When I turned around, I saw a strange man walking from behind a trailer toward my wife.
I changed direction and started heading back to her. Older men with trailers parked next to a river make me wary, especially when they're approaching my family. By the time I got there, he'd already invited us to repark in the shade near his site and use the nearby small, shady beach.
I hesitated, being cynical during a time in which it seems people rarely approach strangers with offers of goodwill without an ulterior motive. But the kids were already running toward the river, and my wife -- who's much better than I am at dealing with humanity -- was fine with it. So, I figured, what the heck.
We were at the Feather River in the mountains near Quincy. Since both of our soon-to-be fifth-graders learned about the California Gold Rush in school last year, they had grabbed some pie tins, believing we'd shortly be knee deep in treasure.
Looking the part
Then we met the older man with the trailer. He was thin with a mustache covering part of a deeply lined face. He might have passed for a 49er, which made sense, since he turned out to be a real-life gold miner.
I didn't see that coming.
He told the kids to lose the pie tins and led them to his trailer (I still wasn't crazy about this and was paying close attention). He grabbed a couple of large green bowl-shaped devices and led them to
Then he taught the girls how to pan for gold.
Fill the top screen of the bowl with river dirt and let the smaller pieces filter into the container below, he told them. My job was to look for nuggets among the bigger, screened-out chunks; I felt like I was scratching lottery tickets.
The girls got ankle deep in the river, let water and dirt into the bowl and started swirling. Gold is heavier than the muck and, if present, will catch on the bowl's ridges.
And sure enough, it did.
Dreaming of riches
There was excited chatter of buying new cars and summer homes while the old miner used a small tube to suck tiny gold specks from the pan into the girls' plastic former bug container.
For about 45 minutes it was rinse and repeat. While the girls worked, the miner talked about spending the summer mining various spots around the Sierra. He explained how the claim system worked and told me stories, stopping occasionally to check the girls' work and pluck out a few more specks from the pan.
When they finished, they had a small transparent container full of water with a thin lining of gold dust. Jumping around, they asked how much they'd made.
"Oh, about five bucks, give or take," said the miner.
We wouldn't be stopping at the car dealership on the way home after all. But the girls can now say they are official gold miners.
As we left, I shook the miner's hand and introduced myself. He said he was glad to meet me, and that his name was Hicks, which was weird. No relation, but it sort of made sense.
Driving away, I thought it shouldn't seem so odd to have a stranger approach one's kids for no other reason than just be nice to them. If this guy was seemingly from the past, then his manners were, too.