Gold Mining, Hope, and My Long, Fruitless Pursuit of Fame

To mine gold, you have to sift through piles of dirt for hours, in the hope that you'll be the one in a million who strikes it rich—which is not unlike being an aspiring actor.

Tess Barker

Tess Barker

All photos by the author

Gold was first discovered in California in 1848, but it's been here for 200 million years. It formed in the veins of the quartz that was once pressed below our fertile soil, before it slowly festered its way toward the surface of the crystal, then the earth itself—more like a splinter than a treasure. Gold drips from California's pores like sweat, so its value is hard to explain. We only know that we want it because it's a shiny thing, but the world is full of other shiny things we overlook and undervalue. There is something in gold, real gold, that is worth losing love and giving our lives to. Unlike the paper currencies that change across time and countries, gold is inherently valuable.

In Coloma, California, you can still visit Sutter's Mill, where James Marshall accidentally found gold while looking at sawdust and thus pulled countless dissatisfied souls away from their safe lives through frost bite and dysentery and unimaginable despair with the magnetic promise that they were destined for something greater. It's dead quiet in Coloma now. On a recent visit, I could hear the American River echoing everywhere in town. There was a cute coffee shop serving handmade dog biscuits and a company that rents kayaks for the day, but the miners are all gone from Coloma—the living ones, anyway.

Now California collects its prey down south, in Los Angeles, where the nation's wild hearts set up camp in the big-box apartments of the San Fernando Valley and spend their days doing sit-ups and sending cold emails, sure they will strike fame, which is itself a kind of gold.

The women in Coloma, who are themselves actors

Years ago, I needed to be an actor. I studied at a serious theater school and used to sit in traffic in a car that had no air conditioning, on my way to classes about "emotional preparation." I would use red lights to peel off my waitressing uniform as I swabbed my body with baby wipes to hide the stink of hours spent hauling lasagne and yelling at chefs and being called "sweetie." I would get to class and pay a dollar if I was late and nervously ruminate on whichever fictional situation I had prepared for the day and worry that, when onstage, I wouldn't be able to cry.

The teacher would take roll and read quotes from Meryl Streep, and maybe, if we listened intently enough, we would be the next Meryl Steep. Or maybe the circumstances of the scene we'd brought that day didn't feel real, the way they were supposed to. Maybe they never really did. Maybe we weren't actually very good at believing. Class announcements always ended with a list of who in the school was working: Someone booked a co-star on Friends. Someone was still shooting in Hungary. An advanced student named James Franco had just booked a TV movie about James Dean. Always, there was proof that there was gold in the hills.

I saw people panning for gold in Coloma, but none of them were actually doing it to strike rich. The structures from the old boom town still stood, and under wooden coverings, re-enactors paced around troughs filled with sand and running water. In full costume, they sipped coffee from to-go cups and waited for school tours to arrive. This, according to the "miners," who are now actors, is how you pan for gold:

Dip your pan into the water and fill it three-fourth the way with gravel. Swirl it around until the clay separates. Pick out the bigger rocks with your hands. Sift until the gravel separates. Do you see gold yet? Repeat. Swirl. Sift. Dip. There will be tiny flecks. The gold is always mixed in with the black sand. Maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones. Repeat. You just have to stick with it. Swirl. Patience. Sift. You have to believe that today could be the day. Dip.

If you just stayed at it long enough, hard enough, the constant, obsessive 12-hour days, hunching over in the cold American River all would be been worth it.

Related: VICE News visits illegal mines near Johannesburg to meet the people risking life and limb every day in the violent struggle for South Africa's illegal gold.

Before I learned to ride a bike, before I lost my first tooth, and right around the time I stopped believing in Santa, I started wanting to be an actor. I got headshots and a fancy acting coach. By the time I was in second grade, I had a pager, in case my agent needed to contact me during cursive lessons. I spent my recesses fixating obsessively over whether, at home, there was a red light on my answering machine because my agent had called with good news. Every callback I got meant days of fantasizing that I'd gotten the part, followed by the inevitable call that someone else's dreams were coming true. My parents would ask me if I wanted to quit. I would tell them no. It was back to the river for me.

The kids I went to acting class with starred in movies and sitcoms and commercials. (It was only a few of them, though it felt like everyone except for me.) I stuck around and kept sifting the dirt. Eventually, we all got older and became awkward-looking teens who, at best, had only been kind of famous. Even the girls who had been the best criers in my class, who had booked an arc on Days of Our Lives, eventually gave up and got their real estate license or moved home. I couldn't blame them. The incessant rejection, the cover letters to nowhere, the stack of post cards with your headshot on them that you knew would become trash on a casting director's floor, could and would kill you if you didn't know when to fold.

There wasn't a definitive day that I quit acting. Instead, I let the passion that had driven me as long as I could remember die like a campfire smoldering at dawn. I told people stand-up was enough to fulfill my need to perform. I insisted that writing had been my plan all along. Mostly, these things are true, but there will always be a part of me who wonders if I left the gold fields a day too early.

One of the author's childhood headshots

All that still stands in Coloma are the shells of the businesses that cropped up to support the rush: Miners who were lucky enough to not believe in luck became blacksmiths and suppliers and other people who could hold desperate fools' dreams ransom. These are the people who strike it rich in a rush.

There are no remnants of the miners' camps in Coloma at all; no record of the chilly nights they spent, bone-tired, staring at the stars, or of sloppy whiskey sex as the river hummed away, or of the hopeful tales they told themselves because that was the only way they could bring themselves to step into the water one more day.

Most people who came to Coloma never found what they were looking for. They left poorer than they came, if they left at all. No one knows their names. No one ever recognized the greatness they were destined for. Gold is just a shiny thing anyway, though. Much more valuable is that it protects you from the perils of a sheltered existence and hurls you outside, to tend your own corner of the river, with no one watching over your shoulder except the pine-covered mountains that will be here long after you're gone.

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