PASSING THROUGH, by Richard Menzies, Stephens Press, 124 pages, $21.95

Like a prospector, Richard Menzies scoured the dusty backcountry of the Great Basin. Driving a VW bus instead of riding a mule, he emerged with a treasure of great stories and photographs.

Menzies, a Salt Lake resident, began his literary and visual mining more than 35 years ago when he was a mainstay of the Salt Flat News, a peculiar little newspaper based in Wendover. After the paper folded in 1975, he continued to work the region through freelance magazine articles:

"Before I left, I asked Louis if he'd mind demonstrating the art of single jack drilling for me. No problem; Gibellini rolled up his sleeve, picked up his hammer, and went to work. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Like gunshots, the reports carried along the deserted streets, echoed off the flinty hillsides, pricked the floppy ears of slumbering canines, rattled the dusty bones of steel-driving men who in life had danced to the rhythmic tattoo of tempered steel biting into sold rock."

That selection about the prowess of a former steel-driver who, in his early 70s, could still come in second in a mining contest, is an example of Menzies' engaging style. He writes with wit, penetrating into the hearts of the eccentric, hard-luck denizens of Nevada.

Menzies stopped everywhere. Sometimes he let the subjects tell the tale on tape. With others, he did it himself.

Subjects range from "Deputy Dump" (Floyd Eaton), who lived in the Wendover dump and whose impossible tales flowed like a river; to Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, who sheltered a band of hippies; to Robert Golka, cranking out artificial lightning in the cavernous Wendover Air Base hangar.

Speaking of an accident in the lightning experiments, Menzies notes, "Metal fragments had perforated the hangar roof and torn into a heavy-duty transformer, which had leaked several gallons of oil laced with toxic polychlorinated biphenyl onto the concrete floor."

Occasionally the language is salty, the kind that earns a movie an automatic R rating, but that's just the way some of these folks talk. To sanitize their speech would be as untrue to their natures as to straighten out the debris around "Two Car Bob's" shelter (one of the cars) before photographing it.

We meet Carl Hayden, the former Salt Lake Tribune reporter who wrote "Cactus Pete's Casino Newsletter" in Jackpot, and Tom Clay, the 96-year-old editor who had bought the Lincoln County Record to rage against gambling, and Bob McKinney, who tried to grow "the banana belt of the Comstock" in the Nevada desert.

Menzies' photographs are as delightful as his writing.

He sees to the heart of his subjects, likes them, sizes them up with kindness and understanding.

"Passing Through" has none of that rhapsodic new-age fool's gold approach of much recent writing about the desert West. Instead, it's an honest and warm look at a time and place that is already fading away.


E-mail: jbau@desnews.com