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24k dreams

There's a very real temptation the first time you spot in your pan a fleck of gold (albeit the size of an ant's left shoe) to start dreaming of what you're going to buy with the fistfuls of nuggets to come.

Condo in Kauai. Convertible BMW. Plane tickets to Paris for a week when all the Parisians have left town.

The warm, glowing metal inspires an intoxicating cocktail of greed, awe and fantasy, without which California would be Nebraska with beaches. It's a feeling you don't have to dig far for in Jamestown, a town built on gold. Here you can still use nuggets to pay for goods and services around Main Street, and for a while you could have earned college credit for learning how to find gold.

My wife, Ann, and I wanted to experience Gold Rush history _ not by sifting through souvenir shops for "I Gold" T-shirts, but by prospecting for the real thing. Jamestown's storied past, its geology and its natural beauty make it a great spot to spend a weekend swirling and sluicing for precious metals _ and to escape the nongold rush.

Gold in some other hills

In June 1848, about the time word was seeping out about the gold discovery at Sutter's Mill, Benjamin Wood of Clatsop Plains, Ore., found some sizable chunks in a Sierra foothills stream in Tuolumne County that he creatively dubbed Wood's Creek. He established camp at (surprise!) Wood's Crossing.

By the end of the year, President James Polk had discreetly leaked the news of gold in a State of the Union address (never mind that California was not technically a state of the Union yet). A tale was making the rounds in the newly renamed port town of San Francisco that prospectors in remote Wood's Crossing were "simply prying nuggets from their resting spots with hunting knives."

That was enough incentive for San Francisco lawyer Col. George James who, when he reached Wood's Crossing, treated the entire community to free champagne. The people were so touched, they elected James the regional alcalde, or chief judicial officer, and renamed the community Jamestown.

(They tried to rename it again after James and his girlfriend, having defrauded hundreds of investors in a mining deal, vamoosed in the middle of the night. The attempt to call it American Camp failed because the government had already put up a Jamestown post office.)

By the early 1900s, placer mining (in-stream gravels) and lode mining (in bedrock) in the Jamestown area had produced $30-million in nuggets and ore, but as with other Gold Rush towns, the easy gold didn't last. That doesn't mean, however, that the gold is gone.

"They only took about 10 percent of the gold out," said George Eldridge, a local writer and history buff. "There's lots of gold if you know where to go."

Our leisurely saunter around today's Jamestown ("Jimtown" to the locals) revealed the archetypal Gold Rush town: five blocks of Main Street with plank sidewalks, antique stores, knickknack shops and taverns, as well as a few historic hotels, mining suppliers and a Wild West show on weekends.

There's a good reason Jamestown looked familiar to us: We watch too much TV.

This gold town has a multitude of credits on the silver screen, providing scenery and steam trains for about 200 movies and TV shows, from High Noon to Little House on the Prairie.

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, a few blocks east of downtown, was the headquarters of the Sierra Railway when the line started in 1897 and is a railroad buff's playground. The museum and the array of railroad cars, working steam engines and related gear are astonishing, although not as impressive as the station's role as Hooterville in Petticoat Junction.

Jamestown has its charms, and a night in the well-aged National Hotel was a welcome break from previous nights of camping, but we'd come with a goal: to get filthy rich.

Picks and pans

The Gold Prospecting Adventures office is on Main Street (look for the sign of the hanged miner), but the prospecting is about a mile north of town at the Jimtown 1849 Gold Mining Camp on Wood's Creek. This is a re-creation of a Gold Rush camp and was built by the company after discovering artifacts there in 1990.

We met our instructor, Brent Shock, who was well on his way to a Nobel Prize in looking rumpled. (Would you trust a runway model in an Armani suit to help you dig for gold?) Intentionally or not, he looked and acted the part of a prospector, sporting a hat and jeans that might have been among the artifacts unearthed in 1990 and a demeanor that was an alloy of crusty sage and stir-crazy gold-fever victim.

The mining camp, a clearing surrounded by pines and cottonwoods with rustic tables, a few sheds and a small cabin, straddles Wood's Creek. After a cigarette and a tall coffee, Shock began his primer on gold, weaving together history, geology, hydrology, psychology and a little theology, and using technical terms such as "alluvial deposits" and "damn big nugget."

He pulled a rumpled note pad out of a rumpled book bag and illustrated all his points (except the theology ones) with a succession of pens that seemed to will themselves into drying up.

The most important lesson: Gold is heavy. Heavier than rocks. It will always be at the bottom.

The lecture over, Shock offered us immense wading boots, sat us down on a low footbridge over the creek and gave us each a black plastic pan full of dirt and rocks. At his instructions, we dunked our pans, broke up the dirt, sorted out the rocks and pebbles, and angled the pans while dipping to skim off the light material on top.

Then, the final step: swirling the remaining handful of sand and rice-size pebbles until a yellow fleck appears or your back muscles seize up.

And so it went for the next hour.

I got a fleck in my first load, Ann got two on her second. Everything Shock had said about the process was true, and it worked. He had not told us, however, what effect it would have on us.

I had held a gold coin, owned gold jewelry and spray-painted a pair of sneakers gold, but the feeling of uncovering the teensy piece of real, natural gold was mind-paralyzing. Condo. Convertible. Paris.

Immediately, we wanted more.

"Most people come up to get that thrill, to see what it's like," Shock said later. "Gold has been doing crazy things to people for thousands of years."

During the second hour, Shock walked us through the use of a sluice box, which is an open-ended trough that uses the river's flow to sort the heavy gold pieces from the dirt and rocks. It is a tribute to good old American laziness and instant gratification.

I had to remove the gold from the ribbed rubber mat in the sluice box, but by this time, my fingers had become so pruned, I was concerned a flake of gold might fall into a wrinkle, like a hiker into a glacial crevasse, and be trapped there until spring.

Shock did the work and deposited our bounty in a tiny vial of water and capped it. The sum of it would barely cover a pinky fingernail, but it was ours.

We asked Shock what it was worth. Based on his math, we'd need about 390,000 more such flecks to afford the floor mats on the BMW.

Feverishly, I loaded more dirt into the sluice box _ we had a condo to buy.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Jamestown is 2{ hours east of San Francisco in Tuolumne County. There is direct air service between Tampa Bay and San Francisco, where rental cars are available at the airport. From Manteca, take Highway 120 east, which merges with Highway 108 near Oakdale, and follow Highway 108 toward Sonora. Jamestown is 4 miles before Sonora at Highway 49.

DIGGING THERE: Gold Prospecting Adventures LLC, 18170 Main St., Jamestown, CA 95327-1040; toll-free 1-800-596-0009; e-mail infogoldprospecting.com; www.goldprospecting.com. Instruction in panning ($15 to $45 per adult), sluicing ($60 to $85) involves lessons from 30 minutes to three days. Call for specific plans.

California Gold, P.O. Box 1132, Jamestown, CA 95327; (209) 984-4914; www.goldfun.com. A guided mining trip with panning lesson is $79 per adult for a five-hour trip; accompanying children are free.

STAYING THERE: The National Hotel, 18183 Main St., Jamestown, CA 95327; toll-free 1-800- 894-3446; www.national-hotel.com. Restored 1859 hotel with late-1800s feel and some modern conveniences. Rooms and breakfast, $90 to $140 per night, plus 8 percent tax. Homey saloon and highly regarded dining room on the first floor.

Jamestown Hotel, 18153 Main St., Jamestown, CA 95327; toll-free 1-800-205-4901; www.jamestownhotel.com. Rebuilt country inn, restaurant and bar with themed rooms named for colorful or infamous women of the west (Belle Starr, Lily Langtree, etc.). Rooms with breakfast, $80 to $145 Sunday-Thursday, $95 to $175 Friday and Saturday, plus tax.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS: Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Fifth and Reservoir streets, Jamestown; (209) 984-3953 or recorded information at (916) 445-6645; www.cal-parks.ca.gov (click on "Find a Park"). Train station, gift shop, picnic tables and roundhouse and blacksmith shop tours. Steam trains typically offer excursions through the Sierra foothill Gold Country on weekends, April-October, but call to check availability.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, toll-free 1-800-446-1333 or (209) 533-4420; www.thegreatunfenced.com. Also see www.jamestown-ca.com.

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