83°F
weather icon Clear
TV

Nevada mining family strikes turquoise on reality TV show

Even if he had attempted to hide his tears, the dust on his face would have betrayed their passage. Tony Otteson is at once rattled and relieved, a brief show of emotion cleansing the desert dirt from his sun-ripened cheeks.

He thought he almost lost him just now, his brother-in-law, T.J.

It all happened in a flash.

The two were on the job with Otteson’s brother Trenton. T.J. was manning an excavator over a ridge while Tony and Trenton were doing what they do, what they’ve always done: mining for turquoise.

But then one of the excavator’s treads shot off — just like that, as quickly and unexpectedly as a sudden muscle spasm — the machine tumbling perilously to its side. T.J. is instantly in danger of being crushed.(Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Like sand steadily, deliberately making its way through an hourglass, there gravity was, demanding its due with each passing second.

T.J. smashes through the excavator’s glass windshield as if his life depends on it. It does.

“I’m shocked that I’m here right now,” he confesses afterward, and you can almost feel his rubber legs as if they were your own.

“I just thought I was done,” he adds plainly. “I knew I was going to end up underneath it somehow.”

Instead, he deprives the Ottesons’ Widowmaker mine of the opportunity to live up to its name, at least on this day.

“We’re not making cotton candy out here,” Tony says, dabbing moisture away from his eyes. “This is dangerous.”

The scene is captured in dramatic detail in the debut episode of the reality-TV series “Turquoise Fever,” which is set in the wilds of rural Tonopah, 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It premieres at 6 p.m. Wednesday on the Western-leaning INSP Network.

Think of it as a family-centric, terrestrial version of “Deadliest Catch,” with the Ottesons’ 65 claims on 43 mines in place of various fishing vessels, turquoise subbing for snow crabs. As with that Discovery Channel hit, the stakes here are as high as the mountain peaks the Ottesons have worked for three generations, ever since Tony and Trenton’s grandpa Lynn Otteson moved to Tonopah to mine Royston turquoise in 1958.

Out here, it’s 70 miles to the nearest hospital.

Cellphone reception? You might as well be dialing from the bottom of the ocean.

If you get hurt in these conditions, your luck quickly turns as hard as the rock formations being excavated. And really, it’s not a matter of if but when.

“Every day, there’s a great opportunity to smash your hand with a hammer hard enough to blow the meat out of your thumb, or take a rock to the head that could change your life forever, or be crushed by an excavator bucket, or get blown up,” Tony Otteson says. “That’s every day.”

Why do they do it, then? Because turquoise is far more valuable than you might think, with the best of the best commanding $1,000 a carat. That’s a million dollars a pound.

But that’s not really why any of the Ottesons bruise their bodies, head to toe, daily, boring into the earth with a near-religious devotion.

“You could take all the money I make from digging turquoise away. Same for every other Otteson family member, and you’ll still find us out there in the dirt, still digging rock,” Tony says. “It’s a true fever. There’s no getting rid of it. You could watch your house go under, lose your car, lose your truck, we’ll all be riding horses. Come and take our horses, we’ll walk. Take our shoes, we’ll crawl. We’re still going to go out there. It’s what we do.”

His brother puts it more succinctly.

“It’s in our blood, man,” Trenton says. “We bleed blue.”

The hills have eyes, and riches

They call it blue gold, though nowadays it’s gold that should be blue: Turquoise is often worth more, believe it or not.

Plenty don’t.

Can’t blame them, really. When it comes to the gemstone in question, reputation and reality often diverge.

“Like most people, I probably thought of turquoise as a cheaper gemstone that was sold in tourist traps,” says Craig Miller, vice president of original programming at INSP Network, who green-lighted “Turquoise Fever.” “I came to realize that that’s not the case at all. There is junk turquoise, but there are different grades of it, and the highest-grade stuff is extremely valuable. Most Americans don’t think of it as a high-end gemstone, but if you look at the history of it, it has been.”

Turquoise is currently more valuable than ever, capable of fetching hundreds of thousands dollars a pound — and even more for the truly premium specimens. A big reason is basic scarcity: It’s a nonrenewable resource, formed over millions of years when water seeps through rocks containing copper, aluminum and other minerals, as “Turquoise Fever” details. The water gradually accumulates color and hardens. The bluer it is, the more copper-rich it has become; greener color means more iron is present.

Turquoise’s idiosyncrasies enhance its worth. No two pieces are alike, just as no two mines produce the same type of gemstones. Turquoise from the Ottesons’ Montezuma mine, for instance, is known for its dark blue-green color and golden-brown matrix; the Widowmaker’s spoils tend to be a deep shade of blue.

Regardless of type, turquoise supplies have become more limited with each passing year, heightened by recent shifts in the domestic mining industry.

“For many, many years, 90 percent of the turquoise market in the U.S. market came from Arizona,” explains Donna Otteson, the family matriarch, who runs her own jewelry business. “It was actually a byproduct of the copper mines. They were extracting huge amounts of material. Well, those copper mines have now been shut down, and those resources are no longer available. For us, it increases the value of our turquoise.”

But first, there’s that whole thing of getting the stuff out of the ground.

A hard-earned turning point

He remembers the blood on their hands, the dirt on their clothes, the look in their eyes: fatigue mingled with resolve, a hunger for food and fortune alike. Tony Otteson was around 5 years old at the time. He and his siblings often would accompany their elders to the mines, hunting lizards while the men worked.

All these years later, he recalls the looks on their faces as if he was looking into a mirror. And in a roundabout way, he is.

“Watching them come out of the mines at the end of the day, they were beat up, like, every day. They didn’t leave the mines until they looked defeated; they could barely walk,” he says. “I grew up with that work mentality: ‘That’s what a man does. That’s what life’s supposed to be like.’ ”

It wasn’t an easy life. Especially back then. Long before there were reality-TV shows, there were hard times upon still harder times.

“I remember sitting down as a family and sifting weevils out of wheat flour, because for a couple of months anyway, our major food supply was a sack of wheat flour that the church had donated to us,” Tony recollects. “We were sifting weevils out of it so that we could make pancakes. If I never see a wheat flour pancake in my life again, that would be too soon. The money would be so scarce at times that a deer from the mountains, that really was dinner. It was what we could get.”

It was enough to make Tony question whether he truly wanted to join the family business when he came of age.

“I grew up thinking, ‘I want to be a little bit different. I would like to have a real job and steady income,’ ” he acknowledges. “But in the words of my cousin Tristan, as an Otteson, I don’t care how far away you get from the turquoise mines, what kind of schooling you go to, what kind of business you’re going to create. These turquoise mines will always pull at your heartstrings.”

That tug proved to be too hard to resist for Tony and Trenton. And their combined efforts, along with those of the rest of Otteson clan, would eventually pay off to an increasingly profitable degree. A turning point came in 2002 when they discovered some high-grade turquoise in the Candelaria Hills. Trenton took it to market, and a potential buyer offered $20,000.

He knew in his gut that it was worth more. He passed.

“A lot of family members were not happy that I turned that down,” he recalls. That disappointment, though, would soon shift directions as swiftly as the desert winds. The turquoise sold for $80,000.

“I learned where all these new buyers from Japan were, all the real high-priced buyers,” Trenton recalls. “I did lose one sale, but I gained about 50 new sales.”

With the proceeds, the Ottesons reinvested in their business, going from owning a single backhoe purchased for $4,000 and having an engine that didn’t work at the time, to multiple excavators, a dozer and more, allowing them to do heavier, more lucrative mining.

All those wheat flour pancakes were a thing of the past.

Explosions, heat and explosive heat

As far as tricky things go, blowing holes in mountains deserves a mention.

You have to learn how to read the ground. That’s the key. But sometimes there’s more to it than meets the eye. And all you have is your eyes. This is the hard part.

Think of trying to read a putting green before taking your shot, of the difficulty of discerning just what path the ball might travel and how any little detail unaccounted for could alter that path. Then, add explosives.

If you’re wrong in this context, you don’t just add a stroke to your golf game. You could cost yourself and your family thousands of dollars in ruined turquoise. Finding the stuff, that’s only half the challenge — maybe the easier half, even.

“You take all this time and money to locate turquoise and find where it’s coming out of the ground. That’s just the beginning,” Trenton says. “Then you got to figure out what kind of ground it’s laying in because you’ve got really hard rock, like quartzite-type rock, and then in between that, you’ve got clay. Then you’ll have another layer of hard quartzite rock and maybe some sandy material.

“You’ve got to figure out how to drill that, shoot it and understand the shock wave from the dynamite,” he continues. “You’re trying to get the biggest chunks of glasslike material out of there. A shock wave, when it comes through glass, it’s just going to fracture it into a million pieces. You have to be extremely careful not to blast the turquoise.”

Blasting 50 tons of rock from a mountainside then, which we see the Ottensons do during the second episode of “Turquoise Fever,” is a more nuanced process than one might think, requiring strategically placed, 18-foot-deep drill holes that get filled with dynamite and 150 pounds of ammonium nitrate — enough to vaporize a car — to fuel the blast.

It’s a mentally and physically demanding task, the latter exacerbated by the punishingly harsh landscape. Most of the mines are 7,000 feet above sea level, and in some instances, like the Blue Moon mine, it’s all black dirt and black rock simmering beneath the sun.

“I think the biggest danger that we have for these guys is exposure,” Donna Otteson says.

Tony Otteson has experienced the effects of this exposure to a brutal degree. He had skin cancer removed from his eyelid two years ago and has a sister who’s getting it cut out of her ears. He recalls a particularly grueling mining expedition during which the heat became suffocating.

“You’re way past feeling like you’re hot,” he says. “You don’t feel good inside. You’re starting to speak slowly, saying weird things. You get up to go walk, and you realize you just stood up and didn’t take any steps and just fell over, but your brain says you were walking. I’m like, man, there’s something wrong.”

A thermometer fetched from their travel trailer read 134 degrees.

‘Almost like a drunken feeling’

The tears are different this time.

Donna Otteson’s emotions are as plain to see as the gemstones that have just been unearthed. It’s a bittersweet scene. The family has made a major turquoise find at its once-dormant Blue Moon mine, which they reopen in the second episode. Only her husband, Dean, isn’t here to join in the moment.

“This was Dean’s dream,” she says, choking up a bit.

During the filming of “Turquoise Fever,” Dean died of cancer.

One of the main early storylines of “Turquoise Fever” sees the family rallying around Donna, attempting to help relaunch her jewelry business after Dean’s death. To do so, she needs turquoise — and plenty of it. And so they revisit Blue Moon, eventually leading to a breakthrough haul that enables Donna to get back at it.

Watching the family come together to celebrate the score is to see turquoise fever at its most contagious.

“When we finally get into some turquoise out there in the rough, you’ll see these nuggets, and the hair will stand up on your arms,” Trenton says. “It’s almost like a drunken feeling.”

To hear his brother tell it, the feeling is such a hard-earned one that it heightens the intoxicating surge Trenton speaks of.

“When you’re down in the hole and you’re swinging a hammer, swinging a hammer day after day and finally behind that last rock, boom, there it lays. It’s a true feeling of like …” Tony says, voice trailing off as he attempts to describe an indescribable feeling. “All the work that you just put in, the broken fingernails, the bloody knuckles, missing your kids, your wife’s crying that you’re gone. It’s just, like, vindication.”

Not just for himself. For all the Ottesons.

“We have a saying in my family,” Tony says. “It goes like this: ‘We work in the land that nobody knows. And we live in a land where the wind always blows. But we strive in a place where nothing grows. Because the earth lays treasures under our toes.’

“We always will find those treasures,” he adds. “That’s what we do.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Entertainment Videos
Juan’s Flaming Fajitas in Las Vegas celebrates National Fajita Day
Cook Ruben Fuentes and general manager Taylor Pulliam of Juan’s Flaming Fajitas in Las Vegas prepare steak and shrimp fajitas with the restaurant’s signature fiery treatment. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pasta Shop Ristorante serves a watermelon-shrimp salad
Pasta Shop Ristorante & Art Gallery in Henderson serves a summer salad that combines watermelon with greens, feta and shrimp. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Factory Kitchen in Las Vegas makes classic affogato
Jorge Luque, pastry chef at The Factory Kitchen at The Venetian in Las Vegas, makes affogato with two simple ingredients - house-made gelato and fresh espresso. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review Journal with image from The Factory Kitchen)
The Cereal Killerz Kitchen serves over 100 cereals
Christopher Burns, owner of The Cereal Killerz Kitchen at Galleria at Sunset mall in Henderson, makes a Milk & Cookies Shake from his more than 100 varieties of cereal. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer in Las Vegas makes a State Fair CrazyShake
Bianca Zepeva, a shaker at Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer at The Venetian in Las Vegas, makes a State Fair CrazyShake with a kettle corn rim, caramel, corn-based ice cream, popcorn brittle, crushed kettle corn, sprinkles and a cherry. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
Balboa Pizza Company makes Thai peanut chicken wings
Irma Perez, kitchen manager at Balboa Pizza Company at The District at Green Valley Ranch in Henderson, near Las Vegas, brines chicken wings for 24 hours before roasting and frying them and finishing them in various styles such as Thai peanut. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
New Venetian pool deck
Final touches are currently being added to the hotel’s main tower pool deck, which consists of five pools. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Who is Vegas Vic? (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada State Museum Director Dennis McBride explains the origins of the Vegas icon.
Slater’s 50/50 in Las Vegas serves a 4-pound Big Island Feast Burger
Cindy Sun, general manager of Slater’s 50/50 in Las Vegas, makes the Big Island Feast Burger with 2 1/2 pounds of the house bacon/beef blend, Napa-cilantro slaw, six slices of American cheese, a can of grilled Spam, six slices of chargrilled pineapple, four fried eggs and a drizzle of teriyaki and serves it with macaroni salad. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Get a first look of MSG Sphere construction in Las Vegas
Representatives of The Madison Square Garden Company give the first glimpse of progress Tuesday of the under-construction MSG Sphere — a first-of-its-kind performance venue with high-tech audio and visual capabilities.
Shark Week cupcakes at Freed’s Bakery in Las Vegas
Brittnee Klinger, a cake decorator at Freed’s Bakery in Las Vegas, makes Shark Week cupcakes with ocean-blue buttercream, fondant fins and a blood-red strawberry filling. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fans and friends recall Elvis opening in Las Vegas
Fifty years ago on July 31st 1969, Elvis Presley opened at the International hotel in Las Vegas. He went on to do 837 consecutive sold-out shows at the property.
Hot peach cobbler at Beaumont’s Southern Kitchen at Texas Station
Michael Ross, room chef/pitmaster at Beaumont’s Southern Kitchen at Texas Station in Las Vegas, makes peach cobbler by baking peaches in a cast-iron pan with batter and crumble, then topping with Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and bourbon-caramel sauce. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Water Grill opens at The Forum Shops at Caesars in Las Vegas
Water Grill, from a 30-year-old California company opening its first Las Vegas location, specializes is fresh seafood including 16 types of oysters. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Cat's Meow comes to Las Vegas
New Orleans-based karaoke chain opens new location in Neonopolis. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Making the Loco Moco Breakfast Burger at Broken Yolk Cafe in Las Vegas
Manny Menina, line cook at Broken Yolk Cafe in Las Vegas, stacks 8 ounces of beef, 2 strips of bacon, hash browns, caramelized onions and 2 fried eggs on 4 King’s Hawaiian slider buns to make the Loco Moco Breakfast Burger. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
SecretBurger at China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas
Carlos Cruz, executive chef of Jose Andres’ China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, makes the SecretBurger off-menu, one-night-only ‘All Quacked Up’ with a kimchi pancake, Peking duck, house-made hoisin sauce, a fried duck egg, pickled micro-vegetables, caviar and gold flakes and serves it with a Stillwater Artisanal Ale. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Famous Blue Angel statue commemorated in downtown Las Vegas mural
The 16-foot tall Blue Angel statue that stood above the Blue Angel Motel for six decades is featured in a mural spanning three walls at a downtown Las Vegas building. James Stanford designed the “A Phalanx of Angels Ascending" mural based on his photography, and Cliff Morris painted the mural at 705 Las Vegas Blvd. North, near the Neon Museum. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Making Castle Frites at the new Frites at Excalibur
Tom McGrath, district manager/executive chef at Frites at the Excalibur in Las Vegas, tops his beef-tallow fries like a loaded baked potato - with white and yellow cheddar, sour cream, bacon and chives. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Hello Kitty Cafe on Las Vegas Strip - VIDEO
The Hello Kitty Cafe opens Friday, July 12th, 2019, between New York, New York and Park MGM on the Las Vegas Strip. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Amano Las Vegas' Fat Baby Sandwich
Chef Jason Weber of Amano Las Vegas has created a sandwich stuffed with pasta, and it's a hit. (Mat Luschek / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
A class at Melissa Coppel Chocolate and Pastry School in Las Vegas.
Melissa Coppel, who teaches classes in various countries around the world, attracts students from far and wide to her eponymous school in Las Vegas. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Havana Lobster at Boteco in Las Vegas. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Marcus Fortunato, co-owner of Boteco in Las Vegas, learned to make Havana Lobster from the chef at El Figaro, a favorite of former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Chef Gustav Mauler Is retiring
Las Vegas chef Gustav Mauler announces his retirement on Sunday, June 30, 2019.
Bellagio Conservatory unveils Italian summer exhibit
The Bellagio's Conservatory & Botanical Gardens have opened the gates to its summer display. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
A.D. Hopkins on his debut novel
Veteran journalist introduces readers to “The Boys Who Woke Up Early.” (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Seven Magic Mountains restoration complete
Artist Ugo Rondinone’s iconic Seven Magic Mountains receives a complete painting restoration in June 2019.
Making off-the-menu bean curd rolls at Mr. Chow in Las Vegas
Senior chef tournant Cesar Laran has created secret bean curd rolls at Mr. Chow at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. To make them, he rolls bean curd sheets around a filling of carrots, celery and shiitake mushrooms, then smokes them with oolong tea and sugar. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Making Bread Pudding French Toast at Esther’s Kitchen in Las Vegas
James Trees, chef/owner of Esther’s Kitchen in Las Vegas, slices house-made blueberry bread pudding, coats it in egg yolks and mascarpone, fries it and tops it with spiced walnuts, Lyle’s Golden Syrup and creme fraiche. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Celine Dion closes 1,141-show residency on Las Vegas Strip - VIDEO
Hear from Celine Dion about her 16 years on the Las Vegas Strip and what the future has in store for her. (Caesars Entertainment)
THE LATEST
TV best bets for the week of Aug. 18

This week’s top choices include the debut of “The Righteous Gemstones” and “Hitsville: The Making of Motown” and the final episode of “Baskets.”

CBS, Viacom reunite, target growth in streaming services

The newly combined ViacomCBS will invest in more movies and TV shows and try to sell more advertising as it seeks to become a bigger player in streaming video.

TV best bets for the week of Aug. 11

This week’s top choices include the returns of “Succession” and “Fear the Walking Dead” and the debut of Jim Gaffigan’s latest stand-up special.