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Destinations: Malakoff Diggins Short Cuts

Hey You, Get Offa My Cloud, Claim Jumper's Gold Rush Weekend

Story by Robert McKenney - 3/2001

Photo by Kammy Caruss Burleson
Malakoff Diggins State Park
Kammy Caruss Burleson

By way of explanation, I organized a group of my friends to go on a camping trip to the Malakoff Diggins, State Historical Park in California. The park is situated around a gold rush era boom town the hydraulic mining operation it served, both of which are named Malakoff Diggins. To make it sound like more than just the run-of-the-mill camping trip, I hyped it heavily via email and dubbed it the "Hey You, Get Offa My Cloud, Claim Jumper's Gold Rush Weekend."

Chapter Uno

I arrived in the spartan but spacious township (who knew there would be a whole town there?) of Malakoff Diggins with the bright, late-morning sun smiling down from a wide turquoise sky. The picturesque blending of old trees and gleaming white buildings beckoned me with an easy charm while a few early-autumn leaves swirled busily about in fitful gusts, as if trying to find a comfortable place to rest for the long winter. Not to be outdone by the seasonal foliage, I strode along looking dashing in my nifty, fluorescent-green Swiffer shirt (there would be no hunting accidents while I was in the woods). This idyllic setting was quickly disturbed by the arrival of MarkAmberBrandonAshleyLaraLesterShirley, or as I shall henceforth refer to them, MABALLS. Despite earlier agreeing to join me on Team Swiffer, Amber, the purveyor of all things Swiffer (she gave me the shirt) had somehow "forgotten" her Swiffer shirt, leaving me to carry on the role of fashion criminal all by myself.

For those not in attendance, I suppose I should take a moment to present some of the other characters whose participation provided me with such rich story fodder. First, there was my friend Brian and his lovely wife Laurin. Brian has the dubious distinction of being the comic relief in many... okay, most... hell, probably all of my stories (and this one will be no exception). The other couple was Heather and Pat. They function pretty much as a unit, so that is how I will refer to them as HeatherPat. Then came the fair and willowy Keturah. And, despite what you might have heard, no one can prove she paid me to say that. And oh, her mom and step-dad just happened to run the Park (they're rangers). Finally, there was Rosendo who showed up just in time to eat dinner. Well, enough preliminaries, now on with the tale...

Photo by Kammy Caruss Burleson
Town of Malakoff Diggins
Kammy Caruss Burleson
Photo by Kammy Caruss Burleson
Old Schoolhouse
Kammy Caruss Burleson

First stop was the Museum to check in with our friend, and Keturah's mom, Ranger Karen. Then, after doing the standard cultural thing (tour museum, watch video history of area, etc.), MABALLS hunkered down to grub while Brian and I, along with HeatherPat, impatiently grabbed some government-issue gold pans and headed out to find our fortune. And by fortune I don't mean any piddling little wussy "nuggettes". We were after full-on, too-big-to-fit-in-your-mouth (for safety reasons), retire-early-and-taunt-your-friends "nugs"! Those of you who know a bit of my history may remember another such trip; may we never to speak of it again.

So anyway, there we were, happy-go-lucky fortune seekers, strolling innocently along, the sun shining the birds singing, when *suddenly* we were confronted by the unspeakable horror of wilderness porn. Yes, I said porn! The most egregious display of lewd exhibitionism I have ever witnessed. Hundreds, nay thousands, of horny lady(and I use the term loosely)bugs in a wanton display of gratuitous rubbing and groping and... and... and whatever it is that ladybugs do (I shudder to think). I quickly began herding everyone away and we pressed deeper into the forbidding woods.

Photo by Shirley Chan
Ranger Karen shows us how its done
Shirley Chan

Arriving at the edge of what I hoped was a "gold-laden" stream, I paused a moment to soak up the woodland ambiance. Ah yes, the beauty of a sun-dappled forest glade, the burble of a crystalline mountain stream traipsing casually among a maze of smooth stones as it splished from still pool to still pool. Then, I was suddenly struck by the urgent thought, "What the hell am I wasting time on the ambiance for? There's gold, gold to be panned!"

After a few early attempts yielded nothing but mildly unremarkable rocks, HeatherPat thought of more interesting things to do and wandered off to find a less crowded location. Their claim was quickly jumped by the arrival of MABALLS, who spent the first 10 minutes or so just scoffing at me. Then Ranger Karen showed up and gave us a quick lesson in how this panning stuff should really be done. She showed us where to dig and how to mash the dirt up in our pan. And she even taught us the secret panning song the ancient miners sung to appease the gold gnomes of the riverbank (don't ask silly questions, just smile knowingly and nod). Since it's a secret, all I can tell you is, by strange coincidence, it's sung to the tune of a certain Nine Inch Nails song.

Photo by Shirley Chan
Friendly Panners
Shirley Chan

Well, my pseudo-friends, after that the gold just started... well, it kind of... Hey! Quit smirking. We actually did found some nuggettettettes (or by the more technically correct term, flakes). And let me tell you, there is nothing that can beat the satisfaction of spending hours digging in the mud with a stick and squatting for long periods in frigid water to find little yellow specks in the bottom of your pan. I highly recommend it (just let me be there with a camera). Lacking a proper gold vial to store our tremendous booty, we improvised by using a Crystal Geyser water bottle we filled in the stream (BTW, for those who normally miss these things, this is known as "foreshadowing").

Chapter Swei

The day was wearing on and the stream was getting less sunny and more dappled. MABALLS decided they wanted to try their luck on a short hike, gambling that they could find their way back to the campsite... before dawn. A bold assumption, I know, but that's the kind of gutsy risk-takers they are. And then again, Brandon *was* mumbling something about Donner Party survival techniques. Shortly after they left, Brian began to think of food. Once that happens, he's not much use for anything else. And since I was still looking forward to a ritual gourd mutilation (AKA, pumpkin carving), we decided to head back, meeting up with Keturah on the way.

The short ride to the campsite wound leisurely through wooded glades dotted with empty camping spaces. Our campsite, of course, was the best. Actually a combination of two side-by-side sites, it opened out like a spacious, columned gallery of sturdy tree trunks, roofed by the interwoven branches of fragrant evergreens and carpeted with a soft bed of Pine needles.

Photo by Kammy Caruss Burleson
The Diggins
Kammy Caruss Burleson

Having set up most of the tents, those of us not lost in the woods decided to hike down to the overlook and see the greed-wrought devastation know as "the Diggins". It was very impressive. Before us, the ground dropped away as if ripped out by a giant hand. Chalky white bluffs lined the gaping wound, hunched in wild, tortured shapes carved by men pouring liquid violence. More than a century of polishing by wind and rain has only partially smoothed the raw abrasions. As the sun slowly set, long shadows oozed across the landscape, softening the jagged scar and ending another day's effort for the sparse vegetation still struggling to heal it.

Back at the campsite, MABALLS had somehow found their way back, dashing my hopes for a *really* exciting story (not to mention my chance to "inherit" Brandon's car). By now, everyone was hungry and talking excitedly about the quantity and variety of food they had brought. MABALLS, et al, were evidently done with hiking for the day and decided to drive the half-mile, or so, to Ranger Ken/Karen's house for our cookout. I, on the other hand, decided to explore the land with my native guide (Keturah, in case you aren't keeping up; she grew up there). After winding through the forest, we emerged at the edge of a small mountain lake. Rushes and cattails clumped here and there as the trail skirted along the bank, jumped a little rise, and dumped us off behind the house.

Photo by Shirley Chan
At the campfire
Shirley Chan

Dusk was settling heavily across the lake as we got the fire cranking and the food cooking. The warm lights spilling from the house seemed to mock the crisp evening chill of autumn in the mountains. Past the deck, down through a thin screen of sparse trees, the near-full moon shimmered and danced across the wind-ruffled lake. Disappointed that we had no time to mutilate gourds, I decided to work out my frustrations by viciously gutting one of my pumpkins. This unfortunate episode was immortalized on film in Amber's ongoing effort to catch me in compromising positions.

Photo by Shirley Chan
Camping Fools
Shirley Chan

Not wanting to wear out our welcome, or further embarrass ourselves in front of the adults, we returned to our campsite with designs on the "portable liquor cabinet" Amber had brought. After the pyros among us finished telling each other how to start our pseudo-bonfire, it was time for Amber's much-hyped performance (she pretends to be an actress in her spare time). Her original proposal for the evening's entertainment was a bit of performance art involving a fan dance punctuated with her impressions of indigenous barnyard animals from outer Mongolia (don't ask ME where she comes up with these things; she looked sober at the time). Hedging a bit, I told her that, while I was sure most of us would love to see her perform dramatic impressions (such as "yak in a yurt") while wearing nothing but a large feather fan, it might be better if she waited until we were all too drunk to remember it. Somehow, we never got around to breaking out the alcohol. So, she decided to just tell stupid jokes about me instead.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the rest of us, Brian had hatched another one of his diabolically innocuous plots (like when he tried to get me eaten by a bear in Yosemite) to keep all the gold for himself. Knowing that his wife would get thirsty in the night, he placed the gold-laden water bottle (remember, foreshadowing) inside his tent. His plan was to let her drink all the gold, get giardia from the stream water (to pass the gold more quickly), and then just sit back and wait for his fortune to... um, well... Okay, so it wasn't exactly a clever plan. And the execution was no more brilliant than the conception. In his own sleepy daze, Brian managed to drink most of the gold-water himself. Laurin was not amused.

To wrap up, we had a big breakfast the next morning before breaking camp. Neither Brian nor Laurin got giardia. But the gold was lost forever (as far as I care to know). And thus ended the first ever "Hey You, Get Offa My Cloud, Claim Jumpers Gold Rush Weekend".

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