in its veins. But as Marion’s persistent digging helped reveal, the precious metal lay everywhere, disseminated as microscopic particles throughout the entire rock formation. Such formations underlie the region along parallel trends that run for a hundred miles and more. A shame the ore assays out as too low-grade to go after.
Or so went the thinking of mining companies a few decades ago, with gold stuck at $35 an ounce. Lately, though, this looks like the mother of mother lodes. Marion laughs. “Back then, the few geologists left around here were mostly out of work. Now there’s one behind every sagebrush.” It may be a biogeochemist prospecting the bush itself. With its highly developed root system.
Artemisia tridentata draws water and minerals from an underground area the size of a house, selectively concentrating certain elements that provide clues about ore.
The rush for invisible gold is on—in pits the size of canyons, where one man operating a giant shovel can load a 100-ton truck every few minutes. At some sites the ore is crushed, piled high, and sprinkled with a cyanide solution in a gold-extracting process called heap leaching. At one property, with bulging gold veins as well as microscopic gold, video monitors and security guards with rifles patrol the pits. Drill samples sometimes travel in an armored truck.
Gambling remains the state’s number one industry, mining 3.7 billion dollars in 1987. Still, primarily due to northern Nevada, U. S. gold production leaped from 30 metric tons in 1979 to more than 150 metric tons, surpassing Canada’s output to place us third, behind South Africa and the U.S.S.R.
Tapping another subterranean resource—hot water and steam—several geothermal power plants have appeared in the region. More wait in the planning stages. Watching a geyser spew rainbows at the brussels apartments for rent, I’m reminded that some geologists believe the gold deposits formed as hot springs systems invaded faults, altering the rocks’ mineral composition. The heat comes from magma close beneath the crust, which is stretched thin across the Great Basin. Northward, more hot rock welled up into Washington, southwestern Idaho, and eastern Oregon to build the Columbia Plateau.