Gold, Mines & The Old Stone Mausoleum
My dad’s favorite hobby is gold panning. To dig into the thin hidden space between cold blue bedrock in search of heavy butter colored stones, literally worth their weight in gold. The town where I grew up (Arnold), and where he and my mom still live, is in the part of California where the 1849 motherlode gold rush occurred, so to live there, is to be shaped by the region’s history of chasing this valuable earthbound metal. And just as much as the area is shaped by the gold, it is shaped by the water that hides it, the water washes the gold out of mountains and shapes the canyons, the lack of it causing forest fires and putting them out, and the water that wets the thoughts of those willing enough hike into the hills to find it.
I grew up gold panning and exploring mines with my dad, and as an adult, we carry on the tradition of going on an adventure together when we’re in the same place.
On this day we set out through the end-of-summer dry grass, passed where two wildfires had burned recently, through burrs and stickers that cling to every bit of fabric they can grab onto, weaving through scrub and canyon oaks in steep ravines, looking for mine shafts - those black lightless shafts that act as entry ways into the earth. We search for the old stone walls the old prospectors created from excess boulders to divert and direct water flow as they used thousands of pounds of pressurized water to pulverize mountains in order to find the gold hidden in the quartz veins. This large scale process called, hydraulic mining is unthinkably destructive and isn’t used in this part of the country anymore. Needless to say, there are still other parts of the country, and other places around the world that do still put this detrimental method into practice, and I can say from my own eye witness account that the open scar left on the landscape takes centuries to heal (if it ever heals at all), and even then there are endless traces of that frenzied time in search of a new life, made possible by gold rocks hidden in the ground.
My dad prefers the slower, quieter methods of panning for gold in a creek as opposed to large scale operations. He goes old school and sets out on foot, following hunches where the gold might be, and after decades of doing this he has the uncanny and skillful ability to know where it will be hidden (Sidenote: he is also a water dowser which is a whole other post I’ll write in the future. Google water dowsing if you don’t know what it is) Taking his backpack up Coyote creek about 15 minutes from where they live, with a trowel, a few riffled gold pans, sifters, vials, and an aged gatorade bottle tied to the side strap of his bag with an old elastic band torn from a pair of underwear, he has all he needs. It’s a pack refined over decades, efficient and without excess, each item slowly finding its use and place in the bag like stones sifted on a creek bed. It follows behind him as his tracks flowing water and dry creek beds in search of gold.
But on this day, we are strictly observers, and we never stop to pan. We see what we can see for the sake of curiosity and history. To ask questions about places and circumstance, to conjure theories about where gold might still hide, and why certain features of the land look like they do. To marvel over what was made by toiling hands, and to see what changes their pursuits made. And simply to be with each others in a place we both love.
Our “main” goal with this outing was to search for something he’d seen in the past and wanted to show me. He wanted to show me something he’d called, “the Stone Mausoleum”, a term to ascribed to a stone structure the miners had made. He named it as such because of the towering nature of the thing, cobbled together with intricate stone work by workers in the 1850’s, and looking very important and set apart amongst the trees and dusted grass.
We walked uphill over a barbed wire fence, through private property behind a little town called Douglas flat, passed weathered barns, stone buildings, an old school house, and an old beautiful spring which hosted a thicket of blackberry brambles with a few choice snacks still clinging to the vine.
We made our way under the rising morning sun as the day grew hotter, asking questions about water, about stone, and about the lives that so passionately and desperately chased after the illusive veins of precious gold scattered in these oak and pine covered hills.
We came across mine shafts dropping straight down into the earth almost by surprise, the way you might walk by a dark shirt on dark wood floor and not quite see it until you’ve nearly passed by it. It was surprising how quickly and quietly these dark mine shaft could appear unannounced to swallow someone up who wasn’t paying enough attention.
They just exist out there alone with the landscape, and some how that felt profound to me.
All these relics of the past, of human endeavor, slowly getting swallowed back up by the earth.
Have you ever gone on a walk, or adventure and seen the evidence of people from the past? What did you see? What did you think when you saw it? Why is it interesting to see these old dusty ruins? Why do humans obsessively seek these ruins? How and why do ascribe such high value to things like gold or diamonds? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or send me any pictures at firstname.lastname@example.org