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Dreaming Big in California

Visitors gold pan a little, dream big at California mining camp 06:31 PM CDT on Friday, October 3, 2003

By SPUD HILTON / San Francisco Chronicle

JAMESTOWN, Calif. There's a very real temptation the first time you spot a fleck of gold (albeit the size of an ant's left shoe) in your pan to start dreaming of what you're going to buy with the fistfuls of nuggets to come.

Condo in Kauai. Convertible BMW. Plane tickets to Paris for a week when all the Parisians have left town.

The warm, glowing metal inspires an intoxicating cocktail of greed, awe and fantasy, without which California would be Nebraska with beaches. It's a feeling you don't have to dig far for in Jamestown, a town built on gold, where you can still use nuggets to pay for goods and services around Main Street and where, for a while, you could have earned college credit for learning how to find it.

My wife, Ann, and I wanted to experience Gold Rush history not by sifting through souvenir shops for "I (heart) Gold" T-shirts, but by prospecting for the real thing. Jamestown's storied past, its geology and its natural beauty make it a great spot to spend a weekend swirling and sluicing for precious metals and to escape the non-gold rush.

Our leisurely saunter around today's Jamestown ("Jimtown" to the locals) revealed the archetypal Gold Country town: five blocks of Main Street with plank sidewalks, antique stores, knickknack shops and taverns, as well as a few historic hotels, mining suppliers and a wild west show on weekends.

There's a good reason Jamestown looked familiar to us we watch too much TV.

This gold prospecting town has a multitude of credits on the silver screen, providing scenery and steam trains for some 200 movies and TV shows from High Noon to Little House on the Prairie. Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, a few blocks east of downtown, was the headquarters of the Sierra Railway when the line started in 1897 and is a railroad buff's playground.

The museum and the array of railroad cars, working steam engines and related gear are astonishing although not as impressive as the station's role as Hooterville in Petticoat Junction.

Jamestown has its charms, and a night in the well-aged National Hotel was a welcome break from previous nights of camping, but we'd come with a goal to get filthy rich.

The Gold Prospecting Adventures office is on Main Street (look for the hanged miner), but the prospecting and gold panning is about a mile north of town at the Jimtown 1849 Gold Mining Camp on Wood's Creek, a re-creation of a Gold Rush camp the company built after discovering artifacts there in 1990. We met our instructor, Brent Shock, who was well on his way to a Nobel Prize in looking rumpled. (Would you trust a runway model in an Armani suit to help you dig for gold?) Intentionally or not, he looked and acted the part, sporting a hat and jeans that might have been among the artifacts unearthed in 1990, and a demeanor that was an alloy of crusty sage and stir-crazy gold-fever victim.

The mining camp a clearing surrounded by pines and cottonwoods with rustic tables, a few sheds and a small cabin straddles Wood's Creek. After a cigarette and a tall coffee, Mr. Shock began his primer on gold, weaving together history, geology, hydrology, psychology and a little theology, and using terms such as "alluvial deposits," "highbanking" and "damn big nugget." He pulled a rumpled notepad out of a rumpled book bag and illustrated all his points (except the theology ones) with a succession of pens that seemed to will themselves into drying up.

The most important lesson: Gold is heavy. Heavier than rocks. It will always be at the bottom.

The lecture over, Mr. Shock offered us wading boots, sat us down on a low footbridge over Wood's Creek and gave us each a black plastic pan full of dirt and rocks. At his instructions, we dunked our pans, broke up the dirt, sorted out the rocks and pebbles, and angled the pans while dipping to skim off the light material on top. Then, the final step: swirling the remaining handful of sand and rice-size pebbles until a yellow fleck appears or your back muscles seize up.

And so it went for the next hour.

I got a fleck in my first load, Ann got two on her second. Everything Mr. Shock had said about the process was true, and it worked. He hadn't told us, however, what effect it would have on us.

I'd held a gold coin, owned gold jewelry and spray-painted a pair of sneakers gold, but the feeling of uncovering the insect-footwear-size piece of real, natural gold was mind-paralyzing. Condo. Convertible. Paris.

Immediately, we wanted more.

"Most people come up to get that thrill, to see what it's like," Mr. Shock said later. "Gold has been doing crazy things to people for thousands of years."

During the second hour, Mr. Shock walked us through the use of a sluice box, an open-ended trough that uses the river's flow to sort the heavy gold pieces from the dirt and rocks. It's a tribute to good old American laziness and instant gratification.

I had to remove the gold from the ribbed rubber mat in the sluice box, but by this time, my fingers had become so pruned, I was concerned a flake of gold might fall into a wrinkle and be trapped there until spring.

Mr. Shock did the work and deposited our bounty in a tiny vial of water and capped it. The sum of it would barely cover a pinky fingernail, but it was ours.

We asked Shock what it was worth. Based on his math, we'd need about 390,000 more such flecks to afford the floor mats on the BMW.

Feverishly, I loaded more dirt into the sluice box. We had a condo to buy.


WHEN YOU GO:

GETTING THERE

Jamestown is 2 hours east of San Francisco in Tuolumne County. From Manteca, take State Highway 120 east, which merges with Highway 108 near Oakdale, and follow Highway 108 toward Sonora. Jamestown is four miles before Sonora at State Highway 49.

WHERE TO DIG

Gold Prospecting Adventures LLC, 18170 Main St., Jamestown, CA 95327; 1-800-596-0009; www.goldprospecting.com. Instruction in panning ($15 to $45 per adult), sluicing ($60 to $85) from 30 minutes to three days. Call for specific plans.

California Gold, P.O. Box 1132, Jamestown, CA 95327; 209-984-4914; www.goldfun.com. Guided mining trip with gold panning lesson ($79 per adult for a five-hour trip; accompanied children are free).

WHERE TO STAY

The National Hotel, 18183 Main St., Jamestown, CA 95327; 1-800-894-3446; www.national-hotel.com. Restored 1859 hotel with late-1800s feel and some modern conveniences. Rooms and breakfast, $90 to $140 per night, plus 8 percent tax. Homey saloon and highly regarded dining room on the first floor.

Jamestown Hotel, 18153 Main St., Jamestown, CA 95327; 1-800-205-4901; www.jamestownhotel.com. Rebuilt country inn, restaurant and bar with themed rooms named for colorful women of the West such as Belle Starr and Lily Langtree. Rooms with breakfast, $80 to $145 Sunday through Thursday, $95 to $175 Friday and Saturday, plus tax.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Fifth and Reservoir streets, Jamestown; 209-984-3953; www.cal-parks.ca.gov (click on "find a park"). Train station, gift shop, picnic tables and roundhouse and blacksmith shop tours. Steam trains typically offer excursions through the Sierra foothill Gold Country on weekends, April through October, but call first to check availability.

MORE INFORMATION

Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, 1-800-446-1333; www.thegreatunfenced.com. Also: www.jamestown-ca.com.


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