“Excuse me, what did he say ... a
common dig? What the heck is that?”
I was attending the GPAA’s Gold Fever of
the West Valley monthly meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., when I first heard the term.
I wasn’t sure what it meant, but a lot of
my friends were signing up so I thought I would too. I mean it’s all about the
gold, right? So I might as well get involved and go have some fun!
Stanton, Ariz., would be hosting the last
LDMA National Outing of the year. This five-day event would end up being the
largest in almost 20 years as 182 people from 20 states had signed up.
I arrived about 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday
and walked up to the registration booth to get signed in. Lisa Tucker, one of
the LDMA outing coordinators with her husband, Jack, signed me in and then
explained that I was actually late so I had to hurry to get with the afternoon
shift by 1 p.m. Not really knowing what that meant, I found a campsite, parked
my trailer, and went to work. I walked up with my shovel and an empty bucket
ready to do something, but I did not expect to see about 100 people buzzing
around! I saw two huge piles of pay-dirt, a row of drywashers, a bunch of
recirculating highbankers posted around a muddy pond and a panning station. I
was amazed to see so much activity going on.
I jumped in to help fill buckets at the
pay-dirt pile. The buckets kept coming and we kept filling them so they could
go to the drywashers. In between shovelfuls, I met some cool people who, like me, had never seen
anything like this. More than 60 percent of the folks at the event were also first-timers. This
made me feel more comfortable as I wasn’t the only one brand new to this. Also, trained
volunteers were in place to teach us newbies the various chores. All of a
sudden, it was 4 p.m. and the shift ended. Wow, that was a fast 3 hours!
My fellow GFWV members helped me set up
my camp. That evening, as I sat at my table and ate some stew, I wondered what the
next day would bring.
The next morning was perfect! I made my
way to the mandatory 8 a.m. meeting where more than 180 of us were standing
around chatting, telling stories and meeting new friends. Jack led the morning
meetings where we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, heard about the previous
day’s work, saw some standout workers get some recognition, saw a gold pan with
the previous day’s gold and there was a daily auction. The auction was for a
bottle of black sand, and whoever won it — depending on how much they paid — got
a vial of gold poured in to it. One special morning there was 1 ounce of gold
given away, but the group voted to have four lucky quarter-ounce winners
instead of just one big winner.
Dominic Ricci of the LDMA handled the
gold and made it fun each day. But the crowd hollered for “Bob” a lot. I
wondered who the heck was Bob and why are they calling for him? Well, Dominic’s
daughter puts one of her dolls in his suitcase for each outing and this
particular time it was Bob the Minion of the “Despicable Me” movies. Who would
have a full-sized adult Bob costume at a ghost town? Evidently someone did as
Dominic raced out one morning dressed as him to everyone’s amazement!
We headed over to the drywashers for my
first time. It was interesting to see the equipment and watch how it worked. It
was pretty loud as the dirt got dumped in and shaken down through the riffles.
I was taught how to watch the material bounce evenly down the riffles, seeing
the larger stones on the outside and the finer silt toward the middle.
Hopefully we were catching gold down under there somewhere! Then it was my turn
to scoop the dirt into the hopper. Not too much, just a little and let it go in
After our shift ended, six of us went out
on a claim. We went down into a promising wash and crossed it to see where we
could set up two drywashers. We didn’t realize that only five of us had crossed
the little wash when we heard Jerry hollering, “Someone look at my head!” as he
was walking back toward the vehicles. He had gone downstream and tripped and
smashed his head into a boulder. He was only about 30 yards away from us, but
no one realized that he had gone a different way. I felt horrible, as I had
ridden over with him and I didn’t even see him go the other way. He had a
terrible gash over his eye, his glasses were messed up and his finger was cut
terribly, too. Jeff ended up taking Jerry to the hospital, where he got 16
stitches in his head and his finger. Being a tough former Marine helped him,
though, as he would be back in camp that night. The remaining four of our group
set up the drywashers and dug some dirt, and I found my first ever picker! It
still amazes me how you just can’t see the gold in the dirt, but when you work
the material, you just might have something cool in there!
Friday morning was gorgeous, too! I
bought breakfast from the volunteers in the kitchen. These eight godsends
prepared 14 meals over their time in camp. There’s a lot of work to prep, cook,
serve and do all the cleanup over five days! They were always smiling, and they,
too, participated in the many events around the camp. There were giveaways,
duck races, games, seminars, a metal-detecting treasure hunt and a panning
contest. Actually, there was so much training going on during the week that I
even heard that Lisa may be teaching a parasailing class from the top of Rich
Hill next year!
This morning shift had me learning a
little about highbankers. There was a variety of different equipment
surrounding the pond. It was very loud and everyone’s boots were encrusted with
mud. I was then called over to the spot where the first 30 tons of pay-dirt had
been laid; we were going to vacuum it up. I had never seen this done before so
it was kind of surreal to be leaning over and vacuuming up dirt ... from the
dirt! But, this pay-dirt had gold in it and we had to get it.
As I worked, I felt very strange. I was
having a diabetic episode. Many folks came to my aid. They sat me down, got
some water in me, and found my diabetes kit in my truck. My blood sugar was
high and I felt awful. While I sat there trying to recover, at least 12 people
saw me and asked me how I was doing. I was so grateful that so many folks
cared. As I sat, there was a splash in the pond behind me. Wade, a volunteer,
had jumped into the muddy pond to clean out the under-tailings that had jammed
a foot valve. I am still not sure what a foot valve is, but Wade was fearless
as he mucked around in the dark brown water. I thought about how he might find
plenty of gold when he washed out his beard!
Lunchtime had me visiting the vendors who
were set up in camp. There were sluices, pans, matting, buckets, kilns, boots,
knives, gear of all sorts, and even gold to buy! The local Make-a-Wish Foundation was also there
raffling off a couple of beautiful nuggets. There was a general feeling of
camaraderie around the camp as Val and Clark, the Stanton caretakers, were
keeping an eye on everything to make sure all things were running well.
When I finally got back to my camp, I was
feeling that tiredness that makes you just want to sit down. It had been a busy
couple of days, but it was still only midafternoon. So I told my friend John
that I was going to go dig some dirt in the closest wash. But, as I looked for
the color, time was getting away from me and it was starting to get dark. As I
headed back, a search party was coming out to look for me to make sure I was
safe. I grinned and joked it off, but I was again very grateful for friends
caring about me.
Saturday morning broke with the sound of
coyotes howling close by. Maybe they realized that this would be a special day.
Both the morning and afternoon crews were going to work 1.5-hour shifts in the
morning to finish off the 90 tons of pay-dirt. The morning meeting started as
usual with the pledge and auction, but it was interesting to find out that
about 40 percent of the 182 participants were GPAA-only members and 14 had
joined the LDMA that week. And about 40 percent of the participants were women!
But during the meeting, Dominic asked
Brad Luis to come forward. Brad is a proud veteran and Brad wanted to give a
special piece of gold to each vet who was participating in the common dig. When he asked, at least 80
veterans came forward to a mighty round of applause.
There were tears, hugs, and thank you’s as Brad gave out his gifts. And then Dominic and Jack gave each vet a special
LDMA $5 poker chip as well. It really was a beautiful moment and I am thankful
that I was there to feel the warmth from this awesome show of love and respect.
After the emotional morning and the final
shifts, it was nice to just relax. Our GFWV crew had 19 participants in the
common dig and many family and friends had come up. So we got a group picture,
had some fun and told some stories. At 6:30 a big bonfire was lit and the
evening meeting began. There were a couple hundred folks gathered around as
prizes were given away, the winners of the contests were announced and everyone
got their T-shirts, which we would wear for the group picture in the morning.
With the official festivities done, most
folks went back to their camps. I couldn’t blame them as it had been a long and
tiring week. But a huge fire was rolling and the coolness of the night air was
upon us as about 45 folks still hung around. There was a glow in the crystal-clear sky as the stars were
starting to twinkle overhead. A magnificent full moon rose up over Rich Hill.
And then from the shadows came a slight guitar strum. Two old friends from
Washington, who hadn’t seen each other in a long time, had brought their instruments
to the bonfire. They got in tune, and proceeded to play and sing for a couple
of hours. It had been many years since I had that kind of experience and I
truly felt how the many sleeping prospectors were missing out on a very special
evening. There was a warmth around that bonfire that was not from the raging
fire, but from the very experience itself.
Sunday morning was cold with a north wind
blowing in as I put on my special new T-shirt and went up for breakfast. Folks
were hugging, chatting, telling stories, and asking when they would see each
other again. We posed for the group picture but it was hard for more than 180
people to be seen in it. There was an auction of a ton of donated items and
these, as well as many of the other auctions, had all the proceeds going to the
Stanton Camp. One generous prospector even donated $1,000 to the camp with it
earmarked toward buying a washer and dryer
With everything finished, it was finally
time to divvy up the gold that we had found! We all got in line as Val and Clark
held a bucket so each person could grab a numbered poker chip.
There were some special numbers, though —
numbers 1, 2 and 3 got extra gold — and 14 other numbered chips that were
designated by the new LDMA members. If you grabbed one of those chips, you also
got something extra. So, it was kind of thrilling to see if you grabbed a
special chip or not — and to see what our portion of the take was from this
“common dig”! When I pulled my chip, I got a regular number. My take was a vial
with 3 small gold nuggets and a
bag of black sand. When my friend John and I got back out in the sun, though,
we could see the gold glistening in the sand. Looks like I would get some
practice panning now, too!
I said a bunch of “goodbyes” and “see ya
laters” and then made my way back to my camp.
Thankfully, my neighbor John helped me
hitch up my trailer. And then my neighbor Gene
luckily had an air compressor as one of
my tires was extremely low. What should have taken about an hour to pack up
took me almost three hours with all of the talking that was going on! I then
leisurely made my way down the dusty road home, but with a happy smile on my
So, was it really all about the gold? I
mean, I am a prospector, right? Well, as a first-timer to a “common dig,” that
is what my expectations were. But after the fact, I would have to say no. I
mean sure, the shiny stuff is spectacular and I did learn about it and
different ways to find it. But, I experienced so much more! I made new friends
and strengthened relationships
with old friends. I experienced a warmth and camaraderie with fellow prospectors from around the country. And,
I had a lot of fun doing it! I am sure that each camp is quite unique, but if
you get the opportunity to participate in a common dig...
I would recommend that you get involved
and go have some fun!
Gold Fever of the West Valley