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Right off the bat, I knew something was terribly wrong. I knew it in an instinctive way — the way a child knows that clowns aren’t funny and never will be. I was dirty, sunburned, …
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Right off the bat, I knew something was terribly wrong.
I knew it in an instinctive way — the way a child knows that clowns aren’t funny and never will be. I was dirty, sunburned, thirsty, wet up to my knees and cold. To add to this delightful smorgasbord of misery, I suddenly felt like I was being watched.
Wild-eyed and frenzied with what the old-timers called gold fever, I slowly turned away from my gold pan to look behind me.
There, not 10 feet away, stood a family of four grilling hamburgers on that pleasant Sunday afternoon. Behind them, the happy sounds of children playing and dogs barking drifted over the gurgling of Clear Creek.
Their little boy looked tense as if he would need to sprint away from the man squatting over the stream at any moment. I suddenly felt quite awkward.
I was panning for gold in a public park in the middle of Idaho Springs. I couldn’t have been more out of place if I’d been wearing a sequin-decorated horse suit and a giant sombrero.
I turned away and looked back at the stream, feeling self-conscious, just as a boat full of staring rafters silently drifted by. I had nobody to blame but myself.
Looking for gold was quickly becoming an obsession. Like crocheting or stamp collecting with a light dusting of mania, I was becoming addicted to digging in the dirt for hidden riches, hoping that behind each handful of dirt and grime would be a nugget worth enough to pay off my car, buy a boat or get a really intriguing set of gold teeth.
It started innocently enough as a unique way to spend an afternoon outdoors, while getting a feel for the area’s local heritage. And then something terrible happened — I found gold.
The discovery made my blossoming hobby into something sinister, even evil, and I loved it.
I was panning on Clear Creek several weeks ago at a place suggested to me by local prospector, panner and treasure hunter
I brought along an old military buddy who was passing through town. I also brought along a pan I had purchased quite affordably some weeks before, and he bought a $100 sluice box.
I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him we probably wouldn’t find anything. But as I was demonstrating to him how to use a gold pan, as it had been demonstrated to me, gold flecks appeared almost instantly.
They were eye-tearingly small. And I spent the better half of an hour trying to pick them up with tweezers.
We searched ravenously for the rest of the day, finding nothing. But it didn’t matter. I’d become crazed with gold fever. At any moment in any pile of mud, there could be a nugget or more gold flakes.
It was like gambling at a casino without the free drinks, pleasant cocktail waitresses, air-conditioning or the chance of winning really anything at all.
I went back some weeks later, dragging my wife and a co-worker to the same river bank, only to find it flooded. Stepping in would have been like a newly appointed government employee biting off more than he could chew from the fat burger of bureaucracy.
Deciding to play it safe, I went to the park. It was one of the few places along Clear Creek safe to pan for gold both physically and legally. Much of the stream is covered in pre-existing claims and private property. The last thing I needed on my second outing was to have some bearded guy leap from the bushes screaming at me about being a claim jumper.
But after a few hours of this, I knew something was wrong — that is besides panning for gold a stone’s throw from a populated playground, which, incidentally, turns a decidedly manly activity into something sort of goofy. I wasn’t finding gold.
But as I was packing up for the day and walking past the tourists having picnics, my waterlogged shoes squishing, I finally realized what was truly wrong.
It wasn’t my inability to find gold that second time out. It was expecting to find gold at all. What had originally hooked me was the thrill of the hunt, not the microscopic bits floating in a beaker in my apartment.
It was really all about the hunt.
Ian Neligh is the editor of the Courant. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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