Gold Fever

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has occasionally felt the urge that motivated the gold stampede of 1898. But then he remembers that the real gold is right in the hills of home.

(Lange) I cut my literary eyeteeth on Robert Service’s poems, and often dreamed of the Klondike Trail. But I always suspected the Stampeders were not so much enterprising as crazy.

Then, when I was twenty, I met my first prospector, a toothless, hernia-racked old man who lived in a tar-paper shack in a sumac patch. He drove an ancient Studebaker dump truck, and had a knack for locating the resources of the earth. His raffish aura of failure and constant expectation of bonanza were irresistible.

He always carried a copy of The Prospector’s and Miner’s Handbook, borrowed permanently from a library somewhere. It explained how to interpret land forms when seeking minerals, what rocks were usually associated with them, and how to set up a prospect. I read it by the hour, and for years afterward chipped at quartz intrusions in Adirondack granite.

That interest didn’t survive. But it held the same charm as fishing: the charm of Infinite Possibility. There’s a primal attraction to the notion that just below the surface lie fortunes waiting for the person who can unlock the secret, no matter how many men have been there before him.

Clarence Berry, a California farmer, arrived in the Klondike in 1896 and found every claim on Bonanza Creek already staked. Discouraged, he was leaving, when he noticed Number 13, considered unlucky, hadn’t been staked properly. With nothing to lose, he staked it, and acquired the richest of all Klondike claims — over 3,000,000 in turn-of-the-century dollars.

During a few weeks in Alaska, I was struck by how much the spirit and the relics of the Gold Rush are still present. Every museum displays dozens of old black-and-white photographs of prospectors and miners from half a dozen nations; cooks, hotel keepers, horse packers, and dance hall girls. Many village commons are decorated with cast-iron buckets salvaged from extinct gold dredges. Actual mining nowadays is but a whisper. But far up the lonely creek valleys still live dozens of half-mad prospectors, dreaming of Eldorado.

I tried panning myself one day at an abandoned mining camp, now a National Historic site. The gravel there had been worked over many times, but I was certain I had a good chance of finding a nugget. The roar of the stream, the isolation of the valley, and the concentration required to swirl out the gravel were addictive. I kept looking upstream, imagining places there that had never been disturbed, and wondering how long – after I’d given up my life in New England – it would take to find them. Then I thought, “What am I? Nuts?”

It’s what gold does to people. And there was still gold there! But gazing upstream, fantasizing, I remembered also that first ravaged old prospector I ever met, and reflected there’s gold right in the hills of home.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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