Golden days, and even a little gold

I hired a crew that summer to help me with blister-rust control work in the mountain forests of northern California. We were five men, three wives, four children, three cars, one pickup, one motorcycle, rabbit-eared picks, pulaskis, axes, shovels, and various other tools, plus camping equipment, groceries, and all the other supplies it took to camp near our work and near enough clean water to meet our needs.

We uprooted ribes (gooseberry bushes and currant bushes), intermediate hosts for blister rust, which kills pine trees. By eliminating the ribes bushes, we were helping to eliminate the threat to the trees.

We finished working an area in the El Dorado National Forest, folded our tents, and headed north toward our next contract, in Lassen National Forest. We were a caravan of vehicles, people, and - on some of the unpaved roads - dust boiling toward the summer sky.

Below the road we drove along, the Yuba River flowed from the mountains, clean and inviting. The people leading our caravan pulled off the highway, and everyone following pulled over to see what was on their minds.

What was on their minds was, "We've worked a bunch of hard, hot days in a row. It wouldn't hurt us any to take a break and swim in that river down there."

I caught an anxious, slightly defensive tone in that voice. I was getting a reputation for being a hard-driving crew boss without much room for play. I definitely wanted to continue being the force that drove us toward making enough money so we could all go back to college in the fall.

But I didn't want my reputation for relentlessly pushing the crew to take root too deeply, and I'd been feeling the pull of the clear-running water myself, so I said, "Let's do that. Let's go swimming."

We found a road down to the river. Car and pickup doors weren't even properly closed before people changed clothes and hit the water in force. Some didn't even change clothes, just took off their shoes and socks and dove in, then swam back toward the riverbank and acceptable swimming attire.

We unpacked food for lunch and stayed until suppertime. We unpacked everything we needed to feed everyone supper. By the time we finished supper, it was too late to go anywhere, so we unpacked everything we needed, and we stayed the night in the forest beside the river.

The night and the early morning stayed warm. Everyone who got up at daylight swam in the river a few minutes after daylight. Late sleepers woke as they descended through the air toward the water, splash! Some took their abrupt wakening well. Others realized they should try to act as if they didn't mind, because minding didn't buy them any mercy. Splash! nonetheless.

People looked at me as if they expected me to start pushing the crew again. I didn't feel like it, yet. Between looking at contracts, bidding, and getting everything ready so the crew could work, I'd worked 43 days in a row.

Now that I was living in my swimsuit, nobody was going to aim me toward work for a while.

We lifted rocks from the bottom of the river and built a dam that reached a quarter of the way across to deepen our swimming area. We noticed people working a floating dredge upstream and across the river from us, stacking rocks out of the way, sucking up the river bottom, and running it through a sluice box to separate gold from the sand and gravel.

That made me curious.

I took a shovel into the river, dug sand and gravel from the bottom, and panned it in the shovel. It made a crude gold pan, but effective enough: I found black sand and several "colors," small pieces of gold, when I washed the gravel and sand off the top.

"Gold! Hey everybody, there's so much gold out here, you can pan it out with a shovel!"

Nobody cared. They swam or relaxed in the sunshine or raided food boxes for something to feed appetites worked up by swimming.

If I worked for gold from the river, I would have to buy a whole new set of tools and equipment, and that would take more cash than I had for what was probably a thin possibility of making some money. What I had already started on, blister-rust control, had been paying a good wage and would continue to pay a good wage through the summer.

Our work allowed us some time to play, to swim in the river, and to stay up late on the riverbank playing guitars and singing. It allowed everyone who got up early to jump in the river at daylight and then to round up everyone who hoped to sleep in and throw them in the river.

I let the gold in the shovel settle back to the bottom of the river. Then I swam, just for the fun of swimming. I planned to camp by the river until we ran low on groceries, four or five more days, before I remembered how to be a crew boss again and pushed everyone through a summer of hard work toward autumn with enough money to see us through a winter of college or whatever other dreams we hoped to pursue.

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