Alone at Last

Today’s slide show: Images from Columbia.

Amy catches the fever

We learned nothing at all about Mark Twain today except that he signed the same hotel guest register in Murphys, Calif., as J.P Morgan, Lord Byron, a bandit named “Black Bart,” and a group of people even more cryptically known as “The Belgian Tourists.” Rather than re-dig Twain’s tailings, we spent the morning panning for gold. Just up the road from Murphys, we find a winery that charges people $6 to teach them how to find gold in its creek. The professor, a grizzled old miner who claims he has panned his living from nearby rivers for most of the past 30 years, is decorated with golden nuggets. On his person alone he wears what he estimates is $7,000 worth of gold, and he claims that just last week a friend of his took a $10,000 nugget from a river a few miles away. He also says that the Sierra foothills are crawling with guys on mules who think they are about to strike it rich. How long can it be before some New Yorker writer makes one of these characters famous as a metaphor for something? Can I stake legal claim to this story here myself?

The old miner shows us how to dig deep into the river bed with the pan and slosh it around, over and again, until only the heavier particles remain. He ridicules, gently, the pan and garden trowel I bought for just this purpose. He explains that the only good way to find gold is to buy from him, for a mere $15, a little gadget he has invented. He produces the gadget: a dark plastic tube with a clear plastic lens on one end, which, he says, magnifies gold on a river bottom. My pan works just fine for people satisfied with worthless gold specks, but anyone who wants to find thousand-dollar nuggets needs his tube. When I insist on sticking with my pan, he’s a good sport about it. (More nuggets for him!) But even after he shows me how to use it, it remains a mystery: How do you throw out all the trash you get in your pan without also throwing away the gold? He doesn’t really say. What he does say in so many words is how dull the work is—unless you sincerely believe you are about to get rich.

Tallulah and I soon lose interest, and Tabitha and Dixie never are interested, but Amy, the nanny, can’t get enough of it. She digs and swirls and swirls and digs, undeterred by the mere fly specks of gold that appear at the bottom of her pan. She now confesses that her mother, an enterprising Los Angeles businesswoman, has a secret gold mining obsession and never drives anywhere without her pans and shovels and sluice boxes in the back of her car. Amy spent her childhood being dragged out of automobiles  and into obscure creeks in the L.A. suburbs to help her mother pan for gold. In all those years she never once saw a speck of gold. That seems certain to change today: For our six bucks the winery has guaranteed that we’ll all find gold. The miner seeds the river dirt with gold flakes and, just to be sure, occasionally tosses his own flakes directly into our pans for us to “find.” When Amy at length collects a few of these, she is mesmerized. I briefly see this as an indication of the misery we must cause her: She has so lost hope that she has become susceptible to gold mining fantasies. Even after we drag her away, she continues to imagine that she’s spotted big nuggets on the side of the highway. When we arrive at the next hotel, in another old mining town called Columbia, I catch her slyly kicking the gravel. Is this how it starts? If so, how does it end?

Columbia, Calif., is where we spend the rest of the day and night. Like Virginia City, it is a phony town that trades entirely on its gold mining past. Everyone knows that Mark Twain wrote his Calaveras County frog story eight miles up the road on Jackass Hill, but this is no longer Calaveras County, and so Mark Twain isn’t chiefly what the locals are selling. They’re selling the Gold Rush—with stagecoach rides, tours of “real” gold mines, little kids fiddling away in period costume, and old guys dressed up like gold miners playing harmonicas in unlikely places. It’s funny how the lust for authenticity gives rise to so much fakery. The fiddlers and stagecoach drivers and bandits conspire to raise the price and mar the pleasure of walking through a genuinely old town. I am prepared to cut short our trip and drive home a day early. But then, at 5 o’clock, the streets clear. In what seems like seconds, all the shops are shuttered, and the tourists, together with the characters dressed up in period garb, vanish. All that remains is the mute buildings.

It’s hard to say why a place can seem so much more interesting without the people in it, but this one does. I am reminded of the one time, in the summer of 1979, that I thoroughly enjoyed Disneyland. As the park was closing, a friend and I jumped over the wall of Frontier Land, bushwhacked onto Tom Sawyer’s Island, waited for the park to shut down for the night, and then wandered around the place like shareholders for the next six hours. That’s a bit how it feels when  the stagecoach and child fiddlers and the phony gold miners leave Columbia: Hope rises in my heart. Something interesting might happen, and even if it doesn’t, that’s interesting too. We have one of the few rooms in the town’s one ancient hotel; we alone have a pass to remain on the haunted premises. We are, for the last 12 hours of our trip, a peacefully happy family.

Twain left Jackass Hill in February 1865 and soon left California for good. Later he would make lecture tours through gold rush country but he never again lived in it. This place that gave him his grub stake was, for his purposes, mined out. He always felt warmly about the Old West, and the men he knew there, but never so much that he actually wanted to go back. The man was born with many traits useful to a writer, and one of them was his gift for moving on without entirely letting go of what he left behind.

Once Twain was taken up by the Eastern literary establishment, he found he preferred to be nearer to it. That’s hardly surprising: The food and the flattery was better. The wonder is that he never really let his status as an insider change the way he thought about what he’d seen as an outsider. As he rose in the world and made fancy new friends, he would have found it tempting to sell his past out—rather than simply sell it. Yet he resisted the temptation; he never really overhauled his value system. He clung almost violently to what he admired about that crude time and coarse place. At the end of his life, for instance, he wrote this line about Jim Gillis, the unsuccessful miner who had hosted him on Jackass Hill: “Jim was worth a hundred Bret Harte, for he was a man, and a whole man.” Of all the tricks Twain picked up out here, maybe the most important was how to keep literature in its place.

Check out our earlier trips to Kashmir, Zambia, the Outlaw Trail, the Blues Highway, the Galápagos Islands, Costa Rica, Scandinavia, and Montreal.