Sunday, June 27, 2010

Istanbul Of The American West

Austin, NV – named for Austin, TX but that’s where the resemblance ends – got its start when Wm. Talcott, a Pony Express agent, discovered silver at this point along the legendary trail that is today Highway 50, “the loneliest road in America.” The silver boom is long gone, but Austin remains the richest source of entertainment in Nevada. I say this with all due deference to the Strip. This weekend was my annual visit to St. George’s, Austin.

Saturday evening began with dinner – a meatball sandwich – at the Last Chance Saloon on the east edge of town. Despite its name The Last Chance is “a clean well lighted place” (Hemmingway) with a homey atmosphere. The proprietor gave me a favorable review of our new priest Darla Cantrell’s first time officiating at a wedding and gave me the card for her bed and breakfast, which is a castle 12 miles out of town. I later learned her husband is building an actual water filled moat around it. It sounded eccentric to me until I learned Austin has another castle, this one built in 1897, modeled after a Roman watch tower. A few weary gold miners were dining at the Last Chance as well. When they left, the miners gave me all sorts of brochures for local archaeological sites, caves, petro glyphs, pictographs, etc. That was pretty hospitable for tired miners on a Saturday night.

I then made my annual pilgrimage to the International Bar, not “a clean well lighted place” – a deliberately darker ambience. Odo the bar dog remembered me – or feigned recollection with the pastoral pretense common to bishops and bar dogs. The crowd was thin this time, but the television was showing The Magnificent Seven so I settled in for a long slow drink watching the complex heroism of Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the ptsd/ alcohol afflicted Robert Vaughn (the character, not Vaughn himself) unfold for the cause of justice in Mexico. The other patrons were well drillers. Austin is home to quite a gathering of well drillers this year since they discovered a hotbed (so to speak) of geothermal energy. There was much talk of virtues of geothermal in contrast to oil and coal. But the conversation also drifted to Emiliano Zappata and Pancho Villa. I am not sure they noticed the connection to the movie.

At one point a driller from California discovered that someone had written “(expletive deleted) yeah” on the wall. He was greatly offended – not by the expletive per se – but rather because he believed he had coined the term “(expletive deleted) yeah” 30 years ago. He regarded the graffiti as an infringement of his intellectual property rights in the expression.

Back at the Pony Canyon Motel, I fell quickly asleep but was awakened early by the television on the other side of the paper thin wall. It was saying “Thirty-three dollars and thirty-three cents. That's right. Only thirty-three dollars and thirty-three cents a week.” I hastily showered, dressed, and headed off to breakfast at the Toiyable Café.

The Toiyabe is a wonderful place complete with deer heads. I sat there waiting for my breakfast reading the emotivist rather Zen verse of Alberto Caerero, a heteronym of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa – poems written in 1914 generally about how things are only what they are but that’s just fine. Reading Pessoa/Caerero in the Toiyable struck me as perhaps somehow out of step. Then a couple sat down in the next booth. The man was large and white bearded; the woman a bit younger and subtly artsy, but very subtly. They began talking about visual arts in conceptual terms I did not understand. Their conversation turned to matters of technique which I also did not understand, but I could tell the woman was making a case for simplicity. She said something like “I just used pieces of purple cut glass. Some of them were pie shaped. Some were carrot shaped. I put them in triangles and that was enough.” The last part captured my attention. “That was enough.” Caerero’s Zen simplicity seemed right at home.

Then I stepped next door to St. George’s, the quaintest of quaint old brick churches with ancient gnarled poplars in the front yard. You may recall from earlier posts that St. George’s, a building on the historic registry, is also distinguished by its bell tower which doubles as the restroom. Worship at St. George’s was warm and engaged. Their veteran priest, Estelle, has been away quite awhile now with health problems. But their new priest, Darla, the Lander County dispatcher, fighting crime by day and preaching the gospel on weekends, is doing a magnificent job of holding the community together. They sang out the hymns with gusto accompanied by an ecclesiastical karaoke machine. They nodded and facially encouraged me through the sermon. They said the responses with energy and received communion with reverence. The morning could not have been better.

Then it was back to the Toiyabe for lunch with about half of the congregation. The server spoke to each and every one of them by name. One of the congregation, Frank Whitman, is working on a pictorial history of Austin and likes to wander the cemetery looking at tombstones. He described the tombstone of one Kee Lee whose epitaph read “Here lies a good Chinaman.” Ethnic sensitivity had apparently not made it to Austin by the time of Mr. Lee’s death. But the “unfortunate language” (Barak Obama speaking of Sen. Reid) was redeemed when it turned out most of the people at the table had actually known Kee Lee and remembered him with affection and respect as a wise and artful story teller.

Austin refuses to be reduced to any simple characterization. It is a post modern mountain mining town where geothermal green energy is discovered and developed among the ruins of played out silver mines and archaeological relics of human habitation 8000 years ago. It is pride in crude expressions set alongside sophisticated artistic minimalism. This is surely the Istanbul of the American West compressed into a village -- all this without broad band access. Every visit to Austin amazes me and I know I have barely scratched the surface.