Big Springs Ranch
East on Interstate 80 over the Pequop Mountains in Nevada, the land is big and wild. If you stopped your car on the side of the highway, picked a direction, and started walking, there’s a good chance that no one would ever find you. As I drove down the pass at dawn one day, the road leveled before me and I saw a verdant, grass-covered valley, dotted with cattle. There are more cows than people in rural Nevada, but finding a green valley in the high desert feels like seeing a patch of Oz in Kansas. I turned off at the next exit. Driveways are long in that part of the state, and I looked for cottonwood trees in the distance to see where a ranch house might be.
A dog, tied with a chain to one of the cottonwoods, barked at me as I drove up. It was 6 a.m. and a man with a white mustache walked out of the house holding a spatula. He introduced himself as Randy Stowell. The air in the doorway smelled like sagebrush and bacon. I said that I was a photographer making a book, Frontcountry, about people who live in the rural American West, and that I was staying at the Bear Ranch near Elko. Randy told me to get his son, Tommy, from the next cabin and join them for breakfast.
Tommy was asleep. His girlfriend, Bonnie, opened the screen door and left it wide for me to come in. I remember seeing their pink bedsheets through my viewfinder as Tommy got dressed. I asked what the ranch, which the Stowells were leasing, was called, and he said, “Big Springs, because there’s so much water.” The water from the land was so plentiful that it was piped 30 miles to taps in the city of Wendover.
In the American West, ranching and mining have had parallel histories, though they share a common landscape. Cowboys, with their ranching culture, are the chosen representatives of Nevada. Their images are printed on license plates and tourist souvenirs. But the biggest profits are in mining. Towns are built or abandoned based on the price of gold. If Nevada were a country, it would be the fourth-largest gold producer in the world. Raw nuggets have been gone from the state for generations, but the metal fetches such high prices that it is now profitable to mine for one-tenth of an ounce of gold dust in a 2,000-pound rock. Companies are digging increasingly bigger holes to find smaller and smaller deposits, and leaving pits where once there were mountains.
When I met the Stowell family in 2012, it was their last year leasing the Big Springs Ranch. Newmont Mining Corporation, one of the world’s largest gold-mining companies, had recently purchased the 350,000-acre property. Soon after, the company announced the discovery of a multimillion-ounce high-grade gold deposit there, the only significant discovery made in Nevada in the past decade. They renamed the land Long Canyon.
I visited the ranch a number of times that summer. On one of my last visits, Tommy and I spent an afternoon driving across the valley. Tommy bragged that he could shoot coyotes while balancing on top of a fence pole. He got out of the pickup and climbed the fence. I photographed him, loaded gun in hand, the moment before he fell.
That night at the ranch house, Randy told me, “This little town has nothing. It’s dying on the vine. But with the mine here, it’ll bring in jobs and make everything bigger and better. There are people who want that boost to the community. I’m not one of them. The mine will ruin this mountain, and you’ll never find land this beautiful anywhere else.”