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Gold Fever 101

Long, long ago, in a galaxy not far away…I spent my days off prospecting California’s gold country where thousands of eager 49ers had somehow managed to become destitute. But that was over a century ago, and it had occurred to me that by blending modern-day technology with knowledge acquired from historical archives one—meaning I, especially—could get rich. Not easily of course, but it seemed that by dodging the pitfalls of the ignoramuses who came before was an obvious way to beat the odds. I’d read many books written by many prospectors who apparently had not gotten rich either but who knew, by personal experience, what mistakes not to make. I had an encyclopedic knowledge, therefore, of things to avoid. And there was so much to avoid it was positively dizzying, but I was certain I was up to the task.

One of the first things to avoid was going out alone. Prospectors like Seldom Seen Slim and Shorty Harris, who were latecoming Death Valley loners, were considered routine in the fashion of the original 49ers; they never became wealthy, rather gaining their fame from being hallmarks of the ‘last of a dying breed’. I didn’t want to be in that category for sure, so I enlisted the help of one of my old high-school buddies, Mike Mulford, whose nickname was ‘Moe’ as in ‘Larry, Curly and Moe’. None of the books I’d studied said to avoid that, so I put a check mark alongside that one.

The next pearl of wisdom I’d absorbed was to avoid areas where gold had never been found before. That seemed counterproductive, to narrow your search to places that’ve already been picked over, but shoot, I at least had that one covered with a king-size blanket; nearly the entire eastern half of the state was part and parcel of the biggest gold rush of the 19th century and I could write off anything to the west of that. Check.

As novices, other places we should avoid were those that had offered skimpy returns for the work invested. So, a fellow had better begin his gold mining career in areas that had not only produced gold, but that had produced lots of gold. Hmm. Well, that again seemed a little less-than-stellar, but these tips had to be worthy of a lot of intense experience so who was I to question their value? Check.

Moe and I set out in my ’59 Chevrolet Biscayne, which would most certainly have been the envy of every 49er ever made, and headed up into the Sierra Nevada foothills on a winding dirt road that wandered through the center of the Calaveras mining region. We soon came to an abandoned hard-rock mine, which my books told me was a wise prospecting area, and pulled over next to an immense ‘tailing pile’. I took the opportunity to point out to Moe that tailing piles were the waste rock pulled out of mines and dumped over the edge. I knew this because when I was reading all those gold books my brain wasn’t chugging along in neutral like it did back in school, nosiree Bob.

Good thing too, because among the knowledge thusly gained was the admonishment to stay out of old mine shafts like the one at the top of the tailings pile. It wasn’t so much that overhead rocks may come loose and flatten you, although that was certainly a consideration, but there was also the lesser-known possibility that a critter may be living back there in the dark gnawing on what used to be living bones, which would include you as a potential donor should you present yourself. That one, though, is easily avoidable by paying attention because there’d be a lot of clues beforehand warning you away.

However, my research had also revealed that the real and present danger lurking in old mine shafts is unknowingly walking into a pocket of ‘dead air’. Dead air is air that’s had all the oxygen scrubbed out of it, and in old mines is mainly caused by rotting mine timbers. They say it’s so incapacitating that you’ll be flopping around like a fish thrown up onto the bank before you can even turn around. And It’s undetectable by the five senses so it’s advisable to have with you a dead-air detector such as the infamous ‘canary in the coal mine’.

Canaryless, Moe and I stood at the entrance of the mine shaft with strong yearnings to explore inside anyway. The hillside above had sloughed off to where just the top third of the mine entrance was visible but that only increased our curiosity. As we decided to go in I opted to forego telling Moe about the dead-air stuff because I didn’t want to boost his anxiety level. I didn’t think he needed any extra stress.

Although Moe was much larger than a canary, I made up for this omission by keeping so close behind him that I could quickly grab either his belt or his feet—whichever presented itself—and drag him back should he flop. Had he known this I’m sure his annoyance at me running into him every time he slowed would have been much less.

But being in a mine shaft is admittedly creepy. I tried very hard not to think about California earthquakes which just naturally caused me to dwell upon California earthquakes. The deeper we got the more I dwelled, involuntary though it was, until it struck me that the solid rock around us probably wasn’t very solid during the Big Quake of ’06. Could happen again, you know? Most certainly would, someday. Perhaps, um, today?

I reflexively grabbed Moe by the belt, which annoyed him even more. He turned and shined his light in my face.

“Will you quit that?” he said, obviously miffed.

“Sorry.” I said, then hopefully added, “Thought I heard something.” Providentially, a very slight rustling noise whispered from above us.

“I hear it too.” Moe said, turning his flashlight towards the ceiling, which was just then arcing upwards into a wider chamber. The ceiling was black but appeared to have jerky movements here and there, certainly not earthquake-like, but…something dropped down and flew towards us, causing both Moe and me to turn and run as fast as our wheels would spin. Not faster than the bats though. The bats swarmed past us in ever-increasing flapping fury even as we launched ourselves over the dirt ramp blocking the mine entrance several nanoseconds later. The swarm blackened the sky for a moment and then virtually disappeared, thankfully.

“Whew.” Moe said through a cloud of dust as he sat up at the base of the mine barrier. “What the heck was that all about?”

I just shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t know and I didn’t recall any of my books warning of bats in mine shafts. In hindsight, bats in caves is probably something my book writers assumed was taught to everybody who attended school. And it more than likely was.

But there was no real harm done and for now I pointed Moe to the tailings, which is where we should have gone in the first place. Mine tailings are said to be great areas for learning the different kinds of gold-bearing rock. The rocks in these ‘dumps’ aren’t inspected, they’re just shoveled into mine carts and wheeled out the door to be thrown away. As such they could easily contain actual gold that was overlooked.

Almost immediately—if I were shameless I’d say ‘right off the bat’—I found a rock containing what I knew from my research to be quartz; pure white, shiny rock where gold is known to hang out in visible form. There wasn’t any gold in this piece but I called Moe over to show him what to look for. We were both a bit excited and went digging through the tailings with high expectations, which no doubt contributed to Moe’s discovery of a dime-sized chunk of gold embedded in discarded quartz;

“Hey Andy!” he yelled, holding up what was obviously the Holy Grail, “Gold! I’ve found gold I tell you!”

I hurried over, though it seemed in extreme slow-motion through the sliding shale, and sure enough Moe had found a piece of quartz displaying what looked for certain like a big shiny gold nugget, I mean…

“What else could it be?” he asked breathlessly, taking the words right out of my mouth. Righto. What else could it be?

We found more, too. Lots. By sundown we had a good 60 pounds of loose quartz in the trunk of the Biscayne, each containing at least one sizable nugget of gold. Wow. What a day!

We furtively crept back into Antioch—you can’t be too careful with a trunk full of gold you know—and the next day I snuck the smallest sample we had into the paper mill where I labored at my now-temporary day job as a maintenance welder. I thought I’d burst before lunch hour, but managed to hang on until noon when I hurried over to Corrugating. That’s where I’d find old Jonathan, our resident mountain man who’d long ago worked his own placer gold claim.

The sad part is that I wasn’t looking for confirmation that it was gold—I already knew that—I just needed to find out what to do next. I got a little antsy and stood as close as possible to Jonathan, moving as need be to shield him from prying eyes, as he slowly studied our find from all angles. The thing is he didn’t get excited. Or nervous. Or even greedy. Uh-oh.

“It’s not gold.” he said quietly as he handed it back, “That’s iron pyrite, also known as Fool’s Gold.”

Ever been run over by an 18-wheeler pulling triples? Me either, but I know what it feels like. A few hours later, so did Moe.

It brought up an interesting question though; can a prospector person catch bona-fide gold fever by coming into contact with only the fool’s version?

Apparently so.




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