Sunday, July 16, 2023

My Summer Bout With Gold Fever - 1990(ish)

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We learned of the gold in 1990 when we moved to Golden Valley. We'd leased a log house from Dr. Bill and Dianna Moore. The two-hundred-year-old house was oddly assembled consisting of two separate cabins with a room addition, nearly as large as a cabin itself, to tie them together. We were told that the first cabin, the one with the glass windows, was built on site. The second cabin, with wooden shutters and no glass, had been dismantled and carried from across Grayson Creek where it was reassembled to be used as a miner's lodge, a primitive hotel. 

When Bill and Dianna bought the place, they had to go outside and cross the porch to get from one cabin to the other. This ensued a certain amount of privacy for the family who'd set the cabins up and didn't want to mingle with the miners, but it was very inconvenient for Bill, Dianna and their family. They were responsible for the room addition that joined the two cabins permanently. 

Finding out the valley had been famous for gold production was interesting, but not so inspiring as what happened next. 

One fine sunny day, my boys and I were motoring out the drive when we saw a spectacle in Guy Grayson and Bud Oate's Christmas tree field. Coming across it in broad daylight was an oddly dressed man. Had we been in New York City, maybe, we wouldn't have been so surprised, but this was Golden Valley! He was dressed in a black wetsuit. Perched over his forehead like a huge third eye was a diving mask. He was wearing it pushed back like a hairband. He was approaching us at a pretty good clip. As he drew closer, we could see he was wearing sneakers. We weren't sure whether we should drive off fast as if we were in a hurry or stay to see if he needed help. We stayed, although we weren't sure we could help.... 

Turns out this fellow was a prospector. Ray Mills. He was body surfing local creeks looking for gold and he'd found some. "Yep, you could make a living working that creek." he said, pointing at Grayson Creek, adding, “Course it'd take a little work." 

A little work. Hey, I was up to that. Wasn't I? 

I read everything I could find about panning and talked to everyone I saw about it, including the ladies at my Dentist office who sent me Emery's Gold Finding Guide and wished me happy hunting. I discussed my plans with our neighbors and got permission to work. I told them I'd be happy to split the profits with them. Oddly enough, every single one of them said if I found anything I could keep it. All I needed was a partner, a cohort. My husband Bo wasn't interested. "Go ahead,” he grinned. 

I borrowed some pans from Mae Tietje. I'd done a considerable amount of reading and was ready to put my book learning to the test. A friend from Lowesville, Wayne, agreed to come along, but we had a time coordinating our schedules. It took some doing, but finally we were able to get together for several days running. Weather permitting - - of course. 

The first thing you must do before you pan for gold is to find a likely site. An S curve coming at the foot of a clay bank will do nicely. Select your site from a nearby hill, then work your way to the creek.

This was not a good idea. 

Once you've decided where you want to enter the water you have to work your way through brush (so thick you can't tell whether that was a stick you just stepped on or a snake pretending to be a stick). You know there are snakes and birds, rabbits and frogs and hordes of insects, because you catch fleeting glimpses of them, but you are not afraid. It's the things you don't see that are alarming. Unidentified creatures skitter through the brush around your feet making a gosh-awful racket that startles you senseless. 

When you reach the water's edge you realize how ill-conceived your plan is. Typical creek banks are not your average walk in the park, my friend. No-sir-ee. A typical creek bank comes with a vertical drop, and you can not get into the water where you thought you could. Oh no. You must work your way up or down the stream until you find a spot you can manage. 

This is no easy task. Mountain streams are notorious for overflowing and leaving all manner of flotsam and jettison behind in their wake. You'll get an up close, first-hand, view of it as you maneuver over stumps, around holes, wiggle through saw- briars, blackberries, and a laurel thicket or two. 

Once you've found a place, the perfect place, a stepping off place, with a branch hanging out over the water to hold on to as you make your leap - - you find out why God put that branch there. It was to keep you from breaking your neck when you leaped onto the slick rocks. Entering water onto slick, slimy, rocks requires all the grace of a ballerina. My mother did not spring for ballet lessons. Need I say more. 

When you've sufficiently recovered from your entry, you shiver. The water's cold and I mean cold. Yet, while your feet are slowly turning into icicles, your head is getting hot - - hot enough to attract swarms of tiny black biting gnats. The Indians called them no-see-em’s, but I've seen some, big, fat, juicy, whoppers full of my blood. Yee-ouch.

Undaunted at this time, (let’s face it, if you didn't have some spirit you'd never have gotten this far) you wade to your chosen site, scoop up a pan of gravel and start. Swirl, swirl, swirl.... jerk, jerk. The larger stuff really does come to the top!

Woops. You missed a beat. Start over.... 

Within the first hour you realize panning's a skill and you don't have it. Not yet. By the second hour you realize what you're doing is work. Hard work. Your shoulders are beginning to stiffen. Your back begins to ache. It's only muscle fatigue. A good night’s sleep will take care of it. 

When you can't ignore the itching burning gnat bites on your scalp for another second you must dump your gold bearing gravel, so you can scoop up a pan of water to dump on your head. It's a fair exchange, under the circumstances. After all it's only gnat bites, for Pete's sake. They'll be gone in the morning. As your hair dries in the, by now, hot sun the itching will begin anew. Scoop some more water. You'll survive. 

Eeeeee- eeee -eeee.... A loan whining mosquito circles your ear. The mosquitoes along your average mountain creek bank are something else. They'd be downright dangerous if they learned about teamwork. Bet those bites won’t be gone in the morning. Neither will the poison ivy. Ah well. The whelps will remind you to prepare better next time.

The next time you will add a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, sunscreen, and a heavy coating of oily, smelly, mosquito repellent, to your wardrobe. With a few spots of pink calamine lotion, your ensemble will be complete. Your significant other says you look cute. "Really, you do." 

This time when you go to the creek with your friend you will enter the water from the pasture, where the animals water, walk, wander, and do other things. You march, albeit on slick rocks, through the water to your claim. You don't want to do the creek bank thing ever again. Not ever.

After spending several mornings hunched over a pan in the creek sifting through gravel a blue-million years old, you begin to feel a blue-million years old yourself. You have concluded that: A. You wouldn't recognize gold in your pan without a pronounced jeweler's sheen. B. What little bits of dust you've found are so minuscule you'd have to have an eyedropper to extract them. C. You don't have an eyedropper. D. There is an, at best, “limited" market for your product - - if you had a product. 

Mosquito bitten, snake scared, gnat gnawed, bruised, and battered, hungry and thirsty, as stiff as a log. You quit. 

"That's right. I quit. I've had enough." I told my diehard friend who spent several more unproductive days in the creek. Unless you count his inadvertent discovery, that the cold creek water eased the pain of his injured ankle, being productive. Um, he also killed three large, brown, thick-bodied, water-loving, territorial snakes. And I know we're not supposed to have moccasins here... but, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck... It's not a frog. You know? 

In conclusion, all I can add is this: If you can make a living panning Grayson Creek, you're a better hand then I. I kid you not. Before I go that route again, I'll make my living with another pan. A frying pan. I'd sooner be a short-order cook then a miner. 

And if I have to work in water, please God, let it be the water at Camp McCall.

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