Imagine you’re out in the middle of the vast open range of central Nevada, prospecting, crawling up a hillside through the sagebrush, studying every inch of ground, looking for a sign that this is soil that might contain chunks of turquoise, that might even contain pieces of turquoise that are 10 times more valuable than gold.
Several generations of the Otteson family in the Tonopah area of Nevada have been living the lives of Old West turquoise miners every day for many years, and they are still living a rugged mining lifestyle today.
For about the past five years the Ottesons have been looking into the possibility of sharing their lives as turquoise miners on a reality show. They found a network that was willing to send crews out to film them as they dig through the dirt in very remote locations, and now their new reality show, Turquoise Fever, is on INSP. The premier of their show was on Aug. 14.
The story of the Ottesons’ passion for mining in Nevada dates back to the 1940s. Lynn Otteson, who had been mining turquoise for an uncle in Manassa, Colorado, went to Tonopah when he was 19 to mine at the Easter Blue Turquoise Mine.
“He started it all,” said Lynn’s grandson Tony Otteson. Today, Tony said, “If you’re an Otteson, you’re big in turquoise.”
Although Lynn prospected throughout much of Nevada, most of the Ottesons’ mines today are within about a 70-mile radius from Tonopah.
“That’s pretty much all the turquoise that our family focuses on,” Tony Otteson said. “We have 50 to 60 different claims that cover that area.”
Working with INSP
Tony Otteson said that when they started looking into the possibility of doing a reality show about the work they do there were some false starts.
“The first couple of production companies loved the idea of what we do and they wanted to film us, but they wanted to change a lot of the things,” Tony Otteson said. “They wanted us to move over and to do some fake mining closer to town, just for logistics, so it’s easy for them to drive out and film. Once we started getting to a point where they’re changing up the routine just to make it possible, it made us all feel like, now we’re being forced to act a part. And we don’t want to be doing any of that stuff. We’re not acting at all, we’re the real deal, we just want to be able to work, and hopefully the camera crews can stay out of the way and nobody gets hurt.
“Once we met up with INSP, it was a match made in heaven,” Tony said. “They were like, let them be themselves, let them do what they do, and make it happen. So it worked out great.”
“What we really love about INSP coming in,” said Donna Otteson, “is that it really helps to showcase mining in Nevada, and the hardships that we all go through dealing with weather and conditions, and getting supplies, all that kind of stuff.”
Donna was married to Lynn’s son Dean, who passed away a couple years ago.
“We really love that they’ve let us be ourselves and they’re giving us an opportunity to educate the public about what we really do here. And to show that all of Nevada is not the Las Vegas perception, it’s so different. Mining is a huge industry in Nevada. I don’t think people realize the amount of mining that goes on in this state, and what we contribute to the economy is really immense. Between the rarity of the gold and the rarity the turquoise, I think Nevada is pretty unique in that we produce these really unique and highly valued minerals.”
“Another thing with INSP,” Tony Otteson said, “is just their core values of what the network stands for. … They’re family oriented. A huge theme for them is the American family life that I think is getting lost nowadays to crazy city life and electronics and this and that, the internet. And with the Ottesons, we are way more attached to the outernet. We’re a tight-knit family, and we still, here in 2019, we try to live the American dream, and we use our fingertips, and our broken knuckles and our broken fingernails to scratch a living out of the earth. And that’s all we’re ever going to do. And that was the match that married up the Ottesons with INSP.”
“They stand for what we stand for,” Tony Otteson said. “Blue collar, hard-working, family love, and the family problems, and you get through them, and you show how you do that. Even more importantly to me, they weren’t just interested in watching a show about Tom Jones and Mark Jones going out in the mountains and blowing up rocks. They want to know about how does this affect the wives, how does it affect the children, what’s the relationship there. And that’s the real story in what we do.”
Prospecting for turquoise
Donna Otteson said that in some ways, “We’re not all that different from the large gold mines, we’re just on a much smaller scale. We still have to wear hardhats, and we’re still held to the same standards as the bigger mines for safety.”
But a lot of the work that the Ottesons do today still looks a lot like what miners did hundreds of years ago.
The search for turquoise starts with old-fashioned prospecting.
“We still have to do it just like they did in the 1700s,” Tony Otteson said. “You still have a mining pick with you … you’ve got your boots on, and any water you can stuff in your pockets, and you just start heading, you start heading where there’s no roads, and you get to mountains that look right.”
“For a lot of it, you are literally on your hands and knees, crawling in the rocks, crawling up the sagebrush, hanging onto the cliff as you snake around the side of the mountain. That’s the real way to prospect. That’s how you make sure that your face is only a few feet from the ground and you’re not going to miss something if there’s something there.
“And if you find something, just like they did in the 1700s, it’s a wooden stake and a hammer, you pound it into the ground, you write on a piece of paper that you found your mineral there, your notice, that’s what it’s called, that you’re staking a claim to cover this area. The claims are 1500 feet by 600 feet.
“You get the mineral rights to that area, you just got to lay your claim out however you think your minerals are running under the ground, and then you go straight to the county and BLM that governs the majority of the ground out there, file all your paperwork and give them all your money, and now you get to go and look and see if there’s really anything there. There’s a lot of work before we can even get to mine.”
Sometimes there can be disputes over claims and who has the right to be digging where.
“It is still the Wild West out there, and there are still people that drive around. Some are claim owners, some are want-to-be claim owners, but instead of packing old double-barrel shotguns like they did in the day, they’re packing AR-15s.”
Dangers of rural mining
A more common threat out in the wildlands is rattlesnakes – there are a lot of them out there. Another danger is driving so many miles on rural two-lane roads, sometimes when you are exhausted from long days of mining. In March, while Turquoise Fever was being filmed, two of Tony’s brothers-in-law just narrowly missed a semi and crashed head-on into a sports car.
Today, any medical emergency around the turquoise mine sites may become much more serious because Tonopah’s hospital closed in 2015.
“So if we have life threatening emergency,” said Tristan Otteson, another of Lynn’s grandsons, “you better hope that the helicopter or the plane is out at the airport that can fly you to a hospital faster than you can drive to it, because now any little thing here can turn into a complete disaster.”
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“We went from having Band-Aids and Neosporin and a stitch kit in our little medical kits that we keep at all the mines, to tourniquets,” said Tony Otteson.
Tony Otteson said that another way their work is different from a large mining operation is the way that they dig into a headwall.
“At the larger mining companies,” Tony Otteson said, “if you’re up against headwall, you’re generally in a giant piece of equipment loading rock away from the headwall into a truck. For us the headwall is where the turquoise is, which means we’re out with our hands and feet right up against that headwall, regardless of how high that is.”
“A few years ago uncle Danny was out there up against a headwall and a wind gust or something came and just took his hardhat off, and within just a few seconds of his hardhat blowing off, this rock from way up high up on the headwall bounces down. It hit him right on the top of the head, it laid him open three or four inches right across the top of his skull, he bled like a stuck pig. If that rock had been just a few pounds heavier, it probably would have been a broken skull. He probably wouldn’t have walked away from that.”
“There really is no other way for us to do this. You can’t go in there with heavy equipment, the turquoise is so sparse and so scattered.”
The value of turquoise
A big difference between turquoise and gold is that gold has a set price per ounce, but the value of a piece of turquoise depends on a lot of factors.
Tony Otteson said that sometimes they find pieces of turquoise that are worth more than $100 per carat. Gold, by comparison, is worth about $8 to $10 per carat, Otteson said.
“So there is turquoise that we mine out that if we can get into those nuggets, the nuggets that we’re pulling out are worth 10 times their weight in gold. And those are not even hard to sell. There are collectors around the world waiting for us to find those super rare pieces, and the second they’re out of the ground you’ve already got people wanting to buy them.”
“Those things come very, very few and far between,” Donna Otteson said. “For turquoise, we don’t have a standard price like gold does, so our price depends on the hardness, the color, the size - there are so many variables to pricing out the turquoise.”
“That’s a large reason why we own so many different mines,” Tony Otteson said. “It’s not just because the Ottesons are addicted to finding holes in the ground. We have so many mines because the market calls for different stuff at different times.”
“They’ll put in that order,” Tony Otteson said, “they’ll tell us, hey, this is what we want. And that might require us to pick our equipment all up and move it 70 miles away to another mine that produces that particular look.”
The Ottesons often test the quality of a piece of turquoise that they pull out of the ground by touching it to their tongue.
“When the TV show airs, you’ll see Ottesons licking rocks,” Tony Otteson said. “We all lick rocks. Most of the world won’t understand it at first. … But that simple move right there tells us a ton about that piece of turquoise.”
If the turquoise grabs at their tongue and sticks a little bit, that means that the turquoise is soft and could be basically worthless. They want a piece of turquoise that glides across their tongue, and then glistens.
“We learn a lot from that simple lick,” Tony Otteson said. “That can shut a whole project down. If you’re in there and you’ve spent 25,000 bucks trying to open this spot up to get to this turquoise, and the first piece rolls out and you lick it and your tongue sticks, that’s a bad sign. You get five or six of those rolling out with nothing good, and you’ve just wasted a bunch of money.”
The mining lifestyle
The work days do vary somewhat – sometimes they live on site, sometimes they commute back home, sometimes they bring family out with them, and sometimes they work on their own, without cellphone service, day after day. But they always put in a lot of work.
“I mine every single day,” Tristan Otteson said. “Sometimes I get Sundays off, but that depends.”
Tony Otteson described a typical work day at a mine this way:
“You go to work when you wake up because there is nothing else to do. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, as long as you can see. You eat breakfast, and grab your supplies, and you head to the pit. And it takes about an hour before you’re physically tired, which means generally you have 12 to 13 hours left in the day. You just keep swinging that hammer, and you keep shoveling that dirt, and you keep sifting and sorting. … You work until you just physically can’t anymore, you can barely stand up, which is almost every day.”
“You’re mining constantly, and paychecks are never ever certain,” Tristan Otteson said. “So I can work four weeks in a row as hard as we can, and if we’re not in great turquoise, or we have the wrong turquoise that the buyers don’t want at that time, we’re not getting a paycheck, until maybe after another three or four weeks of just straight mining hard again.
“And then we always have this bad habit of whenever we do get into the good turquoise and we get a little bit ahead, we start slacking a little, and then it all catches right back up to you, and then you’re back out there for three or four weeks in a row again,” Tristan Otteson said.
“It’s a rollercoaster life,” Tony Otteson said.
It is a tough life in a lot of ways, but a lot of the Ottesons wouldn’t have it any other way. They like being out there in the middle of Nevada’s vast landscape.
“The farther away from everybody else we are, probably the happier most Ottesons are,” Tony Otteson said. “We do like our seclusion.”
Of course, the Ottesons gave up some of that seclusion to let film crews follow them around, so that you can join them on their quest for turquoise by watching "Turquoise Fever."
The crew wrapped up the majority of the filming for season one this spring.
“The production company, they’re already gearing up for season two,” Tony Otteson said. “There hasn’t been a season two order, but they know what they’re filming, and they’re like, yeah … don’t go too far, Ottesons.
“Whenever the Ottesons decide to take a mining break, that will be about the time they’re calling and saying, all right, let’s get going on season two.”