History still swirls in those gold pans

Hopeful prospectors sluice gold through pans at the Roaring Camp Mining Co. in Pine Grove.

The Mother Lode’s culture was built on the enthralling pursuit of gold. About 170 years later, the way that great glitter hunt still captures the imagination continues to bring visitors to the area, and influences how the community reinterprets its own history.

Perhaps the best proof of how enduring the memory of 1849 is can be found at the bottom of a rugged, tree-line canyon outside Pine Grove. That’s where the Roaring Camp Mining Co. has found a way to keep the region’s original dreams gleaming underwater.

The outfit was started in the 1950s by the late Elton Rodman, who wanted people to have a taste of true unspoiled prospecting terrain.

“He’d just come back from the war and the property was for sale,” said Rodman’s granddaughter, Nichole Dollman, a manager at Roaring Camp. “People would stay at the resort and he would take them by horseback down into the canyon.”

He did so much over the years,” she added. “He just loved people and was a fantastic storyteller.”

Rodman helped build Roaring Camp into a fourth-generation family business that still transports visitors down a 3-mile dirt road to a secluded refuge of natural beauty. There, the camp offers guided gold panning tours, scenic hikes, river fishing, horseshoe games and swimming from smooth granite outcrops. The operation also features cabins, tent camping and coal-fired barbecues on summer Saturday nights. Its rustic outdoor dinners are even more relaxing thanks to live music from area bands like Wicked Sisters, the Slade Rivers Band and Darcel and Company.

The Roaring Camp experience has been so popular that some visitors sign up for the Dirt of the Month Club, which sends 13- to 15-pounds of virgin, unprocessed, gold-sprinkled soil from around its river channel each time the calendar changes.

“There’s lots to do here but, of course, everyone comes for the gold,” Dollman admits. “That gold fever is a crazy thing.”

A crazy thing – and a very old story. But what’s the meaning of that lost story? The gold lust that swept 19th century America is a phenomenon we still don’t fully understand, and thus we continue to be drawn back to it in our art, in our research, in our collective memory. Lately, questions about the era have cropped up in the minds of some of our nation’s most accomplished writers. These queries are finding their way into edgy books and scripts that challenge our notions about how the scrambles to California, South Dakota and the Klondike truly forged our nation’s character.

One example is the rise in popularity of Patrick deWitt’s enigmatic novel “The Sisters Brothers.” Set in 1851 with its climax on the American River 25 miles north of Amador County, this Odysseus-like yarn of two hired killers who chase a prospecting genius from camp to camp is a kind of bizarre morality play. In it, deWitt delves into the profound ways that lawlessness alienates the human spirit. That’s not to say his theme’s too overt. DeWitt’s way of unpeeling life’s absurdities often causes readers to laugh out loud, which makes the experience of turning the book’s pages a strange one indeed. Above its surface, “The Sisters Brothers” is a madcap adventure. Below the surface, it’s a Western ode to melancholy. Its narrator, Eli Sisters, is an empathetic assassin who dreams of one day shedding his pretense to grit and brutality. Yet Eli finds that the men gravitating to the California Gold Rush mainly bring endless schemes and ruthless self-obsession. The frontier’s social breakdown chokes Eli’s potential for self-growth with its constant, unfiltered chaos.

We know from Amador County records that the sudden and often random violence encapsulated in “The Sisters Brothers” was real. There was the Rancheria massacre in 1855. There was the related murder of the county’s first sheriff, William Phoenix. And there were the 10 men hung from the same tree along Main Street in Jackson that led up to California’s statehood. From Plymouth to the Mokelumne River, there are plenty of tales that survive to speak to the hardness of the land.

Yet the bloodshed in Amador had largely dried up by the time the county’s industrial mines rose against the skyline. One way to think about the reason is through the prism of David Milch’s powerful new HBO film “Deadwood.” For my many, Milch is one of the most visionary and original writers in the history of television. The scripts he penned between 2003 and 2006 about the gold strike in the Black Hills of South Dakota rate as a collective, unparalleled masterpiece. That was for HBO’s original TV series “Deadwood.” Twelve years later, with Milch’s health in steep decline, he was given the chance to definitively end his story in the form of a movie. Milch had previously left the tale with dangerous and disturbing power of the new robber barons beginning to squash the working-class characters he’d imbued with so much life. But picking up its setting a decade later, Milch ended his great opus – and likely his entire writing career – on an unexpected note of hope. In the film, enough time has gone by that the town of Deadwood is evolving into a genuine community. The craven robber barons haven’t stopped threating its people, but through their links to each other – the grassroots power we know as community – the townsfolk finally have a chance to defend their own futures.

It’s clear that similar, very real stories played out around the Mother Lode in the decades after the Gold Rush. Powerful magnates like Leland Stanford reaped their riches and eventually left; the everyday people stayed to form lasting cultures based on neighborly bonds and the golden rule – an entirely different kind of gold that still glimmers in Amador everywhere you look.

Send word on your Amador County events to mtaylor@sierralodestar.com.

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