The New Prospectors
The New Prospectors
This is a good story for a rainy day, a long answer to a short question about how Joseph Younce got into life on the road, prospecting for gold. That’s the reason he’s here, at 75, at the Loud Mine camp in Cleveland, Georgia, standing next to his RV as rain slaps the canopy of the pop-up tent over our heads and water pools beneath our boots. There will be no prospecting today, so Joseph settles into his tale.
After his first marriage ended in the 1990s, Joseph wasn’t sure how to date again. But he wanted someone to fish with, so in 1994 he put an ad in his local Kansas paper, The Hutchinson News, seeking companionship. There were two responses: one with a name but no number, and one with a number but no name. He called the number, and a woman asked him to stop by after work—work that, as a machine operator, left him oily. He hesitated, but she insisted. I want to see you at your worst, she said. So Joseph went.
Standing there, covered in oil, Joseph committed to meet again that night after he’d cleaned up. But first, he asked her favorite color. Light blue, she said. That evening, Joseph arrived for the date with a blue rose hidden behind his back. They married months later. Throughout their 17-year marriage, Joseph kept buying her blue roses, just because. When doctors diagnosed his wife with brain cancer and gave her less than a year to live, she picked a tattoo for him, a hummingbird and a blue rose. Today, they are on his left arm. In loving memory, Sunni.
Sunni also gave Joseph instructions: Take her $10,000 life-insurance payout and buy an RV and travel around looking for gold—something he’d talked about doing since he retired from Walmart at 65 and became a member of a prospecting organization, the Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association, in 2010. Go have fun with the rest of your life, she told him.
Since 2013, Joseph has lived out of an RV, staying for months at LDMA-owned gold-mining campsites, traveling from camps in Washington state to Burnt River, Oregon, to Scott Bar and Duisenberg, California, to Stanton, Arizona, and Vein Mountain, North Carolina. Since May 1, he’s been in Georgia, at Loud Mine Camp, where he’ll remain until November. He hasn’t decided what’s next, but he’s thinking about Oconee, South Carolina. “Wherever I get an inkling to go, I go,” he says. “This is home. Everything I have is here.”
On YouTube, gold-panning tutorials have racked up millions of views, and product-testing clips of new sluices and highbankers have been eyeballed by tens of thousands of people.
Most days at Loud Mine, Joseph works the dirt for gold, and when he doesn’t feel like it, he writes fiction and poetry, watches the National Geographic show Wicked Tuna, and goes trout fishing with friends on the Chattahoochee River. He walks Sunni’s 13-year-old shih tzu, Cricket, and on very rare occasions bakes cream puffs, his specialty. “I do what I want, when I want, how I want,” says Joseph, who has a 51-year-old daughter in Kansas and 49-year-old twin daughters in Florida from his first marriage.
While life is good, it would be better if Sunni were there, sleeping next to him on the queen-size bed in this 31-foot, 1993 Damon Challenger RV. “She’d have been right here with me,” he says. Instead, Joseph carries some of her ashes. The rain keeps falling.
Gold is everywhere at Loud Mine, in the dirt and as flakes in the sand, swirling in pans and kept safe in vials, fashioned into jewelry, worn in lockets, pressed into small rectangles, and dropped by proud prospectors as cool weights in your palm.
Anyone can prospect for gold in the United States, though there are rules, and those rules can be a headache for anyone not versed in the fine print around claimed and unclaimed land. What the California-based Gold Prospectors Association of America (GPAA) offers can be appealing to amateurs like Joseph: pre-negotiated access to more than 400 properties, with 25,247 acres of “minable” land for a first-year fee of $84.50, with a $69.50 annual renewal. (A Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association membership includes a GPAA membership.)
The GPAA was founded in 1968 by prospector George “Buzzard” Massie to “preserve and promote the great heritage of the North American Prospector.” By all accounts, Massie was a gregarious, larger-than-life individual who helped bring gold prospecting back into the public consciousness. During his appearance on a 1980 episode of The Merv Griffin Show, which also features Ralph Nader and journalist Bob Woodward, Massie is affable, charismatic. “How much have you panned, approximately, in weight?” Griffin asks. “Merv, there’s been more gold through my pan than I weigh,” Massie responds, eliciting titters and murmurs from the crowd. “Are you serious?” Griffin asks. Massie smiles wryly. “And I’m overweight,” he adds.
Massie’s message—of success, of adventure, of hope—has been heard across the country. Today, the GPAA reaches around 50,000 active members and counts local chapters everywhere from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Tampa, Florida. It produces a bimonthly magazine (Gold Prospectors) and newspaper (Pick & Shovel Gazette) and hosts gold and treasure shows. Annually, it signs up more than 5,000 new members.
The Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association (LDMA), founded by Massie in 1976, is the GPAA’s more expensive sibling, with a current lifetime membership cost of $4,750. As the country’s largest private gold-prospecting and mining organization, it has just under 7,000 active members, who have unfettered access to LDMA’s five exclusive claims and 15 camps and properties in Oregon, California, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Some of these camps allow stays of up to six months consecutively, and a majority have full RV hookup sites, showers, kitchens, and onsite caretakers; nightly costs are around $3 for tents, $8 for a 30-amp RV, and $10 for a 50-amp RV. Dominic Ricci, executive director of operations for the LDMA and GPAA, says that “conservatively,” 25 to 30 percent of the members are seasonal campers who travel to multiple destinations.
To find gold, the most successful recreational prospectors will first turn to maps, books, and historical records, which show where gold has already been found—the surest sign of finding more. But after that, actually getting a significant amount of gold is time-consuming; it’s a multistep process, made easier with tools that lighten the manual labor, yes, but still nothing that would be described as effortless. In rivers and streams, if state laws allow it, prospectors can flip on a motorized dredge, which functions something like an underwater vacuum, sucking up sediment and spitting it out into a sluice box, where water separates gravel from black sand and gold. For those working on dry land, gold-bearing dirt and gravel are typically loaded into a highbanker, which pumps water through a sluice to mimic stream flows and parts the gravel from the sand and gold. In deserts, where water is scarce, prospectors plug in drywashers, which use vibration and air pulses to jostle out lighter materials. Even then, after these phases, the finer material has to be panned—and often panned again—for small flecks of gold that can’t be plucked by hand from dust or dirt. No matter the technology, a good prospector still needs to know how to work a pan.
On YouTube, gold-panning tutorials have racked up millions of views, and product-testing clips of new sluices and highbankers have been eyeballed by tens of thousands of people. There are online forums for gold-hunting greenhorns and veterans alike on Facebook and on sites like TreasureNet, and programming on the Outdoor Channel—which Massie founded before his death in December 1993—continues to inform adventure-loving viewers that gold is very much out there for the taking, thanks to reruns of shows like Gold Fever, which ran from 1996 to 2015 and was hosted by one of George Massie’s sons, Tom. Today, the GPAA and LDMA are under the direction of Brandon Johnson, George’s grandson.
Some of the GPAA’s biggest draws are “dirt parties,” days-long outings where members gather at a camp to prospect, work the dirt in assigned shifts, and split the gold recovered at the end of the event. I’m here at Loud Mine for one of these parties, which runs from Tuesday evening to Sunday morning, five nights and four full days of bingo, bullshitting around bonfires, auctions, fishing contests, metal-detecting hunts, Jenga, root beer floats, Texas Hold ’Em, and prospectors eating off of wooden picnic tables dressed in their checkerboard finest for communal breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Just 77 miles north of Atlanta, the camp is at the bottom of a stone-packed road flanked by tiger lilies. Inside its gates, tents, RVs, and trailers line the site, set with chairs, carpets, grills. By dusk on Tuesday, 48 of the 52 camper spots are full, the grounds swelling with pickups and gold pans and people, who have driven from as far away as Kingsland, Texas, and St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, to be here, paying to play their odds in the dirt. The prospectors have arrived. The party begins.
Joseph knows Mississippi because Mississippi also travels full-time in his RV. Mississippi is not actually from the state, but since he works there as a sign-maker in the winter, he supposes the sobriquet makes sense. (His actual name is Darryl Combs.) Still, if Mississippi, 58, had his choice, he’d be called West Virginia, where he was born and lived before his family moved to Vero Beach, Florida, where he attended junior high school. There, as a teenager, he began laying cement and applying stucco, dreaming of driving out of the Sunshine State.
When Mississippi did eventually leave Florida, tragedy followed soon after: his wife died in a car accident in Alabama, after they’d been married 15 years. He was 37. “You give everything to build your world, and it can just be gone in a day,” he tells me on Thursday, hands laced over his chest. “I decided I wasn’t going to give everything I’ve got again to build something and have it be gone. I’m going to enjoy myself.”
It’s not that there’s no money to be made; of course there is. And it’s not that prospectors don’t harbor dreams of someday, somehow hitting it big; doesn’t everybody?
For the past 20 years, Mississippi has been on the road, pursuing an interest that began decades ago when he found old gold-mining books in his aunt’s house in South Georgia. From spring to fall, he prospects in rivers and creeks around the Appalachians, using motorized floating dredges to slurp up underwater sand and gravel; in a summer, he’ll pull in around three ounces of gold, which is worth about $4,000. Because of his ability to read water and seemingly find gold wherever, whenever, some people refer to Mississippi by other names: the Legend. The Journeyman.
Still, Mississippi, an LDMA member who travels with his partner and fellow prospector, Linda Shupe, doesn’t think much about income. “When you need a lot of money is when you have a mortgage, car payment, and college payments. Whittle all that away, and life is pretty pleasurable,” he says. “I’ve never had so much fun in my life as I have in the last 20 years.”
After Loud Mine, Mississippi and Linda will travel to Buchanan, Georgia, to build a dredge with their friend Bill Valora, 77, a retired Pennsylvania state policeman whose Scamp trailer is neatly packed with Fruit Loops, white bread, and supplies for building that dredge. Then the trio will drive to newly leased LDMA land in Alabama, before returning to Georgia. After that, Mississippi says, North Carolina, maybe, or South. Throw a dart at the map, he mimes, and pick a place. It will be some time before prospecting season is over, and before Mississippi returns to Mississippi.
“We just ramble around. Who knows where we’ll end up,” he says. “Out here, this life, it’s always exciting.”
Mississippi and Linda have been helping Wayne and Connie Bruner break down their dredge, which they need to do to move it to and from the water. Wayne and Connie are relatively new to this gold thing, after all. Not new to thinking about it—no, that’s something they’ve done for years, ever since they started watching shows like the Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush around 2015. But prospecting was never really part of their life until months ago, when suddenly, it very much was.
In March, Wayne bought an LDMA membership after learning about the organization at a pay-to-dig site in Alabama. In April, Wayne and Connie purchased a camper, and on May 1, they drove from their cabin in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, to Loud Mine, where they’ll stay until the end of July. Already, says Connie, 55, this life on the road feels like home. Wayne, 56, says living out of something with wheels isn’t a major adjustment—everything is just slightly smaller.
Some of the biggest draws are “dirt parties,” days-long outings where members gather at a camp to prospect, work the dirt in assigned shifts, and split the gold recovered at the end of the event.
When the rain lets up, Wayne will don his wetsuit and Connie her waders, and they’ll work the depths of Town Creek on their own time, dredging up sediment that they’ll separate for gold. So far, they’ve found around an ounce, which is worth about $1,400.
“You get some looks,” Wayne says, standing by his RV on Saturday. “Like, Why are you spending $2,000 to get $50 worth of gold? Why don’t you go out and buy it? No. I don’t want to just sit at home.”
Come September, the couple will fly from Asheville to Cleveland to Anchorage to Nome, a city on the tip of Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, where they’ll hunt for gold for two weeks. Then it’s back to Maggie Valley and, at some point, Loud Mine. Because even though Wayne and Connie have already been here more than a month, returning just seems right.
“They just made you feel like you belong here,” Connie says of fellow campers. “They made you feel welcome. Like family.”
In conversation with prospectors, that family-like feeling keeps coming up. That and words like friendship, support, release, relax.
For many, the camps are a beacon, a place to connect under the banner of a shared interest. Mike “Ducky” Desanno, 57, meets the same four friends here every year. Becky Elliott, 68, took off work as a dishwasher to camp out of her Ford Escape, just for the dirt party. Realtors Mike and Shannon Skyles, both 37, traveled from Indianapolis with their children, Judah, 4, and Adelyn, 1, after coming to Loud Mine in 2018; another baby is due in July. “People [here] are kind, thoughtful, and willing to help each other,” Mike says. “You don’t get that everywhere.”
The GPAA and LDMA don’t keep specific demographic information about their members, but Ricci says that a majority are married, and estimates 20 percent are retired and around 50 percent are veterans or active military members.
“I do carry ghosts around,” says Army veteran and longtime firefighter Gilbert French, 61, facing Loud Mine’s stretch of rippling Town Creek on Friday. “Every once in a while, the ghosts will flare up, at different times and different places. You see things you don’t want to see. This is a break away from it. A bad day mining is better than a good day at work.”
Wayne and Connie are staying kitty-corner from LaDonna and Bob Aring at Loud Mine. LaDonna and Bob are not new to prospecting; they’ve been interested since 1974, when they visited Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Bob paid 25 cents to pan for gold and found a nugget the size of his fingernail, worth thousands of dollars.
Their prospecting has evolved since then, and with it so has their camper. Though they live nearly three hours away, LaDonna and Bob are at Loud Mine every two weeks in the summer, always with their fifth-wheel Forest River Surveyor RV parked in the same spot on the slope, a canopy protecting their Gold Cube sluice. Nearby, Bob and daughter Tina Williams, 47, shake, twist, and sweep pans for finer grains of gold, which shine against the silt. Step up into the RV, and there’s a queen-size bed, two recliners, a fireplace, a 55-inch TV, a kitchen island, a living room, bathroom, oven, shower, ice-maker, three-burner stove, and microwave. “It’s a home away from home,” says LaDonna, 68, a former school bus driver.
LaDonna and Bob, 69, have sold all the cows they normally keep on their 48-acre farm in Cedartown, Georgia, because cows take care and attention, and LaDonna and Bob don’t want that commitment—not this summer, anyway. This is already their fourth time at Loud Mine in 2019, and in the fall they’ll travel to a dirt party in Oconee, and another at Vein Mountain. It will be late October before they return to Cedartown, when they’ll start preparing for their winter vacation in Florida, but not before LaDonna prints photos from their prospecting trips and puts them in a scrapbook. This dirt party, she says, will probably take up five or six pages.
No matter the technology, a good prospector still needs to know how to work a pan.
Around the camp, “rich” is a word usually paired with a negation—it’s something you probably won’t become, something you can’t get through small-scale hobby prospecting. It’s not that there’s no money to be made; of course there is. And it’s not that prospectors don’t harbor dreams of someday, somehow hitting it big; doesn’t everybody? But by and large, the country’s most lucrative prospecting is in gold deposits that streak through rock, and working these takes more money, more permits, more investments in a larger-scale operation, and more mining machinery to drill, blast, crack, and crush through the earth. This here? This is fun.
For many at Loud Mine, chasing gold is an antidote to boredom, a choose-your-own-adventure where all roads lead to the promise of a payoff, no matter how minute. In afternoon conversation with one couple, I learned that gold prospecting was for them a relatively new pursuit, joining hot-air ballooning and scuba diving on a long list of recreational activities. I’ve got a real Indiana Jones in my life, the woman told me. Other prospectors, retired from their 9-to-5, said they didn’t want to tee off, to chase a little white ball around—they connected with the land by digging, shoveling, and swishing it in their pan. One man told me he delighted in the feeling of unearthing something that no one in the world had ever seen before. I like camping, so if you go out camping, you might as well do something, said another.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that few prospectors here sell their gold. Instead, they bury it in their yards as a rainy-day fund, or gift it to grandchildren. Others treat it as a keepsake, a memory of all the bullshitting around bonfires, bingo, and root beer floats. A shimmering reminder, maybe, that more is still out there.