Looking for Glitter in the Dirt

Photo by Charlie Gill

Can a hobby make you rich? Maybe. Mark Payne is an engineer at the American Forces Network (AFN) Broadcast Center at March Air Reserve Base. Among other things he makes sure the Television Operations center runs smoothly.  It is here the network is monitored and overseas American military community viewers call in to set up their decoder, aim their dish and register for service.

Mark arrived at Riverside last year from Italy.  For now, his family remains behind in Vicenza, Italy area.  So Mark decided he needed to find something to keep him occupied — something interesting. Searching for California gold seemed like a good idea.  “I wanted to find something that was inexpensive,” he said.  “And at the same time I wanted to be outdoors.” 

Mark travels around Southern California to find what he is searching for, places like Lytle Creek and Bautista Placer.  He even joined several prospector clubs. As a member, he is able to travel to different claims and pan to his heart’s content.  The equipment he uses is simple: a shovel, buckets, separators and a sluice.  The technique for panning for gold may not be rocket science, but it is science. “Gold is more than 19 times heavier than water, so gravity just does its work and it drifts to the bottom,” he explains.  But searching for the “mother-load” is not without its potential dangers. “You’ve got snakes out there and you have to be careful around the rocks.  You have to make sure you can get back because there may not be cell phone service, and walking may not be an option,” he said.

Mark also says there is a great deal of camaraderie among the prospectors. “I’ve met some of the greatest guys. Some look like the old prospectors you read about in books.  They have great stories to tell and will even help you out by pointing out some areas where gold might likely be found.”

But what about the payoff? Is Mark Payne getting rich from his hobby? “I figure for every two tons of soil I’ve moved, I made about two dollars.”  But what would he do if he found one of those big nuggets worth thousands of dollars.”  He has a simple answer, “Look for more.” 

So Mark continues his weekends on the back roads of Southern California with a hobby that brings him in contact with characters out of the history books. He gets to see the sights of California. It isn’t expensive and it is interesting.  The hobby might not make him rich. Or, it just might. It depends on how much value you place on adventure.