The reality series about a colorful Nevada mining family airs on INSP.
Just north of Las Vegas, in the unforgiving landscape of the Great Basin Desert, the Otteson clan has been unearthing some of the world’s most prized turquoise for three generations. Turquoise Fever, a fascinating unscripted series premiering August 14 on INSP, follows members of the extended family as they run a gauntlet of daunting risks — ranging from the danger of detonating explosives on treacherous slopes to the pressure of meeting the demands of international buyers — from their base of operations in Tonopah, Nevada.
“It’s like a giant Easter egg hunt,” an Otteson quips during the first episode. “Except you go looking for $30,000 eggs.”
We recently spoke with three stars of Turquoise Fever — family matriarch Donna Otteson and third-generation miners Tristan and Tony Otteson — to better understand the stories behind the stories that unfold in the INSP series, which continues through September 25.
Cowboys & Indians: Is yours a seasonal business, or do you dig for turquoise throughout the year?
Tristan Otteson: We pretty much mine five days a week all year round. There’s no season for turquoise because there’s always going to be another show to go to, to bring our turquoise to. And there’s always going to be people who want it. So when it comes down to the mining and everything, we’re out there every month. It could be five degrees outside and snowing, and we’re going to be out there mining and [using] all of our equipment.
Tony Otteson: Our family has so many different mines in different areas, different elevations. But the worst-case scenario is during the winter, when the snow sets in. That might limit our access to some of our more high-elevation mines, or the steeper roads that are dangerous. And all we do really is, just simply shift to a mine in a lower elevation, and maybe try to get below the snow line. And, yeah, we just keep working.
C&I: As early as the first episode of Turquoise Fever, the audience learns that, in addition to all the other risk factors, you must constantly be alert for surprise shifts in wind.
Tristan: Yeah. Around here in Tonopah, there’s a saying that, if you can't hear the wind blowing outside, you’re probably dead. So it’s always windy here, at least a little bit. And we made it a big deal on the show to be talking about it, because you’ll see all these different conditions — that we’re going to be mining through the snow, and through exhausting heat. But really, when that wind kicks up, it’s one of the worst things for us.
First, there’s visibility. You get the dust kicking up into your eyes and stuff constantly. And it’s super, super killer on the eyes. And then second, there’s the different levels of high walls that we have in our mines. So as we’re digging our pit, and getting deeper and deeper, chasing a lead of turquoise, the walls of the rock actually start to get higher and higher. To some extent, we try to keep them below 25 or 30 feet. But once they get up to a point of 25 or 30 feet — a rock not even the size of your fist might get blown off the top of it by the wind, and even if you’re wearing a hardhat, it’ll knock you to your knees.
C&I: All these dangers must also increase the stress for folks back at home base.
Donna Otteson: Exactly. It’s very stressful at times, because these guys will come home and they’ll tell us about some of the conditions where they’re mining — or what they’re going to be doing for the next day, like when they’re blasting a lot of dead ground. My biggest concern is, sometimes we have these guys that will go off to these really remote mines, and they’ll be staying there and mining by themselves. And for most of us, that’s a real concern.
See, our access to communication at these remote mines is very limited. So if you have an accident and you need to get ahold of someone, it can be very difficult. That’s why we pretty well have a system set up to where, when they get out to the remote mines, they will schedule times with their wives when they’re going to be calling and checking in. So that we know if somebody isn’t checking in when they’re supposed to be, or they’re not home when they’re supposed to be, someone needs to drive out there and check on them. Because things do happen.
C&I: You folks must be the most demanding critics imaginable when you’re watching any depiction of the mining business in scripted dramas or reality TV shows.
Tony: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s a major thing for me. I used to love watching the reality shows that have anything to do with mining — until they start getting more of the drama involved in it, and more of the danger and explosives in. Because we do what we do, and we've been doing it for — well, for some of us, since we were just old enough to walk. And sometimes you see things [in scripted dramas and reality TV shows] where you’re thinking, “Nope. Nope. That’s not how that would work. That’s not even possible.” But the majority of the world doesn’t know that. So they buy into the scare.
For us, that was one of the big things we discussed with INSP when we signed up with them — we don’t want to add drama. We’re not actors. Everything that we do out there is real. The only thing we need is for the camera crews to just stay clear of what we’re doing, so nobody gets hurt, and let us work. There’s scary enough stuff. We watch it happen every day. [Laughs] Yeah, watching stuff online, or watching stuff on television, sometimes you’re like, “That’s not how that would happen.” Or you see the look on the guy’s face, and you know that doesn’t even match the situation at all. Because it’s a lot scarier, or not nearly that bad.
Donna: It is a very hazardous business. Of course, as long as you follow instructions and you do things in a safe manner, the chances of having any serious accidents are a lot less. But there’s always the chance that something can go wrong. Like Tristan said, all it can take is a little rock falling. And I’ve seen these guys hit their hands with these picks and equipment and stuff.
There was one time when my sister-in-law was waiting in the car while her husband was digging out a pocket of turquoise, and she was reading a book. And then she decided to go check on him — and he wasn’t there. And she panicked because she thought that the sidewall had caved in and buried him. So she was digging frantically, trying to find her husband. And a car came by. She ran out, she stopped the car, and right away she had those people frantically digging also. She’s starting to get really hysterical when all of a sudden her husband walks around the corner and said, “What are you guys doing?” He had decided to wander off and prospect the hill without telling her. [Laughs] Those are the kinds of things that can happen that remind you that you really need to know where people are at and what’s going on. Because she was ready to just kill him.
C&I: Are there ever times when a member of the family just up and says, “You know what? I think I’ll make a living running a dry-cleaning store instead,” or something like that?
Donna: It really is a tough business to be in. Prices fluctuate, and there’s times when you’re not hitting turquoise. It can be very stressful on the wives and the families. Some are cut out for it, and some aren’t. And generally they know that fairly soon after they’ve been in it for a little while. They’ll figure out if it’s for them or not. But if you’re going to do it, you have to really be committed to the love of mining turquoise. Because it is not an easy job and it’s not an easy life, for sure.
Tony: Right. We grew up watching our dads and our uncles and our grandpas mining since we were little kids. Like, too little to go into the pit. A lot of times they’d leave us in the truck. Or leave us by the vehicle, and we’d get to hunt lizards while they’re working and stuff. And I still remember watching my uncle and my grandpa and my dad come walking out of the pit one time, packing buckets. And these buckets when they’re loaded with rocks, to take home and process, they're 60, 70 pounds each. And I remember watching the veins flexing in their arms, and the dust covering their arms going right down to the dirt over the top of their fingernails — and all the blood that had dried from the cuts in their knuckles.
And I’m just looking at them and going, “That’s a man. That’s a man right there. That’s what I want to be. And I want to be tougher, and I want to be stronger, I want to work harder.” [Laughs] And here I am at 42 and I’m like, “I probably should’ve slowed down 20 years ago.” My knees and my elbows are already like, “Yeah, I think we're about done.”
Tristan: But, really, this family will always revolve around turquoise. You can't be an Otteson and get away from it for very long.