Ed Conway, Economics Editor
“When you’ve played the dirt long enough, you can tell how it’s gonna fall.”
With that, the man sitting by my side turns to the rock face, pulls on a joystick under his thumb and all hell breaks loose.
In front of us, the sheer outcrop dissolves in a juddering series of smacks and thuds.
He pulls the lever again and the enormous bucket of our digger tears more rocks off the cliff-face.
As he demolishes the outcrop, scoop by scoop, larger and larger landslides jolt us and threaten to engulf the cabin. I start to feel a little nervous.
“Nah, don’t worry,” says the operator. “We don’t get buried all that often.”
He points at the mammoth truck in front us – bigger than, well, a house.
“You wanna feel what it’s like in that cabin when you have a hundred tons of rock land on you.”
Our digger scoops up a massive bucket full of stones, swings it across to where the truck is waiting and, with a deafening crash, drops the rocks onto its back. Yes, I conclude, rather here than there.
This is mining, 21st century style. We are sat in the cabin – nest might be a better word for it – of a vehicle that stands three storeys high, and the man in the driving seat is, quite literally, tearing this mountain apart.
One could doubtless find more sophisticated ways to describe it, but the more time you spend at a modern gold mine, the more you realise that ultimately what it amounts to is dismantling a mountain and squeezing some precious metal out of the remains. It is a paradox – primitive and technologically-advanced at the same time.
There is Wi-Fi throughout the underground mines, and yet the way they signal an emergency is by releasing a “stench” gas throughout the tunnels – something they’ve been doing here in mining country for the best part of a century.
These days there are few gold mines with open seams in them – those mines they show you in the movies.
Most major gold deposits instead contain microscopic traces of gold – maybe one or two grams of the stuff for every ton of rock you tear out of the ground. You never see it in the ground. You just play the numbers game: the more rocks you shift, the more gold you might get.
Here at the Cortez mine in Nevada, operated by Canadian giant Barrick, that means shifting a lot of rocks – comfortably more than the weight of the Empire State Building every single day, if you can get your head round that.
It means trucks bigger than anything you’ve seen before, with wheels taller than a double decker bus and engines pumping out 4,000 horsepower.
It means deep underground mines with tunnels big enough to drive a truck through.
It means detonating hundreds of thousands of pounds of explosives, digging up the rocks, grinding them in enormous mills, pulverising them into dust, mixing them with cyanide solution, adding carbon, heating the resulting sludge up to more than 1,000 degrees and only then do you see it: molten gold.
There is something hypnotic about finally seeing it, after all that work.
After watching what they call “the pour” – when the refiners meld one gold bar after another, I found myself chatting with the underground mine superintendent, Trent, and noticed him looking a little wistful.
He confessed he had never even seen any of the gold they produced. Not in ten years at the mine.
But then, this is a business. Seeing bars of gold isn’t what pays the bill. What matters is shifting dirt and creating value.
The depths of Nevada might seem like an odd place to come to discover more about Brexit, but I travelled 5,000 miles to witness the beginning of another journey.
For what I’m most interested in is what happens to those gold bars when they leave the refinery. It is the start of a voyage with major consequences for our picture of the UK economy.
Though they’re glistening by the time they leave Cortez, those gold bars are…