A Gold Fever Experience

Written by Timothy McNulty
Copyright 1987

Could such a thing as gold fever actually exist? Up until a summer day in 1974, when I ventured into the gold country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, I thought gold fever was just an expression, just a way to explain the insane behavior of men in their lust for gold. I will always remember my experiences that day, for that was the day I caught gold fever.

Having spent one of my high school summer vacations working in a logging camp as a short order cook, and another as a chain monkey on a logging crew, I determined that there had to be an easier way to make a living. Not knowing what to do with the rest of the summer, or my life, I determined to try gold prospecting.

After making my way down a half mile of a steep canyon of the north fork of the American River, I beheld the beautiful Shirttail Creek. Upon reaching the water I began to scan the rocky gravel bars and the vertical bedrock cliffs for the places where gold might be found. I had learned about the lure of gold from my Uncles Hank and Carl Bauer when I had helped them mine their gold claims located in the Trinity Alps of Northern California a few summers before. The prospecting skills my uncles had patiently instilled in me seemed to effortlessly guide my steps as I searched the this stream's moss laden banks for gold.

I had many times asked my uncles where I should look to find gold, and the immediate answer they'd jokingly give back usually took the form of a time honored epigram, "gold is where you find it." My uncles had spent much of their lives looking for gold, beginning in the Great Depression of the 1930's when thousands of this nations desperate men and their families sought the golden dreams of California's Sierra Nevada. I remembered a trick they had taught me for finding the areas of a mountain stream richest in gold. They said to imagine the stream before you during the time of highest winter flood. This was the time when gold was most likely to be torn from its resting places in the banks and beds of the stream and carried along in the swift current. Gold, being one of the densest and heaviest of the elements, always seeks the lowest point along its path, and yet at times of high water the distribution of the streams boulders, rocks, and gravels may be quite different from their present appearance. Upon visualizing the high water marks on both banks of the stream, the prospector might then imagine his vantage at a few hundred feet above the stream, looking down on the two curved and nearly parallel lines defined on the banks. Imagine, then, a string placed between these two lines and pulled tight such that its course is always the shortest path between the successive bends of the stream. Gold, they would tell me, tends to travel the shortest path down the river at high water. The best places to look, therefore, are along these paths and on the inside and just after a bend when the current slows to drop its payload of gold.

My path upstream took me to what seemed an impassable section of moss covered cliff and raging torrent. I decided to retrace my path and climb up and around these obstacles. On inspecting the cliff above the torrent more closely, I noticed a crevice broken into its face by what must have taken centuries for the forces of water, ice, and sun to create. I remembered my Uncle Hank telling me that most of the gold found today is brought down yearly as winter rains raise these creeks, streams and rivers. Only occasionally now may a prospector find a pocket or crevice of gold never before uncovered. Because of its remoteness, that crevice on the face of the cliff might be just such a crevice, I determined, and that was where I would begin the day's search.

I climbed above the cliff and making my way down the twenty almost vertical feet of its face I came to a small tree no wider than my wrist that grew horizontally from the cliff's face just below the crevice. Though small, the tree was strong and generously supported my weight. Perhaps it had gained its stoutness from the steam, which surely had at times of high water tested its resolve to endure.

I began to pry loose the small rocks wedged into the top of the crevice. Only with great effort was I able to release these impacted stones from their resting place, and I knew that this was good. I knew that the longer it had been since a prospector had opened this crevice, the more the forces of water, earth, and sun would have sealed their treasures where they lay.

In time I began to bring forth the product of my labors, the black and mineralized sands and gavels that are almost always present where placer gold is found. As I plunged my hand into the depths of the narrow crevice I began to scoop out the precious contents and carefully place them into my pan. To my amazement, I saw gold. Small points of golden light speckled the black soil. Golden speckels covered my hands. With 4 or 5 such scoops the crevice was cleared. I could have gone on to explore the further recesses of that crevice or others near by, but I did not. My only thought was to pan the bounty that I had gathered. Without hesitation I made my way back up the cliff, down the bank, and to the edge of the stream.

The sun shone brightly through the patches of sky left open by the scrub oak and ceder trees lining the stream's banks. Kneeling down at the stream's edge in the golden glow of the sun I placed the pan with its burden of earth into the water. As I worked and shook the pan I carefully lifted the overburden of sand and gravel over the pan's edge and watched as it fell into the clear flowing water. With my intense and careful attention, the lightest and greatest bulk of the overburden was soon washed away. My anticipation grew as I intentionally withheld uncovering the gold from its blanket of velvety blackness as I washed away the last of the lighter sands. Nuggets began to emerge as golden islands in a black sea. It became increasingly difficult to avoid washing away the smaller and lighter particles of gold as I cautiously reduced the black sand to a gossamer veil.

With a quick flick of my wrists I caused the mass of gold and sand to swirl around the pan just below its rim. As it moved round it left in its wake a carpet of golden light. There before the blackness of the pan was a cosmos filled with the souls of a hundred thousand suns. Each one of those pieces of gold seemed to capture the sun's golden essence and conspire together to fill my senses with unspeakable glory. From microscopic flake to gram weight nugget, each seemed to show the same intensity character. Battered and broken, pounded and polished, they told me of their lives' journeys. As I cradled them in my arms the sun's rays scintillated at their slightest movement. I was overwhelmed by their magnificence. They had breathed their magic into my soul and I was ablaze with the fever that day.

Only a little over an ounce of gold lay before my eyes in that pan, and yet I think I understand now what it is that can cause men to go insane in their quest for gold. Life can be a very powerful force when so much of it fills the senses. Though the Earth bears no malice when it gives the abundance of itself, there can come with even a modest amount of gold the fulfillment of dreams. There in the rays of the sun shone the brightest light of my dreams, fulfilled with the flick of my wrists. So intense was my feeling and exhilaration in the presence of that gold that I think I might have developed an overwhelming addiction to the experience of finding it if I had much longer continued my search that day. Gold fever, I believe, is an addiction to one's own natural chemistry dispensed with the euphoria of the sensory and emotional event, and caused by the richness of the experience of finding gold, no less intoxicating than an illicit drug. Though I believe I was spared the worst consequences of that addiction, I am glad to have had the experience. I had that day found gold, and gold had enriched my life.

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