Why I Think the Greatest Time to be Alive was The California Gold Rush

I heard the hush of an icy Sierra Nevada mountain creek rushing down from one of the high places; I smelled the powder sugar breath of Ponderosa pine. Something magical happened. Instantly I was transported back to the greatest of all times in history, the California Gold Rush. I was born in 1949, a hundred years too late. But I felt like I was one of them, the gold seekers, the gold hunters. I could see them so clearly.

Hungry, desperate men coming by land and sea from all around the world: German, Spanish, Chinese, French, Portuguese—all these and many more—coming from all around the globe. Never before or since was there such a rush of men, all believing in the power of gold: You get rich just by moving a few shovelfuls of dirt! History has proven again and again: Men hungry and wild with gold fever are the most driven men on earth. I can see them now.

When I walk through silver valleys sliced by flashing streams, in my imagination, I see their camps, I see the men. Wood smoke rises from a dozen shanty cabins; the men say very little as they strain and grunt and swear, knocking rocks together as they move them across boulder-filled streams so they can get deeper into the rushing river. Gold treasure is buried somewhere under these cold streams in underwater vaults and these men will not stop until they get rich, or die.

You haven’t seen men like these before. They are not particularly big men. Their muscles are hard as the rocks they move. Mostly they are thin and hungry-looking because they haven’t had enough to eat in months. They are very hungry all the time. Day’s spent in the river hunting gold leaves little time for hunting food. But one good gold strike will solve all their troubles. That’s what they believe.

Of course, they were deluded. Those who survive will work as laborers in lumber camps, farming, or simply go back home, broke, but filled with stories of their greatest adventure. Hopefully they discovered their own families were their greatest wealth and happiness. That’s how I write it.

I write about these men because I can still see them and hear them, and I must do my writer’s best to portray them and give them a voice. It was the greatest time to be alive—the California Gold Rush.

Why I Write Stuff, or, You Don’t Know What You’ll Write Until….

I started writing stories at a pretty early age, 9 years old. My first story was about a caveman named Uk and his wife Og seeing their first total eclipse of the sun. I remember both of them were terrified, but Uk somehow becomes a hero to his wife. I think he told her not to worry, the sun would return from the mouth of the beast. The last words of the story were from Og: “Oh, Uk!”  Not exactly a brilliant display of early talent.  I was in the fifth grade, my teacher put in the comments on my report card that “Philip gazes out the window a lot.” That was probably pretty accurate, but not a bad thing in my humble opinion. Then I won the eighth grade spelling contest against the smartest girl in the class—and I was off to the races. From there, I bought a little locked-key diary so it forced me to make an entry on a daily basis and it seemed important to me not to leave a day blank. It still seems important not to have blank days.

That was long ago and what I have really learned is that you don’t know what you’ll write until you sit down and write. Which is another way of saying: You don’t know what’s inside you until you write it, until you face the holy of holies: The Blank Page.

I certainly didn’t know I would write a novel about a 17-year-old boy who would find the greatest source of gold in the California Gold Rush. I didn’t know I would write about the falling of giant trees, the great Redwoods and what it took to bring a big one down. Or that I would be researching the Paiute Indians of Pyramid Lake. Or that I would revisit three horrific battles of the Civil War: Stones River; Chickamauga; Missionary Ridge. I never would have known if I hadn’t sat down to write.

I believe all of these things were inside of me like seeds that just needed to grow under the sunlight of a writer’s attention and love. Yes, I do love what I write about. Stephen King calls it the workings of “the boys in the boiler room” Yes, the subconscious mind.

People say, “What should I write about?” For the sake of discussion, let’s just say your heart is an amazingly powerful magnet (I believe it is) and is magnetically drawn and turns just like a compass towards what it loves. When you start feeling drawn to something, someplace, or event, and most particularly, a certain time and place, there you will find what you will write about. There is your goldmine, your jackpot, your motherlode. You’ll be drawn to it just like magic, just like a magnet. There you will find your joy. Follow your bliss. Don’t ever bother with the Million Dollar Lotto. That’s bogus. Your heart’s joy is not there. But that’s for another discussion.

By the way, I didn’t know I was going to write any of this until I sat down to write. Goodbye for now.

–  Phil

The Goldfinder Series: The Gold Hunter, Entry 17

The burnt match smell very strong now, tainted by something worse, something rotten and dead–was the lake lined with dead bodies? Given Stoddard’s story, maybe it was lined with dead gold hunters. Fear was growing. He gave himself another mental shove.

You came here to find the legendary Gold Lake, didn’t you? Go find it.

The smell was so bad his legs shook. It was like entering a fog of rotten stench. He moved forward pinching his nose, trying not to gag.

A hundred steps more brought him to the steady hissing sound of a waterfall. So there must be a lake; even small waterfalls produced prodigious amounts of water. If there was no outfall stream, where was it going? And why did it smell so bad? Well, another minute you’ll know the answer. Are you a man or a boy? Suddenly he was running toward the sound–the answer–even if a big gob of fear in his stomach told him to run the other way, and his mind was crying, God help me.

He grew weak. He slowed down until he found himself crouching awkwardly forward, expecting the whizz-thump of an arrow in his chest. His shoulders ached. His feet felt like lead. His eyes were popped so wide he couldn’t blink. He tried to rally himself mentally: You’re seventeen now. This is one of those places where you become a man.

Nearing the backwall and the waterfall, at least he would see the big white buck up close and even if there wasn’t any gold it would be worth the trip. There wouldn’t be any gold. (Would there?) On the other hand California was the Promised Land.

This was an unexplored canyon. (Wasn’t it?)

Finally he saw it. Silver showering water fell at the back of the canyon. He forced himself forward. There was a cool breeze. The smell was mostly gone. He felt the sting of the arrow that would end his life. But he had to see this lake now.

The Goldfinder Series: The Gold Hunter, Entry 12

Jack had told him all about it. Jack knew all about such things. The manitoo was a forest creature that lent you wisdom; it could help you prosper. Jack had seen this white buck and said it would be bad luck to shoot it. It was a good birthday gift. Now it was watching Petr Valory. It doesn’t like the rifle. Okay. Be rid of it then.

He ran downslope until he found the biggest cedar tree he had ever seen in his life. Massive survivor of centuries, it was tent-like, with branches that covered the ground. He crawled inside. It cool, dry and fragrant. He set the rifle against the trunk. There. Good. Crawl outside again. He made a stone pyramid to mark the tree. Come back later.

He didn’t know he wouldn’t see that rifle again for twelve years.

He searched upslope, but the white deer was gone. Probably wasn’t a manitoo anyway. Still, you didn’t see a magnum buck like that every day. Just a good luck sign that today was a lucky day: Head for that dry waterfall. See what you see.

He scrambled up until he was atop the smaller crest with its big view. Little Rocky would never make it up here. No worries about that. Again he would be wrong.

To the south lay the big blue expanse of Long Lake. Jack’s cabin looked like a toy house on a peninsula of pines jutting into the lake. To the north lay a gray valley holding two blue-jewel lakes, primitive and wild. A strong, sugary wind breezed up from the valley, a sweet pine wind. It was beautiful. Go there–to the valley of the lakes. He checked his watch: 2:15. Plenty of time before sundown. That was another miscalculation.

There it was again. The manitoo deer stood beside the first small lake, lapping up water. It raised its wide antlers at him, as if to say: Well, are you coming? Then it trotted away westward.

The Goldfinder Series: The Gold Hunter, Entry 11

He believed it was the same falcon he and Annabel had taken food scraps to down by the river. He waved, yelling,”I will find that gold lake and I will be free as you, high flyer.”

With the rifle sights, he scanned the high cliffs of the crest. No need to go there. Gold wouldn’t be there. He didn’t know much about “goldfinding”, but he had heard gold was the heaviest substance on earth. Gold would run downhill. It would be in valleys or rivers or at the bottom of lakes–somehow. The biggest chunks would be in a river or lake.

He scanned the rifle south.

There lay the big blue lake called “Loch Loong” by its solitary dweller, Big Jack–Jack Gorgius Frazier. He had helped them build their cabin last fall. The Scotsman had found no gold. No need to go there. But Petr would share the gold lake with Jack when he found it.

He scanned the rifle north.

There rose a sharp ridge that, once crossing it, led down into the North Fork of the Feather River; the wild rich mining camp called Gold Nation where they took a wagonload of lumber each week, and then Papa hustled him away as if the place was full of disease.

The watch made a pretty, sing-songing: ching-ching! It was two o’clock. Mama’s gift was awareness of time. Why? Why was there always secret unhappiness under everything she did?

Papa’s gift-rifle was getting heavy. Papa had warned him. Top those cylinders off with grease or they will all blow off a once and remove your face. Papa had properly loaded it. It was ready to fire, a powerful tool that could shoot six times. That meaning was clear. Petr, you’re a man now. But he never wanted to kill anything. The rifle was useless to him as a stick of lead.

He ran fifty paces, walked fifty paces, hopped over countless rivulets of spring runoff. Not far away was a small paradise of blue lakes held in rocky bowls made like giant cups. Big Jack had told him all about it. Three years ago Tom Stoddard had found a lake somewhere. It was filled with gold–so they said. But five hundred determined men failed to find it.

Petr vowed: “I will find it.” Another thought hit him: Dain King was one of those determined men, you can bet on it. That’s why he explored the Feather River. That’s how he found gold on the North Fork; what he was now calling The Gold Nation. It all made sense.

The rifle was getting unbearable. Sweat dripped down his face. Getting hot. Getting thirsty. It was the first hot day of spring. He was running on naked stone, up a lower crest that led to the Sierra Crest. A hidden gold lake might lie somewhere in the bowl between the two crests. He would bet five dollars on it if he had five dollars.

It was a steep climb up the mountainside. When he heard the falcon again he looked up. He couldn’t find it, but high on top of the rising cliff was a deer, a big one.

The biggest buck he had ever seen posed silently a hundred yards away on a sharp gray ledge. It was white. Pale as cream and its antlers spread like tan flames. What would Papa say if he brought home a white deer? Petr aimed the rifle and the deer disappeared like a puff of smoke. He set the rifle aside, scanning the trees, and moments later the buck reappeared atop a dry waterfall above a small circle of boulders. It made a high whistling laugh. Petr shouted back at it.

“I won’t hurt you! You’re beautiful. You’re magic–a white deer–you’re a manitoo.”

The Goldfinder Series: The Gold Hunter, Entry 10

Petr ran into forest so thick it blocked out the sun. This was Papa’s gold, big Ponderosa pines–easy to find, hard work turning it into lumber. Gold finding would be much easier.

Gunshots rattled over the ridge. Not a battle. It was Sunday afternoon hunting out on the river. Nothing to worry about. Certainly not Indians. The Maidus carried bows and spears. They might steal a rope or an axe with the innocence of a child. But they were fierce as grizzly bears if interfered with or provoked. And they weren’t the greatest danger in the Sierras.

The greatest danger was finding gold.

Papa warned him. If you find gold you better keep your rifle handy. Gold drew men like iron to a magnet. But the Valoryvale claim was a rolling wonderland of Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine that made fine yellow boards smelling sweet as powdered sugar. The other wealth of their tree kingdom was a mountain stream flashing through the Valoryvale like liquid crystal. It splashed into the Feather River a few miles below, but it contained no gold. He had looked. So no one would ever bother their valley. But he would be wrong about that.

John and Petr harvested straight yellow timber growing from the forest like beams of yellow light encased in brown husks. Magya claimed the Valorys were so poor they couldn’t afford ink for the second “e” in Petr’s name. So naturally he wanted to find gold so his family would never feel poor again. The desire pursued him sharp as a gnawing hunger. I will find the great gold of Earth and I will be rich and happy.

He knelt beside the crystal stream made delicious from melted snow. He drank. When he glanced up, a gray squirrel and a bluejay were watching him suspiciously. He whispered to them, “Where do I find gold? I have to find it. Papa won’t last another year if I don’t find gold. Mama needs a proper house with painted shutters so she doesn’t go crazy. Maybe I’ll take her to San Francisco so she can have her dream too. Annabel needs….”

Thinking of Annabel made him smile. That girl needed many things. A horse might keep her happy, might stop her following him around like a puppy. Hopefully she wasn’t following him right now.

“Annabel needs a pretty horse, please.”

He laughed and began running again, long smooth strides across the forest floor.

When he emerged from the thick forest marking the upper end of the Valoryvale, he knew he was in Gold Country. Bright sun was a blazing copper pitcher pouring heat from the sky; the Sierra Crest a rising kingdom of gray towers; black flies buzzing around his head aroused by the heat told of early spring. He cupped his hands beneath a miniature waterfall and again drank icy swallows until his throat ached. He was alive!

Might find Indians, or lost cities, or fire-belching caves! What secrets lay hidden in these mountains? Why couldn’t he hunt gold six days a week and cut lumber just for one, like Big Jack, or Dain King?

He heard a faint, skirling cry, high on the wind: “Keee-iiirrrk!” Looking up, he saw a good omen: scimitar-shaped wings carving circles on the sky. It was a falcon.

The Goldfinder Series: The Gold Hunter, Entry 9


His time had come, he even had a gold watch to prove it: he was running free in the Sierra high country where he would find gold. The long way west broke many men, and families died, but that was over. Now was the time for the Sierra dream, the most beautiful mountains on earth. From a distance they looked like silver shields shining in the sun, beneath which lay a paradise of gleaming granite dripping with gold in secret places. But where were such places? Today he would find out. Because Mama and Annabel were suffering, he had to find out.

He ran up the steep valley of the Valoryvale that led to the Sierra Crest. He was young, tall, and fit, and today what he really wanted for his birthday was not a pretty watch or rifle. What he wanted was a gloryhole full of gold.

Rifle shots snapped in the distance off the north ridge beyond which lay the big mining operation of Dain King on the north fork of the Feather River, about three miles away in the next valley. It was being called Gold Nation, where they were building a flume–a hundred yards of wooden trough that would carry the river of the North Branch out of its channel so King and his men could rob its river bed of gold like robbing a bank. But to finish the flume, King needed Valory lumber.

John and Petr were his cutters, small players, but in a drama that couldn’t be finished without them: They were supplying all the lumber for King’s flume; the big man needed the little man; and for some reason Papa didn’t like the big man.

Petr had seen King up in his wooden tower, a big brute of a man, gazing down on his kingdom, the wild, rich stretch of river, soon to be tamed by his rising flume. Some said he was a handsome devil. Some said he was wanted by the Army. One thing was certain: After they unloaded their wagonload of yellow planks beside the flume, John quickly hustled Petr away as if they were in a death camp loaded with cholera. Petr remembered now where he had seen the fancy rifle before.

It was a Colt revolver-rifle, and all of Dain King’s men had them.

Petr started running up the valley to the crest. There was more than one mystery to solve in these beautiful mountains–and Magya expected him home in three hours.

The Goldfinder Series: The Gold Hunter, Entry 8

Chapter One: The Gold Hunter


She watched him from the loft window as he was scurrying up the stone staircase that led to the waterfall. Then he crossed to the timber lot. She knew where he was heading: Big Jack’s cabin and lake, and then the Sierra ridge–the Great Beyond. Petr announced the time when he left with his new watch: one o’clock. She would wait until two. She’d planned this day very carefully.

Annabel Rochele was only eight years old but she knew two things were wrong with her family. First, Papa had promised Mama San Francisco–but instead they had settled on the eastern side of the Sierra Crest because Papa loved trees more than he loved Mama. She had been humming and singing her beautiful voice all the way to California in anticipation of San Francisco–Magya Pavlovich Valory, the Russian woman–now trapped in a stone valley they called the Valoryvale. That was part of the second wrong, her own wrong.

Annabel Rochele Valory was trapped in stone. After making big sacrifices; giving up friends in Harrisburg, making new friends on the wagon train, and losing them four months later–her only amusement now was following Petr around.

Today was his birthday and more crimes were being committed by both Mama and Papa. Mama gave Petr the gold and blue enamel pocket watch that should have been hers. Papa gave Petr a new rifle that he would like even less than the watch. She knew Petr hated guns. Mama and Papa got stupider every year. But it didn’t matter anymore. She was getting out. She had an escape plan.

If Petr found gold so would she. He talked about it in his sleep. They slept only two feet apart on straw sacks so she knew today he began his hunt for Gold Lake. And Annabel Rochele would be right there when he found it.

At one o’clock (according to his new watch) he left with his big stupid happy-dog grin on his face. At two o’clock (by her calculations) she was supposed to be brooming her room.

Wrongo. At two o’clock she would sneak out the window and jump off the roof and say goodbye to being a child.

The Goldfinder Series: The Gold Hunter, Entry 7

Up–pause. Up, up–pause–Up, up. Until many hops later, aloft on blue silent heaven, aloft where even the wind made no sound because there was nothing for it to sigh upon–she bobbed buoyant as a cork atop an out-of-breath windgusher. Feeling its warmbreaths fall away into the cool dregs of sky, she tipped her wings so she could spiral atop the expended wind, slowly widening her flight into descending circles. She saw how unusually high she was, because–

The curving river below was a shining line, smaller than she had ever seen it.

Far away east, she saw a band of redmen toiling on the ground, towing a string of horses. They were coming slowly toward her river. It was unusual to see them coming from the east and bringing horses, but it did not frighten her. Redmen came and went over the land disturbing nothing. More often she saw a new kind of two-legged being, men with white, hairy faces, men who disturbed everything. Worse, they carried thundersticks that blasted creatures from earth and sky. Mostly the red and whitemen hunted each other, and not falcons. But she had been alive seven seasons and the whitemen were coming with each sunrise as steadily as streams of ants.

The pigeonblood tasted good on her beak and now the hot-flying strength poured into her. This was the way of all things, to pour into one another. One day her own strength might be consumed into that of the silent nightkiller, the owl. Then the big-head-on-two-legs might one day be consumed by the howldogs. Nothing lived forever. She had seen death many times with her blueblack eyes. Yet every new day warm life floated down from the blue sky onto the great green domes of earth.

The falcon circled the twin panoramas of blue silent sky father above, and the great green mother below. Again she watched the toiling redmen.

They moved closer towards her bend in the river, but that did not disturb her. They never harmed her nest, and when her mate returned all would be well. She relaxed on the highwind feeling its exultation. Never was there any need to fly this high merely in search for food. This knowing of the blue dome–from where Yahee threw down the first birds and all other dream into the green world where they became real–this was the thrill lower creatures would never know. This was another of her secrets: the joy on the wind.

Looking up, nothing but the sun flew above her.

The windsinger shrilled her air-splitting shriek: “Keiiieeey-eeeeeeerk!”

Creatures on the ground froze, because her voice flew everywhere at once. When nothing happened–they relaxed again. And the gray falconess gazed down upon her world again.

The redmen were approaching from sun’s nest, the far mountains of the dry brown land. Now they crossed the long fingers of hills and valleys that led to her valley. Why did they come? Why did they pull a long string of horses?

She looked where the sun falls at the day’s end into pinefeathered mountains reaching all the way to the ocean. Now she knew her mate was gone far too long. It was time to search for his body.

She sailed high over the river where emerald pines leaned across silver banks giving the water its rich color. When she wished it, her magnificent eyes magnified everything to double their size.

Gray rabbits scurried and posed; a few timid deer drank deep, looked up, water dripping from black muzzles; a grizzly bear flattened on a gray slab lay sunning himself, bouncing with hiccups, looking at shadows in the water, dreaming. Perhaps they all once knew, perhaps they had forgotten. Perhaps they had lost their flying in the great becoming and unbecoming of all of all the animals. All at once the lower animals left the river in silence –and they were hurrying.

She ignored them. She studied every cliff for a shadow of the familiar browngold shape.

Again she heard the “Choof! Choof!” but this time much closer than before. Seconds later the force of shockwaves slapped her wings sending needles into her stomach, spreading into her wings, and she grew weak. Instinct drove her into a mindless attack dive.

Now! Scatter all enemies with flaming flight!

Bluejays shrieked, squirrels warbled, deer scurried, bears waddled–all hurrying away. She could see everything–everything except her browngold mate–and now she saw feathers floating down the river.

Sometimes the river carried feathers.

Hawk, owl, pigeon, jay; geese, duck, eagle, swallow. Never falcon. Any of these she could knock from the sky when the sun was high at her back and they never saw her coming from the wild eye of the sun. None matched her matchless wings. None reached her blinding speed of invisibility. Swooping across the river she saw it floating on the water below, and now the weakness that had poisoned her stomach and wings entered her womb.

Browngold feathers floated down the river–so now that life was ended.

Instinct told her to fly to the cliffs. But when she saw them coming from the mountains, the tree-smashers, the hairyfaces riding horses and carrying thundersticks in their arms, coming towards her cliffs and coming towards her eggs–hot rage filled her. She flew up and then tipped her body downward. She attacked.

She screamed from the sky, “Screeee-iirk!”

A man raised his stick, and she saw and heard–flash-cloud-choof! A spray of hornets streaked past her and she knew instantly what had happened to her mate and why he would never return again.

She veered wildly west beating fast towards the green mountain deeps as if death now pursued her darkly as a flying shadow. The joy on the wind was over.