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in the back of goldie’s, a dive bar in Elko, Nevada, I was talking rocks with a miner with a steadily growing heap of beer bottles in front of him. He was about 50, with a sun-scorched face and a starched cowboy shirt, and refused to give his name. “With a high school degree you can make $70,000 a year here,” he boasted, though he fretted that President Barack Obama “will probably screw us with taxes.” He was a supervisor for Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining conglomerate with several big operations near Elko, including Betze-Post, a four-square-mile open pit that’s the nation’s most productive gold mine. Lighting a Camel and flagging a bartender, he ordered a shot of Jägermeister and another for the curvaceous stripper in his arms. “He’s got money—and a good heart,” she told me, before leaning in to nibble the miner’s ear.
Elko is the wind-blasted heart of Nevada’s mining country. The five surrounding counties produce all of the state’s copper, almost a third of its silver, and nearly 90 percent of its gold. In 2007, mines in Nevada extracted nearly 190 tons of gold—three times the total yield in all other states. Only China, Australia, and South Africa dig up more. A billboard on the edge of town proclaims in a Victorian scrawl, “Discover the new economic gold rush.”