A neophyte meets the miners who still work California’s historic goldfields
by Greg Klein
He’s gotta be the tenderest of tenderfoots, the greenest of greenhorns and the cheekiest of cheechakos—a gold tourist who can’t even handle a shovel tries to relive the 1849 experience after the 2013 price plummet, arriving without equipment, experience or even a reality show film crew. But eventually something else overpowers yellow metal’s allure as a different kind of El Dorado becomes intangibly more important. That’s the story Steve Boggan relates in Gold Fever: One Man’s Adventures on the Trail of the Gold Rush.
A London-based journalist, Boggan rushes into his project chaotically. Completely unequipped, although with money to spend, he shows up in California’s historic gold country to throw himself at the mercy of latter-day Argonauts. Surprisingly they take him in, sometimes without even betraying amusement. As a result he gains the coaching as well as the friendship of some rugged characters.
Among them is Dave Mack, self-proclaimed adventure junkie, extreme prospector and “the most aggressive underwater gold miner in the world.” A former U.S. Navy SEAL, he dives into fast-moving water, resisting the torrent with hundreds of pounds of lead around his waist, to vacuum riverbeds for gold. When Boggan asks to accompany him, the big guy laughs.
“The last person who came out with me drowned in three minutes. And he was a scuba instructor.”
“Okay. How about I come out with you for two minutes?”
Some others include Craig, whose first assault conviction came at age seven. Tom, a Scottish arrival via Australia, proves relentlessly determined despite being the “unluckiest man in California.” Mike, suffering from a serious spinal injury, carries a sluice box, pick, shovel, buckets and other gear on his back while hobbling to his claim on crutches.
As for Gene, he’d been panning since he was six or seven. Now 64 and given about two years to live, he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in his late 50s.
One cause doctors suggested was “those long expeditions into the wild,” Boggan writes. “Rivers were more polluted back then, he said, so eating fish and drinking water from streams and rivers could have exposed him to dangerous levels of mercury. I asked him if that possibility sullied the memories. No, he replied. He wouldn’t change them for the world.”
Why? Duane offers an explanation. He claims to have gold fever but exalts over the lifestyle. “‘I love this way of life and I wouldn’t be living it if it wasn’t for the gold. Look at it here…’ He let his right arm surf the air outside the window. ‘It’s goddamn beautiful. Imagine all the poor bastards working at a desk in some office or in a factory, watching the hands on the clock go round. What time is it here? Hell, I don’t know!’”
Dave Mack’s explanation cites The Hobbit.
“It’s all about the ring, the ring,” he tells Boggan. “Tolkien had it right about all the traits and the corrosive power of that ring and the deep desire to possess it. It has a simple meaning—even the best of men could not hold that ring for long without being seduced by it. Raw gold is just like that.”
His quest continues even though he’s found enough to retire comfortably.
More modest are Duane’s returns, yet he does alright. About 500 bucks in a good week, three to four hundred in an average week. That’s more than he needs. “I have to pay insurance for my vehicle, I have gas and food for me and the dogs, but that’s about it. If I need something big—like the motor for the boat—I can usually work out some kind of trade. I have no worries, only excitement each time I find gold.”
Boggan touches on aspects of gold through the ages, subjects treated better elsewhere, notably in Matthew Hart’s Gold: The Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal. And Boggan’s remarks can be careless, giving the impression he’d never before been outside England. Even so, he alternates first-hand historic accounts with his own experiences to add balance and context, the book’s greatest strength.
Eventually the target of his own quest diverts from gold to “the guy,” an unnamed being people refer to when describing big discoveries. He “seemed everywhere and nowhere; rumours of his fantastical finds were enough to send hordes of miners rushing from one speculative camp to another.”
Boggan pretends they’re all referring to the same person.
“The guy, I thought, always the guy. Every day someone would tell me about a big gold find, about the guy who found a nugget this big, and their hand would be shaped something like a walnut or a clementine.
‘Heard about the guy on the Bear River …?’
‘… the Yuba …’
‘… the Feather …’
‘… near Mariposa …’
‘… Colfax …’
‘… Grass Valley …’
‘… pulling them out this big …’
‘… this big …’
‘… this big …’
‘… swear to God, the guy is shitting gold nuggets.’”
The author does find the guy who is, as far as Boggan’s concerned, the guy. But the riches associated with him are intangible. And that wraps up this story with a happy/sad ending.