Finding gold in memory

We were looking for trees, and Columbia State Park had a positive feeling in my mind. We parked and went looking for the trailhead, but instead found old mining equipment, troughs of water, and the last departing crowds of running kids and smiling parents. This was not the forested park we were looking for, but something else unexpected slowly formed in the silted memory trough of my mind.Columbia panning for gold


“My grandpa took me to a place like this…when I was a kid…” I told my lady, a bit distracted. I couldn’t stop looking at those twin troughs of descending water and mud, remembering dipping my pan into one just like those with my brother to one side and smiling grandfather nearby.


It wasn’t until we left, and were watching the birds that nest inside the bridge over an immense and empty canyon that I realized, or perhaps admitted, that that was the place my grandfather had taken us.

Canyon and bridge

My grandfather was the most important man in the youngest years of my life, and that trip is a much more than a fleck of precious metal in my memory. The three of us drove up in his little Mazda truck, squeezed against the gear shift and stopping for hamburgers. We went to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and couldn’t believe the size of the trees, leaving a nascent awareness of them as gods in my mind.


And we went to Columbia. We panned for gold, drank sarsaparilla in the general store, and my grandpa let us each buy a leather bull whip, which my mother never would have let us do. I remember the store owner said we couldn’t take them out of the bags while in town, since they would spook the horses, so we sat on a bench as the horse carts trotted past, peeking in at their coiled forms.


Columbia streetThat was something like 25 years ago. And yesterday morning we went back, my third visit to Columbia, and walked on the streets where my grandfather had. The quaint facades were slashed with morning sun, and the chill in the air coexisted with fresh-cooked pancakes and maple syrup outside the restaurant, which was not quite open yet.


We couldn’t stay, no time to pan for gold, but here in this season of family and gifts, that unexpected remembrance of that essential piece of my family was a gift I hold dear.