California or Bust
As appearing in The Gold Nugget, September 1998
by Leonard Leeper, "The Golden Optimist"
(See Leonard's website at

Finally, the months of planning and preparation were completed and the magic day had arrived. Since the minute I had left the Mother Lode in 1997 (see Trip To the Mother Lode), I had been planning a return trip with the "big equipment," my four-inch dredge.

I joined the Valley Prospectors club of San Bernardino to allow me to use power equipment on their Union Flats claim and had sent my $127.95 ransom to the State of California for my out-of-state dredge permit. What I received from them for my money was one of the pages I had sent them, only now it had a magic stamp attached authorizing me to dredge in their state. Hallelujah! I had their blessing to seek my fortune in their rivers and streams. I was ready! I was more than ready! I was pumped!

I had done my research last year on the claim by sampling using hand panning and sluicing, and I had been anxiously awaiting this day for months. "Chuck the Miner," from the Internet Prospecting Newsgroup, had driven by the claim the week before and posted a report on the weather and the water condition on the Newsgroup. Neither of these reports were very encouraging. The weather was rainy, the water was high, and almost no one was dredging. I could not change the date as I was committed to this date for my vacation. Several other people from the Gold prospectors of the Rockies (GPR) also were planning on traveling with me to the magic Highway 49 and Downieville. We would just have to make the best of it. When you are dredging, rain really doesn't make that much difference anyway.

The previous evening I had set the alarm clock to go off at 4:00 a.m. to allow me plenty of time to travel the 70 miles to the meeting place. It didn't even get a chance to go off. In spite of being up until midnight the night before, I awoke at 3:45 a.m. ready to go.

The pre-arranged meeting place for the travel group was Interstate 70 mile marker 232. We were to meet at 6:00 a.m. and we were going to leave at 6:30 with whomever was there at that time. I had no idea of what to expect at the meeting place as it was selected by Molly, one of the members making the trip. She had said, "I think it's at mile marker 232. There's a ski rental store there." I had told everyone that if there wasn't an exit at marker 232, stop at the 232 marker alongside the road and wait for the rest of us there.

As I approached the mile marker, I saw the exit sign. It said Downieville! This had to be a good omen of things to come. After pulling off of the highway, I selected a highly visible spot to park my truck. With a four-inch dredge sitting on top of the bed of my truck and all of my camping supplies loaded under it, I wasn't too worried about not being recognized. Checking my watch I found it was 5:30 a.m. At least as the group leader and the only one knowing exactly where in California we were going, I wasn't late.

As 6:30 a.m. approached, more vehicles had arrived. Only Molly and her husband Rick, the people that had selected the meeting spot, were missing. At least they couldn't blame that on not knowing where to go. At 6:28 they finally pulled up. This made us a rather distinguished looking group of four vehicles and six people.

The group was made up of a Data Lines Engineer for the phone company, a mechanic, a lady truck driver, a professional clown, a optical equipment repairman, a fireman, and two dogs. All starry eyed gold seekers anxious to find their fortunes. Why else would they sign on to a 1,000 mile trip to a place they had never seen, following an old, rusted out truck, driven by an even older, no longer slim, baldheaded man. Could it possibly have been the gold that I had displayed at one of the club meetings after returning last year?

We lined up with my truck in the lead as I had made the trip before and knew the stopping places. Jim, with his newer Ford 4-wheel drive truck and 18-foot trailer house, was directly behind me, then Chris and Barbara with their two dogs in his Ford diesel truck and camper, and Rick and Molly bringing up the rear in their newer model SUV. The plan was for all of us to keep an eye on the person following them and if they dropped out of sight, slow down. With all of the arrangements made off we went.

Leaving the meeting place we headed west on I-70 and up the Eastern side of the Rocky Mountains toward Eisenhower Tunnel. For anyone who hasn't traveled this route, we were starting out at around 8,000 feet in elevation and the tunnel was at about 11,000 feet. This meant a lot of steep, uphill, climbing. With my worn out 4-cylinder motor, this translates to 3rd and 4th gear at about 45 to 50 miles an hour speed. For Jim, with his trailer and the big Ford 460 cubic inch, gas guzzling motor, this was no problem. As we progressed further up the hill, I noticed Chris falling further and further behind. If I slowed down on this type of grade, I'd end up in 2nd gear at a real crawl. I figured we would make it to the top and then stop and wait for the rest of the group. On one of the open spots I could see back down the hill a couple of miles. No sign of Chris! Wait! There was a big, black, cloud of diesel smoke back about a mile and a half. I hadn't passed any large trucks. That must be Chris. At least he wasn't broken down. From then on, when we came to a long hill we would work our way to the top and then pull over and wait. At the first pull up, when they had all caught up, I mentioned to Rick, "You might want to pass Chris and drive in front of him on the hills." Rick replied, "That's OK. We just drop way back."

After travelling on for several hours, I noticed my gas gauge indicating "low." 'That's funny', I thought, 'I usually can make it to Grand Junction without filling up. Maybe I didn't get it completely filled before I left'. After watching it get closer and closer to empty, and then finally going past empty, I pulled over to top it of from a gas can. When I got to Grand Junction, I filled up and discovered that my gas gauge was hosed up. Later I found it would go from less than empty to over 3/4 full by adding 2 gallons of gas. Just great. At least I had 7 gallons of gas in gas cans if I ran out.

Our plan was to drive to Ely, Nevada, where we all had room reservations at the Hotel Nevada. It's big attraction was that it was on main street and right on the way through town. That and the fact that they had $19.95 rooms and a $7.95 prime rib dinner with a 99 cent breakfast. In the past I had always camped out at a campground about 10 miles east of Ely. It was a nice campground but it cost $10 to camp and in Ely I could "camp out" in comfort for $20.

We pulled into Ely about 6:00 p.m. and checked in. I decided that I ought to check out the bar and casino. Once I found out that they had 99 cent margaritas, I located a cool, comfortable place to sit and rest for a while. Some of the other prospectors decided to try their luck out at the casino. I do my only gambling in the water with my dredge so I continued to relax at the bar. No one decided to spend the next day in Ely so I don't think that any of the casino players were outstandingly lucky.

Prospecting Caravan at the Ruth Copper Mine, Ely, Nevada

Early the next morning we met for breakfast and then checked out and hit the road. About eight miles west of Ely is the Ruth copper mine. It is one of the largest open pit copper mines in the world. They have an observation point overlooking the mine and even though we are all gold prospectors, we decided to check it out. Along with the observation point, they have a display featuring large ore samples with descriptive signs.

As we approached the mine, huge mountains of mine dump appeared. Some people might say how horrible the results of the mining appeared, but what I see is the contribution to the nations economy that the money made from the copper extracted represented. I might feel different if this was carried over a large part of a county or state but not when localized to a small area as most mining operations are. Standing on the overlook, looking down at the huge open pit, the view made the minor disturbances of the earth's surface that we make as recreational prospectors seem miniscule. After spending about an hour checking out the pit mining, the huge dump trucks hauling the ore out of the pit, and the ore sample displays, we continued on toward California and our golden fortunes.

As the day progressed we wandered our way across central Nevada. In the afternoon we arrived at Fallon, Nevada. The plan was to make one last grocery stop here as we didn't want to get off of the interstate in Reno.

After a quick trip to Wal-Mart for some sun block, forgotten during the packing but required, we then went to the nearby grocery store to stock up on refrigerated food. Finally, it was time to continue on. It was about 100 degrees and the asphalt was even warmer as we waited for the rest of the group to finish their shopping. We were glad to get back on the road after the grocery and gas stop. The next stop - Union Flats and the campground.

As we left Reno and crossed the California line, the excitement began to really build. Even though I had traveled this same route last year, I could hardly wait to arrive at the campground. Soon the sign for the first turnoff appeared. Highway 89. Making the turn off of the interstate highway, we headed up a two-lane highway into the Sierra mountains. The next town, Sierra City. The place where we would turn onto the magic highway 49. The historical California gold prospecting heaven. The group must have wondered what I was doing as I made the left turn onto hiighway 49 and almost immediately pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. Three other vehicles followed my lead. I had spotted the first highway 49 sign. We all gathered beneath it and it was picture time. In the background you can see the Sierra mountains. We were to climb them and then go down the other side. Where am I? In my usual position. Holding the camera.

As we left the town, we headed up into the Sierras. We were on two-lane road driving through tall timber forests and we eventually topped the pass at 7,000 feet. There was even snow at the side of the road. Almost July and still snow on the ground. We were to see a lot more snow on the high mountain slopes. Heading down the other side we were now within 20 miles of the campground. We made quite a caravan as we slowly made our way down the mountain, around the sharp corners, and through the trees. Every once in a while, I nervously pulled over along with the rest of the group to allow the faster drivers to pass. With a trailer house and Chris's truck and camper behind me, I wasn't sure that their hot brakes would stop them. I could picture the caravan not being able to stop and my truck and dredge just acting like a very small speed bump for them as they rolled over the top of me and my dredge as they failed to stop. Finally, rounding a corner, we arrived at our destination, Union Flats Campground.

Entering the campground, I drove by the first few campsites. A sense of gloom was forming over me. They were all full. Driving on I finally came to an empty spot. This was large enough for a trailer to fit into so I stopped and recommended that Jim with his trailer and Chris with his camper take it. I then drove on past the turnaround and down to the dead end section. It was filled with even more campers. The place looked full. Two members of the Denver GPR club, of which I was a member, occupied the spot I had camped on last year at the top of the hill. That was great! At least I might be able to share a spot with them. I wouldn't take up much room.

Looking around I noticed that there was another spot empty. Maybe it was one of the reserved spots for the Valley Prospectors. They had three reserved free spots. That would be even better as everyone that knows me would tell you that I am a frugal person. Some might even go so far as to say cheap. One of the campsites had a sign that said "Valley Prospectors Campground Host." I knew that must be Herbie's as I had called the club and asked about camping there. They had told me that there would be a club campground host there.

Herbie wasn't home so I walked out onto the gravel bar and began asking everyone where he was. Finally I located him. I asked about the empty spot and he responded "That's not one of ours. That's a pay spot and it's empty." Great! The only way it could have been better would have been for it to be a free spot. I quickly walked back to my truck and told Rick and Molly "Park here. We'll take this spot before anyone else can." This was a great spot. It was under the trees and I could throw a rock out onto the gravel bar where I wanted to dredge. Like all of the pay spots, it had a fire ring and a picnic table. This would be a great spot to spend the next two weeks and by splitting the cost of the campsitek it would only cost $5 a night.

I moved the truck into the front of the campsite and began unpacking my equipment. First came the 4-inch dredge as it was on top of everything else. I unloaded it down the back ramp attached to the truck and slid it along the gravel to the far side of the truck. I then began to unload my camping equipment. The tent went over on one side of the open spot. Returning back to the truck, I found my dredge rapidly moving toward the river being carried by a prospector on each corner. "Where do you want it?" they asked. Surveying the gravel bar, I quickly pointed them to an empty spot at the water's edge. What a great way to meet the other people in the campground. Their moving it in one piece had saved me an hour or so of disassembly and subsequent reassembly. Introducing myself, I thanked them all and returned to the task of setting up my camp.

Later, walking around the campground I found that five other Colorado prospectors from the GPR had beaten us there. That made a total of 11 Colorado goldseekers.

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