Day 14. Panning for Gold in Columbia

Undisturbed by Flo (the ghost) through the night, we were in high spirits until Karen jumped in the shower and the knob fell off, so to speak. Turns out we had only been put in the room in which she karked it (Flo, not Karen)! So with shattered porcelain shower knob in hand we meekly took our seats for breakfast, and I think we got away with it… we’re now in room 7 with a teddy bear rather than a ghost for company.

Anyway, we’re getting off the point, because our real destination today was Jamestown Gold Prospecting Adventures, across the way (“you can’t miss the claim jumper hanging in front of our store”). Here we met Bryant, a real retro ’49er with plenty of gold on show in his shop (and plenty of gravel in his voice!)

Hanging claim jumper.
Hanging claim jumper.

Bit of a hitch… we have to wait until tomorrow for the proper panning, but we had heerd tell of another opportunity down the road, so we hopped on our trusty steed and galloped off on a tour of mining towns… Copperopolis, Angel’s Camp, and first of all, Columbia, a living gold town.

Columbia IMG_1763 IMG_1759

Wow. Columbia really is authentic. It’s sort of part-musuem town, and part real-town. Like all of the other towns in this area, there are hardly any inhabitants, so there’s a sort of ghost-town atmosphere in and around the smattering of tourists and the handful of be-costumed shopkeepers. We skirted the bank and the local livery store to find the mine, and started to pan in the searing heat of temperate California.

Naturally, we expected to unearth fat lumps of the yellow stuff before tea break, so we were a bit disconsolate when our first few attempts yielded naff all. Eventually we spotted a couple of glittery speckles, but you know what they say: having harvested a goodly portion, we took our gains to the mine-owner only to find that it was fool’s gold, and we was fools.

panning for gold IMG_1765

Ah well! Lunch in the period saloon on site (Sarsaparillo is a bit like Dr. Pepper), and then a tour of the museum itself and a quick lesson in what gold really looks like. Then for good measure we did another spot of unsuccessful panning. Better luck tomorrow.

Nevertheless undaunted, we did a little tour of the area, through another gold town called Angel’s Camp, a copper mining town called Copperopolis, and around a beautiful lake, Lake Tulloch, which unlike many of the watercourses in the area is weathering the current drought pretty well.

The scenery is stunning, and in this sort of heat, really harsh. You can see what hard work gold mining really was – and if it made anybody a fortune, it was money well earned!

scorched lands and dry river beds.
scorched lands and dry river beds.
The Golden Chain Highway Bridge. This goes over the Melones water course which is quite dry.
The Golden Chain Highway Bridge. This goes over the Melones water course which in this part is quite dry.
Lake Tulloch is holding up better.
Lake Tulloch is holding up better.

Day 13: Into the Sierra Nevada

Leaving wine country we headed East, though the impression was that we were going further into the West. It was wild west territory we were hitting, and the landscape changed markedly from the lush greens of the valleys to the yellow prairies and then the speckled hillsides of gold rush country.

Brush heading East but West

apparently best burgers in the valley. They were pretty good!
apparently best burgers in the valley. They were pretty good!

Burger at Hula's

Stopping for lunch at a classic American Diner with a Hawaiian twist (!!!) – Hula’s in Escalon – we reached our new digs mid-afternoon. Riding in on our trusty black stallion, we felt every bit the outsider coming into town. Dominic yearned for his all-black jeans and shirt so he could look like a proper bad cowboy; and Karen fished in the suitcase for enough petticoats to pass in this town as we clattered into the saloon.

WP_20150825_005 JamestownWP_20150825_008

“Y’all look like you need a drink,” came a voice from the corner. And here we met Sabrina, the charming bartender of the National Historic Hotel – hosts in the past of many a western film crew.

As you might expect, the hotel, like the town, is right out of the nineteenth century, and comes with everything from a stoop to a soaking room (bath) to a resident ghost, and stories of shoot-outs. A tour around the town took two-and-a-bit minutes, but we lengthened it by taking plenty of snapshots just to confirm to the locals that we were indeed the out-of-towners. By 6pm we were absolutely baked because the outside temp was still 101 degrees fahrenheit. Considering that the hottest temp ever recorded in the UK is 98 degrees, that is damn hot!

As we settled into a pint and lots of chat with Sabrina and the proprietor Stephen, we heard all the stories, and felt like we really should be outside by the camp fire waiting for sundown and the howling of the coyotes. We heard about Christopher Lloyd filming Back to the Future 3 here, and enjoying a couple of whiskey’s of an evening; we also heard about Black Bart the bank robber, a San Francisco school teacher by day, who was finally caught just down the road but who never revealed where his $10m was stashed; and we heard about Flora, a young girl who was planning her wedding when her fiancé got shot and killed in the saloon bar: Flo died of a broken heart two days later, but still haunts the hotel to this day.

Dominic’s reading Sam North’s excellent book “Diamonds” at the moment, which is all about the Sierra Nevada Diamond Rush of the 1870s. Well worth a read, especially when you are holed up in the very towns that were part of those early prospecting days!

Tomorrow we’re going panning: there’s gold in dem dere hills.