McDermitt, Nevada is an unincorporated settlement in a largely uninhabited quadrangle on the Nevada/Oregon border. There are roughly 1,000 year-around residents in McDermitt and the nearby Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Indian Reservation combined, though that number is hazy. The waystation on US Route 95 some 80 miles north of Winnemucca may be quiet today, but 16 million years ago the area was the chaotic eye of a massive volcano that ultimately erupted, collapsed, and after eons of cooling and vigorous hydrothermal activity, left a mineral-laden, oval-shaped caldera that measures roughly 25 miles north to south and 15 miles east to west.

The McDermitt caldera is widely thought to be the first and most ancient in a series of Yellowstone hotspots, a chain of eight massive volcanoes that extend across the Snake River Plateau from McDermitt to Yellowstone.

The McDermitt Caldera is the oldest of the many Yellowstone Hotspots, a series of massive volcanoes – both maps – United States Geological Survey
– US Geological Survey

Interactions between water and hot rock ultimately concentrated a smorgasbord of minerals in the caldera from extravagantly colorful jaspers to gold, uranium, lithium, gallium, zirconium, and a dizzying number of mercury-bearing minerals.

Hear a sound-rich audio report, the Wild Hare podcast.

When Richard Nixon was president, Reggie Kemp began digging a hole in the caldera by hand in search of purple jasper and other geologic delicacies for the eye. He managed to dig a 15 foot deep pit with a pick and shovel when he began to discover lapidary quality specimens. Ever since, with his wife and daughters along for the fun, Kemp has returned from their home in Oregon City to dig for rocks.

Based on Humboldt County records, there are 9 business licenses issued in McDermitt, to include the Kemp’s new rock shop. If you turn off Route 95 onto Lasa Drive in McDermitt, about a half mile down the road on the right-hand-side is the Kemp home and a silver metal barn, the Caldera Rock Shop.

The Caldera Rock Shop – image – Brian Bahouth, Nevada Capital News

For now, the shop operates out of a well-appointed garage and online. Like any retail outlet, a rock shop relies on the availability of products. For Reggie Kemp, the caldera is a veritable bonanza that is still mostly accessible on public land.

“Not too many people are building rock shops anymore because of the fact that they can’t get in new material, but we’re right in the middle of all these claims and digs and everything. It’s a wonderful area. It’s a good place for rock hounds to come down to McDermitt because there’s so much petrified wood and jaspers and everything else, and it’s not claimed up.”

Reggie Kemp in the Caldera Rock Shop – image – Brian Bahouth, Nevada Capital News

Kemp has staked and abandoned as many as a dozen claims in the area over time. Today he and his family operate a single digging, the Purple Cow mine where cattle do occasionally roam and purple cloud jaspers abound. Reggie and his son-in-law work the boutique claim with excavating equipment and by hand.

Leanne Kemp-Zuccone is Reggie Kemp’s daughter and manages the rock shop and online sales. Kemp-Zuccone unabashedly loves rocks and has her father to blame. She typically washes and sorts the rocks her dad and husband haul from the mine. She studies them and decides how best to cut them into slabs, which she sometimes makes into jewelry, but more often, she sells the slabs to other jewelry makers.

Slabs of jasper from the Purple Cow mine – image – Brian Bahouth, Nevada Capital News

Next to the rock shop, the view to the south is across perfectly flat land punctuated by low brown mountains 20 miles away. A cold October wind blew steady from the south. The shop closes during winter. Several large, wide make-shift tables draped in plastic were arrayed next to the barn and laden with piles of mineral specimens of various swirling colors.

Leanne power washed a muddy grey pile of rocks on a table and by degrees, the mass turned from uniform grey to a brilliant mix of dense pigments, textures and exotic shapes of shifting translucency.

Recently power washed rocks at the Caldera Rock Shop, McDermitt, NV – image – Brian Bahouth, Nevada Capital News

The words economic, development and McDermitt have not traditionally gone together. Fort McDermitt was initially a far-flung cavalry outpost positioned to protect stage coach traffic. Data specific to unincorporated McDermitt is scarce and rolled into demographic information for all of Humboldt County. Economic development in geographically orphaned McDermitt and Fort McDermitt reservation has been a perennial challenge.

The settlement of McDermitt straddles the Nevada/Oregon border. On the Nevada side, gaming has been a long-time business in town. The Say When Casino just added an electric vehicle charging station and also serves food. Otherwise, there is a mercantile, a couple of  motels, a couple of gas stations, and a tribal-owned cannabis farm, one of the only outdoor grows in the state, Quinn River Farms. The Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone tribes also own Red Mountain Travel Plaza on US 95, a gas station and convenience store. With the issuance of the Caldera Rock Shop license, the number of businesses in McDermitt grew by 11 percent.

For more on Quinn River Farms and economic development on the Fort McDermitt reservation, we spoke with tribal chairman Tildon Smart.

The farm’s outdoor-grown cannabis, a rarity in Nevada’s legal marijuana industry, is sold almost exclusively in Las Vegas dispensaries as Quinn River Farms or Native Grown Cannabis. Commercial marijuana farms in Nevada are almost entirely indoor operations and tend to regularly employ a small number of gardeners and bud trimmers year around. In the case of an outdoor grow, many bud trimmers are hired at harvest time.

McDermitt is unincorporated. Winnemucca is the Humboldt County seat and 80 miles south on US 95. Humboldt County, Nevada is nearly eight times the size of Rhode Island and home to some of Nevada’s largest and most productive open pit gold mines. The county is also home to Nevada’s largest irrigated farm where primarily potatoes are grown for national distributor US Foods. The median household income in Humboldt County is nearly $70,000 a year, but that is not statistically uniform across the vast county.

The US Census Bureau data on the community of McDermitt lacks clarity and accuracy. The agency does provide more complete economic data from the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Reservation, but it comes with a 90 percent margin of error. The Census Bureau estimates that the median household income on the reservation to be $16,989 a year for 2018.

Tribal chairman Tildon Smart disagreed with the Census Bureau’s estimate. Smart put the average annual income on the reservation around $10,000 a year.

And though McDermitt and the Fort McDermitt reservation lag well behind county-wide and state-wide income and employment rate averages, the Caldera Rock Shop and Quinn River Farms are not the only new businesses on the horizon for the McDermitt area.

Mining has come and gone in the region. McDermitt was an economic beneficiary of some of the nation’s most productive mercury mines until the last one closed in the early 1990s. Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of Canadian-owned Lithium Americas, is building an open pit lithium mine and processing facility on the southern edge of the McDermitt Caldera.

Twenty miles south on US 95 From McDermitt and 15 miles west on route 293, is, according to Lithium Nevada, the largest known lithium deposit in the United States. Barring problems with the approval of the mine’s recently submitted plan of operations, Lithium Nevada expects to begin construction during the first or second quarter of 2021.

According to written testimony by Jonathan Evans, president and COO of Lithium Americas to the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Lithium Nevada has already invested more than $75 million in Nevada since 2010. The company expects the mine to yield some $2.6 billion in lithium over a 46 year period. Lithium Nevada planners estimate roughly 1,000 workers a year during 2 years of construction. Once the mine is operating, it is expected provide 300 year-around jobs.

What the new mining operation will spell for McDermitt’s economy is difficult to accurately predict. A 2017 study by Buddy Borden, a specialist in community and economic development for the University of Nevada Reno Cooperative Extension and Tom Harris, professor and director of the University Center for Economic Development, University of Nevada, Reno, examines the potential economic impact of the Lithium Nevada Thacker Pass mine on Humboldt County.

The report developed economic impact calculations for mine construction, mining operation, and processing. The impact model for mine construction concludes that for each $1,000,000 of direct investment in lithium mine construction generates an additional $1,214,545 in secondary impacts. Of the $1.2 million total impact, $452,978 is from personal income and supported 8.6 jobs. The study concludes that every $1,000,000 of direct investment generates $37,610 in state and local taxes and $96,079 in federal taxes.

Jan Morrison sees the mine as a big score for rural Humboldt County. Morrison works for the Northeastern Nevada Regional Development Authority. The agency serves five Nevada counties and is authorized out of the governor’s office. Morrison is the liaison to the Humboldt County Economic Development Authority.

Morrison described her job as working with small communities in an effort to help them take advantage of economic activity and not be overrun by it. In a phone interview, Morrison said Humboldt County has a strong core set of industries and has not had the ups and downs that a lot of rural Nevada communities have experienced over time.

“The reason, of course, is that it’s strategically placed it at the intersection of Interstate 80 and US 95, so that’s great in itself. For a small town, which maybe the immediate population is around 8,000, we have a lot of the services that you’d expect in a town twice the size.”

Winnemucca is one of 574 municipalities in the US considered a Micropolitan Statistical Area by the US Census Bureau. What that means is that communities adjacent to a substantial urban population of less than 50,000 have a high degree of economic and social integration with that core. The degree of interaction and interdependence within vast Humboldt County is complex.

Humboldt county is nearly eight times the size of Rhode Island, and for independent-minded individuals living in and around communities like Denio, Golconda, Platora or McDermitt, Winnemucca can seem very far away.

For tactical and strategic reasons, the Lithium Nevada mine will be oriented toward Winnemucca, but Jan Morrison said there are opportunities for people living in all nearby communities, especially McDermitt.

“Lithium Nevada is basically an hour away from Winnemucca and it’s probably about 45 minutes away from McDermitt, so there’s great opportunity for everyone for employment,” Morrison said.

Alexi Zawadzki is Lithium Nevada chief executive officer (CEO). Zawadzki said his company is on schedule to begin mine construction in 2021. Efforts are already underway to identify, recruit and train a local workforce.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to get engaged and really work on an exciting project,” Zawadzki said. “The jobs that we’re going to be offering are everything from operators to heavy equipment operators to chemical engineers, mill rights, electricians, truck drivers. We’ve got lots of truck driver jobs. It’s a wide gamut of opportunities there and an average wage that we have booked right now is about $84,000 a year for that mine and chemical processing facility.

“There’s a lot of opportunity that we have to capitalize on. In order to really capitalize on that locally is we have to get engaged early to provide training and understand who wants employment here and what are their skill sets, what are the capabilities, and what do we need to do to take those capabilities from where they are today to where we need them.

“So we’re starting that right now or we’ve got agreements with Great Basin College, where they’re going to be doing some teaching programs. We’re talking about mobile classrooms that we can take to McDermitt, take to Orovada, so we’re looking at that.

“We’re talking funding as well. We were talking to Senator Cortez Masto the other day. She was at our research facility. She’s going to help us identify funding programs at the federal level that we can bring to our project.

“You gotta start that really early in order for it to be meaningful and to have the desired result because the time to start training is not when you flip the switch on at the plant. You have everyone hired at that point.”

By contrast to Lithium Nevada’s giant investment and what it means for McDermitt, the county and the nation’s strategic position as a lithium producer, the Caldera Rock Shop and its intended future seem tiny. But for Reggie Kemp and Leanne Kemp-Zuccone , the investment is huge, though money is not the primary motivator.

There are three rock saws next to the Caldera Rock Shop – image – Brian Bahouth, Nevada Capital News
The rock saw blade is nearly half submerged in oil to help lubricate the cutting process and cool the blade – image – Brian Bahouth, Nevada Capital News
The slabs are a little thicker than a quarter inch and intended to be worked into jewelry – image – Brian Bahouth, Nevada Capital News

Leanne said the restaurant choices in McDermitt are few, and they have to drive nearly 200 miles round trip to go shopping, but she relishes living in the McDermitt caldera, a geologic feature famous among rock hounds who find pleasure in digging jaspers, opals and thunder eggs. She and her mom and dad are working on a map that marks fruitful, public dig locations in an effort to better enable the rock-curious to successfully participate.

“The biggest thing is that we have not claimed up this whole area, we simply have one claim right now in this area. I have some in other places that are mine. My dad used to have 12 claims out here, but now we just have the Purple Cow with the purple cloud on it. That is mine. Then my dad’s friend has the Gary Green, which is private property and it always was. But there are so many other places. In fact, my mom and dad are working on a map of collecting areas that anybody can go to. People ask me, ‘is this open?’ Most of it is, and you can still find new stuff, because we do.”

Leanne has a tip for those who would search for rocks. She seems to have taken her own advice.

“Get off the beaten path.”

The family also owns a little over five acres on US 95 and eventually plans to open a rock shop more visible to the millions of cars a year that pass by. For sure, the Caldera Rock Shop needs to pay its bills, but for Kemp-Zuccone , money is only a part of the reason for opening a rock shop.

“It’s not just about the money. We probably make a dollar an hour when it’s all said and done. There are good times and there are … it’s feast or famine. I prefer that over working in an office or … it is hard work. My hands are shot. My nails never get polished, but that’s not what I care about anyway. I enjoy the rock. I enjoy working with my dad and my mom and my husband, and so that is a big part of it.

“He (her dad Reggie) has collected and hoarded rocks for years. I would like to see them go to good use rather than just be sold off at some auction to someone who doesn’t care about them or know what they are … what they have. It happens a lot.”

For Lithium Nevada and the Caldera Rock shop, in a broad sense, it’s about the rocks. Reggie Kemp held a prized piece of polished purple jasper in his hand and weighed its heft before speaking.

“It’s fun because my older daughter really enjoys it. We’re having fun with it, let alone making money and paying it forward. I think if you make a living at something you enjoy, it’s a lot more fun,” Reggie said with a broad smile. “We’re not just out there commercially trying to pump it out and everything. It’s kind of like a fisherman. A lot of people love to fish. It’s fun to go fish, but then they go into it commercially and it’s no fun anymore because they’re working around the clock, and we’re trying to keep it fun and we enjoy it with the rock hounds.”

Rocks in the Caldera Rock Shop, McDermitt, NV – image – Brian Bahouth

Kemp arrayed a bevy of exotic stones in a shallow wooden box lined with black velvet on the rock shop counter.

“It’s just amazing what the Lord has put in rocks for us,” Kemp said. “They’re just like flowers only they’re agatized.”

Music credits in order of appearance as reported to the Public Radio Exchange:

Song: Greenland
Artist: Emanicipator
Album: Safe in the Steep Cliffs
Label: Loci Records
Year: 2010
Duration: 1:25

Song: Off the Top (The Gravity Wheel)
Artist: Bella Fleck & the Flektones
Album: Little Worlds
Label: Columbia/Legacy
Year: 2003
Duration: 2:32

Song: Machine #2
Artist: Leo Kottke
Album: Instrumentals: Best Of The Capital Years
Label: Blue Note Records
Year: 2003
Duration: 2:05

Song: Twilight Property
Artist: Leo Kottke
Album: Instrumentals: Best Of The Capital Years
Label: Blue Note Records
Year: 2003
Duration: :35

Song: Giocosco Gioioso
Artist: Ennio Morricone
Album: Ennio Morricone Remix – RMX
Label: Reprise/Warner
Year: 2001
Duration: 2:08
CD out of print. Not available as a download.

Song: Clan of the Sicilians
Artist: Ennio Morricone
Album: Ennio Morricone Remix – RMX
Label: Reprise/Warner
Year: 2001
Duration: 6:07
CD out of print. Not available as a download.

Song: Il Grande Silencio
Artist: Ennio Morricone
Album: Ennio Morricone Remix – RMX
Label: Reprise/Warner
Year: 2001
Duration: 4:02
CD out of print. Not available as a download.

Song: Doricamente
Artist: Ennio Morricone
Album: Ennio Morricone Remix – RMX
Label: Reprise/Warner
Year: 2001
Duration: 4:12
CD out of print. Not available as a download.

Song: Prequel
Artist: Bella Fleck & the Flektones
Album: Little Worlds
Label: Columbia/Legacy
Year: 2003
Duration: 1:32

Song: La Bambola-Come Medena
Artist: Ennio Morricone
Album: Ennio Morricone Remix – RMX
Label: Reprise/Warner
Year: 2001
Duration: 1:12
CD out of print. Not available as a download.

Song: New Math
Artist: Bella Fleck & the Flektones
Album: Little Worlds
Label: Columbia/Legacy
Year: 2003
Duration: 2:32