When my dad first started talking about finding gold, I thought it was a passing phase. But soon he was buying equipment, joining clubs, and replacing our old minivan with an all-wheel-drive SUV. Was he really hoping to dig for gold the old-fashioned way in the 21st century? Curious, I tagged along on a short trip to the San Gabriel Mountains. After running a few buckets of material through the sluice box, we cleaned out the riffles and panned until we were left with a single flake of gold. When I saw that shiny, barely visible speck, I too came down with gold fever.
Since then, my dad and I have been on several quick day trips, but I wanted to do something a bit bigger this year. When you live in the Golden State, getting out to the gold isn't all that difficult, but does require some amount of roughing it. Usually, that's fine with me, but for this trip, I wanted to travel in style. To help with that mission, I contacted camper van conversion experts Sportsmobile, who agreed to accompany us on the trip and show us their idea of camping.
Though you can still find gold in California, you can't dig just anywhere. Belonging to a club will allow you to mine on a communal, member-maintained claim, and also connect you with more experienced prospectors who can help show you the ropes.
With that in mind, we reached out to the Prospectors Club of Southern California (PCSC), one of the clubs I belong to, asking if we could do some prospecting with them in the desert. Former stuntman and prospecting enthusiast Jon Kishi would be our guide, granting us safe passage on the club's desert claims.
Our group was to meet in Randsburg, a living ghost town in the Mojave Desert. With original buildings such as the saloon and general store still standing, the town really feels like a scene out of the Old West. Industrial mining relics and antique prospecting equipment can be found up and down the main road, hinting at the town's Gold Rush roots. As we were taking in Randsburg's sleepy streets, two heavily modified Ford E-Series vans painted in attention-grabbing colors appeared. Father and son duo Alan and Jonathan Feld of Sportsmobile had driven down from the company's Fresno headquarters in two of their best-equipped vans. Sporting a 6-inch lift on 18-inch wheels with 34.5-inch tires and loaded with such gear as Warn winches and Hella off-road foglights, the vans were beacons for desert-dwelling off-road enthusiasts. It was nearly impossible to stop in any public place without getting some sort of compliment.
If those two vans didn't announce our arrival loudly enough, the entire town would know we were there once Sportsmobile owners and avid campers Bill and Chris Kitto pulled up in their van, 10 years old and still ticking with more than 100,000 miles on the clock.
We gathered our gear and made our way to the campsite, which was only a few miles from the claim. With winds now reaching 15 mph, a few members of our party had a difficult time setting up their tents. But all the vans had to do was find a nice, level spot to park, then raise their pop-tops. Inside were all the comforts of home. A microwave, refrigerator, and kitchen sink facilitate meal prep, while a diesel-fed onboard furnace keeps the cabin nice and toasty -- just what we'd need on this mid-November night.
As we huddled by the campfire, Sportsmobile and company began cooking us dinner. For my dad and me, camping meals generally revolve around dehydrated beef stroganoff in a bag. So when Sportsmobile served up a meal of Waldorf salad, homemade pizza, baked salmon, and mashed potatoes, we were pleasantly surprised. In fact, we probably ate better camping than we would've had we stayed in the city. Grill master Alan took it a step further with his baked peaches, topped with a caramelized layer of sugar and Grand Marnier.
Our stomachs full and the temper-ature dropping fast, we decided to call it a night. Dad needs to run his continuous positive airway pressure machine so he can sleep, and we were worried that running that device through an inverter overnight in addition to running the furnace would be too taxing on the electrical system. We decided to warm up the cabin before going to sleep, and then shut it off for the rest of the night. Because I missed out on the bunk bed experience as a kid, I wanted to sleep up top in the penthouse. A firm but sufficiently padded bed folded out and locked into place above the rear bench seat, which itself folded out to become the lower bed. Had the temperature remained in the low 40s, we would have slept comfortably through the night. But outside our camper van, the desert dropped to a chilly 28-degree low. By 1:30 am, we woke up shivering and were forced to fire up the furnace. The onboard house battery lasted the entire night with both machines running.
After we finished thawing by the campfire the next morning and eating our breakfast burritos, we packed up camp and caravanned to the claim. The lifted E-Series was straightforward and easy to pilot. The van's ride was smooth on the highway, and the 6.0-liter turbodiesel Power Stroke V-8 had no trouble getting up to speed.
When we reached the dirt road leading to the claim, the torquey diesel engine climbed the slight grade with ease, and the road's potholes and large protruding rocks made little difference to the suspension. Sportsmobile's 4WD system utilizes a selectable transfer case from Advance Adapters, a Dynatrac Pro-Roc 60 front axle, and Dana 60 rear axle with locking differentials, which all work in unison to tackle the roads. Once at the claim, we unpacked the shovels and picks and began digging in a hole someone had previously begun.
"You don't dig a hole that big if there's nothing in it," Jon said while setting up his dry washer. That time-saving device helps separate the lighter material from the heavier stuff by puffing air through the bottom. The less-dense silt and organic matter move down a series of riffles until finally being blown off the tray. After running a few shovels full, we'd clean out the tray and pan what remained. If you've panned correctly, you should be left with only heavier material like black sand and small stones, and, if you've been digging in a good spot, fine pieces of gold.
The first buckets of concentrates from the dry washer left us with nothing shiny in our pans, but we did eventually see a few flakes. We kept working the 3-foot-deep pit the rest of the day, and every once in a while came across a speck of gold; but as you can probably guess, nobody got rich from this expedition.
With daylight fading, it was time to throw in the towel. As I gathered up the tools, I started thinking of ways to score a permanent seat at the helm of a Sportsmobile. As of this writing, gold is valued at around $1730 an ounce, and with the Sportsmobile 4WD ranging from $90,000 to $120,000, I'd need to dig up at least 52 ounces of gold to buy one.
However, the company also outfits vans from the mid-1990s and up with many of the same high-class features of the demo vehicles, though only the Ford vans can be equipped with the company's 4WD system. Anyone who enjoys the outdoors can appreciate the comfort, convenience, and rugged presence the Sportsmobile offers.
Though we didn't find much of it on this trip, gold is a commodity that will likely continue to increase in value. But it's our fascination with the precious metal and the thrill of the hunt that keeps prospectors like us going out to the desert. So if you've got a case of gold fever, and an adventure-ready vehicle like the Sportsmobile, join a club, grab a shovel, and head for them thar hills.
Prospectors Club of Southern California
|Sportsmobile 4WD Ford E-Series|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 3-door van|
|ENGINE||6.0L/325-hp/570-lb-ft OHV diesel V-8|
|CURB WEIGHT||8885 lb|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||231.9 x 79.3 x 94.0 in|
|TOWING CAPACITY||10,000 lb (mfr)|