Sunday, July 10, 2005

Purple Bottles, Lithium Springs, and Mount Mizpah, Nevada

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We hunted for bottles the Nevada desert sun had turned purple, aqua, and blue. I never quite understood the process, but there was definitely something magical about it.

In the 1960s, they were plentiful. You’d be driving along a two-lane highway, and you’d see glittery desert pavement along the peripheries of old mining towns and ghost towns. Goldfield, Nevada was one place. Tonopah was another. Both were in the shadow of Mount Mizpah. Mizpah means “watchtower” or “lookout” in Hebrew, and it seemed strangely appropriate, given the history of illicit activities in this area.

In the first place, there were raids on individuals on various trails on their way to the California gold fields. In theory, the raids were primarily made by Paiute Indians on settlers. In reality, most bandits liked to disguise themselves as Paiutes in a rather crude “false flag” operation, where some already vilified group would be further blamed for malfeasance.

But beyond anything grounded in the world of phenomena, there was the notion of a great mountain Watchtower or Citadel, where God demanded respect from the row after row of archangels standing at attention on the ledges of cliffs. They were there to watch over a part of the world that had experienced dramatic changes in a geological blink of an eye.

Dad told me the ground we stood on used to be a lake. Now, they pumped the water still trapped in the gravel sands deep below our feet because it contained high concentrations of lithium. From a distance, mirages shimmered, giving the lake bed same shimmering hue as water. It was the sky mirrored in the smooth, hot surface and the heat waves.

“What is lithium about?” I asked on a later trip. I remember a psychiatrist mentioning that back in ancient Greece, when one suffered from depression, he or she was instructed to drink from lithium springs.

Somehow drinking from the lithium springs here didn’t seem like such a good idea. I remembered a postcard I saw for sale in The Silver Queen Motel in Tonopah. It had a picture of a pioneer in a covered wagon crossing the desert surrounded by the skeletons of what appeared to be cattle or oxen that had drunk from the poisoned waters. “CALIFORNIA OR BUST” read the caption.

Later, I guessed the lithium was used in long-life batteries.

In the meantime, I continued to look for old bottles. The bottles were thick, and looked hand-blown. They had impurities that made each one intriguing to scrutinize for hours. The glass was heavy, smooth, and warm, sometimes frosted like Lalique crystal by sand grains abrading the surface as winds swept along the valley floor.

“What do people do around here? How do they make a living?” I asked. The ghost town was not completely abandoned. Some of the warped, collapsing, gray, weathered wooden buildings seemed to be inhabited. It was hard to imagine how they could have any modern amenities – good wiring, a telephone – to say nothing of reliable air conditioning, communications, and cash flow. And, you wouldn’t want toxic lithium water to flow through your taps.

“People either live here for a long, long time, or they’re just passing through,” said Dad, cryptically.

I was somewhat surprised that no one had established a monastery in the shadows of Mount Mizpah. The mission movement in California seemed to have missed Nevada. I suppose the desert and the Sierra Nevadas were sufficient barriers. Nevertheless, it seemed rather urgent to have people pure of heart and purpose, perhaps a sequestered group of monks who had taken a vow of silence to spend their waking hours in prayer and meditation.

Perhaps they were already there – I just was unable to see them. Some day, I would be able to pierce the veil of my own troubled thinking. I would see God and his archangels mirrored in the shimmering edge of a mountain.