Mike Braneen has been looking for gold in the rugged desert mountains of Central Nevada for fifty-two years, roughly the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century. He apparently has found enough gold to support his meager lifestyle, but he has long since ceased expecting to strike it rich.
Mike’s life has become routine to the point of ritual; he spends eight months of every year—from April to December—in the mountains, and when the first snow falls he takes refuge in the little mining town of Gold Rock. For eight months, Mike is alone, with only his burro for company. However, in his loneliness be perpetually relives the social phase of his life. Though comfortable with his solitary life, Mike’s self-identity is clearly defined by his human relationships.
As the story begins, Mike is descending from the mountains on the rugged old wagon road, into the sunset, and toward Gold Rock. It is late December, and snow flurries are in the air. Mike is keenly attuned to nature’s cycles, and he knows that this will be the first storm of winter. He picks his way down the old Comstock road, avoiding the new highway, the cars and trucks, and all other manifestations of the new era that has passed him by. Alone with his burro Annie, there is nothing to interrupt the flow of Mike’s memories.
Mike thinks about the burros he has had—eighteen or twenty in all. He can remember the names of only a few, those with some unique characteristic, and for the past twenty years he has gradually felt less personal about them. He has begun to call all the jennies “Annie” and the burros “Jack.”
Mike remembers women he has known, usually fleetingly, like the...
(The entire section is 711 words.)