I 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).
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.
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.
This story, the first in a projected series of four novels collectively called The Goldfinder, is a well-crafted excursion into the world of magical realism. A surreal dreamscape that moves back and forth through time, identities and presumptions, the book is set in mid-19th century American West where everyone is infected, one way or another, with the4 often-fatal disease of gold fever.
Here’s how it’s supposed to go for popular Action fiction.
He’s a good-looking young stranger rides into town on a long-legged buckskin wearing tied-down guns and a flat-brimmed black hat. He’s good with a gun, in fact lightning fast, but he’d rather not find trouble. In fact, he’d like to settle down, maybe start a small ranch and maybe find a good woman who can handle a Winchester rifle as well as make good strong coffee. But trouble finds him real fast and right away he’s up against a whole bunch of bad guys who also have amongst them a really bad guy who’s also lightning fast. There’s gonna be a showdown. This is classic Louis L’Amour plotline (Kilkenny). If you study Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, you see a not much different character, just super-sized and amped-up to the level of violence characteristic of modern Action/Adventure.
If I could keep my stories this straight and simple my writing work would be so much easier.
My character, Petr Valory (The Gold Hunter) is morally complex. He’s not afraid of anything, but he will avoid violence if possible because of moral radar that warns him if he’s too close to an action with karmic consequences. Because of flashes of insight gained inside the shining heart of the secret Gold Lake, he knows he has lived before and will live again. He knows if he harms anyone or kills someone there will be dire consequences in this life or in the next. Kilkenny and Jack Reacher do not have these moral restraints. What a pleasure it must be to write without restraint, to just blast bad guys!
Of course, there are two characters in my story who act without restraint: the Indian, Sabbah, who kills to revenge the murder of his son; and Dain King who believes he is a Viking returned to wreak havoc on the Indians and anyone else who gets in the way of his carving the gold-rich mountains of California into his warrior nation, called Gold Nation. I have painted Dain King purposefully horrible and murderous and without conscience for reasons not to be revealed until the last book of the four-book series called The Goldfinder.
Truth is, I don’t enjoy writing horribly immoral characters, the bad guys. I prefer good guys.
My good guys, the moral and restrained-by-love characters, are 17-year-old Petr Valory and his 8-year-old sister Annabel. They portray Love dealing against the dark doings of evil: Sabbah and Dain King. How does goodness survive against evil—without committing evil? That is the question I am hardwired to write about—and find very challenging to answer. Even if I try to not write about it, I still end up writing about it. How I sometimes wish I could write like Louis or Lee.
But I can’t. I must write like good old morally-complexed me. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. Jack London tried it once in a novel called The Star Rover where his character is imprisoned in a straight-jacket, discovers he can escape into a past-life and leave the misery of the jacket behind. Very possibly few people will really understand what I am trying to get to: solid, moral meaning in a world rife with confusions of good and evil. My work has been called magical realism (BlueInk Review). I take that as an intended compliment. But for me, writing is metaphysically infused reality not commonly understood in the black and white tabloid-reality of the world. I am compelled to write this hard way, Action with metaphysical undertones and overtones. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. It’s a moral compulsion. It’s what I do. Also I love every minute of it. When I publish a book, I publish with great regret that I will no longer be spending time with my characters taking on the bad guys in very spiritually thoughtful ways. Michael Carradine’s ‘Cain’ in the old TV drama ‘Kung Fu’ comes to mind. But let that be for another time.
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.
While in New York City, I recorded a video about the creation of The Gold Hunter. Please view the video and tell me what you think.
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.
Sabbah thought, Stay my friend, sah, sah, sah. I will do a beautiful thing for you. My heart is true, and I will hurt you only a little. From the elkskin he drew his bow and quiver. My friend, better you to come with us, enter our bellies, become one of the People–than wander off into the mountains where you will be killed by wolves, eaten by skunks, and become one of them. I will make you Numah!
He pictured a beautiful robe for Nojomud, moccasins for his little feet, sinews becoming strings for a fine bow, antler tools to chip arrow points. He pushed the strung end of the bow into the ground just below his crotch, and pulled the other end slowly into himself compressing his arm. The greasewood eased towards him and he slipped the string onto its notched end. Good and tight, the wildcat’s gut making the singing voice of my bow. From the wildcat quiver he drew a single rosewood shaft. Careful not to touch the point, he gripped the feathered end and drew the silent bow into a smile. He whispered, “Hear me now: You will be Numah, you will be strong, you will not be sorry.”
Wing-like ears rotated towards him. The buck snorted and bolted away.
Gone like smoke in a breeze! Sabbah sat blinking. Nojomud lay sound asleep. He reached over and combed the boy’s hair, his black forelocks rough as a pony’s tail. The boy turned but did not awaken. Sabbah would have much time later to think about this last touch.
He ran to the horses calling to the spotted one that made Sabbah more than a man. “Talldog, hssst.” It came instantly and he released its hobbles and instantly they followed the clicking music of the running deer.
Long moments later they chased following the deer down the Long Green Valley through mist and wet grass but could not close ground. The scent and clicking grew fainter. No choice but to follow: God has taken the shape of a white buck deer! Then show the sleepyheads in camp the biggest deer they’d ever seen. Nojomud would whoop, seeing the war bonnet of antlers, and of course, gazing at his father with pride. The picture was spoiled by an unsettling thought: Sabbah has only one arrow! His quiver of arrows lay inside his elk robe, now over a mile away.
Talldog was a good horse. They caught an occasional glimpse of a ghost flickering through the mist. It was dangerous to run at night. Talldog might step into a hole; spirit creatures roamed. Yet darkness couldn’t last because already the great light of Apu had begun its first kindling and would soon flame upon the horizon.
Hunting time is dream time. He could not tell how long he followed the deer. He guessed if he yelled aloud, no one in camp would hear him, guessing he was three times beyond his yelling voice being heard. A bad thought came: My big friend you are leading me astray. But then he saw it again. Exploding from the grass it splashed into the river, crossed, and disappeared again. Sabbah forgot to breathe. What was that thing? God come to life on the ground? Where was it?
Moments later it re-erupted on the opposite bank and shook itself off. Above the buck, tall dark cliffs rose to the dusky sky where stars twinkled and faded. Sabbah hobbled Talldog, whispering, “There may yet be work for you.” He stalked towards the river but before he reached the edge of the water he saw movement along the cliff. Did it fly up there?
The white buck looked as if it was standing on the sky. Lifting its head, its pink tongue flickering like flame, as if to say, Now you see why I am so big? Sabbah would never forget this moment. The deer climbing so fast as if lifted by wings, fading stars behind him, how could Sabbah know this was the last sweet moment of his life?
He called softly, “My friend, you are too beautiful to kill. Perhaps the Good Spirit wishes for you another son.” He smiled, wondering if he too might someday have another son.
The he heard the sound that ended all good dreams forever.
The sound did not repeat itself and Sabbah relaxed, stretching lazily, inhaling the good strong smell of his elkskin robe, heavy with dew, warm and good like a woman’s scent. He smiled. Dawn would bring a new day to show his son Nojomud the joys of the hunt. The boy was a small version of his father, homely, dark-skinned as smoke. The whites called Sabbah ‘Smoke Sam’ because he was dusky, bowlegged, thin-chested and dog-faced. Sabbah works harder to run, to hunt, to get a wife! Ten years ago Sabbah found a Mahdoo woman who married him, and gave him a son. Nojomud was different only in one way: he was always smiling. Father and son were unlike their athletic kinsmen, the Numah, who the whites called Paiutes.
Today Sabbah would show his son that he could do something big: bring the power of rifles to their tribe. Coming down the long valley his little band had seen two new cabins full of whitemen. Those bad people chopped down trees like crazy beavers. You could not share the hunting ground with them. They needed to be rubbed out. Where was the man Munson who promised guns? No matter. This bend in the river before the high cliffs was the meeting place. Sabbah would trade with the white savages and when the time was right–use the rifles on them.
He remembered seeing the owl-faces for the first time. Nine summers ago when Chief Truckee was still alive. The owl-faces came staggering across the dust, men half-dead from ignorance of how to live in the desert. The People fed them and guided them West through the mountains. When the owl-faces left with round bellies they thanked the People and gave nothing in return. Sabbah remembered what he said at that time: So this is our pale brother we waited so long to see!
Next came the gold-crazy dogs–men who were digging up the mountains for their yellow god-in-the-ground. More came every day now, beggars who traveled in rolling huts bumping along with their empty-faced women inside. Ugly beings! Pouring into the Silver Mountains like streams of hungry ants. His wife’s people, the Mahdoos, would be stuck with these thankless creatures. Sabbah knew what to do. Get guns. Kill the invaders. That was why he was here.
He heard the snuffling sound again. He sat up slowly as moonrise. Ten paces away stood the biggest buck deer he had ever seen. Stone still. Beautiful white face with tree-like antlers; powerful white body rising like mist from the dark grass. Black eyes staring at him.