It was the winter of 1979. I had been bouncing from state to state, job to job, and saloon to saloon since the end of my marriage–two and a half years prior. Bored and restless, craving purpose, freedom, and adventure, I quit my job as a welder at a Seattle shipyard just shy of New Year’s Day.
Thus, I became committed to the fulfillment of my lifelong dream—becoming a full-time gold prospector. I would pit my will and scanty resources against the magnificent, unforgiving, Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. I would arrive in the dead of winter, an utter greenhorn, gambling on being dealt a winning hand—whilst just a-knockin’ on poverty’s door.
I hoped to spend all winter camping and learning to prospect for gold—far and away from the nearest honky-tonk saloon—my nemesis of late. But if I were to last until spring, I would need to do more than just learn how to prospect for gold; it was vital that I actually find it and quickly turn it into cash. Failing that, I’d be forced to admit defeat and slink back to live and work in the concrete jungle from whence I had escaped.
Over the last couple of years, drifting, I’d blown the lion’s share of my bankroll and wages on high times–guzzling beer, rolling dice, and chasing after pretty skirts in noisy, smoke-filled taverns. Now, after purchasing the minimum gear and supplies needed to survive (not thrive) in the bush, I calculated that I’d be penniless and starving in a matter of weeks unless I could plant my shovel into decent paydirt–pretty pronto.
Yep, the pressure was on all right. However, in my favor, I had been tested and seasoned to adversity from a life of climbing one steep hill after another; I was not lacking in confidence. I had every reason to believe I’d make it all the way through winter and come out a bona fide gold prospector, no longer a greenhorn, though not yet a sourdough (quite). So, to launch my prospecting career, I set my sights on proven gold country, California’s North Fork of the Yuba River, downriver from the historic Gold Rush-era mining community of Downieville.
Downieville boomed to life first as a primitive pioneer camp in 1849, spurred into existence by the discovery of a bonanza of placer gold in the gravels of the local rivers and creeks. It quickly burgeoned into a prosperous mining hub and reached its peak population of 5,000 hardy souls in 1851.
Nestled at the bottom of a narrow, heavily forested canyon, Downieville (D’ville) straddles the banks of the North Fork of the Yuba and the merging Downie river—2,966 feet above sea level. Today, as a picturesque little village with a citizenry south of 300, it retains much of the structure and Gold Rush flavor of its heyday, but nowadays it is largely dependent on tourist dollars for its existence. It would be my closest source of supplies and human contact.
I had been lured into the region by a book I’d read—Bacon and Beans from a Gold Pan—in which Downieville had been prominently featured. The book is a captivating biography chronicling four years in the lives of a depression-era man and wife team of gold prospectors, Jesse and Dorothy Coffey. It follows them and their scrappy little dog as daily they face toil, danger, defeat, and triumph throughout California’s Mother Lode districts. They camped wherever they found gold–wrestling their living out of their gold pans and homemade sluice box (at 35 dollars an ounce).
How could any red-blooded, free spirit help but envy them their experience and yearn to follow in their footsteps? Not me! Heck, why shouldn’t I follow, I had everything Jesse did–except a good woman that is. Regrettably, women like Dorothy, high spirited, not only willing but eager to live fulltime in the bush, camping, prospecting, and mining alongside their men, were exceptionally rare. Not having been lucky in that department (so far), I would go it alone for now–but leave the door open. Que sera sera.
One late and cloudy December afternoon, lured by a campground sign, I rolled off of the nearly deserted, scenic highway 49 onto a skinny little side road running into the forest. Minutes later, I arrived at the Indian Valley Campground on the North Fork of the Yuba River, approximately 12 miles downriver from Downieville. My aged and groaning Datsun station wagon was stuffed near to bursting with gear and groceries–springs pressed close to failure–due to the burden. I was pleased to see that I had the place all to myself—not another soul in sight.
Scanning the Forest Service bulletin board at the entrance to the campground, I learned that the facility was not maintained during the winter season; that is to say, they did not provide drinking water, collect garbage, clean and pump restrooms, or collect fees. Terrific! A wrinkled, water-stained note tacked to the board, decreed a two-week camping limit throughout the forest corridor. Not terrific! But, “forest corridor”–what the heck did that mean? Did it mean I couldn’t camp longer than two weeks anywhere in this entire National Forest, or did the restriction only apply to a narrow, undefined area of the forest? It wasn’t clear to me. Regardless, I was determined to establish a camp and find a way to remain to hunt gold until I, of my own free will, chose to leave.
A spacious campsite at the far end of the campground, butted snug up against the bank at the water’s edge, half-hidden amongst boulders, shrubs, and trees. It beckoned me like a tall glass of iced tea on a blisteringly–hot day.
Expeditiously, I pitched my canvas tent. Brand new, heavy and stiff, it fought me all the way. I persevered; twenty minutes later my tent was standin’ tall and proud. Knowing that I was likely to see plenty of rain and snow before spring, I opted to consign the tent to storage duty, thereby freeing my station wagon for sleeping—high, dry, and cozy.
It was getting late. The sun was slowly slipping behind the ridgeline of the mountains looming above my burgeoning campsite. I had to hustle to get my gear stored before dark. Picks, shovels and other mining tools, as well as clothes, food, books, and odds and ends, were all stuffed, hastily into the tent. (I would properly organize my stock come morning.)
Next, I turned to making my old Datsun into my bedroom–folded back the seats, spread out my sleeping bag and blankets, tossed in a pillow, a canteen of water, lantern, book, and a bag of hard candies.
Now comfortably set for the night, in the fading light, I planted my Coleman gasoline stove on the campsite’s ubiquitous Forest Service picnic table, fired it up, and brewed a pot of coffee. I can smell that rich, enticing aroma to this day: pungent coffee mixed with whiffs of incense cedar and pine scents from the forest and tobacco smoke from my hand-rolled cigarette. Delightful!
It was getting late; shadows were advancing slowly into the woods, bolstering winter’s chill. A thick, fluffy-white pillow of fog floated serenely mere feet above the riverbed. The rain had stopped, but everything was wet, dripping and fragrant. With a steaming cup of coffee in one hand, a burning cigarette in the other, I carefully navigated through thick brush and over slippery, wet boulders to the river’s edge–scant feet from camp.
The turbulent stream, swollen from heavy, seasonal rains, was bucking and rolling by in a whoosh. Standing there at water’s edge, being pelted with spray, slowly decompressing from the stress that had built up over the last couple of years, and beguiled by the beauty and peacefulness of the scene–I was suddenly overwhelmed with awe, relief, and joy.
“I’m free!” I screamed to the heavens, and to the river, and to the darkening forest and all its critters. “No more schedules for me–no more time clocks, traffic jams and honking horns for me! No more alarm clocks, phone calls or crowds! No more bosses buzzing around, peeking over my shoulders! Do you hear me world? I am free! At last, I am friggin’ freeeeeeee! Yeeeeee haaaaw! Giddyup!”