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Pioneer women reflect on life, friendship in Nevada outback

TONOPAH — Lina Sharp arrives, like she always does, with a polite knock, waiting under the stately front-yard elm tree for the familiar face of a cherished old friend.

For decades, she has come calling on Minnie Perchetti, who lives in a tiny one-story house just off the main drag of this high desert eye-blink without a stoplight. On this day, as always, Lina is here to catch up on goings-on around town and in the surrounding back country: who has landed in jail or in the hospital, who has made that last sad procession to the graveyard.

“How are you doing?” Lina says as the door opens.

“Pretty good,” Minnie answers softly. “My eyes aren’t so good.”

Lina’s response is unhesitating: “But you are.”

They’re two pioneer women who have witnessed both boom and bust in Nevada’s mostly unpeopled outback, a pair of stubborn frontier characters who, having long outlived their husbands, were left to navigate a tough-as-leather landscape not always kindly to widowed women.

Theirs is a friendship that has endured both time and distance, a bond between great-great-grandmothers of Croatian lineage that got its start during the last gasp of the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and the nation was soon to enter World War II, a time when the roads out here were still dirt tracks.

Lina is 96. Minnie is right behind at 95.

In many ways, their lives are mirrors, but there are differences. Lina is unsentimental, a college graduate who loves to read and whose wanderlust took her across the globe after her husband died. Minnie is a homebody who married young and dropped out of high school, a person who can count on one hand the times she has left Tonopah.

Minnie is a romantic, like when she describes meeting her husband the day he delivered milk to her home decades ago: “I came to the door and, right away, fell in love.”

Lina is more practical. “He was earnest,” she says of her mate. “The pickings out there were pretty slim.”

In 1940, Lina arrived in central Nevada from Las Vegas to take a job as a country teacher on a ranch in the Railroad Valley, 100 miles east of Tonopah. She married a young cowboy named Jim, who liked to memorize poems as he drove cattle on horseback.

Years later, after Jim died of a heart attack, Lina stayed on at the ranch, raising five daughters who were home-schooled, taught to tend to the chores without a man around to supervise.

But she always made time to visit Minnie, the girl she’d met on trips through Tonopah en route to her classes at the University of Nevada, Reno. She recalled once taking a photograph of Minnie dressed in a fuzzy turquoise sweater popular in the day. On the long bumpy ride north to Reno, Lina thought of how she wanted that sweater. The two woman still laugh about that.

If Lina was worldly, Minnie was a townie from the start, a woman who still lives next door to the house where she was born. While still in high school, she eloped with Tony, a local mine worker; the two stealing off to Hawthorne for a fly-by-night wedding.

Nobody knew about the marriage until Minnie’s mom suggested the two shop for a new dress for Minnie’s senior year in high school.

“I’m not going to school,” Minnie announced. “Tony and I got married. I’m going to move in with him and keep house.”

Later, Minnie climbed ladders to help her husband in his roofing business. They eventually raised four children. And now, nearly a half-century after Tony died, the four grown kids still stop by to visit their mother each morning.

Lina comes, too. For years, she has left her sprawling Blue Eagle ranch, situated 12 miles from the nearest paved road, to make the long drive along U.S. Highway 6, past signs for places like Silver Bow, Golden Arrow and Stone Cabin. She always drove Jeeps, trading them in every few years to avoid the dreaded middle-of-nowhere breakdowns.

As years passed, and she drove less, Lina hitched rides to town with the mail delivery woman, riding home the following day with some kindly neighbor. She’s always stayed overnight; the spare bedroom off Minnie’s kitchen was reserved just for her.

On a recent morning, the two confidantes sit on the couch in Minnie’s parlor, talking about the days when people sat on their front porch and watched the world go by; before TV, smartphones and social media.

Minnie laughs self-consciously about a set of western figurines she keeps on a long shelf, wondering aloud if people like them.

Lina jumps to her best friend’s defense.

“That’s you,” she says. “If people don’t like them, they don’t have to come.”

In 1940, Lina Pinjuv (pronounced pin-you’ve) arrived in the place called the Railroad Valley, named in anticipation of a line that was never built. She was ready to begin her life as a country teacher at a ranch named after the figure of a blue eagle early settlers said they could spy on a nearby mountaintop, if the season and sunlight were just right.

She wasn’t exactly a city girl, but she was far from country. Back then, she didn’t know how to build a fire, cook on a wood stove, feed the cows, chickens and sheep — skills she would later teach her children. She blanched at mannerless ranch hands who ate beans, potatoes and canned prunes out of quart jars.

Her pay was $64 a month, plus room and board, to teach eight children. The job included sweeping the floor and starting a daily fire. At night, she slept in a nearby cabin.

She missed her access to books but soon fell for the mountain vistas and iron-red sunsets at the ranch that had been homesteaded in 1868 and bought by the Sharp family in 1895. Jim Sharp, a young family wrangler who liked to memorize poems in the saddle, including one about a cowboy who prized an old hat, soon fell for the young schoolteacher. The pair was married a year after Lina’s arrival.

Those first years were the hardest, without phone service or electricity. Well water was pumped by hand. Winters were so cold clothes froze on the line and snowdrifts blocked the sun.

“Mom was definitely out of her element,” said daughter Jeanne Sharp Howerton, “but she persevered.”

In 1961, when Lina was just 45, Jim suffered a heart attack after scaling the crest of an isolated mountain peak. During a long painful night waiting for help, his daughter Jeanne by his side, he weakened and died inside the rescue helicopter.

If people expected Lina to flee the ranch, they were wrong. Someone suggested the widow could take her daughters to San Francisco. Lina thought that was nonsense.

“It’s just part of me,” she says now. “I am part of the picture. I’ve spent most of my life out here.”

Things eventually got easier. Phone service came to the Railroad Valley in the 1970s and electricity followed a few years later. Lina hung a map of the world on the wall so her girls would know there was a big universe outside the ranch.

After she retired from teaching, Lina took flight. Often traveling alone, she visited all the places she’d read about in her books. Soon, she’d set foot on all seven continents.

But she always came back to the ranch, where the old one-room schoolhouse still sits, its desks and instruction books intact. Lina likes her rustic life; she still doesn’t “know the language of computers.”

Several years ago, Lina was just one of four people who lived in the entire valley, which is 100 miles long and 13 miles wide.

Whenever she got the urge, she’d jump into her Jeep “and just go,” the vehicle kicking up a cloud of dust on its way to the paved road.

She’d be off to visit Minnie, eager to tell stories of Antarctica and South Africa, just as anxious to hear about the people whose simple lives and common sense had helped shape her into the woman she had become.

* * *

Minnie Boscovich grew up as a tomboy; her three older brothers often pointing out the girls — and boys — in the schoolyard they wanted Minnie to go and beat up.

Later, her marriage to Tony was a shock to the family. Minnie worried her brothers might take revenge on her new husband; ending her dream of domestic bliss before it even got started.

The family was poor and lived without indoor plumbing. Minnie and the kids would help Tony on his roofing jobs and on weekends go hunting and fishing in the surrounding countryside they came to know so well it appeared in their dreams.

“I’ve lived here all my life; I loved Tonopah,” Minnie says. “I knew everybody. I didn’t need a car. It was a nice place to live.”

After Tony died in 1973, Minnie lost her interest in men and romance. “I never looked at another guy,” she says. “I never wanted to get married again.”

Not that her kids didn’t try to play matchmaker.

“Mom was just 53 when Dad died,” said son Bob, who runs a motel in town. “She was still attractive, but she was a one-man woman. She loved my Dad and that was it. Once we got her to go on a date with a geologist. He took her to dinner and helped her hang clothes on the line. He never got inside the house, though.”

Minnie always looked forward to Lina’s visits, when they’d go gambling at the casino in town. Minnie teased her friend for being a cheapskate, slipping a single nickel into the slot machines instead of five. Recalls Lina: “I’d buy a book and pay a horrendous price, but to put money into a machine and pull the handle … .”

As the years want by, Minnie’s friends passed away, but not Lina. She kept up her visits, just like always. They’d talk until 8 p.m., when Minnie got tired and went to bed.

She’d leave Lina in the living room with her book and drop off to sleep knowing her best friend was there nearby.

* * *

In the parlor, Minnie tells about her trip to the eye doctor up in the Smoky Valley.

“We had a nice trip,” she says, “but my eyes aren’t in the best of shape.”

“Can you read?” Lina inquires. “Do you need glasses?”

As time passes, the two settle into their personalities like comfortable chairs.

Minnie laughs about killing chickens as a girl, putting their heads between two nails and giving their bodies a tug, watching the headless animals run across the yard.

Lina says she wants to visit the local bookstore before she goes home. She kicks herself for not bringing a few fresh eggs from the ranch.

Soon, the two old friends go their separate ways, always happy with each other’s company, no matter how long it lasts.

Because Lina knows you can take nothing for granted out on the frontier.

“Your life was handed down to you and you lived it,” she says. “That’s just the way it went.”

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