From her angle, some 25 feet from the massive gray-green clay banks of the Pinfire Opal Mine, Charlie Landers could see the fiery dark clouds and streaks of zig-zag lightning, now arriving as they did nearly every summer afternoon, way up here in Virgin Valley, Nevada.
Scary as those thunderstorms were, they seemed like comic relief from the mosquitoes and horseflies that busied themselves by stinging the miners and then sucking them up as they swung their six pound picks at the hard clay, hoping those rainbow-colored opal eyes would break loose before closing time.
Charlie, her shoulder length gold hair flowing with the north breeze, sat there, almost hidden in the high piles of tailings, those leftover shards from the miners of many yesterdays, who had come here with glorious dreams and then left exhausted, often dejected and mostly empty-handed.
At the Pinfire Mine today were Sander Miller, the University of Miami geology instructor, his cowboy cousin Doyle and his wife Kathy, all Charlie’s traveling companions. Then there were the other opal miners, mostly familiar faces that turned up every summer in this forgotten corner of the earth. Mineral hunters, all of them were, seeking the prize that would surely come with earnest effort, a return on the 50 bucks they had plunked down to the mine owners for the privilege of being there.
All of them now, save for Charlie, were at it, pounding furiously into the clay. They went at it mercilessly, relentlessly, all the time checking for anything shiny, any black glass that might be opal and not obsidian, any fiery seam that could suddenly emerge from inside a 40-million-year-old petrified wood limb or some rotted chunk of log that could be the start of a fist-sized handful of brilliant pinfire opal. Virgin opal.
Charlie had her eye on Doyle now, as he climbed atop the clay bank, carrying a heavy lengthy steel pry bar. Almost on cue, she was prompted to zoom in on him with her Canon mini digital, kept secure in the upper pocket of her trail jacket, and Doyle, knowing and appreciating what was coming, tipped his leather black wide-brimmed hat in her direction, just before lifting the steel bar way over his head for effect.
It was the six foot two Texan’s turn to perform the backbreaking job of clearing the accumulating overburden, which was now hanging menacingly above the miners’ heads. Doyle’s sarcastic name for it was “widowmaker” and Charlie was used to listening to his horror stories about all the body parts that could be instantly smashed should the weighty, rocky clay crack open and crash down on one of them.
Charlie sighed, snapping away, catching Doyle at his happiest. In a couple of short weeks she would be back in Miami, studying all these travel photos, remembering Doyle and how he enjoyed showing off his rugged smile, how his 40-year-old body still looked solidly packed in his Levi’s, how sexy he looked, holding up that silvery pry bar to the heavens.
And then, there was Kathy, sitting there, all tightly wound up, with that world-weary expression on her lined face. Kathy never hid her dislike of the opal game, and Charlie let out an impulsive laugh, imagining all the arguments they must have had during the planning of this very unromantic vacation trip. Now, Kathy was taking something large and purplish from Sander, something he had just taken out from the clay, and Charlie could tell by the wild, contorted look on Sander’s sunburned face that it was indeed precious opal.
The walk from the tailings to the bank was muddy with caking wet clay, a reminder of the recent snowy winter in northwestern Nevada.
“Hey, Sander!” Charlie yelled, making her way slowly through the mucky clay, watching her work boots turn orange from the mess. “Get that opal out of the sun before it cracks! I want a good picture!”
Cracking or crazing, as they called it, was common to much of the opal uncovered in Virgin Valley, due to its high water content, but that never stopped anyone from digging there. Ever since way back in 1919, when someone unearthed a pound of fiery opal, black as coal, that sold for $120,000, before finding its way to the Smithsonian, people came here hoping for a similar prize. Sometimes, they would get a taste of those flashes of purple, green and red fire and just the year before, Charlie and her companions were witnesses to the thrill.
For 85 year old Big Ernie, it was never too late. Fifty summers, four days a week, two months at the mine was a gamble like playing the slots in Reno. No fancy tools for Big Ernie. No sirree. Every morning, the old farmer from Arkansas would plunk down his 50 dollars, and carry his special homemade tool down to the banks, not caring that the other miners would laugh at his hokey accent or the steel rod, hooked onto a doorknob, that he used to negotiate the tough clay bank. Then, nobody laughed that steaming hot day last year, when Big Ernie uncovered a jet black opal log so huge and full of fire that it took six local miners, working all afternoon and late into the night to help dig it all out. It was a spectacular find that easily made addicts out of all of them.
Anthony Newman, who was banking next to Sander, was already an addict when Big Ernie found the “glory hole.” Newman spent all year saving up his salary from a factory job somewhere in Oregon to spend it all here at the Pinfire Mine. On Memorial Day weekend, when the Virgin Valley mines officially opened, the 30 year old Newman would be waiting in his classic outfit of camouflage parachute pants, with lots of pockets and leather holsters to hold all his mining tools. Newman’s 1978 rusted brown Jeep was a regular at the mine’s free campground, and it would be there every night from Memorial Day to the “last chance” Labor Day weekend three months later.
Sander laughed, checking out Charlie’s clay packed boots, and held out the sparkling two by two piece of purplish opal, that was throwing out some green fire in two corners. He ran his fingers through his sandy brown pony tail, half hidden under a dusty layer of dried clay, and Charlie was happy to see he looked satisfied.
Banking opal this season had been pretty fruitless, and now, well into day five, Charlie calculated the total loss for all of them at $750. Pinfire made a profit no matter, even if the mine owners decided to open up banks that yielded next to nothing. Their claim was that the opal was virgin and whether you found it or not was really an unknown. She sighed, picturing Sander’s lovely opal encased in a long glass vial filled with water, to be admired, and cherished forever.
Sander loved the area, which was the main reason they were all there. As a geologist he had a fascination with this desolate region, which was formed, he theorized, as a result of ancient volcanic actions that buried an entire forest. The trees, he and other experts said, drifted westward on a great lake bed, that was now dry, called Lake Lahontan. The tough clay that was all around and that now covered the rotting wood was formed as the result of the changes in the volcanic ash. As the wood rotted away, it was sometimes replaced by opal, which is why you could find opal logs and twigs and branches here.
So, while Sander clutched his find, looking like a happy kid in a toy store, Charlie saw it more realistically. Their sole find for the trip not only cost a hell of a lot of money, but also there would be no story to come out of the mine this year. No article for any of her magazines. She gave Sander a quick hug of praise and slowly made her way back to the tailings area, away from the diggers, the reality of failure slowly taking hold. Now, the memories of Big Ernie’s famed opal that fired up the pages of so many human interest and travel magazines were but a grim reminder of life’s vicissitudes. Last year’s exciting destination could be this year’s nowhereland.
The tears coming to Charlie’s eyes this moment, though, had little to do with opal, or the magazine, and everything to do with Link. The sparkle of Sander’s opal had brought it all back, the good times, when she would bring back that beautiful opal to her writing partner and he would ooh and aah about it, wishing he were well enough to do Virgin Valley.
Link had died of a heart attack a day before last Thanksgiving and Charlie was the one who found him all slumped over on the floor of his Miami Beach efficiency. One instant and his lifelong struggle with a bad heart was over. One instant and that mustachioed lunatic of a man who had joined her for coffee each morning at Jeffrey’s on Lincoln was gone. Fourteen years they were together but then nothing lasts forever. The memories of that horrible morning and the lingering sadness that followed stayed with Charlie, day and night, a thick lump in the throat that would never go away.
For Charlie, the tears would well up at any moment, from a word, a picture, the sight of a shared friend or someone they didn’t like, or even now, from Sander’s happiness at finding an opal. It made no sense, that the tears would follow her everywhere, no matter how far she traveled, even to this remote corner of Nevada wilderness they called Virgin Valley.