ELLSWORTH: I tell you what -- I may have fucked my life up flatter'n hammered shit, but I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker and working a paying fucking gold claim.
Life imitates Deadwood.
Panning for gold is back in vogue, the New York Times reports. It's an odd little story--half leisure, half business.
Many of the self-styled prospectors profiled in the piece are clearly hobbyists having a bit of retro fun in their local creek beds and river washes.
When I was growing up, my mom and granddad were active in the Port Moody Rock and Gem Club--so I know how much fun it can be to go out into the wilderness and find pretty rocks. Sure, you can probably buy better specimens from a dealer for less than the gas money you'd spend getting out there, but that's beside the point.
The rock hounding hobby skews old, so our club had hundreds of years of combined amateur and professional geological experience. Nobody had any illusions about making money. In fact, a good way to piss off a rockhound who brings home a nice piece of jade or a fire opal is to ask him how much it's worth.
But, according to the Times, there's a growing subculture approaching small-time gold panning as a money-making opportunity:
Long the province of crusty hobbyists and bored retirees, prospecting has also recently drawn some younger converts, partly from their exposure to two prospecting shows on the Outdoor Channel.
Not everyone, of course, is just in it for the fresh air. Rob Goreham, a miner and equipment salesman from Columbia, Calif., in the heart of the Mother Lode, says hundreds of full-time prospectors in California make a living at the often bone-chilling profession. How much of a living?
“No one’s going to tell you that,” said Mr. Goreham, like the veteran gold man he is. “We do O.K., how about that?” [NYT]
Yeah, how about that?
Mining shops say they cannot keep equipment on the shelves. “We had a lady in here on crutches, not a young lady either, saying, ‘I want to buy this $3,200 metal detector and a $1,000 power sluice,’ ” said Steve
Herschbach, an owner of Alaska Mining and Diving, a supply shop in Anchorage. “We tried to talk her down a bit, but she was dead set.” [NYT]
Suppliers are selling thousands of dollars worth of power sluices, metal detectors, and riffled "modern" gold pans to customers who fully expect to make a handsome profit. "A thimble full of gold can more than pay for this machine," proclaim the manufacturers of the Desert Fox spiral panning contraption, "And the Desert Fox can process a thimble full of gold in one minute."
US Geological Survey issued some sobering guidance for would-be prospectors in a 1991 pamphlet called Prospecting for Gold in the United States:
Many believe that it is possible to make wages or better by
panning gold in the streams of the West, particularly in regions where placer mining formerly flourished. However, most placer deposits have been thoroughly reworked at least twice--first by
Chinese laborers, who arrived soon after the initial boom periods
and recovered gold from the lower grade deposits and tailings
left by the first miners, and later by itinerant miners during
the 1930's. Geologists and engineers who systematically
investigate remote parts of the country find small placer
diggings and old prospect pits whose number and wide distribution
imply few, if any, recognizable surface indications of
metal-bearing deposits were overlooked by the earlier miners and
It's a fascinating essay, which explains in dismal detail why small-time prospecting on public lands isn't even the marginally viable enterprise it was a hundred and fifty years ago. Expensive metal detectors won't change the economic and geological facts on (or in) the ground.
The Times lead is that record high gold prices are drawing Americans back to gold prospecting. But the real story is that scam artists are preying on people's fantasies.
Doesn't everyone want their own paying fucking gold claim? Ellsworth's little barroom speech captures the central appeal. He left a good job to prospect in Deadwood--he's not getting rich, but at least he gets to feel like his own boss.
As a series, Deadwood is about what a racket the gold rush was for the average prospector, even in its heyday. The miners barely survive on the flecks they pull out of the streams. The local merchants just laugh and sell them more axes and whiskey.
Heavy metals build up in the fish at the top of the food chain, because they so many little fish. Same principle with the gold rush. "Hoopleheads," the merchants call the prospectors, who freeze in the creek all day and still don't make enough to sleep indoors.
The hooples don't realize that they'd be the last ones to get rich, even if they found gold.
The prospectors think they've escaped to the frontier, they don't realize the establishment is expanding faster than they can. Even the luckiest gold-seekers end up selling out for a relative pittance to those with enough capital to get the ore out of the ground.
Ellsworth has a paying gold claim, i.e., he's collecting enough flakes to pay his bar tab and take the occasional bath at the Gem Saloon. He thinks he has finally broken free of the ruthless mining company he used to work for, but his sense of liberation turns out to be entirely illusory.