I’ve mentioned before that I had a former mini-life as a gold miner, but I’m watching Gold Rush right now on the Discovery Channel, and it brought up lots of memories. Unfortunately, most of those memories are not about finding gold, but about the strange and interesting folks who somehow decided that they needed to live in a gold mining town.
When husband #1 and I first came to Oregon after selling our comic book business, we were a bit disenchanted with working at fairly menial jobs for other people. #1 decided that perhaps another adventure was in order, and started researching alternate ways to earn money. Before I knew what was happening, he had a plan all set for us to move from Portland down to northern California to find our fortune. It seemed that we weren’t really finished running away from life, so if we could make it an off-the-grid fortune, well all the better!
We bought an old pickup and filled it with everything we couldn’t live without or sell, and made an early morning departure from our high-rise apartment building in Portland. I joked at the time that we looked very much like the Clampetts heading to Beverly Hills, complete with Granny’s rocking chair in the back; little did I know that our adventure was going to be more like Green Acres, with me playing the Eva Gabor role!
#1 managed to find a little town deep in the middle of the northern California boonies as our target location. It was called Happy Camp and was smack in the middle of Sasquatch country, roughly halfway between Portland and San Francisco. The town was in an impossibly beautiful part of the country, right on the Klamath River and once you got past the name (I mean…Happy Camp…really?) it seemed like the perfect place to start a new life and (maybe) strike it rich.
On our trip down to the wilderness we bought a (very) used travel trailer (I guess gold miners don’t live in condos and it made more sense to bring our so-called house with us.) We picked it up and I was a bit shocked to see exactly how tiny it was. The idea that we (and our two cats) were going to live in this 18′ long hunk of late 1970’s aluminum, rust, bad upholstery and propane (on wheels, no less) took a little getting used to. This wasn’t one of those fancy RV’s that you see Grandma and Pop Pop cruising around in, towing their Prius behind them. Oh no…this thing rocked behind our truck like a boat on the highway, had a closet the size of a microwave, and you don’t even want to know about the (never took a) bath (in it) room. (I thanked baby Jesus often for the fact that RV parks have showers!)
We finally reached our destination and, to be honest, it didn’t seem all that happy…but we were committed by then. We found a spot for our ‘rig’ (that’s trailer talk) in an RV park with an attached motel of sorts. The couple who ran the place seemed super nice and gave us some pointers on our new neighborhood, including directions to the general store (there was only one main road in town, so we would have found it anyway), advice on buying anything over $50 (“Go to the Sears Catalog Store…they order it and you pick it up a week later”), and some words of advice: “Don’t be surprised if no one tells your their last name” and “Don’t tell anyone how much money you have.” Armed with that valuable information, we ventured forth to see exactly what we’d gotten ourselves into.
It turned out that the general store was the ONLY store in town (if you don’t count the aforementioned Sears Catalog Store), and no one we encountered appeared to even have a last name. We discovered the only restaurant in town, the laundromat, the post office (with the Bigfoot in front), and the dump (where folks went at sunset to watch the bears rummaging…the only real entertainment in town). We saw (but never met) the young man who lived in a tiny trailer in the middle of the big empty field next to our RV park, his windows covered on the inside with aluminum foil. There was a rumor that his family had money and owned the land, but no one knew for sure. What we did know was that he was the kind of crazy that no one’s comfortable around, and it was a bit of an event when he would periodically leave his tiny steam box of a home (no power) to wander around the field. I’m pretty sure I remember him with a colander on his head at least once, but I might be doing a little memory polishing there.
The home of a resurgence in California gold mining many years before, Happy Camp was popular with modern-day recreational gold miners by the time we found it. These new age miners were a shiny group, armed with metal detectors, waders and those Patagonia shirts with all the pockets and flaps. They provided a pretty sharp contrast with the locals, many of whom were scarce of tooth and some of whom looked like they might actually be left over from the first gold rush. We preferred the locals.
Later we learned that our motel/RV park host was a self-trained (non-licensed) attorney-of-sorts who helped other neighbors (aka anarchists) avoid going to jail for not paying their taxes. (Hell, I’d bet that the amount of taxes ever paid by that entire town of over 1,000 people was less than what my block here in Portland pays in a year!) This fellow thought himself to be a pretty big hoo-ha down there…a vital member of the community. He was a big, colorful man…a man you wouldn’t want to tussle with…and he introduced us to the local characters with flourish, explaining that we were from the big city…but not like the other NEW miners (we took it as a compliment). He and his sweet wife ate with us, drank our liquor by the fire, and even took us to a spaghetti supper at the local church…we were happily in the inner circle. Well, at least until we figured out that our host was, in reality, a man with a very shady past, that his wife was scared to death of him, and that he was basically a shyster. He eventually tried to take advantage of us and our limited funds (with equally limited success), so I guess we should have heeded his initial advice about guarding your money a little earlier in the game.
The actual gold mining was such a minor part of this adventure that it’s not worth talking much about. #1 wore a wet suit, strapped weights around his middle and walked along the bottom of a river, risking life and limb to vacuum up Mother Nature. There was almost no gold, but there were eagles, ospreys, more stars at night than I dreamed existed, and our fire pit living room was a welcome end to each day. We didn’t have much money but, unlike most of the town, we didn’t have to wait in the monthly government cheese line, so we were blessed. I learned to stretch a dollar at that General Store, cook on an incredibly tiny stove, find morel mushrooms in the woods, go without touching-up my roots for a scary length of time, entertain myself for hours on end–and I patiently waited until #1 got tired of river-walking. The cats hung in there, #1 came to his senses before Winter set in, and we only had to shop from the Sears catalog a few times, so I considered the entire six month experiment a success. Of course, it would have been complete if I’d seen a Squatch, but I’m pretty sure they don’t wear colanders on their heads.