On a trail ride through Sierra Nevada ghost towns, cowboy singer Dave Stamey confronts the mythology of the American West. 

I. Roughing It. The trailer was loaded with a dozen saddle horses when the wheel bearing went out. The wranglers pulled onto the highway shoulder, near the salt-crusted shores of Mono Lake in eastern California. Meanwhile, 30 miles away, our group of 25 riders sat in a tour bus, anxious to start a four-day trail ride through Bodie and Aurora, ghost towns nestled in the hills above Mono Lake. Our host, Western singer Dave Stamey, announced the delay and suggested we kill some time at the Mono Basin Visitor’s Center.
 

The bus parked in front of a sparkling glass building. We filed indoors, the sound of jingle bobs echoing through the building as we spent the next hour learning about the Kutzadika’a natives (they wove ornate baskets and ate larvae for dinner) and the ever-dwindling Mono Lake (a tabletop diorama looked like a toilet bowl that had been flushed and not refilled). I meandered into the bookstore and ran into Stamey. If he was sweating bullets, it didn’t show. He flipped through a copy of Mark Twain’s frontier
memoir, Roughing It, a 550-page tome he’s read—more than once. 

“Mark Twain was a partner on a mine in Aurora,” Stamey said. “They didn’t do their assessment right, and it got jumped by somebody else. If Twain had struck it rich, he might not have become a writer. Just think—no Tom Sawyer. No Huckleberry Finn.”


Eighth graders everywhere might rejoice at having one less book on the required reading list, but for Stamey, that Twain’s mining venture almost curtailed his literary career brought the ghost town of Aurora to life. Stamey has built an award-winning music career out of writing songs that explore the difference between history and mythology in the American West. Hit “play” on any of his nine albums (Come Ride With Me, for example) and the track list will take you on a journey through history, meeting idiosyncratic characters along the way and presenting alternate takes on the myths we take for granted as true. Like the story of California’s
Native Americans, lured into the Spanish missions by priests who promised salvation but delivered destruction (“The Mission Bell”). Or the tale of Ruby Moore, the parlor singer who dazzled audiences at the Tonopah Club in Nevada, circa 1958 (“Ruby Could Sing”). Or the grandchildren of Apache rebel Geronimo, who sold autographs of the chief at a roadside stand in Arizona to make ends meet (“Geronimo’s Children”).

 

Stamey’s cell phone rang and he stepped aside to take the call. I skimmed Mark Twain’s book and found a chapter about Mono Lake. 

“It is one of the strangest freaks of Nature to be found in any land … lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains two thousand feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds,” one
excerpt read.

 

Two pages later: “This solemn, silent, sailless sea— this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth—is little graced with the picturesque. [Mono Lake] is an unpretending expanse of grayish water.”

 

And four pages after that: “So uncertain is the climate in summer that a lady who goes out visiting cannot hope to be prepared for all emergencies unless she takes her fan under one arm and her snow-shoes under the other.”

 

Whose idea was it to stock the book at Mono Lake’s visitor center? I didn’t have a chance to ask. Stamey yodeled for us to load back into the bus. All saddle horses were accounted for at the trailhead.

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