When I was only a child, my Uncle Mike taught me how to go Gold Panning. I will never forget that day. We went into the mountains of Toole (pronounced Tu-ill-a) in Utah, about an hour or so from where my Mom and Dad lived. It was near a copper mine, and a small stream ran down the mountainside by the road way. We found a good spot to pull off and my Uncle pulled out his gold panning supplies. I remember the smell of mud under my feet, the gravel crunching as I made my way down the path to the stream. We found a good spot to dig into the water and started putting small amounts of the silt into the gold panning bowl. He taught me how to swirl it around, looking for the tiny flecks. Nothing turned up for the longest time. Just about the moment we had decided to pick up and move to another spot, something caught my eye. There in the aluminum bowl, among the ridges and dirt, sat a shiny flake. It sat atop the dirt in the bottom, just below the surface of the water. I called to my Uncle, who came over expecting it to be a false alarm, like we had been coming across that day.
Much to my surprise, my Uncle practically jumped for joy. I had found gold, the real deal. He picked up the tiny flake with a pair of tweezers, filled a small glass vile with some of the creek water, and carefully let the gold piece go into the water. I watched as it swirled around in front of my eyes.
We took a break for lunch, which was my first experience with M.R.E.'s. They weren't as bad as I had been lead to believe, but they weren't that great either. My favorite was the crunchy freeze dried ice cream. Uncle Mike explained that it was Astronaut Food. My cousin Michael seemed to be used to the "astronaut food" since they often went camping and gold panning together.
After our meager meal, we went back to panning. Strangers walked past, curious as to what it was we were hunting for, none willing to ask. After a while, it was obvious that we weren't going to find anymore in that spot, so we cleaned up the gear and put it all away. Uncle Mike locked up the car and we decided to see if we could find the location the gold might have washed down from. That was when I learned about Sluice Trails.
As we hiked our way up a winding road that went towards the top of the nearest mountain, Uncle Mike pointed out the trails of rocks and debris that looked very much like a land slide that had nowhere to fall from. He explained to me that they were sluice trails, the rubble dug out of the mines and dumped down the hill when it was proclaimed that they had no value as a raw ore. They left pyramid shapes down the face of the mountain, looking like loose piles that rolled as far as the terrain would allow. At the top, almost always, was a mine that had been closed up long ago due to safety concerns.
The fence we came to didn't even slow us down. My uncle had been a smoker for many, many years. He huffed and puffed his way up behind Michael and myself, feeling the full weight of the altitude and humidity in his lungs. Finally we reached a clearing at the top of the mountain, where it opened out to the crest of the mountain. All around we could see wilderness, and off between two of the mountains on our west, Salt Lake City loomed in the distance. What brought us all to our full height and made the blood start pumping through our veins with the force of adrenaline was the timber lined entrance to an old Gold Mine.
Uncle Mike instantly forgot about the elevation and started to breath heavily, this time from excitement. He stood tall at six feet and almost 4 inches, and the mine was considerably smaller than that. He pulled a Mini-Mag from his back pocket and instructed us kids to wait where we were. This mine had not been closed like 90% of all others he had seen. Michael and I sat on the grass and waited. When Uncle Mike ducked his head and started to walk with bended knees with that tiny flash light in front of him, I asked Michael why we couldn't go in.
"Dad said that we should never go into something like that because there could be bears or wild cats inside. He said it could be easy to get lost in there too," he explained. My uncle was always a dare devil, but that didn't stop me from worrying about him. Those were possibilities I hadn't even thought of before that moment. On pins and needles I watched as the light in the back of the cave faded in the darkness, finally disappearing around a turn to the right. Uncle Mike was nowhere to be seen.
A good ten minutes passed and I started to get nervous. Finally that familiar weak beam of light from the Mini Mag became visible again and Uncle Mike emerged from the man made cave. He stood to his full height for a moment, stretching his back, leaning to and fro, getting things back where they needed to be. He didn't say anything for a long time. Finally, he turned off the flash light and put it back into his pocket.
"It was an old mine, but there's nothing left. Looks like nobodys been in there for years." He almost looked relieved. "I didn't go too far in. There were too many branches going off. Didn't want to get lost." Something inside told me that he had, indeed, gotten lost and that the relieved look on his face was due to the fact he was back in the sunlight once more. "Pitch black in there," he mumbled to himself. "Pitch, tar black."
As I stood just off of the trail looking at the base of what had once been a cabin in the woods while patting Muggsy the dog on the head, I talked with Sarah about which way we should go next. For some reason the image of my Uncle stretching out his back came to me. Like he did that day, I put one hand on my hip and leaned way over, cracking the bones on the right of my back in place before repeating that on the other side.
Sarah and I decided that we would follow Lou back towards the established trail. We walked past a tree with the exposed roots, I snapped a picture of the green glade with bare trees while Muggsy paused to sniff the air, and we stumbled upon a small section of the dry river bed where rocks sat under a felled tree at a cliff. We would have to walk the length of the tree to make it up the cliff, or walk the long way around. Always up for an adventure, we decided to try the climb. Muggsy ran ahead of us, bounded up the tree and leaped onto the grassy edge just beyond. He sat there panting, looking at us and wondering what was taking us so long.
I climbed down the edge towards the rocks in order to begin my climb and lost my footing. I feel on my hands and knees into the mud and silt at the base of one of the rocks on the down stream side. When I picked myself up to wipe the mud off of my hands, I froze. My hands glistened and shined like I had thrust them into a pile of glitter.
I gasped. Sarah thought I had hurt myself and rushed over to help. Muggsy ran down the tree and bounded towards me. Instantly I shot my hands up into the air to stop them both from treading on what I had found. There in the dirt before me, bright as the sun, tiny flecks of yellow stared up at my face.
I yelled loud enough for Lou to hear, and his head appeared over the cliff. As he looked down from the top, the disbelief was apparent on his face. Sarah, however, squealed with delight. We looked for a long time for a piece big enough to carry out with us, but I knew that there was no way we were going to find an actual nugget. It didn't stop me from looking though. Long moments passed where I rubbed the gold flakes into my hand, watching the soft metal blend with my skin.
"Come on, it's just Fools Gold" Lou said from above.
"Iron Pyrite is a hard stone, Lou. This is soft, malleable. There's no way this is fake. This is the real deal!" Excited, I continued to stare at the surface of the ground near my hand print for a long time. Finally, after a failed attempt to find something in which to store the precious substance, we gave up. We mentally marked the spot and reluctantly climbed to the tree. As we reached the end of the tree and started to scramble up the cliff side, Sarah turned to me.
"Look at this," she almost whispered, her eyes glowing as brightly as the gold we had discovered. She had set her hand into the dirt on the short cliff in order to find purchase and saw the entire hillside sparkling in among the dirt. She held up her hand to me to show that her hand now resembled mine, shining in the sun light with tiny golden flecks.
Sarah gouged out a hand hold in the hillside and balled up what she had removed into a large, smooth, round lump of earth. She tossed this up to Lou, who reluctantly caught it as gingerly as a little girl would grab a hold of a worm she had been asked to hold. The mud kept it's shape and we climbed the rest of the way up the hill.
Sarah was a trooper that day. She carried her mud ball prize all the way out of the mountain, a good two miles from where we had found it. Right now that mud ball rests inside a sandwich bag at my home, just waiting for me to "pan" the gold out of the earth and take it to a jeweler. I have no doubt in my mind that what we found that day was indeed gold. Separated and saved properly, that small lump of earth might be just enough to make a very nice necklace pendant in the shape of an "S" just for her, and that's just what I plan to do with it.
Yes, there is still gold in the California Mountains, if you're lucky enough to stumble across it.