DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
Pronghorn: Pronghorns are curious about people and will come very close; they've been known to wander right into hunters' camps to find out what is going on. They range throughout the open arid brush country of all the deserts; they were once more numerous on this continent than the buffalo. They relied for survival on their fine long legs -- they can outrun anything except a bullet, they've been clocked at over forty miles an hour. They now rely on game refuge borders and hunting laws, but their numbers are increasing again in many places. They seem more sculptural than animal, formed and colored by a Mondrian or a Picasso. When they're alarmed, their white rump patches flare like bristling fires.
Chapter 30: Idaho Hotel
Silver City is a historic mining town that sits high in the mountains in the middle of Owyhee County, and Ed Jagels has owned the Idaho Hotel here and has lived in it for most of the last twenty years. All this time he has filled it with collections of historical impedimenta, with heyday material culture for the most part: sepia-colored photographs, tobacco ribbons, tea caddies, lamps, heaps of documents, furniture, medicine bottles, books, china and glassware, a player piano and two older pianos, three pump organs, antique nickel slot machines, mirrors, maps.
There have been times when, for six months on end, he has been unable to leave, the dirt roads to and from Silver City having become impassable with snow. It doesn't take much weather to do violence to dirt track, and there are twenty-five miles of that in either direction to the first paved roads. Meanwhile, he has cared for the near-ruin that this hotel was when he came. He has hired people or found volunteers to shore beams, patch roofs, triage the tunnels that run beneath the hotel, and he has refurnished some of the rooms upstairs. One can stay in these rooms as a guest, though you need your own sleeping bag, there being no laundry and no linen. Staying here is a kind of camping out. Ed says:
"Well. It could be likened to Miss Havisham's long-preserved bridal-feast-setup dining room in Dickens's Great Expectations."
Ed is more than ready for guests. He has bought cases of kerosene lamps and chamber pots. He has made the dining-room bar inviting, with its windows facing the creek and its neat wooden tables and chairs. The 1874 bar fixture is stocked with twentieth-century beer and chips, but the brass bar rail shines with nineteenth-century glory.
"Glory?" Ed says. "More like the simple wear from thousands of boots and shoes."
Most of those boots and shoes came and went before he was born, but people do still come, in summer, to see this justly famous mining town: Silver City, after all. In winter some come to ski when there's snow on the hills. But there have not been quite enough people of either kind to make the hotel "work" in one sense of the word, though in another sense this is irrelevant.
Ed dreams of renovation, of putting it back. Of having his collections housed in the greatest collector's item of them all: a grand hotel in a nineteenth-century gold-and-silver boomtown. Outside, there are Douglas firs and aspens on the slopes of Florida and War Eagle peaks, eight-thousand-foot mountains that punctuate the bony scarps, hills of sage and mountain mahogany, pocked with pale spilled tailings of mines: Black Bart, Big Fish, Floreta, Eureka, Gentle Emma, Silver Cloud, Blazing Star, Trade Dollar, Dashaway, Sinker, Rose. Between 1863 and 1865 there were more than two hundred and fifty major mines out there. After that there were hundreds more; enough to keep more than sixty ore-processing mills running and more than two dozen towns, camps, and cities flourishing. Those mines were the lifeblood of the city, and the death of it when they emptied or the prices skewed.
Ed buys kerosene for the hotel in forty-five-gallon drums. Before the last red glow has faded from War Eagle Peak he lights the lamp on our table, adjusts the wick with a practiced flick of the wrist, then lights another two in brackets behind the bar and pours a propane-cooled beer into a tall glass, with a flourish; all this with the graceful fussiness of someone who is accustomed and at home, a hotelier of the old school, a host to his guests, something of a showman. As the night deepens he lowers, lights, and hoists ornate overhead lamps complete with brass curlicues and colored glass globes, until the great cluttered room of the old hotel is filled with a soft, golden, miraculous light.
One is not used to this kind of quiet, not indoors. The absence of machinery hum, of automobile noise, is a lovely thing. There is the sound of the creek rushing down the rocks outside, cool, among willows, in the desert-mountain night. In here in the gold light a huge bechromed potbellied stove ticks and sends out waves of welcome heat.
Ed is moustachioed and stout and polishes the bar with a towel. The son of German-Irish immigrants and educated in part by Lutherans and in greater part by himself, he has a gentleman's patrician dignity, a dignity honed through primitive lone adventuring of gold-camp wilds. This must once have been a common thing. It is not a wholly lost thing. The hotel is proof. So is Silver City, Idaho, once the county seat, rivaling Boise in size and sophistication, now nearly empty -- but not quite.
On one side of the bar is a set of gold scales with the miniature weights one moves with the aid of tweezers, and an assayer's kit, and Ed knows how to use them. There is still placer gold in the creek where Michael Jordan's party panned up that first color in May 1863, when the creek was wild with snowmelt and the men hot and rough with apocryphal settlers' tales of nuggets so plentiful they'd hammered them out on their iron wheel rims to make sinkers for fishlines. The settlers had had Oregon in mind, not gold, and were a little vague about the location of those nuggets, having been half-starving at the time, potential trout being worth more to them than mother lodes.
"They call it Jerdin Crick, right?" Ed says now. Coulter and I nod. "A crick is what you get in your neck. Jordan Creek!" He chuckles, shakes his head, and he goes upstairs to light the stove in our room.
"Be right back, folks," he says. "You'll want it cozy when you go to bed."
He goes off in his brisk hostly way, efficient and somewhat in a rush, though we are the only folks here, the only guests tonight at the grand hotel that was established in the year of Michael Jordan's big discovery. Things moved fast in those days: first the tent camps then the assayer's office then the cemetery the freight wagons the saloon the drummers and prostitutes and the hotel keepers and their guests, many of them taking ship to Panama and crossing the Isthmus by railroad, then coming north by ship again on the Pacific side, then up through Paiute country on the same roads of alkali dust as run there now.
They came. Of course, there were setbacks. There was a deep slump in the bank panic of 1875, followed by a revival in the 1890s the period of Silver City's greatest growth and strength -- and a milder revival late in the 1930s (the briefest of booms, when gold prices rose and there was something to be had picking over tailing piles and picking up old claims). So people came. Now most of them have left.
Most. Not all. A few buildings have burned or have collapsed; much of Silver City was simply torn down, around World War II, and used for building materials elsewhere. Some buildings are boarded up in expectation of better times, of renovation and a tourist trade, perhaps.
Nowadays, Silver City has a population of six. That's not counting summer people. That is counting Ed.
"What did it look like then? In the nineties?" I ask, because it seems the thing to ask.
"Let's see here." Ed goes to a pile of papers, there are piles like this all around the room; on the piano, on tables, countertops. "Here it is." He pulls out a map, in miniature. "This is the Sanborn Map of 1903. It was drawn up for fire insurance purposes, I believe. See, here."
Again and again he does just this, whatever I ask he finds the answer, everything is to hand and he is at home in a scholar's disorderly order, no other kind being needed here.
Over the years there have been battles with the Bureau of Land Management over the hegemony of Silver City, he tells us, and he and the other few remaining townspeople have fought hard and long in these, denying Silver City's death and insisting eloquently on its rightful life -- its existence, its city-hood -- and on his residence and on that of others, present and future; on their right to live and keep the place alive. Although some people may be tempted to call this a ghost town, Ed is severe on this subject. When I was tempted to call this piece "Ghost Hotel," he was severe with me:
"Since there are no such things as ghosts, I therefore cannot accommodate ghosts! Another way to read that is to say that the hotel is a ghost; which is erroneous also. Another title would be appreciated."
I understand. I do. Meanwhile, I do not share his disbelief. Listening to and watching him, one knows: in any place it's the heyday spirits that are the most alive, though one is unsure sometimes where life and death leave off; this is the meaning, after all, of ghosts.
"Would you two like to borrow a book?" he will say, later, when we are gathering our things, moving toward bed. "I have quite a library back here. You're welcome to anything you like."
We will follow him through the kitchen with its woodstove into his own sanctum, a booklined study-library-office and next to that a bedroom with -- among other things - an eight-foot-tall Renaissance Revival bed, covered with quilts. This is also a museum of Victoriana except that it is not a museum. Coult's eyes will be very big and will meet mine, spooked, in the high-ceilinged room with its rows of dark books, having lost the thread, as I have, of exactly when and where we are.
Ed will go unerringly to the end of a shelf and will pull out one slim volume that looks newish, and is; a children's book written by Alan E. Leisk, a Boise resident and the restorer of a house up on War Eagle Mountain. "It's a children's mystery novel," he will say, to Coult, seriously, in the way that bachelors have with children, not knowing how to treat them differently from anyone else. "The fictitious 'ghost' -- all 'ghosts' are fictitious -- turns out to be a cougar. Not scary stuff by any means. You might find it interesting."
Later we'll read a chapter or two. These first chapters will feature a "ghost" that screams from time to time on the stairs of a hotel, a hotel very much like this hotel with stairs very much like the stairs outside our bedroom door. It's supposed to be the ghost of a woman who fell down them to her death on her wedding night and continues to scream a century later, as well she might, suspecting as she fell that she might be denied all things. After reading this far we will be glued together rigid in our sleeping bags, eyes wide staring at each other, and I won't blow out the light till half an hour after Coult has gone, at last, uneasily, to sleep.
Already, early in the evening, there is no need for stories here to do the summoning; in the golden light of the hotel bar we have entered another time. Just down Jordan Street a red-light district features Big Dick's, Georgie's, Mother Mack's (some girls marry miners when their contracts expire; others, perhaps wisely, don't). In daylight there will be whistling of mill and hoist engines, the muffled crumps of powder blasts shattering quartz veins. Across the gulch: Chinatown with joss houses, laundries, groceries, New Year's night with dragons and firecrackers, opium dens. Silver City in her booming prime: four lawyers in town, two doctors, two hardware stores, a photo gallery, four restaurants, a brewery, a Catholic church, two Masonic temples, a soda-bottling works, an undertaking parlor, eight saloons. More than forty million dollars in silver and twenty million dollars' worth of gold will be picked out of the mountains via hundreds of miles of tunnel, via Cornish miner and Chinese water carrier, a quantity of precious metal only just topped by Nevada's Comstock Lode.
A photo taken ten years after the hotel's birth shows the elegant three-story structure with white balconies lined with thirty-nine folks standing one deep along the rails and porches, leaving room for forty more. A stage with four horses stands in front of women in long dresses, a nursemaid holding an infant and a man proudly holding another, men in vests and bowler hats, one sitting on a chair with that cock-legged, arms-and-legs-crossed posture that seems, now, to have vanished with the century, except that Ed Jagels does just that, when he quits his barroom bustling and sits down.
Nowadays the hotel itself is not much changed, except those balconies and porches and rooflines have developed sways and paint is sometimes nonexistent. Upstairs the floors tilt, all of them, in sixteen directions, and the paper is genuine turn-of-century made and placed, now waterstained and peeling, so one remembers that it came all the way from New York City by horse and boat, through states that were not yet states. The functioning bedrooms -- twenty-two of the original forty -- have their own kerosene lamps and their own chamberpots, and ten of the rooms have wood-burning stoves. There is no electricity, there are no toilets, no central heat.
There is, however, a telephone in the bar. The telephone is powered by a magneto and a flashlight lantern battery. You crank the magneto and put the horn to your ear and hug the mouthpiece to your chest and you can place a call to eleven other places, all of them in Silver City. It's one of the last magneto systems in the United States. There are twelve numbers on the single line and a two-page phonebook (one page white, one yellow, the cover blue, the whole held together with two staples) and there's a familiar picture of a bell on the cover, but the bell is strangely marred by a crack pasted over with a Band-Aid. A motto surrounds this insignia: "Mater Campana Potest Descendere Ad Infernum," which translates as Ma Bell Can Go to Hell.
Next morning, after breakfast and woodstove-brewed coffee, in the morning light, we set off down the track that borders Jordan Creek and that will take us, in the end, back down to the desert, across the Oregon line, south to Nevada. Ed Jagels in shirt and waistcoat stands on the porch to say good-bye, standing as men stood there in 1873, exactly.
After we'd been driving down the creek awhile:
"He isn't a ghost, honeybunch!"
"Oh ... I guess he was, in a way. He took wonderful care of us, though."
"A good ghost, you mean?"
And I think this: that if there are good spirits, independent spirits in the world, then Silver City is still home to them. For the place to be other than deserted, that is what it takes.