The year was 1858. Over 100,000 gold-hunters randomly started westward. Only 50,000 completed the trek, led by the guidon "Pikes Peak or Bust," as they wrought their way up the Continental Divide to places like Aurora, Denver City, Cherry Creek, and Georgetown. Generations later, the actual and spiritual descendants of these bold adventurers, the modern Gold Prospectors of the Rockies, are still enthusiastic, but have a more balanced look.
Jim Davis, second president of this Denver, Colorado, club, summed up the members' sentiments with this mature observation and benevolent wish, the last sentence of which has become his official motto: "If I'm one of those fortunate enough to find gold, that's a nice incentive; if not, the fun, after all, is in the search. May gold shine in your pan as well as in your dreams."
Their pans, however, are more sophisticated than those rocked by their great-great grandfathers. The new prospectors also operate small, portable, personal power dredges, dry washers, high bankers, sluices -- and, of course, metal detectors, the best ones they can get.
There's also an unofficial club motto that came spontaneously from a senior member who stood up at a meeting and mentioned: "It's the only hobby where you can get 200 bucks worth of gold and 100 bucks worth of exercise at the same time!" Who are we to argue with that?
At 6:30 p.m., the third Wednesday of every month, members converge for a 7:00 p.m. meeting at 1580 Yarrow Street, Lakewood -- just over the western Denver County line, near Belmar Park. They talk about claims and equipment, and they try to help the beginners. Just a couple of hundred TH'ers (treasure hunters), looking for gold at the end of the 20th century -- and not only in Colorado, but in California, Alaska, even Australia as well. In 1997, a group of them went prospecting in Paradise (Paradise Valley, Alaska, that is). They were so successful that they packed their gear and returned in 1998.
What does "successful" mean? Bear in mind that hunting for gold isn't like shooting for dimes under the swings at a neighborhood playground with a metal detector. There can be disappointments: a few scrawny flakes that wouldn't cover the cost of the gas to get there, little color or a bit of flour gold, areas too sparce and too wet for productive use of metal detectors. While a small nugget or a few hefty flakes might be considered acceptable, those aren't the kind of discoveries that keep the members going. They'd like to turn up with the sort of find made by club detecting partners Ken Oyler and Larry Boyes: a baseball-sized rock girdled with beautiful Colorado wire-gold. The partners discovered it, almost accidentally, with a metal detector; its worth over $6,000. (You can see a photograph of this find at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry in Colorado Springs.) Club members scratch their whiskers, smile, and nod: there's still "gold up in them thar hills."
But, because Denver towers a mile above sea level, "in them thar hills" may just mean "in the neighborhood" -- for example, at 70th and Washington, near Tymkovich's meat market. Club members all act as site-spotters and permission-getters, relaying by e-mail or phone the identities of any promising localities to their president, who includes them in the club's monthly newsletter, The Gold Nugget. At times, these sites aren't local, and occasionally not even in Colorado; some have been as distant as Nebraska and Indiana.
The club also has "groupie" members who live in areas where there's not enough gold to plate a pen-point, but they enjoy the idea of being prospectors (and receiving the thick, fact-packed newsletter) well-enough to send their yearly dues westward. One such member, from Illinois, wrote that in addition to coinshooting (detecting for coins), he sometimes sneaks off covertly to pan for gold in some gravel and sand-laden creek. Although his sense of humor shows, there's a pin-prick of seriousness in his confession: gold hunting really can become a kind of fever. Once bitten by the bug, you become like Walter Huston's old timer, ready to accompany Dobbs and his pal and others so-stricken to the Sierra Madre for another try -- despite the life of beans and bandidos. Luckily, the Gold Prospectors of the Rockies know where to draw the line between fun and fanaticism.
Not only do these space-age '58-ers relish gold, they also have a fondness for the equipment used to find it. Like most of us, their affection for the machines they operate goes beyond casual acceptance as a means to an end. They admire good design, quality workmanship, and (particularly) superior performance.
Although activities are largely confined to gold hunting, there's no objection to searching for other forms of lost treasure as well, and there are plenty of interesting places to search. But whatever your particular TH'ing passion happens to be -- gold, silver, coins, minerals, or jewelry -- Colorado is a great home base for a treasure hunter. There's something for everyone, and plenty of the kind of enthusiastic and knowledgeable people you'd like to be with before, during, and after your adventures.
The Gold Prospectors of the Rockies club is open to all who are interested -- beginners or grizzled sourdoughs. Ask those who already belong. They'll tell you that a membership card is as good as gold (well, almost as good).
For more information, stories, photo gallery, outings, club calendar, membership application, and much more, see the club's website, www.goldprospectorsoftherockies.com.