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He Made His Living from a Gold Pan

A Canstock Photo

He was a shy, aging hippie with a mild persona. He gave his name as Clair—based out of Portola California. I had stumbled upon his scanty camp back in the early ‘80s while prospecting for gold in the backwoods of Plumas National Forest, located in Plumas County, California.

The man was middle-aged, dark-skinned, of medium height, lean and muscular. He wore dirty, threadbare jeans and a tattered shirt. His feet were bare and calloused, face and hands sun-baked, hair long and wild. He had a bulge in his cheek where he had stuffed a large wad of garlic up against one of his few remaining teeth—for pain relief, he said.

He slept in his old ‘60s van—a quasi-billboard that he’d plastered all over with colorful, squiggly lines and strange, enigmatic symbols, reflections of his moods and political bent I suppose. Some figures were changed and updated periodically to keep pace with his strongly held opinions as they ripened; he had painted them with salvaged brushes and scrounged house paints—bizarre creations to my eye but sacred to him.

He was camped beside a gold bearing creek that had paid well to hundreds of hearty miners during the gold rush era—some to me over the years, too. His handshake was tentative as he greeted me with caution and a half-smile.

The tantalizing aroma of coffee spewed from a pot steaming above his campfire. “Smells mighty good,” I said. He offered me a cup—halfheartedly. I grabbed a seat atop a convenient boulder across from him. The coffee and morning sun warmed us as we talked. Clair was subdued and guarded at first, but he soon relaxed and warmed to me—a little—one gold prospector to another. He said he had few needs outside of bare necessities, and he gathered some of those from within the forest.

He explained that he camped wherever he found gold in paying quantities and mined full-time, spring, summer, and fall. He claimed that he made enough panning for gold to suit his needs—with some leftover to help get through the winter in town with his girlfriend.

He had precious little in the way of mining equipment. A couple of shovels, five-foot wrecking bar, hammers, a five-gallon bucket, come-along, gold pan, gold weighing scale, and a few essential crevicing tools were all he had or wanted.

He traveled to town only to sell gold and shop (maybe once a month). When not mining, he occupied himself listening to his transistor radio, reading from his stack of thrift store books and daydreaming—didn’t even have a dog for company. Yet, judging from outward appearances, he 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 for gold with a pan. For the most part, he was limited to working bedrock above the streams 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 small dredge or at least build a sluice box to boost his gold production. 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 were his utter lack of greed and 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 by working hard every day and thereby learning to become an expert sniper. His trained eyes commonly spotted gold catches that lesser prospectors missed.

A Canstock Photo

One day when the leaves were turning and winter was blowing into the country, he showed me the gold he had managed to put aside after the season’s expenses. As he watched me pick through his little hoard of choice nuggets, 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. I never saw him again.

Jason Quinten Kincade
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