Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gold Country: Only Fools Rush In

Pelton Water Wheel

In the late 1850s, a man named  Lester Allan Pelton left his family home in Ohio and headed West. It was the height of the Gold Rush era, and he, like many other men and some ladies, too, decided to seek his fortune in the hills of California.

Who knows what life was like for prospector in those days?  My imaginary Pelton lived a dirty, rough existence. He slept in a tent in a mining camp. Food was expensive. He ate moldy hardtack and beans cooked over a smokey fire. Hard by a river, he staked a claim. By day, he panned for gold. By night, he dreamed of gold --when he slept. He often didn't, worried about claim jumpers or starving or worse: the claim would yield nothing. He didn't bathe, just panned with a fever and let the water of the river rush over his feet, his hands. His stomach hurt from bad food. The nails on his fingers and toes grew into long, thick and yellowed claws. His beard went wild and after some time, his thoughts.


A Prospector


Pelton failed as a miner.

When he didn't strike it rich, he went on to become a fisherman, then a millwright, then a carpenter. But he never did stop learning about mining. Even after he left his claim behind, Pelton observed closely the methods and equipment used by miners. As the practice grew from a few men with picks and pans to large underground operations that employed thousands, the equipment that evolved in service to it was inefficient and required too many trees to remain sustainable forever. In the late 1870s, Pelton invented the Pelton Water Wheel an impulse water turbine that used kinetic energy rather than weight or steam and heat. His invention revolutionized mining and the field of hydroelectric power.

If you go visit any of the small Sierra foothill towns of California's Gold Country, you're bound to see a  Pelton Water Wheel somewhere. Lester Allan Pelton never hit the Mother Lode, but he is now known as the Father of Hydroelectic Power, and his invention powers hydroelectic plants even today.


Lester Allan Pelton


Memorial Day weekend, with dreams of untold riches in our heads, Mag and I set out for Gold Country for a short trip to Empire Mine State Historic Park and South Yuba River State Park. We were there less than 48 hours, but that didn't stop me from believing, like so many before us, that we might just hit an accidental jackpot while wading through the crisp clear waters flowing down from the mountains. Never mind that the real California Gold Rush was a somewhat ugly and brutal episode of history that took place in the middle of the 19th Century. And never mind that when the claims of individual prospectors were exhausted and the era of big mines, like Empire, began it was only a short epoch and embiggened only the wallets of folks whose wallets were already embiggened. Never mind that the big mines are now all full up with water, or that gold fever had left the surrounding environment disturbed and poisoned, so that huge swaths of it are too toxic or dangerous to meander through over a hundred years later.


My Imagined Future

In my fantasy, a few small sparkling nuggets of gold would be tucked snugly under a rock feet from the shores of the river, and I need only disturb it gently with my foot or hand to uncover the fortune that would change my life forever.

And what would I buy with such untold riches? Time to write? A plot of land? A hippie bus? A mountain cottage? A bowling alley? A robot butler? I'm lucky already, and my wants are all just dreams. But they're fun to think about and easy to get lost in, too.


South Yuba River

The bed of the South Yuba River shimmers with tiny flecks of gold. Reach in and grab a handful of sand and gravel, and the glass-like water carries it from you in a glittering plume. It's fleeting and hopeful and pretty.

Pants rolled up, I waded through the cold water and slippery stones.

Mag and I had just come from a long hike along the shores of the river and up, up, up into the foothills, then back down again. It was hot but bearable. A late night out drinking took its toll; I sweated and huffed all the way up, but the views of the foothills, the blue waters of the reservoir below, and time spent in good company were well worth any discomfort.

After our hike, as we sat by the river in the shade of an old bridge and ate half sandwiches and watermelon, it was difficult to imagine ever having been hot or tired. Above us, cliff swallows swooped down to the shore and back again to their gourd shaped nests lined up in a neat row. It is amazing to me, how they fly in unison, spinning and falling, rising, turning together without any language to know. Their nests, too, are so uniform, as if home is built into their genetic code. Sometimes I wish that was the same for me: to know, without knowing how, all the deep and essential stuff of life.

The water was so cold at first it hurt, and my bare feet couldn't find a place that wasn't sharp or slick. I liked that feeling, an acute but bearable pain; it brought me to the moment. When it passed, I leaned down and stuck my hands in. I tipped over rocks and picked up small handfuls of sand, then let it glide away with the current. Close by, Mag did the same, and we called out from time to time from our impromptu claims to let each other know neither of us had struck it rich, not yet.


We Did Not Have a Dog or Pans.

Searching for gold in a river is an exercise in mindfulness. It requires concentration. It requires patience. One need only stand in quiet and pay attention to the thing in front of her. There is not future, not past, only what is in her hands, only what is under them, only what drifts away.

But I wonder when it becomes something else? Because it does. To pan for gold is more than just the act of panning; to pan for gold is to also temper oneself against desire or to give oneself fully over to it. I stood in the South Yuba River. I searched with a mix of anticipation, hope and also with the kind of disappointment that comes just before a loss. My mind began to let go of the moment and find its way to a grandiose fantasy of all I could have or be, just if...

Was it something like those miners who dreamed of gold? So caught in the trance of imaginary riches, they lost sight of the moment and the real richness of it. It is often easy for me to do the same, to lean into an imagined future, when the present is not so bad at all.

Of course, like Pelton, I failed as a miner.

It's okay. It's not terrible where my mind goes when I imagine being unburdened by a sudden windfall and left with the time and space to think and write and create. There are infinite retreats and habitations, adventures and long days doing nothing but waking late and drinking coffee in the sun.

My imaginary life of leisure is surprisingly full, but there's little risk that I'll trade it in for the real one I already have. And I know that time, as squirrely as its nature might be, passes, and with it comes something more solid and valuable than any instant fantasy or sudden shift in circumstance can deliver. Time's passing, as tedious as it can seem from where I stand in any given moment, enriches everything.

Time gives us time. It's that simple. It's a gift greater than any old nugget of gold.

1 comment:

  1. I love this meandering meditation on your travels up to Gold Country, on time and mindfulness. There are some lovely descriptions, especially of the swallows, with the connection to your own wish to know the essentials. And I love the photo of the Pelton waterwheel.

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