Celebrating the campfire in Unionville
Today as I drive to Unionville, Nev., with my dog Hennie to celebrate the Fourth of July, I will be imagining how it must have been back in 1861 when it took 13 days, 15 if you stopped to rest the horses, to travel the 200 mile distance from here to there. Unionville was founded in 1861 by two prospectors from Virginia City who took one look at the rich ore that some Paiutes brought to their attention and hastened back with them to Buena Vista Canyon.
Although Mark Twain writes about the “silver fever” in the Humboldt in his semi-autobiography, “Roughing It,” he does not refer to the Paiutes but does quote long passages from the Daily Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City extolling the huge riches to be found there. He also describes (with characteristic exaggeration) his own frustrating three-week stay in Unionville when he, too, tried to become a millionaire but discovered that mining for silver involved far more than staking a claim on a promising piece of land.
Unionville, originally named Dixie by Confederate sympathizers, became Unionville when partisans of the federal government won a local election and renamed it to reflect their own political views. When Twain first laid eyes on Unionville in December of 1861 (as near as I can determine the date), in the “midst of a driving snowstorm,” it “consisted of eleven cabins and a liberty pole.” These cabins, facing each other, were “strung along” both sides of the canyon. The rest of the landscape, Twain tells us, was made up of “bleak mountain walls that rose so high into the sky on both sides of the canyon that the village was left, as it were, far down in the bottom of the crevice.”
In 10 years time however, these 11 cabins had given way to 10 stores, nine saloons, six hotels, four livery stables, drugstores, a jeweler, watchmaker, lawyers, and a newspaper. When the county seat was changed to Winnemucca in 1873, Unionville began its “slide.” By 1880 the silver seemed to have run out and the population dropped to 200 residents. Today there are perhaps 30.
Like many places in Nevada, the most picturesque ones cannot be seen from Interstate 80. In fact, ranches and towns are often virtually invisible at a distance or they are, like Unionville, hidden in a canyon that defies perception until it’s practically right under your nose.
So it was for my childhood friend Ruth and me a month ago as we exited Interstate 80. The sign said Mill City and Unionville, but there was no visible presence of either one. We drove about 20 miles down a paved road as if it were the last road left in America. Nothing but the high desert and a range of mountains to our west that looked unbelievably high and green. Ruth (whose only previous experience in Nevada has been Las Vegas) was in awe of their towering height and beauty. When the paved road ended, we turned onto gravel and moseyed along for several miles. We could see the mountains folding into one another, which indicated a canyon, but where was it?
Tom and Linda Johnson had invited us “to the ranch,” which physically is still in the making, so to speak, but already there in spirit. Linda had told us to look for the schoolhouse on the hill, and before we knew it, it almost jumped out at us and at the same moment Buena Vista Canyon also revealed its verdant glory. The creek, fed by natural springs higher up the canyon, is bordered by cottonwoods and aspen the higher you go.
Several years ago Linda and Tom celebrated the Fourth here with an impromptu parade. Their daughter transformed herself into the Statue of Liberty, someone else was George Washington, and others simply waved flags. The only onlookers were the birds in the trees or the occasional sidewinder. It must have been, I think, as much a celebration of Unionville as of freedom.
Mark Twain maintains that everyone has a “nomadic instinct,” that civilization is a veneer beneath which we hunger always for the campfire. Unionville is that campfire, maybe not only for Tom and Linda but for many of us. It’s literally and metaphorically off the Interstate. It presents us with the freedom from the world as well as freedom itself.
For nomads, campfire is a place in the same way that a turtle carries his “campfire” on his back or a woman feels her campfire is the man she loves. If we think of campfire in this way we find ourselves purified somehow, all excess magically burned off, and the heart of what matters the only fire we really need.
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D. teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College