The Phantom Blue: A Turquoise Fable.
By Bob Brucia and Mike Ryan II.
It was in 1988 when Mike Ryan and I first heard the story about a lost turquoise mine called the 'Phantom Blue'. We had just left Austin, Nevada when we picked up a hitch-hiker needing a ride to Fallon. The road (Highway 50) from Austin to Fallon has been called "the loneliest road in America" and to our hitch-hiker on that day it had been a lonely road. He looked to be at least 80 years old and down on his luck. He said his name was Henry Longbow and he was Shoshone. After he had rested for twenty or thirty minutes he started a rambling story, almost incoherent, how he found himself wandering in the high Nevada desert and stumbling on what looked to be a small turquoise float, not much bigger than a hat, how the stone was incredibly beautiful, how a phantom blue smoke spread around the ground as he left to go find water. After about an hour of listening to his story we were close to Fallon. He pulled out a napkin, a pencil and a small turquoise stone and drew what look to be a map. When we stopped for gas, he left our pick-up and said he needed to wash up in the rest room. After waiting and not seeing him come out we checked and he was gone. He seemed to have vanished as strangely as he had appeared. Mike and I got back in our truck. We saw the map and small beautiful piece of turquoise that he had left for us.
After that strange encounter Bob and I parted ways as will happen in life, he pursuing a successful herbal remedy business and I my foray in the world of personal financial advice. Years later, both retired, we met again, Bob one of the foremost turquoise authorities and me a turquoise neophyte intent on learning more about turquoise with one driving memory; a strange encounter on a lonely Nevada highway with one Henry Longbow and his mysterious tale of a fabled turquoise mine, the mystical Phantom Blue.
I had reconnected with Bob as I bought turquoise from him and developed my collection. I asked about our strange encounter with Henry and if he remembered it or was it just some weird fantasy in my mind. He said, “This is so strange. I had completely forgotten about that but just today, as I was going through some odds and ends, I came across a small stone of incredible turquoise wrapped in a crude hand written map and labeled Phantom Blue” We were about to begin an incredible journey I am not sure to this day that I entirely believe.
We decided we had to follow up on this mystery stone. We agreed to meet in Battle Mountain and plan our pursuit of this elusive turquoise. The map was an enigma. While there were recognized landmarks showing that the general area was within the Tenabo group of the Bullion mining district near the old ghost town of Tenabo there were weird references, like, “turn left at Shifty Louie’s old cabin”, and “follow the purple haze to the end of the trail’. Old Henry was not going to make this easy.
We thought the best place to start was the old Tenabo mining group and decided to drive there first. Driving through Crescent Valley on Highway 306 brought back many memories and it was fun to be back at our old stomping grounds. Years ago, we had spent many hours up and down along Indian Creek touring the old claims there and searching for new ones. Driving past Mill Gulch and on to Tenabo we started to recognize a few of the landmarks Longbow had mentioned in his ramblings. Seeing the Nevada desert again made us feel like it had only been a few weeks since we had been here rather than twenty years. How were we ever going to find a purple haze or mist had us wondering.
The map, now worn and faded from age, mentioned a trail "North or Northe” out of the ghost town Tenabo. Then a small "spring" that was "maybe 1/2 mile or maybe more". It sounded like we were in for one long and maybe our last adventure. We knew that this part of Nevada was no place to be caught unprepared with its murderous hot days and strong winds. We had packed accordingly.
Henry had told us of his youth and how he spent days wandering the hills in search of turquoise. This was in the 1920s and he told of how he had led the old prospectors like Ted and Hack Johnson and William Van Alder to the location of what would become known as the Tenabo Group of turquoise mines. “I never told them about the best one of all. Phantom Blue has been my secret.” Why he decided to tell us we will never know. Perhaps he knew his time was short and wanted to leave his legacy to someone.
His reference to the “purple haze” was perplexing. Bob and I were children of the sixties and had our own understanding of that reference but we knew it unlikely that an eighty-year-old Shoshone Indian would share that perception. What could he mean by the purple smoke or haze drifting around the claim? Suddenly as if old Henry were guiding us, we came across something rare and beautiful in the desert. Northern Nevada can be a harsh unforgiving place but when the conditions are just right may explode in beauty and wonder. This spring the conditions had been perfect for wildflowers and going around a turn we became enveloped in a wonderous purple haze; lupins in the desert.
We could almost hear old Henry in his raspy voice telling us to “follow the trail to the end.” Nearly obscured from decades of harsh weather was a barely discernable track leading up into the hills. We parked, gathered our gear, and started following a long-forgotten memory, or was it just to be a dream?
The day was turning into evening and we had gone as far are we could go with night falling fast upon us. We set up camp, ate and began to get ready for a long and what we hoped would be an exciting tomorrow. The morning started out like most of our mornings, a light breakfast, making sure our packs were free of scorpions and looking over the map one more time for anything that we might have missed. The last clue and one that we had been looking for since the beginning of our quest was the large pointed rock with a cloud on top. This sounded more like the old man's hallucination but after seeing his 'Purple Haze' we knew it must have some special meaning.
Above us several hundred feet we noticed the morning light reflecting on the crest of the hill creating a white aura on the top. That was our target and we set out. The grade was steep and it took a couple of hours of slow climbing on a very treacherous rock face. At one point we noticed that the contour of the land had hidden a protected niche in the hillside. We saw the tailings first and then the small hole in the face of the mountain.
All of the spring rain had created the perfect conditions for spotting turquoise and sure enough there in the tailings we found a handful of nuggets that had the feel and look of high grade. The ground was soft and with just our pick hammers we were able to dig a few feet into the hole. Even today after all of these years I am not sure I believe what followed next. The turquoise seemed to fall from the mountain in a cascade of the most beautiful nuggets every seen, at least by us. In a couple of hours, we had at least thirty pounds of nuggets ranging in size from quarter size to almost the size of a softball. Although it was difficult to pull ourselves away from our bonanza, we knew we needed to get our load back to camp and return tomorrow. Our celebration that evening was memorable.
During the night we were jolted awake by a thunderclap followed by what sounded like a maniacal demon howl soon followed by near hurricane force winds and sheets of driving rain. We knew of these storms but experiencing one is another matter altogether. Our tent tried its best to stand up to the gale but was no match for the storm. Soon we were huddled on the side of the mountain watching our tent leaving quickly for the next county.
This was scary but nothing compared to the sight that was to come. The rocks and soils, already soft from spring rains, could not hold up to the torrential floods assaulting the mountain and we noticed the beacon boulder that had guided us to Henry’s secret mine, now illuminated by almost continuous lightning flashes, almost seem to dance on the mountain top.
Our brief amazement at this phenomenon was soon tempered by the realization that this was no dance but the herald of a gigantic rockslide. Quickly grabbing what we could of our belongings we frantically began to run down the mountainside moved by sheer terror. Around us we felt the movement of mud and rock as it seemed the entire mountain was about to cover us up. At times we felt like we were more swimming in a mass of mud than running.
Although it perhaps took minutes it seemed at the time an eternity before the movement ceased and we felt ourselves on solid ground. The demon storm had abated as suddenly as it had started and we made our way to the truck, thankfully unscathed, for a miserable few hours until dawn. As a gentle light awoke the desert, oblivious to the carnage of the previous night, we looked up to where our treasure awaited. It was gone. The entire mountain had shifted and the Phantom Blue was buried beneath tons of rock and our thirty pounds of prime nuggets lost to the whims of the mountain gods.
We did not talk much on our return to Battle Mountain. Our parting was without fanfare as Bob drove to his home and I made the longer trip to mine. Only those who may have had the mystical within their grasp only to see it whither and fade into sullen ash may understand the depth of our disappointment. We agreed never to speak of this to anyone, a promise kept until today.
It has been hard to tell this story. The horror of our near deaths continues to haunt our dreams. Far worse is the specter of the loss of the Phantom Blue. On those occasions when we speak or even more rare meetings, we compare turquoise notes and joke as friends but the Phantom Blue is an almost taboo subject. This story is told only because when writing Turquoise in America Part Two, 1910-1990 I asked Bob, my friend and turquoise mentor, to write the foreword. He agreed but said to me, “Don’t you think it is time the world learns about the Phantom Blue?”
For better, or worse, I agreed and now, gentle reader, it is time for you to determine the fate of this mystical mine. Is this just the fanciful musings of two hopelessly addicted to turquoise, or a new treasure map waiting for the intrepid explorer to continue to follow the dream of Henry Longbow? Our pursuit was near fatal. We caution those who may follow.