It was the early 1980s. I was prospecting and sniping for gold throughout California’s Mother Lode country, rolling out my sleeping bag wherever it suited me best, and scraping out a living from isolated rivers and creeks that favored me–mostly at the bottom of deep, narrow canyons.
One day while scouting, I stumbled upon a scanty camp in the backwoods of Plumas National Forest, located in Plumas County, California. The camp’s sole inhabitant was a reticent, aging hippie with a puzzling persona. He gave his name only as Clair—based out of Portola, California, he said.
Clair was camped beside a gold-bearing creek that had paid well to hundreds of hearty miners during the gold rush era. Over the years, it gave up a fistful of placer nuggets to me, too.
He was middle-aged, olive-skinned, of medium height, lean and muscular. A patch of scruffy, salt and pepper whiskers sprouted from his chin. His face was sun-baked, deeply furrowed, and time-stamped by a leathery patina. He had bony, heavily calloused hands and bare, knobby feet-also calloused. His hair was long, strawy, and wild. Soiled, threadbare jeans and a tattered denim shirt helped but little to shield him from mosquito bites or the sun’s punishing rays. The side of his jaw bulged where he had stuffed a wad of freshly crushed garlic between his cheek and an abscessed tooth—for pain relief, he said.
A discordant blend of serenity, gloom, and fire lived in his eyes, making him a hard man to read–or to trust (initially).
Clair slept on a wobbly, canvas Army cot in his old ‘60s step van. His quarters were cramped, stuffed to the ceiling as they were with gear and grub, and they smelled like a tub of soiled laundry. In addition to being his home and his pack mule, the van served as a quasi-billboard that, with salvaged brushes and scrounged house paints, he’d plastered all over with colorful, squiggly lines and strange, enigmatic symbols–a bit bizarre and baffling to my eye. However, to him, the peculiar glyphs were sincere, sacred reflections of his social and political bents, I supposed.
A tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee spewed from a blackened, battered pot steaming above his campfire on a rusty iron griddle. “Smells mighty good,” I said, extending my hand. His handshake was tentative and punctuated with but half a smile. Handing me a rusty tin cup (halfheartedly), he pointed at the pot hissing on the fire and motioned for me to help myself.
Fresh, hot coffee in hand, I made myself at home lounging atop a convenient boulder; Clair appeared to be stiff and uncomfortable; he had not taken a seat. Pulling out my tobacco pouch, I rolled a smoke and offered him the makings. He quietly accepted and rolled a cigarette, expertly. The steaming coffee and morning sun warmed us. Moments later Clair relaxed, plopped down on a pine stump, and opened up a little—one gold prospector to another. I learned he had been camped there since early spring and had few needs outside of bare necessities–some free for the taking, within walking distance from camp.
He explained that for years he had been camping and mining full-time wherever he found gold in paying quantities, spring, summer, and fall–a lifestyle I favored too. And he claimed that he made enough money just panning for gold to suit his needs while camping in the bush—with some leftover to help get through the winter, cozied up in town with his lady friend.
There was precious little he owned in the way of mining equipment. A couple of shovels, a five-foot wrecking bar, hammers and chisels, a five-gallon bucket, an old come-along, gold pan, scale and weights, and a few essential crevicing tools were all he owned or wanted.
Clair only fired-up his eye-catching, polychromatic van maybe once a month to travel to town to sell gold and resupply. In camp, after putting in a hard day mining, he occupied himself by listening to his pocket-sized transistor radio when he could get reception, or he read from his stack of thrift store books. For company, he didn’t even have a dog. Yet, judging from outward appearances, he was happy and dearly loved his minimalist lifestyle.
I stopped by his camp to visit a few more times that season and watched him work; he knew what he was doing when it came to sniping with a gold pan. For the most part, he was limited to working bedrock above the stream’s waterline. However, he’d follow a paying crevice into the water as far as he could. He was an expert and a damn hard worker all right, but I couldn’t understand why he didn’t branch out—buy a wet suit and snipe in the water for his gold, or, at the least, build a sluice box and run bank gravel to boost his production when it would pay. But that wasn’t Clair. He said he didn’t want to complicate his life with more gear—or more gold for that matter.
Perhaps most important to Clair’s happiness was his utter lack of greed and his low bar for success; his needs and wants were small and easily met. He was able to eke out a living panning for gold because he had paid his dues, working hard at it every season for years, and in the process, he had become an expert sniper. Over the years he had developed a sixth sense (called a nose for gold), and his trained eyes commonly spotted gold catches that average, lesser prospectors overlooked.
One day when the leaves were turning and winter was blowing into the country, we were chatting around his fire–he perched on a cedar round and I stretched out on a flat-topped boulder. Suddenly, without saying a word, he jumped up and hurried away–disappearing into a grove of fir trees. I figured he was answering nature’s call.
Moments later he returned with a small tin box cradled in his hands and an odd grin on his face. His container was painted all over with colorful abstract lines and symbols–kith and kin to those on his van. Solemnly, he extended the box to me. It was surprisingly heavy. Sensing what I was about to see, and the honor and privilege of the moment, I slipped the lid from the container with a measure of reverence. Inside, cushioned in a thatch of dried pine needles was a nest of small, clear glass bottles topped with black screw caps. Some contained nuggets, others fine gold. They were all neatly separated according to size. In addition, the box contained a handcrafted deerskin pouch cinched tight with a rawhide drawstring. The pouch held nuggets too big for stuffing into his bottles; none were over half an ounce, but all were gnarly and nice.
As he watched me pick through and admire his hard-won gold, his eyes twinkled with pride, and his lips parted into a nearly toothless smile.
I went back to visit one more time before the snow flew. His campsite was empty. Not as much as a cigarette butt remained behind on the ground. The only evidence he had ever been there–a pile of cold, charred sticks that had survived his last fire, and a faint set of tire prints where his van had been.
I never saw Clair again.