We arrive early in Tuscarora, Laura and I, and bide our time exploring the small town and its environs. When the other students arrive, I document some of their projects and look more closely at items on display at the pottery school.
Tuscarora is an old mining camp in the Nevada foothills of Mount Blitzen, miles from anything else. The discovery of silver in the early 1870s superseded the placer mining that was dominated for several years by the majority Chinese population. The town’s size and wealth peaked in the late 1870s before wildfires, waning ore and the discovery of silver deposits elsewhere began to drain the population.¹
In spite of occasional efforts, the town never regained its original glory, eventually dwindling to the current population of just a handful of residents. Its reputation as an artist’s haven seems to have begun around 1966 when Dennis and Julie Parks moved there to establish what would become an internationally famous pottery shop and school.² Now it is also home to painters, writers and artists of other types.
The dirt road between the highway and Tuscarora is straight and flat like an over-sized arrow pointing to a collection of weathered wood walls, rusting tin roofs and forsaken cars that would otherwise lack distinction among the abandoned mine structures dotting the foothills. Laura and I approached at speed and then slowed to a crawl as we entered town to search up and down little gravel streets for our final destination, the hotel.
With only a few north-south and a few east-west streets, we expected quick success. We were stymied by homes and buildings all having a similar ramshackle appearance with no formal signage to direct us. I asked Laura if she had more information about which building it was. “No, not really.” We traced a few figure eights around the town before settling on the most probable structure which, upon close inspection, had a small sign verifying our choice.
Nobody else was there. Nobody from Boise and nobody from Tuscarora. The building was empty.
We decided to venture about on foot while waiting for someone to show up. We walked back down the road to visit the cemetery we’d passed on the way into town. Reading the many inscriptions, three decades seemed to be the upper limit, with rare exceptions, of those populating the Tuscarora cemetery from the 1800s.
I saw one epitaph for a lady now gone a hundred a years, promising, “you will be remembered.” I wondered about that. Looking up from her headstone, eyes find no reason to stop short of the distant mountain range. The intervening expanse is filled only with the sound of unhurried wind gently rattling a bit of a chain somewhere in the cemetery. It seems more a place of forgetting than remembering.
Completing our sobering survey of the dead, Laura and I walked back into town by sagebrush hills green from all the spring rain.
Still nobody had arrived at the hotel so we continued our trek out the opposite end of town, following a little stream by abandoned cars and trucks to one of three dumps we found around town.
While we were looking back at Tuscarora from the hills above, Laura’s phone rang. The group had arrived. Good thing — we were running out of nearby sights to explore. We wasted no time returning to greet them.
As the students unloaded their vehicles, they exchanged driving insults. “You’re a terrible driver”; “You almost killed us!” As a former teenager, I expect those judgments were all true.
There was space for a few of the students to occupy rooms in the hotel. Everyone else, myself included, set up a tent in the small shaded yard beneath flowering trees. As I was sitting in the camp-chair by my tent, one teenage boy made a point of announcing more than once that he’d never set up a tent before. I glanced up several times from the notes I was writing about the trip to watch him loudly dramatize the process.
The yard was home to a large honey bottle Buddha and crucified Nike, sculptures that, to my reading, take a satirical jab at society’s misplaced reverence for its own artificial and ephemeral creations. That or whimsy, I guess.
The rear of the hotel is a hodgepodge of additions, art and kitsch, the place where the work of living actually occurs in the kitchen and laundry room. It reminded me of how our old farmhouse in Troy, Idaho, looked when our family moved there.
While Laura reconnected with her friends, I gave myself a tour of the hotel-school-gallery and the eclectic mix of items on display around the rooms and walls.
Unlike an elementary school field trip or junior high dance, the few parents along (I noticed just one other) were given no specific roles or responsibilities. And that was just fine. These older kids didn’t need much if anything from us. The cooking, eating, cleaning and such were all handled.
I determined that my job was just to hover and feel slightly old (and also slightly wise) while they referred to Metallica as “classic rock” and committed other thinking errors.
There were three sorts of art the students could sign up for: pottery, painting or writing. My daughter Laura signed up for writing. Most of the kids signed up for pottery. A messy few signed up for painting with Ron Arthaud.¹
The potters enjoyed the most attention. I know little about the process but the work appeared to begin with loud music, exaggerated genitalia and spinning tables in the geodesic dome.
The next step, I think, was to give the clay creation a finish or glaze in the adjacent non-geodesic building. I was impressed with the many possible colors and textures. The GS would look pretty sweet if I could apply those finishes.
Finally, the pottery was fired in kilns behind the dome. Apparently the tradition is to immediately smash to bits any piece that comes out of the kiln with a defect. One girl quickly ran and hid with a piece that came out beautifully save for a small crack. She rescued it from destruction. I hope she’s prepared for the medication and special schools it may require.
As I wandered around Tuscarora, I took pleasure in realizing someone could tell me it was 2PM or 7PM with equal plausibility. I really had no idea. My only sense of time was daytime versus nighttime. Beyond that, I was just there, taking in the sights, big and small, soil and sky.
It was great to relinquish the schedule-driven day — eat when I was hungry, sleep when I was tired. But there was only so much in-town wandering and writing to occupy my mind. I needed to ride. I need to see what was atop and then over the mountains.