British journalist Steve Boggan left London in 2013 to temporarily join the new generation of forty-niners searching for gold in the hills and streams of Northern California. “Gold Fever” is the travelogue-diary of his prospecting adventures (Oneworld, $25, 320 pages).
His odyssey took him along Highway 49 and through Placerville, Auburn, Mariposa, Sonora, Grass Valley, Coloma and Downieville, among others, where he met a cast of helpful – and eccentric – characters.
Boggan is also the author of “Follow the Money: A Month in the Life of a Ten-Dollar Bill.” Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/tendollarguy. We chatted recently via email.
Q: What inspired you to leave everything to prospect halfway around the world?
A: I covered the 2008 California mini gold rush for a magazine, and met some wonderful characters and admired their optimism and grit. I promised myself I’d try my hand at panning if gold ever topped $2,000 an ounce. When it peaked at $1,920, I thought, “What the heck”’ and caught a flight. Did my family and friends think I was a little bonkers? Oh, yes. If I’m being honest, so did I.
Q: How did you like our famous heat and rattlesnake population?
A: When a group of miners in the Klamath-Siskiyou Wilderness warned me about rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions, ticks, tarantulas, poison oak and dehydration, I almost reached for my passport and went home. On one campsite near Downieville, I was stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a warning about bubonic plague. You really are a hardy bunch.
Q: Your journeys required travel on winding Highway 49, through Gold Rush towns founded in the mid-1800s. From a Britisher’s point of view, was that like visiting another planet?
A: There is something uniquely magical about the towns of the Sierra Nevada. Their architecture is beautiful and it is a credit to their communities that much of it has been preserved. When I hear ignorant Europeans say “America has no history,” I have an overwhelming urge to hit them over the head with a wet fish.
When you read about the Gold Rush migration and the establishment of cities and towns on the Western seaboard, and then you stand somewhere like Jamestown or Downieville, you can feel the endeavor – the hope and heroism – that went into their founding, and you can’t help but be moved. We have nothing in the U.K. to compare with the mountainous beauty of the Sierra Nevada.
Q: In the book, you delve into the historic characters who marked the Gold Rush, along with modern-day prospectors. Do they have traits in common?
A: (In addition to) gold fever, the main thing is optimism. This might sometimes be misplaced or even delusional, but isn’t it better to go through life as an optimist rather than a pessimist?
Q: Did you find a “brotherhood” of prospectors, or loners who felt threatened by your presence?
A: The thing that surprised me most when I arrived as a greenhorn was the universal willingness to help and pass on advice. I thought looking for gold would be a secretive and solitary enterprise because, well, gold was at stake. But everybody went out of their way to get me started. Perhaps the miners felt that karma was at work and their luck would reflect the kindness they showed me.
Q: What was the most dangerous moment?
A: Aside from a couple of encounters with rattlesnakes, it was when I tried suction dredging. This involves diving into fast-flowing water with a respirator and a hose and vacuuming up the potential paydirt. You have to be weighed down by 100 pounds of lead to stop from being carried away by the current. When I tried it, my weights fell off and I was sent cart-wheeling downstream. Fortunately, I managed to haul myself back to the bank.
Q: And the most fulfilling moment?
A: The first time I saw “color” in my pan. You change a little inside and you’re never quite the same again. If you’re not careful, this is the moment you catch gold fever.
Q: Did the experience change your life?
A: The act of hopping from river to river and town to town seemed to broaden my horizons and set me free. The idea that you could pitch your tent and set to work in a cool, clear river in breathtakingly pretty countryside and uncover gold left me feeling giddy with happiness.
Q: Any advice for novice prospectors?
A: Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, always do your share of the work, and never imagine you can run faster than a bear.
Q: Did you strike it rich?
A: I found gold almost every day and had it made into jewelry for my wife, mother, sister and great-niece. My wonderfully sneaky wife, Suzanne, and the equally sneaky jeweler who made all this stuff conspired to siphon off some gold, and I took unexpected delivery of a pair of cufflinks, thereby foiling my plan to give it all away.
Q: Are you still gold-feverish?
A: I’m cured. Besides, if you understand the value of life’s most important gifts, you don’t need gold to be a wealthy man.