Mar. 11th, 2016

When I was 16, after we'd moved back to Methford from Washington, dad got a gold claim. I used to mess up and call it a gold mine, and that's obviously not the same thing. Anyway, he got this gold claim outside of Merlin - far outside - or somewhere thereabouts, and was going to slowly make a fortune. You can, right now, still go out to the Rogue and the Applegate and pan for gold and find a few flakes, though you do have to watch out for the fool's gold. The way the gold claim works, best as I understand, is that you get a lease from the BLM for 99 years. You can then sublease your claim, or sell it outright, which is how dad got his. What you find is yours, of course, and you can't do much to the land itself, but this claim came with a small trailer so one could conceivably spend the night out there.

In this process dad met a few cronies, and he learned the ropes pretty quickly, the ropes being simply etiquette and safety. There's bears and cougars out here, plus the rattlesnakes (and black widows; those are relatively shy, though I'm sure the trailer was riddled with them), plus the drug dealers. In southern Oregon it's meth and weed for the most part - was true back then, is true now (though sadly heroin seems to be making a comeback). So for the animals you took a gun (in dad's case, a Russian-made SKS he later sold for a pittance of its value because he was out of booze money), and for the growers/dealers you kept an eye out for PVC pipes, what they'd use for irrigation, and avoid them.

I only went up to the claim once myself. Now, I'm biased, I think southern Oregon is one of the most beautiful places in the U.S. and definitely the most beautiful part of Oregon itself. But, still, the claim was objectively beautiful - golden grass, dark green oaks, crystal-clear creek, the dampest, loamiest dirt ever. There was a massive quartz boulder up the creek a ways, and dad was convinced this was the key to the gold (heaven forbid he just pan the creek, slowly amassing gold flakes; he had to find the mother lode a.s.a.p.). As we walked up the trail beside the creek, we hopped over a few bear or cougar scats - probably bear, as they were large and full of half-digested berries, but oddly I never tried to figure this out. I'm sure there's a Guide to Wildlife Shit, but I never did bother to study up.

We got to the quartz boulder, and part of the slope around it had washed off in a recent rainstorm, leaving a new face exposed and churning the dirt up around it. I saw a gleam in the dirt, stuck my finger out, and came away with a single gold flake. I called my parents back and they got all excited - dad hadn't found any actual gold yet, but he had the little sample bottles ready and had me carefully transfer the flake into a bottle. We walked on, encouraged, then went off the trail a ways where dad showed us a pile of PVC pipe that had recently appeared, making him a bit nervous. We saw nothing (definitely didn't smell tortillas, had a nice day, and left with our single gold flake and a new sense of hope.

Dad would go out to the claim now and then, go out with his cronies and have a few drinks, but that pile of PVC pipe was worrisome. He came back once or twice with stories about running across these guys, them giving him the evil eye and warning him off, how he and the other miners (panners?) were growing increasingly concerned. Then one day he came back and said the PVC pipe guys tried to run him off. I don't know exactly what happened, but one day dad came back from the claim, got some extra supplies, and only came back much later that night, reeking of whiskey and completely - completely - freaked out. The story was garbled, but the gist was that he'd met up with some of his gold-friends to protect his claim from the growers. There had been gunfire from both sides. There was entrenchment and ducking and weaving and shooting back and forth. He was rather afraid he'd killed someone but wouldn't say much more than that.

He didn't, though, go back. Much to my mother's relief (and my own). He claimed some paperwork saga - perhaps someone else over-filed the claim, perhaps his sublease/purchase of it wasn't legal in the first place, I don't know, and honestly I don't care. Even given dad's penchant for drama and exaggeration, I've rarely seen him as freaked out and nervous as he was that night.

For years that sample bottle with the single gold flake sat on our windowsill. Like so much else, it's lost now, but it remains the only piece of gold ever found by my family at that claim.

----
Bonus song:


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