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Mountain City is one town with many stories

Lorie Smith Schaefer

Reading Mountain City, a memoir by Gregory Martin is like sitting around the kitchen table, looking at an old photo album and hearing my parents and grandparents tell stories.

This is the story of a life — the life of a town and its inevitable passage into memory.

This very readable, 193-page book won the Nevada 2002 Silver Pen and the New York Times Notable Book Award. It is a perfect choice for Western Nevada Community College’s first-ever community reading project, “One Book, Many Stories.”

For old-time Nevadans the vignettes about mining, ranching and small town life will ring true. For newcomers it will give insight into the history and people of rural Nevada and what is sad about its homogenization and disappearance.

On the first page, Martin introduces us to his uncle Mel who is telling a joke about an old Basco from Winnemucca. It’s the first of many. Mel is quite the storyteller and can hold his own in English, Basque, Paiute or Shoshone. He learned all those languages simply because he loves to talk and get to know people.

Mel runs Tremewan’s Store in Mountain City, Nev., with his wife, Lou, and her parents. Mountain City is a real town 84 miles north of Elko on Highway 225 and “is one mile long, limit to limit.” Martin writes, “Thirty-three people live in Mountain City. I come and go, but when I’m here that makes thirty-four.” None of the residents is young. The town is not growing; it is dying.

Nevertheless, the tenacity of the people who have stayed on in this tiny town speaks to the importance of place to their existence. This is home. When the mines closed and most others moved on, Greg Martin’s grandfather and great-grandfather remained. They worked for the railroad, tried ranching, built roads and fences for the Forest Service, dug graves, set pins at the bowling alley, cut ice and worked as carpenters. As Martin says, “They were trying to figure a way to stick to the landscape, with whatever glue was handy.”

Throughout the book, Martin treats his characters and their frailties with gentleness and respect. His observations are keen but kind, sensitive without being sentimental. Gramps’ eyesight is failing and someone needs to tell him he can’t drive anymore. Grandma secretly wants to join the four feisty widows with tight perms who meet every morning for slots and coffee. They won’t let her because she isn’t a widow yet.

Mel laughs and hangs onto his scalp as the Duck Valley Senior Citizens arrive on the bus to do their weekly shopping, calling themselves “The War Party.” An alcoholic man from the nearby reservation has his credit cut off because the store cannot afford the loss. A disabled cousin works in the store when he visits. His speech patterns and idiosyncrasies are documented with obvious affection.

But why should we all read this one book? Because there are so many things that divide us in our everyday lives — politics, economics, education, religion, gender — reading this book is an opportunity to come together, to share one experience. “One Book, Many Stories,” carries the potential of linking members of the community by providing some common language, background knowledge and perhaps even a little understanding.

Just imagine the impromptu discussions at grocery checkouts, post offices, coffee shops, casinos or waiting in line at the DMV all because we are reading the same book.

“Ya’ readin’ that book they’ve been talking about? Mountain City?”

“Nah, not my cup of tea. I only read mysteries.”

“Well, I didn’t think I’d like it either, but my daughter gave it to me for Christmas. Kinda felt I had to read it then, just to be polite. I liked it, especially the jokes and stories the kid’s Uncle Mel tells. Greg may have gone to college, but that Mel sure taught him a thing or two about telling a story.”

“Yeah? Maybe I’ll give it a try. Can I borrow yours?”

You’ll find it easy to get your own copy of Mountain City. WNCC, with a grant from Nevada Humanities, has purchased 500 for distribution through seven county libraries. Carson City Library will have limited free copies to give away, books to lend from their regular collection and more for sale in their Browser’s Corner. Call Andrea Moore at the Carson Library at 887-2244 ext. 1019 or your own public library for information.

Gregory Martin will be doing presentations in March at WNCC, Brewery Arts Center and in Douglas County. Rumor has it that he’s bringing his uncle Mel along.

Lorie Smith Schaefer has lived in Carson City for 25 years. She is a reading specialist at Seeliger School.