This post’s title is misleading because of course we’d been in the Gold Country all along. Even up in Lakes Basin among rather unpromising rock strata we found signs of prospecting any place someone had glimpsed quartz. Glory holes the size of a bathtub or a small cellar. No real clue as to the ages on most of these workings. My guess from the worn look is years to decades, and in some places all that you could see was the depression in the ‘wrong’ place — if you look upon the face of the land and the way the ridges lie, or where and how the trees stand, the imprint of human alteration persists remarkably.
It should be a country filled with ghosts, but the quiet rush of streams and the blowing of wind among great trees gives a sense of untroubled eternity. Then we smelled smoke, saw a haze upon the sky, and knew that somewhere not far enough away, a fire was eating the country. We headed to the fire lookout, had a tour by the spotter on duty and learned of not one but two fires, one nearly out, the other uncontrolled. We could see the smoke as the afternoon came on, the look of cumulus clouds generated not by the sky but by combustion. Think of trees super-heated, splintering into steam and flame, the resin of firs and pines exploding. We stared at the distant billows, but they were remote for now. California, land of fire.
In the last day at Lakes Basin we met a botanical docent from Anza Borrego and a pair of women who made yearly pilgrimages to hike in the area, leaving husbands and pets at home. Wonderful conversations. And let’s not forget the woman with a guitar at the campsite opposite us who played songs of her own writing she practiced for the folksong festival in Bloomsfield next month. I stopped in mid -prep of dinner that evening and said — “she’s professional, that’s not someone just noodling about for fun.” She asked us as it grew later if she disturbed us and I hope she heard our happiness as we encouraged her to continue. She had an Australian shepherd who ‘dogged’ pardon the pun, her every step, and in silent care watched over her with devotion. Such sorrow in her voice in the night.
We found it hard to leave but I’d brought our friend John’s e-mail which indicated he’d meet up with us on Thursday at the Taber Mine, so we didn’t dare take the extra day we longed for before packing out. “If John and Carmen should have only that one day free,” I said, “we’d feel such idiots if we spent that day on the road getting to him.”
After a stop at Quincy to stock up on food and wine and cheap beer (you don’t want the good stuff for field work… the best beer when you’ve spent a day moving rocks and dirt is the beer that is close to water, with basic salts and a taste of hops for the bitter edge) we piled back into our old Suburban and ground up the Quincy/LaPorte road. What a road that is. I don’t think I’ve ever travelled it when it didn’t have a repair crew out somewhere along the ridge.
Crossed the Pacific Crest Trail and dropped down towards LaPorte, finding to our astonishment that it only took a couple of hours and we were going to arrive before mid-afternoon. What a luxury to anticipate lunch at the mine. But we did pull off at one point to record the distant sinister shapes of the fires’ smoke rising into the heat of day.