A voyage of personal discovery set in the high Sierra town of Cerro Gordo


One of my guilty pleasures has been watching the videos of Brent Underwood, a 30-something dreamer who for the past four years has been living in the high Sierra ghost town of Cerro Gordo and filming a series of videos for his YouTube Channel. There is now a book that he wrote about his experiences.

I am a big fan of what he is doing, not that I would want to uproot my very comfortable life in St. Louis and move to a place where there is hardly any running water, where you are at the mercy of massive weather systems that can flood or block a torturous eight-mile dirt road for days at a time. A place that is a study in contrasts: at one point, the town’s mines were responsible for creating great wealth in extracting silver, zinc and lead deposits, yet like Ozymadius, very little remains of the town apart from numerous abandoned buildings and lots of memories of the thousands of its former inhabitants.

What resonates with me about Underwood’s personal journey is that he is very honest and articulate about his experiences. The book captures more of his philosophies and musings about human nature. These don’t really come across in the video episodes, which usually center on various construction challenges or averting near-disasters as he is snowed in, flooded out, or at the mercy of contractors that decide to not show up for a promised work session.

Some of these events have been heart-breaking. The old American Hotel, once a centerpiece of the town, burned down at the height of the Covid pandemic. Rebuilding it has required immense quantities of concrete, steel, lumber and water that needed to be trucked up that dirt mountain road and put in place with dozens of volunteers who came to help out the effort. The floods that hit Death Valley also took out the town’s access road not once but twice in quick succession, as the road follows what is normally a dry wash through the mountains and was transformed into a raging river. And the town’s main water source is a creaky Rube Goldberg collection of antique spare parts that is connected 700 feet below ground inside one of the mine’s tunnels. Any one of these things would have sent a normal person heading back down the mountain to seek some less challenging life, but Underwood persists in his quest to bring the town into the modern era.

Underwood often gives himself various challenges: how to operate a backhoe, how to refine silver from the raw ore-bearing rocks he digs out of his mine, how to build a deck from scrap 140-year old wood that has been exposed to the elements, learning how to create a successful video series. “Mastery comes from learning a variety of skill sets and combining them in a way nobody else can,” he writes in his book, which is a theme that I realize I also live my own, somewhat less-frantic life. “I was learning what I loved and learning how to make a living doing that.”

One of the main characters in the book is an elder named Tip who has a great deal of knowledge of local lore and takes Underwood under his wing and share his perspective. Along the way, Tip helps him unlock many of the secrets of the town and its environs, and helps him learn more about himself in the process. Their relationship is astounding, given that many of theĀ  lessons learned happen on the steep cliff sides of the Sierras and hundreds of feet underground as they try to navigate the century-old caverns and tunnels.

Tip is taciturn and dying of cancer but his Jedi wisdom seems to be delivered to Underwood at just the right moments that can be appreciated and where he can learn some important lessons. But unlike the plot lines of numerous movies, this is real life, wrought large at 8000 feet.

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