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He Made His Living from a Gold Pan

A pencil drawing by Tony Oliver

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–(Mother Lode country).

The man was middle-aged, dark-skinned, of medium height, lean and muscular. He wore dirty, threadbare jeans and a tattered denim shirt. His feet were bare and heavily calloused, face and hands sun-baked and leathery, hair long and wild. He had a bulge in his cheek where he had stuffed a 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 drawings 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.

A Canstock Photo

He was camped beside a gold bearing creek that had paid well to hundreds of hearty miners during the gold rush era—a fistful of nuggets to me too over the years..

The tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee spewed from a blackened, battered pot steaming on a griddle above his campfire. “Smells mighty good,” I said, extending my hand. His handshake was tentative and punctuated with only half a smile. He halfheartedly offered me a tin cup and, pointing at the pot hissing on the fire, told me to help myself. I grabbed a seat atop a convenient boulder across from him, took out my tobacco pouch, rolled a smoke, and offered Clair the makings. He quietly accepted and rolled a cigarette. The hot coffee and morning sun warmed us. Clair was subdued and guarded at first, but he soon relaxed and opened up to me—a little—one gold prospector to another. He said he had been camped there since spring, had few needs outside of bare necessities, and some of those were free for the taking within walking distance from camp.

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 lady friend.

There was precious little he owned 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.

Clair only fired-up his reluctant, smoke belching, polychromatic van and traveled to town to sell gold and resupply, maybe once a month. When not mining, he occupied himself by 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 was happy and 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 at it every season for years, and in the process he had become an expert sniper. His trained eyes commonly spotted gold catches that the average, 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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