Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 30, 2015

Western Gold Mine

At Under Western Skies I write about living and traveling in the American west.

It’s a land of big skies, vast deserts, towering mountains. Here, we’re not satisfied with narrow views, confined spaces or crowded rooms. We need space; we crave a broad sky that spans endless vistas. When we do something, we do it on a grand scale.

The mid 19th Century Gold Rush and a similar fever for silver mining motivated tens of thousands of people to move west. We looked at western mining towns from a bygone era in a previous post, HERE.

Mining is still big here. Let’s go take some pictures of a modern gold mine: a BIG one. Like this:

Gold Mine Brad Nixon 019 (640x449)

That hole is a mile wide and a quarter mile deep. It’s located in northern Nevada. You can see small trucks on the roadway slanting down from left to right. Small? No. That road is 100 feet wide.

At the bottom right of a zoomed-in shot you can see an ordinary-sized pickup truck alongside one of the big haulers:

Gold mine Brad Nixon R1 017 7 (640x411)

Here are cinematographer Jim and producer Susan, capturing a closer look at one of the trucks. The tires are over 12 feet tall:

Mine shoot Brad Nixon 027 (480x640)

These photos were made in 2007, when I was there shooting a video project. I’ve spent my corporate career producing video, and a lot of it has involved a struggle to make scenes of people sitting at computers — or, worse, just computers sitting in a data center — look interesting. When I got the opportunity to fly to the high desert to make pictures involving trucks the size of my house, the only possible answer was, “Yes, when do we leave?”

During the shoot, our escort drove us in a regular pickup down into the pit. Driving back out, we got behind one of those mammoth rigs. It was making good time, considering the fact that it was carrying more than 300 tons of ore, but our driver wanted to pass it. Trust me, one does not attempt to pass one of those monsters until one has clear and absolute confirmation from its driver that he or she sees you, because it can roll right over an unseen pickup truck and flatten it.

Gold mine truck Brad Nixon 028 (640x491)

It was early April, and winter still held sway at about a mile of elevation. I love the desert, and to be there and see the gargantuan operation set amidst the backdrop of mountains and chaparral is an indelible memory.

Let’s stop for moment and look at the landscape beyond that immense hole in the ground while we think about this subject.

Nevada mine scene Brad Nixon R1 015 6 (640x411)

I’m not clueless. I’ve spent more than 20 years driving and hiking through the deserts of the American west, agog at the absolute and mind-boggling splendor. I’m aware that there’s a philosophical if not moral disconnect between celebrating the untrammeled purity of wild places and enjoying the impressive work of humans engaged in digging a mile-wide hole in the place to extract stuff.

I’ve had some plum assignments that’ve taken me to four continents, and my crews and I have captured some dramatic and memorable footage. As a professional writer and video producer, my assignment that day was to record the mining operation. The images of that mine, including trucks that weigh in the neighborhood of 900,000 pounds are near the top of the “unforgettable” scale.

Mining is part of the history and culture of the west, so we report it here as part of the rich visual patchwork that surrounds us. There are questions worth asking, on another day. I’m aware of the disconnect. For me, it was a stunning day under the western sky.

Photography note: I shot the 2nd and 5th images in this piece on good old Kodachrome with my 40 year-old Pentax Spotmatic and a 180mm lens, one of my final few shoots with film. I miss Kodachrome.

© Brad Nixon 2015, 2017


  1. I love immense machinery like this. Don’t get to see it in the mines in South Africa, as we don’t tend to do open pit mining. It’s more impressive when you have mines going down 2 miles into the earth, but everything’s hidden away out of sight.


    • Nick, my first-ever mining experience was in the Midlands, not all that far from you, when I was 19. A coal mine. I don’t plan to do that again. I learned first-hand why my grandfather left the mine in Yorkshire to come to America!


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