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Reflecting on gold fever

The author recalls the allure of get-rich-quick schemes

By Joe Wills 

Earlier this summer I went to the annual 49er Fair in Butte Creek Canyon, a charming event a few miles from where I live. The craft booths and old-time fun, though, are far removed from gold fever, the powerful force that drove thousands of dreamers here and changed our landscape forever.

I have seen gold fever up close, and it’s hard to predict and even harder to resist. When I worked at a newspaper in Alaska in the 1970s, our photographer abruptly quit to help his brother work a claim in the Brooks Range. He’d found a gold nugget up there on a visit, and when he returned he could not sleep. I can still see his crazed look as he packed up, every wasted second sheer agony for him. That same year, our former publisher suddenly sunk his savings into mining equipment and disappeared into the Alaskan bush. Some sourdoughs had shown him a map that looked straight out of the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

About 10 years later, I got a taste of it. My wife and I were seduced by a multilevel marketing pitch that involved selling gold jewelry. All skepticism abandoned me, and at night I rapturously imagined becoming rich. And then, over time, the madness was gone, along with some money, of course. But, in the grip of it, how I loved handling those bracelets and necklaces!

Gold fever is a curious blend of obsession and adventure. It grabs you like an addiction, but there’s no shame in it, and in fact you worry what will happen if you don’t answer the siren’s call. Many people who stayed behind during the Gold Rush despaired that they did not take the leap, even feeling like those who perished had chosen a better fate.

Gold fever makes you do foolish and dangerous things, and rarely in the end is the mother lode found, the dream fulfilled. But the deep yearning it triggers, if it’s not crushed by disappointment and loss, is as good as gold. A greater fire for living is a fever worth having.

This article was published on 8.20.15. by

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