How I Became a Gold Hunter, Part Two

Philip at Decorah IowaBeing born in California, home to the greatest gold rush in history, probably helps bring out the gold hunter in anyone. The magnificent Sierra Nevada range runs from the Mojave Desert near Los Angeles all the way up the length of California to Mt. Lassen and Mt Shasta, for me, the most beautiful mountains on earth. I was probably imprinted with gold hunting fever at an early age. I met a Swiss visitor in Yosemite National Park who said, “The Alps are nothing compared to this.” It was a family trip to this park with my three boys where I first experienced symptoms of gold fever. We found glittering rocks along the edge of the Merced River and began yelling, “Gold, gold, gold!” A Native American watching from a distance stared at us soberly shaking his head. Of course, it was ‘fool’s gold’: iron pyrite, pretty glittering rocks, but nothing like the bright luminosity of real gold, which shines in the shade, which has been called the sun metal. Pure gold is so soft you can dent it with your teeth. Gold does not react to other metals; it doesn’t rust. Back in 1848 or ’49 gold may have been found along the banks like Easter eggs, but not anymore. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of gold left. A park ranger at Coloma (the original 1848 gold discovery site) told me very seriously: “There is more gold yet to be found than even the great sums taken from the earth in the last 170 years.” I wanted to believe him. This is musical candy to the gold hunter’s ears.
I began my raft ride on the Feather River early and it ended fast. Late July, the river water level was low, and I kept hitting rocks. I wanted this raft ride for the adventure, but also because I was writing a story called The Gold Hunter, about a young man who finds the lost Gold Lake, refuses to give up its location, and to scare him, bad men lash him into a canoe and send him down the white-foaming, raging river. I wanted to know what that felt like. I pictured my raft leaping and dodging among swells, snags and boulders, a nimble water horse on a magnificent water course. The reality was much different.
It was painful. As I sat in the raft, I got punched in the rear end by barely submerged boulders. If I knelt in the raft, my knees got hammered by the hidden boulders. A few minutes later, paddling madly, I crashed into a granite wall and snapped off a paddle. I had no replacements. It was the end of my rafting. It had lasted fifteen minutes. In a bad mood of fury and shame, I dragged my raft back to my car and drove up to where I had stashed my camping gear. My new friends were already in the river. They were wearing diver’s wetsuits, goggles and wearing 50-pound weight belts so they could walk underwater on the bottom of the river. I told them about my brief raft ride and they nodded knowingly. They waved and went under. A big six-inch hose emptied a continuous stream of water and debris on the boat, onto a riffle, and then out the other end. My friends were underwater ‘vacuuming’ the river bottom. This is how modern gold hunting is done. Since I was a writer and explorer (and not a rival), they allowed me a few days with them. They shared their secrets. They showed me their treasure. I didn’t realize how unusual this was at the time. Gold hunting and especially gold finding is highly secretive work. Not a good idea to let anyone know you’ve hit the jackpot. A rough-looking stranger called down to us one day while we were eating lunch wondering if we had any luck. My partner yelled back in a big bass voice, “Just making wages.”
The treasure my gold hunting friends gave me was knowledge and pleasant companionship. They knew nothing of a lost lake. But they knew rumors of an ancient river, ‘Old Blue’ buried somewhere in the mountains and said to contain vast reserves of gold in its banks. I wished them good luck finding ‘Old Blue’. They wished me good luck finding my lost lake. (To be continued).

How I Became a Gold Hunter, Part One

Mining Dredge OperationI wasn’t planning on searching for gold: I was searching for the location of the Lost Gold Lake in the Lakes Basin Area of Northern California. The legend is, in 1849 a pioneer became lost while hunting deer for his wagon train and instead found a remote lake lined with gold, or so he said. But he was never able to find it again–and so the legend of Gold Lake was born. My one-man raft and pair of paddles would float me down the Feather River into remote areas my research said might contain the mythical lake. I wouldn’t chance losing my camping gear in the water, so I drove up a high and narrow, winding logging road to drop off and hide my gear where I planned to stop floating and start searching for the lake on foot. I kept only the clothes on my back, boots, a water bottle and a ‘Hawaii 5-0’ ball cap my boys had given me. After an hour of mountain driving, I left my car and hiked up the river to find a place to plant my gear. I got very lucky. By a beautiful spot in the river was a camping trailer and two men cooking their supper. They had a small pontoon boat anchored in the river tied by gold-colored ropes. Other gold ropes marked off what appeared to be a 50-foot section of river. I had no idea what this meant. Later I learned this was their mining ‘claim’. They greeted me and told me if I planned on hiking off into the wilderness, “Better lose that police hat.” They explained that there might be hidden marijuana growers more likely than any hidden lakes of gold and they wouldn’t like visitors in police hats. I removed my hat and a few minutes later hid my gear and returned to my hour-away upriver campsite, eager for an early start the next morning. The next day would begin my life as a gold hunter. (To be continued).

400 Pound Slab of Limestone Gives Heartache, Backache, and Egyptian Flashback

Limestone slab

I went to the landscape store to pick my stone for a wide step down to the ground from my new deck. All limestone slabs give me a thrill because of the massive amounts of time encased in beautifully layered stone, so I took my time enjoying myself in a field of roughly stacked piles of flat stones. The one I liked was almost six feet long, weighed 400 pounds, and roughly shaped like Australia. A friendly, smiling man loaded it into the back of my Ford pickup with a heavy forklift. “Have you got a loader at home?” I smiled back, saying, “Just me and my wife.” (We are both 60-something-ish). My exact thought was, If I lift one end at a time, that’s only 200 pounds. I can do it.

At home, I put on my power-lifting grip-gloves and after several manly heaves, realized this stone was not moving. I literally could not budge it. (I’m a retired UPS driver). I began to doubt the wisdom of having 400 pounds of flat slab sitting in the rubberized bed of a truck and wondered how bad the resale value of my Ford truck would be hurt with an immovable stone in the bed. A greater, darker fear emerged: What if you hurt your back? This rock could really knock you up. Game over. No more lifting and playing with the grandkids. No more careless afternoons in the garage doing work working projects. No more sleep for the rest of your life. I got out a scissor-jack from my wife’s Honda Fit.

Using it sideways, pushing with blocks and posts against the back wall of the truck bed, a piece of flat sheet metal beneath the front of the stone, I was able to move the stone about one-inch per minute of cranking the jack; retracting the jack; repositioning the blocks and posts; using a pickaxe to lift and reposition the path of the stone. This is when I began to feel like an Egyptian.

I thought: This is a mere flake of limestone compared to the giant blocks ancient men moved by the thousands. I began to appreciate them. How did you do it, guys? The only answer was: They knew something we no longer know—Mysteries of Moving Stone. Just try it and you’ll agree. They had something better than a Ford F150.

I created a bed of thin, used (rather slippery) plywood paneling for my mighty stone to fall upon, hopefully to slide upon, if I survived the fall.

After three hours of non-Egyptian pushing and shoving, I had the stone teetering on the edge of my tailgate (braced underneath by plywood and 4×4 posts) and was finally (with the help of my power-gloves) able to lift one end, and slide the other end to the ground. There the mighty slab stood, an Australian-shaped monolith leaning against my tailgate—while I pictured all the ways things could still go wrong trying to lower the stone to the ground: a crushed hand; a wrenched back; the truck tailgate gouged or buckled. (I could hear the Egyptians from 6,000 years ago snickering, jeering and laughing).

Since pride and pink-slip of my pickup were at stake, I manfully grabbed the top-heavy end of my Australia-shaped stone and pulled hard. It slipped an inch sideways, but would not come towards me. I was not man enough, or Egyptian enough. I pondered for an hour, sitting, sweating, sipping lime water (which is supposed to clarify thinking). Okay. The Egyptians took pity on me. They told me what to do.

I put a heavy wooden crate below where the stone would fall and pulled heartily on the bottom end of the stone. Then—like the shift of a continent, the bottom of the stone slid on slippery paneling and the top fell onto the crate. My beloved Ford was not hurt. My swift, powerful hands were not crushed. My back was only slightly tweaked. I took two days away from the stone to do more thinking.

Then—my wife and I, using blocks for fulcrums and 2×6 boards for levers—were able to incrementally, in just under two hours—shift the great Australo-Egyptian slab on its ten-foot journey to its new stepping-stone home below my deck. This, I assure you, is the last time my wife and I will ever move a 400 pound stone again. By the way, the new limestone step is beautiful, perhaps a million years old, and it will never move again so long as I live. The Egyptians whispered to me: Once you get it there, leave it alone.

Why Real Writers Carry Notebooks—and a Super Secret Tip

I carry a pocket-size spiral-bound paper notebook in my shirt pocket. Why? All of us get random thoughts coming out of the blue at no particular time of the day. I’m talking about ideas that pop into your head when you’re not thinking about anything at all. By the time you get to a piece of paper, the thought has virtually disappeared into thin air. You can’t remember a thing about it, not even the faintest thread. As for me, I write it down instantly. No need to rely on my faulty memory. No need to fumble around with expensive electronic devices.

The spiral notebook never lets you down (unless you accidentally drop it in a lake); it never runs out of batteries. You can jot things down quickly, or at least make a quick sketch of two or three words if you’re at a stoplight, so you can pick up the thread when you have a chance to stop and write it out.

Here’s the Super Secret Tip. You’re not just jotting down only your obviously brilliant ideas. You’re jotting down the humble plain and simple ideas as well. “Her eyes were the lyre of my love.” (Maybe the beginning thread of your next beautiful poem). And “Pick up a gallon of milk.” (Maybe your spouse is speaking telepathically). You get the idea.

Here’s the incredibly important Secret: You’re building a relationship with your subconscious mind. That’s where those fleeting ideas come from. That’s where the really good stuff comes from. Why record the beautiful and also the humble ideas? If I say, No, that’s not a great idea. I’m not writing that down—that’s a big mistake. You’re pre-editing and passing judgment on the subconscious source. This shuts down the creative process. You must cultivate respect for your subconscious mind. The greatest ideas come from this deepest source. Get a spiral-bound notebook. You could become a real writer.