By Naomi Lewis
My great Aunt Laura May Gentry was born in St. Thomas, Nevada, a town forgotten when the rising waters of Lake Mead made it a subterranean haunt for lake inhabitants after the building of Hoover Dam. She grew up in a pioneering family who ran a hotel, mercantile company, the freight lines and the first PostOffice. Her brother was President of the first water company in the Moapa Valley.
I first met Aunt Laura when I was three or four. She came alone to our ranch in the Upper Muddy in a dark green Jeep. The bed was covered with a gray tarp and I was quite incensed that she didn’t lift me up and let me rummage through the hidden mysteries. She was a mysterious stranger I didn’t get enough of and felt a loss when was gone.
Aunt Laura was the first woman to study geology at Columbia University. As she described it, “It was ten men and me.” Later, as she was engaged to an engineer and planning to move to South America where her soon-to-be-husband managed a project, her mother came down with an illness. Aunt Laura stayed home and took care of her the last two years of her life. Laura never married or had children of her own, but became everyone’s Aunt Laura. Aunt Laura also made and generously spent several fortunes through her interest in prospecting, but by the time I want to tell you about, she lived on social security and the ambitious projects I watched her complete – planting a beautiful field of beefsteak tomatoes, a huge field of melons and working as a cook for a scout camp on Mount Charleston. I was amazed at her ability to cook for so many.
The summer I turned thirteen, this enigmatic woman became my guardian, while my mother was away. That summer was entrance into a world I barely knew existed. One in which an independent woman, making her own way, came and went as she pleased, unheard of in 1961. The lifestyle appealed to me, making her a rare model for my own life.
That summer, she took me to her cabin at the Vermiculite in Gold Butte, old-time names from a world now lost, in a remote area in the western desert-edge of Nevada, without running water or electricity. Aunt Laura made a refrigerator out of a box draped over with wet burlap. From the self-styled cooler, we drank cold milk, had fresh eggs and scraped solid butter over toast made in a wood-burning stove.