"Lee lives there in her wooden boxcar. She paints canvases of long roads leading nowhere and smudges her urban life with the smell of sage..."
"When people tell me there's nothing going on in Nevada, I say 'Good, keep on driving.' I think you can find more going on in a one-foot square of the desert than almost anywhere." —Lee Deffebach (1928-2005)
I can't talk about Tuscarora without mentioning the lovely lady quoted above. I didn't have a close relationship with Lee Deffebach; I met her through a mutual friend of ours, Norma Miller. Much older than I, Norma was a mentor who pivoted my life around so that I could burst free from my working-class Mormon upbringing. The introduction to Lee was one of her gifts to me.
Norma had rhapsodized often about Lee's summer sojourns in the desert. She could "paint her heart out" without the buzz of civilization in her ear. Lee had divorced in the year or two before our visit and had found solace there as she recovered.
Norma and I invaded Lee’s solitude one Fourth of July weekend in the 1970s, shortly after she had purchased a boxcar and hauled it to her land in Tuscarora. For a few days, we enjoyed Lee's hospitality. Her generosity and gentle spirit imprinted upon me one of my fondest memories of that particular holiday. (Since Jeff and I were married on the Fourth of July, I have some awesome memories for comparison.)
To me at 24, Nevada was the great beyond, a vast, empty space where people could make big mistakes or disappear. In fact, whenever my job and school stress overwhelmed me, I'd jump in the car and drive into the desert. Somehow the open bowl of sky and that long straight highway cleared my head. Lee's escape to Tuscarora made perfect sense. I couldn't wait to see it and to meet her.
Norma and I drove westward from Salt Lake City immediately after work on Friday. Six hours later, we huddled in my car on a quiet neighborhood street on the north side of Elko. We feasted the next morning on bananas before heading out on Highway 225.
Tuscarora is literally off the side of a side road. We turned left at Lone Mountain Station on Hwy 226, wound through a canyon sheltered on both sides by dense willows. Just beyond the Taylor Canyon Resort, we turned left onto Midas/Tuscarora County Rd. Finally, we arrived at Lee's summer hideaway.
Tuscarora is one of those Nevada mining towns that teeter on the edge of ghost-town status. The boom-time population had once reached 5000, including miners as well as those who acquired wealth taking advantage of them. Hundreds of Chinese workers, laid off from the railroad, were hired to build a canal that would bring water from the mountains to the town.
After that project ended, most of those workers maintained their own claims to the silver and gold they dug up from the earth. Over time, they either returned to China or were buried in the local cemetery. Even those interred remains eventually made their way to their homeland.
By the 70s, the town kept itself vital by hosting nearly two dozen pottery students during the summer. When those students left, Tuscarora's population would plummet to a handful of hearty souls to bear the frigid winters. Such winters encouraged the first prospectors to retreat back to their claims in Austin, NV. Current figures show the population has grown to 166, but I'll wager that includes nearby ranches and those carving out a slice of libertarian paradise in the hills.
A few residents were born and raised there. Most live below the federal poverty line. Nonetheless, those who reside in this back-of-beyond place cherish the peace and serenity that allows them to pursue their passions. Such burgs throughout the Great Basin attract writers and artists of all media for its subtle landscape and freedom from human interaction.
Before our road trip, Norma showed me a newspaper clipping about how the remains of the last Chinese worker had been exhumed and sent back to China to sleep among his ancestors. For some reason, this was the inspiration for this sudden road trip.
Stretching our legs from the long drive, I turned slowly for a 360 view. Way up on the hillside stood the stone chimneys and tailings of the mining operations. The town itself contained a few blocks of decades-old wooden houses arranged in a grid. Tiny gardens, some with flowers and a bit of lawn, surrounded some of the houses while others moldered in the sage. I don't remember seeing the two-story hotel that housed the Pottery School, but the stone tavern on Weed Street dominated the center of town in purpose as well as presence.
Lee gave us a ten-cent tour of Tuscarora, including the weather-beaten post office where a shelf of well-thumbed paperbacks served as the library. Above that, a collection of photographs commemorated the town's pioneers. One sepia print showed a young woman, dressed in dungarees, ready to join her male companions on a hunting trip. Her robust spirit beaming from that fading image reminded me then of my hostess and modeled the person I wanted to become.
The three of us spent the better part of that afternoon dangling our legs over the edge of her boxcar doorway, watching a monsoon drench the grasslands to the south. Lee told us that Bing Crosby used to own ranch property nearby. I wondered if we gazed across lands where his boots had touched the soil.
Since she hadn't had a chance to take the wheels off her boxcar or morph it into a living space, Lee told us to spread our sleeping bags on the bare floor. Then she showed us her alfresco bathtub. One morning, she told us, as she bathed, she had waved to a Basque shepherd across the ravine. A three-sided toilet stall stood nearby, facing toward the sunrise.
She told us about the townspeople who minded their own affairs yet remained congenial to those who would come and go with the seasons. One story was of a young buckaroo riding through town on horseback, his gear clanking with each step. He not only plied his skills on the ranches, but he ran a line of traps in the hills. Lee described how the sound of his passage cut through the infinite silence, echoing up the canyon.
Her tiny cabin offered room enough only for Lee and her cats. I marveled at her use of the tiny space. She stored supplies under her elevated bed platform. A table supported a camp stove and washbasin along with an assortment of kitchenware. Her studio took up the other half of the space. She described how her cats would bring tributes caught during the night and place them across the threshold before munching them down for breakfast.
Lee moved quietly through her physical world, honoring small things as gifts from God. She seemed to be filled with grace despite the tumult of her life in Salt Lake. An unpretentious artist, dressed in jeans and flannel shirt, she exuded a perfect confidence that what she did with her life was in balance.
There is something in the Nevada atmosphere that breeds this confidence. It butted against the rigid notions that had boxed in my youth. Lee, as she showed us around her funky digs, was providing the key to unlock my potential. Not only was anything possible; it was also acceptable. Perhaps even brilliant. It was the creative way people of limited means brought the world under their control. Lee soon demonstrated what that meant as we prepared for dinner.
I offered a can of pork and beans to the potluck menu. Thoroughly disgusted, Norma chided me for being de classé. To my surprise, Lee smiled and defended my right to be who I was. My contribution was welcomed. Just that simple remark silenced Norma for the moment. I found it refreshing to be accepted so unconditionally.
In fairness to Norma, I probably reminded her of her own struggles against her upbringing. She had spent several years pursuing the theater in New York City during her twenties, but had to return to Salt Lake to care for her dying mother. She stayed, married a Mr. Miller and raised two children before divorcing him. Local theater kept her dreams alive, including a stint as understudy for Lady Macbeth opposite Orson Welles at the University of Utah. Her stories fed my implausible ambitions.
Through that weekend, we swam in the "Glory Hole," the remnant of a mineshaft disaster that killed dozens of miners when it flooded. One of my fears is dark water where I can't see the bottom. It was full on nighttime when we first entered this man-made lake. The starlight reflected upon the mirrored surface like a seer's scrying bowl. As I hesitated upon the edge of this abyss, I imagined the ghosts of those miners dragging me down to join them.
Norma groaned with impatience. Lee intervened, saying that it took a lot of courage to face something fearsome. I reckoned they both knew about such things. Norma had often regaled me with tales of her New York experiences. I was in the presence of two adventurers and sometimes it was hard to keep up.
Within moments, I floated upon the moonlit surface of the Glory Hole, feeling the silken water caress every part of my body. It cleansed like a baptism.
Sunday was the fourth of July. We joined in the holiday festivities that morning at the saloon. The pottery students filled out the ranks of locals at the party. A few dozen people appeared from the surrounding ranches to join in the egg toss, the three-legged race, and other traditional picnic games. When the Golden Hour sunlight mellowed the grasslands to a rich sienna hue, and the coyotes started to sing, we all went inside to lift several cold ones to the freedoms and independence we enjoyed.
While Norma and Lee caught up over glasses of wine at a corner table, I studied the massive oaken bar that covered the eastern wall. I eavesdropped as the bartender explained to another patron the difference between buckaroos and cowboys. A buckaroo is one who works cattle from horseback, plying his braided leather hand-made reata gently so as not to jerk the neck of the calf or break the reata. The vaquero tradition is highly respected in northern Nevada. According to the bartender, a cowboy is some rhinestoned cowhand who follows the rodeo circuit.
Western singer Dave Stamey once explained that a cowboy was the ranch hand who would do any kind of work, from working cattle to cleaning the slime out of the stock tanks. To a buckaroo, if it couldn't be done from the back of a horse, it couldn't be done.
When everyone was properly sauced, we linked arms in a stumbling circle and played "amoeba." This game required drunks, the more bleary-eyed and off-balance the better, to move inward and outward while keeping the circle intact. A major feat, to say the least. And it was crazy fun!
In fact, the whole day was fun in a way that rural towns can muster. If a stranger enters a Nevada country bar, even when it's empty, the locals will soon appear and start a party.
The next day, our car bounced down the graveled road toward 226. A jackrabbit, whose ears sported target-like markings on the tips, kept pace with us as it bounded over the sage. Norma and I had hours of driving ahead of us, traveling back to Salt Lake. We spent them in quiet reverie, a hangover of our passage through a special kind of paradise. Was it actually real or a dream? If I ever returned, would it still be there or concealed as in the mists of Brigadoon? Places and people never remain as one remembers. And a visitor's name will most likely be forgotten.
I could never forget Tuscarora, though, and its surreal effect on me. During my sporadic writing career, I experimented with poetry. I included the following in my book, When the Horses Come and Go:
Weed Street begins and ends at the saloon. Twenty-five locals survive winter but the population swells to fifty in summer when the potters come. Lee lives there then in her wooden boxcar to paint canvases of long roads leading nowhere and to smudge her urban life with the smell of sage. Rain lulls her to sleep she bathes in its silkiness in a tub outside. From her three-walled outhouse she watches the sunrise and the shape of the old Basque hiking to his sheep camp across the ravine. Later a wrangler rides by toward the hills to check his herd and a line of traps that carry him through leaner days. “Howdy ma’am, gonna be a right nice day” He tips his hat and spurs his roan along, his gear clattering in the distance. Lee’s cats present their midnight catch spread across the threshold as tribute then they crunch the rodents down and crawl inside the bedroll, still warm and smelling of Lee. A long thought over coffee then a skinny-dip in the Glory Hole a bottomless reminder of a mine disaster. She soaks each day in its watery balm a desert baptism to cleanse divorce’s grime. Full moon dances on black velvet ripples as she floats, gazes at possibilities in shooting stars and planets, She listens to rowdies in the bar playing a drunken game of Amoeba, their songs competing with coyotes in the hills. There are lots of ghosts in Tuscarora some of them still alive and hobbling about too stubborn to retreat to the ‘big city’ of Elko or Winnemucca Lee and the potters all must leave at summer’s end.
Nearly thirty years later, I visited Tuscarora again with my husband, Jeff. The Glory Hole was incarcerated within a chain link fence. The tiny post office/library had been replaced by a much larger cinderblock building with all the official USPO signage. I don't know what happened to the library or photo display. Painted a deep cobalt blue, the bar now houses a gallery for the potters' and other artists' work. While clean and bright with sunlight pouring through large windows, the magnificent oak bar is gone. Beyond the rough stonework walls, the old Nevada ambience has been gentrified.
The grid of houses remains. One resident was mowing his tiny patch of grass. Life still goes on and apparently the updated saloon serves the community better now.
The major theme of Lee's paintings, which I saw in the 1970s at the Kimball Arts Center in Park City, were huge acrylic color studies of a long, straight highway slicing down the center of the canvas. The road disappeared into a mountain range far in the background. The paintings all asked one question: what's at the end of that road? It doesn't necessarily go nowhere. It may go to a town rich in history and people who know the secrets. None of these or any of Lee's other works appeared to be shown in this new Tuscarora gallery. At least I couldn't see any by peering through the front window. Unlike the saloon, which was always open, the gallery has scheduled hours.
Lee died in 2005. While visiting our daughter in Elko in 2015, Jeff and I wandered up to Tuscarora. Lee's de-wheeled boxcar and cabin were closed up tight and had settled upon the earth. No trace of the bathtub and three-walled outhouse was visible. Her summer home had taken on the forlorn aspect of most desert ruins, joining the other abandoned structures in Tuscarora's landscape. There was no indication of the creativity that happened there or the woman who painted her heart out every summer.
She did leave a humorous reminder of her time in Tuscarora, however. A metal bed frame sits upon her grave in the cemetery. Her name is cut into the headboard with no dates. At the foot of the bed is carved the word, "Resting." This marker stands in stark contrast to the mundane wooden or stone memorials amongst the sage.
After visiting her grave in that desolate, weed-choked cemetery, I couldn't resist writing another poem dedicated to her:
For Lee Deffebach
I've rested here so long Wildflowers have bloomed And died five seasons now Covering me in a blanket Of thorns and brittle stems. It's quiet here, too quiet. Only the wind whispers To the rain sometimes. My neighbors don't have much to say Since they moved to this corner of town. But a visitor came by today She spoke in reverent tones Thanked me for the oddest things How I opened up her world Taught her how to breathe and to see Defended her when belittled by a friend She wept as she said that. Bowing her head as if in prayer She paused to gaze upon my eternal view Across grasslands and sky Then turned to leave. Oddest thing that's ever happened to me. Of all the people I met in life I can't remember her at all But it was nice of her to visit. It gets lonely on this hill Where I've rested for so long.
A 1985 LA Times article about Dennis Parks who started the pottery school
A wonderful history of Tuscarora by Howard Hickson
Lee's obituary from the Deseret News
A Tribute to Lee by her friend Ann Poore in 15 Bytes Magazine
Sue Cauhape is originally from Salt Lake City, but she now lives in Minden, NV and loves writing about the region. She’s written for newspapers, small press, and you can find her on her new Substack page, Ring Around the Basin. She has three books available on Amazon.
Juke is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
loved the poem about visiting Lee's grave. wonderful piece!