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Dancing With The Mother Lode

Story ID:642
Written by:Kathe M. Campbell (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Only Here
Location:Butte Montana USA
Year:1979
Person:Campbell & Co.
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Dancing With The Mother Lode

Dancing With The Mother Lode

Dancing With The Mother Lode


Dancing With The Mother Lode
by Kathe Campbell

"You're moving to Butte? Oh God, I love coming to Butte on the Fourth of July and St. Paddy's Day," the gal at the motel yammered on.

The place looked 30 years behind the times upon arriving on her streets paved with gold, silver, and copper, the prolific mining capitol of the world. Friends of friends and relatives of relatives had sent word to our families that we were going to love the place. We did, and we still adore her diamond in the rough exterior. European, Indian, and Asian mining families dotted the mountainous landscape in their tightly packed row houses and shacks. What rich legacies they've shared well over a century.

Settling in a typical west side home atop a mile-deep maze of copper mines, Pops showed up one evening with two shiny gold pans. Enrapt with gold panning sagas over Friday night brews, he had fallen victim to seriously contageous gold fever. We had lucked out moving next door to a geology professor at the School of Mines, and our young families clicked. Where tents were pitched, panning for gold was as natural as rifles and compound bows in our Montana wilds.

With our tutor in tow, we soon learned the worst proverb ever, "Gold Is Where You Find It!" Well - duh! The guy who phrased that one must have been real quick. Nonetheless, one must sample around in a few streams. If you find a little dust, then I guess it makes sense, but it sure raises my hackles.

You greenhorns might squat down next to a stream bed and scoop up four or five handfuls of dirt and water in your gold pan. Holding the pan under water, move it in a slow circular motion so that the lighter materials float out. Keep it up until about half the material is gone. Some folks prefer a little body English after practicing the routine. While in the squat position, begin in the lower provinces swirling your entire anatomy for a full rhythmic ore wash. Others regard the dance silly, remaining stiff, staid, and sober, using their arms and hands only. Never rinse dirt with the like, they're terrible bores.

Now you're ready to start panning.

Since gold is 20 times heavier than water, the good stuff stays in the bottom of your pan, caught up amongst sand and dirt. Gold is also inclined to stick in rocks, roots, and wood, wedged in overhanging crevices along a shore line. Lift your pan and begin swirling it around and around, tipping it slightly over the riffles. When the water is gone, do it again and again until all the water and material is gone. At this point you begin to contemplate thoughts of the 49'ers and why huge nuggets aren't blinding you in brilliant array.

Now your down to fine sand and, hopefully, "color." It's strictly up to the panner if he prefers to sit pensively, or stand and swirl that pan around and around, much like twirling a hula-hoop. Beware though, all that glitters is not gold. Fools gold is simple pyrite that sparkles yellow, but is light and usually floats off as you pan.

Everyone has their own way of separating and retrieving gold. I talked my clinic's lab into letting me purchase a dozen glass tubes to show off my booty. We sat by the hour picking through the sand with long needle-nosed tweezers, plucking every grain, flake, and smallest nugget. It soon became obvious that at $340 an ounce, we were in for an awful long haul.

Nonetheless, tossing the gold pans in the truck became as natural as the sleeping bags for weekend outings, for after all, gold is where you find it! We panned in cricks, creeks, canals, and along the shores of blue ribbon fisheries all over our state. We even swirled a few pans along the Missouri in-between bites of take-out when on business treks somewhere. "Boy oh boy, that sure looks likely," Pop's would croon, and once again we wouldn't see our driveway 'til midnight.

Alas, children gone and we were left with too many windows and an acre of lawn and garden. Time to shed our city digs. The decision to live in it, rather than looking at it, led us to luscious green acres atop a mountain only twenty minutes from town. Never mind there was no phone service or other amenities in our new log lodge, for they came in due time. Pops unearthed nice nuggets from an ancient stream bed on our back forty, and nobody could convince him we weren't sitting on the mother lode. We made sure we had the mineral rights for an extra small fortune. Weeks later, the family over the top of our mountain found the biggest nugget in Montana's history, and despite my glittering doubts, we became obsessed.

Nary a weekend passed lest a crowd, and I as chief cook. That didn't last long. Friends or no friends, I was missing out on the fun - and the gold. So a covered dish, your own gold pan, and folding lawn chairs became the password at our gate on Saturday mornings. We near wore the old WWII jeep out hauling ore up and down the hill to our comfortable chaise work station. Our gas driven rotating trommel separated the big ore from the small and allowed the sand to collect in the rivulets along the 12 foot sluice. A suction hose sucked out the nuggets into a jar and further dust was again refined with tweezers. You understand, of course, if the nuggets in God's Folly had been bonanza variety, I wouldn't be scrounging a living talking about it.

Looking back, I think my Pops was the only one who was dead serious about our filthy rich prospects. Interestingly though, he never mentioned giving up our business to fill his days mining the small stuff. Right up until the day he died, he made our son promise to never sell the gold machine. Because sure as hell, the glory vein was under there - somewhere - paying over $700 an ounce currently. After 40 years, thoughts of an ounce of gold seems such a dream. For despite dancing with the mother lode, good fellowship and glowing dust in the bottom of our pans was a lot more fun.