“You ready to strike it rich?” Mike asked, grinning at me from beneath his baseball cap.
“Sure!” I hoped my tone reflected the enthusiasm I was trying to fake.
Mike had set two plastic buckets upside-down in the creek, and now he instructed me to have a seat on one of them. I stepped into the creek and felt the chill of the knee-high mountain water rushing around my hip-wader rubber boots. Cautiously, I sat on the bucket. It seemed stable enough. Mike handed me a pan filled with dirt, sat across from me, and showed me how to use the rushing creek water to get rid of most of the clay and sand, and how to swirl the remaining sediment around in the pan to separate out any gold specks. Patiently, I listened and tried to mimic the circular motions he made with his wrists, all the while wondering how long was long enough to sit there.
Several days earlier, I had arrived at Flynn’s Hidden Hollow Hideaway Cattle & Guest Ranch in Townsend, Montana, for a week of horseback riding, hiking, and enjoying the peace that comes with being miles from the nearest cell phone signal. The first few days were filled with wonder and magic as I rode all over the mountainside, herded cattle, and learned how to fire a rifle. The food was good, the setting was breathtaking, and the ranchers were friendly.
One of the ranchers was Mike, an older man who strode around in full waders (with suspenders) and an ever-present grin. Mike helped out on the ranch when needed and spent the rest of his time looking for gold on the ranch property. Throughout the week, Mike had asked me if I wanted him to teach me how to pan for gold. It seemed a silly endeavor, a tourist trap, and every time I simply shrugged. The owner of the ranch had mentioned that they didn’t salt the cache, meaning that if I did find any gold it came from the mountains. The unspoken caution, of course, was that I shouldn’t expect to find anything at all. Mike was persistent, however, and his grin was so enthusiastic that I finally agreed, in part because I thought it was a small thing I could do to make his day. I went in thinking that I would be polite for an hour, and then move on to pursuits that were more interesting.
Once I got the hang of the panning, Mike started to ask me questions. What did I do for a living? Where was I from? Did I like the big city? And so forth. When I said I was a lawyer, he started asking me questions about famous Supreme Court cases. I was a little surprised at first, but lulled by the warm sun on my back, the cool water rushing around my boots, and the repetitive, circular motions of my gold pan, I relaxed and we began to talk in earnest.
We talked about the law, mostly. Mike knew a lot about the law, because he was a gold miner, didn’t want to pay a lawyer very much, and so spent a lot of time researching, asserting, and lobbying for miners’ rights in Montana. He read cases – new and old – and had taught himself how to analyze statutes, regulations and court decisions. His interests were broader than mining, however, which is how he knew about many Supreme Court cases that I had never heard of until law school. He read them for fun.
“If my life had gone differently, I probably would have gone to law school,” Mike said, adjusting his hat and squinting in the sunlight. He shrugged. “But it didn’t, so I had to figure it out for myself.”
We talked about life in general. Mike was a Vietnam vet, and, like so many others, had difficulty readjusting to normal life once he returned to the states. Despite the difficulties he faced, however, Mike adopted a practical, cheerful outlook and found a life that he enjoyed living: nominally indulging gold fever, but in reality using the gold mining as a way to spend time in the outdoors and dig into the intellectual pursuit – law – for which he was clearly well suited.
As we talked, I forgot about my initial reservations, and the time passed too quickly. After a couple of hours, I had discovered several tiny flecks of gold from my many pans. Mike helped me put them into a little vial, which I dutifully pocketed to bring home as a souvenir.
I thanked Mike for teaching me to pan for gold. He apologized that I hadn’t struck it rich. He didn’t realize that, in fact, I had.