The last shreds of morning fog were progressively evaporating, beckoning me to explore the valley below. The sun’s rays threatened to consume the last remnants of mystery hidden within the valley’s forested recesses.
I descended down the south facing grass slope, through oak and buckeye that had been stripped bare by the winter winds. Arriving at the valley floor, I followed the trail that accompanied the course of the creek. The watercourse was overgrown with oaks, brambles and the discards of last year’s vegetative exuberance.
In the distance two shabbily dressed individuals with dirty cloth sacks were scavenging amongst the winter brambles—for what I assumed was pine cones to fuel a nocturnal campfire. Like fearful feral animals sensing danger they progressively moved on as they saw me approaching. As if to give them respite from my imminent approach, I stopped for a short while and contemplated the sunlight filtering through the the fretwork of winter-sodden branches and the rushing creek below.
I resumed my walk and on turning the bend of the trail, I discovered the man on his haunches, a weathered, pewter-colored pan in his hand sifting through the alluvial deposits of an insignificant gully that ran alongside the trail.
“You panning for gold?” I asked reticently, not wanting to sound too inquisitive. “Yearp” he replied in a slow drawn out way, hoping that his lack of eye contact, arched back and broad shoulders would deflect any further questioning. “You ever find any?”, “Yearp . . . in the creek below.”
I moved on, aware that my gold panning friend was not in any hurry to share his secrets of mining in the El Dorado county hills. Above on the slope his partner, a girl with bleached blonde and vermillion hair continued to scour the slope for a more combustible treasure.
Further down the trail I suddenly became aware that the creek had now been replaced by a deep emerald green pool, morning mists rising off its surface, intermingling with the purple, yellow and gray of the winter branches that grew along its periphery. The bright white head and flanks of a buffle-headed duck acted as a beacon in the shadowy pool.
Traveling on, the now sandy, ochre-colored trail was intermittently pierced with pools of rainwater collecting in its gullies and ruts. Shadows of the winter branches diffusing into the water like pigment suspended in an encaustic painting. Above the trail two spotted towhees clowned in the leaves, seeking to unearth some slumbering invertebrate. Flanking the trail were the jade leaves and oxidized metallic branches of manzanita bushes—water droplets from the previous night’s rain encrusted the edge of each wedge of jade like crystalized sugar.
A boxy Labrador jolted towards me on arthritic limbs, ball in mouth, coughed his friendly welcome. An old man on rickety legs soon followed, drooping mustache and stout staff in hand. “Where is it? Where is it? Where’s the ba-ull? he groused in a hoarse, uncongenial voice. “It’s in his mouth” I replied. “Humph” he retorted and off he went erratically splashing through the puddles in pursuit of his hound.
I continued onward and eventually I noticed an offshoot to the trail descending down to the lake through a corridor of trees. And there in the distance, facing towards the lake, stood one, sun-bleached, white deck chair—placed as if to invite me to a time of quiet reflection, to come away and rest awhile.