1849 is the year everyone goes West for the gold. This is the year the people come from all sides of of the earth to California to shake their pans in the river and alter the landscape with their presence. This is the year John Mayes, a farm boy with an artist’s soul, climbs on the back of a wagon on a whim and follows his friend Charles Moore, a strong boy looking to strike it rich, across the country to Coloma, California. John gets on the wagon not because of the gold but because of his own boredom; he is running out of things to do around Virginia.
The trip across the country is hard, as most journeys are hard, and this hardness comes in both physical and emotional forms. There is the cold, for one, which moves into the bones as the sun goes down, and there is the constant lack of food. There is also the loneliness that comes to one who leaves his home, the kind of loneliness that fixes itself into a dark place in one’s chest and does not go away until he returns to find home as hollow a place as any. But despite these hard elements, or perhaps because of them, John Mayes finds a sort of solace in the journey. He finds comfort in the foraging for food, the pure feeling of hunger. This is mostly because these things makes him feel alive; the necessary tasks performed in order to push on, the simple movements one must make to survive, remind John that he is a man and also that he is an animal.
John also takes pleasure in the epic beauty that is the Northwest: the frightening expanses and then the impossible mountains, the new breeds of trees and the skies thatare brighter and cleaner than those he has known in the East. He often wakes up early to start a fire for breakfast and finds himself consumed by the advancing sun, the crisp and decisive way that mornings come when other people are not there to witness them. He delights in the shadows that sit under rain clouds or move seamlessly under a circling hawk.
John longs to capture the feeling that he takes from this journey in this wagon, across this land, so he takes up writing notes in a hidebound book he had happened to shove in his knapsack at the last moment. The book of John’s notes reads:
No other air like this.
When I make a fire,
It is the only fire.
And it is a necessary fire.
The book of John’s notes reads:
When did you begin
On my small being?
Sky of many moods,
When did you come
To define me?
The book of John’s notes reads:
The others in the wagon
Do not see the song
In these trees.
The wagon arrives in California in April of 1849. The wildflowers are out and the poppies make a particular impression on John. (Poppies are bits of gold on the hillside! he jots in the cowhide book. How I long to pick them from the grass and keep them in jars throughout the house!) The settler’s camp in Coloma is bustling, and John finds himself caught in a frenzied rush of men whose only goal is the finding and capturing of gold. Gold is the force, the end, the something precious, the reason, the dream. There is a madness about all of it; the men are up early and out late, knee deep in the river with their pans.
John dutifully joins this parade (or stampede, rather) that is the quest for gold. He gets hold of a pan and a pair of tall boots and attends the morning ritual of sifting, inspecting, tiring, singing, daydreaming, all the while rocking that silver pan…
But John does not think like the other prospectors think; that is, John does not think of his life in terms of gold. He does not hope for the gold, he does not pray for it. He does not think of what he will do with the gold when he finds it or of how it will change his life. He does not long to yell Eureka! or to be the envy of the other desperate men standing in the river. Instead John ponders the way the water rides over the stones and the glint of the sun as it hits the pans of the other miners. He notes the way the silhouettes of the men’s bodies bend, as the branch of a tree bends, against the aching Western sky.
A hot day in June brings gold to John. He is standing on the southern bank of the American river, his back to the sawmill and his body hunched. He is singing: I ride an ol’ paint, I leeeead an old dame, and he spots a sparkle beneath the stone where his boot rests. He reaches into the river, removes the chunk of gold, and walks home.
In a jar by the window, the chunk of gold looks beautiful to John. And only then, as he looks at the jar from a chair across the room, does he understand why everyone in town is searching for this gold. Gold will live forever, John writes in his notebook. Gold does not die, as a poppy or a person would die, if kept in a jar without air.
And then John becomes sad, for he is rich with something that does not concern him.