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Weekend Escape: San Gabriel Mountains

Gold Burg : He didn't hit pay dirt, but stories were good and grub even better

May 19, 1996|MICHAEL PARRISH | Parrish is a freelance writer based in Littlerock, Calif

FOLLOWS CAMP, Calif. — As we maneuvered the motor home to a swaying halt in front of the Marconi Mining & Supply store, I spotted a likely suspect, a youthful, silver-haired gent near the door. "Al Marconi?"

He answered with the old but always interesting line: "Do I owe you money?"

In fact, he owed us a lesson. Al Marconi may well be the last Southern Californian, apart from employees of Knott's Berry Farm, who, for a modest fee, will teach a greenhorn how to pan for gold. And the store he runs with his wife, Janice, in an old fishing cabin at Follows Camp in the San Gabriel Mountains above Azusa, is on one of the few remaining rivers in Southern California where recreational gold mining is still allowed, by sufferance of the U.S. Forest Service.

On a recent Saturday morning, my wife and I rented a small motor home and drove up the snaky but well-maintained paved road through San Gabriel Canyon to the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. Follows Camp, for 134 years a reckoning point in the Southern California gold rush, is on a seven-mile sliver of private land along the East Fork. The camp offers tent and recreational vehicle campsites, but no cabins. Earlier this spring, it seemed a might chilly to pitch a tent, so we rented a 23-foot rolling motel room, reserved a campsite and planned to clamber around the river on foot for the weekend.

I'm not sure we'd do that again. Our 1993, 23-foot Tioga had seen too many miles. The stove, the cupboards--everything rattled. We clattered up the canyon with the grim exasperation of Dust Bowl refugees. Next time I think we'd find a motel and drive up for the day. Or bring the tent.

Much better was the gold panning, and the grub.

The first view of Follows Camp from across the river is foreboding--the mining store, various old house trailers and the stone walls of The Fort, the camp restaurant--open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. The place looks like another half-baked backyard rural enterprise, and a barren one at that.

But across the new steel bridge the surroundings improve, and it becomes clear why the camp looks bleak from afar. Floods in three of the past four years have swept away many of the old riverbank trees near the entrance. Hundreds of new weeping willows, cottonwoods and birches have since been conscientiously planted.

And The Fort is a gem. Scrubbed and neat, it has a long, burnished wood bar, big stone fireplace, a couple of good pool tables and cafe seating with fresh black-and-white checked tablecloths. The food is simple, delicious and cheap; nothing on the regular menu is over $5. We had great homemade chicken pot pie, great club and pastrami sandwiches and a $7.95 special sirloin steak dinner on Saturday night that was about as good as it gets on any restaurant row. At breakfast, I developed a powerful affection for the house biscuits and Flo Flo's peppery gravy.

Dolores "Flo Flo" Peck, a vigorous 86 years old, has an interesting history with food. For decades she owned the camp with her late husband, Sedley, a former newspaperman, World War I aviator and World War II spy. We found Flo Flo, Sunday morning, settled into her customary seat near the fireplace. A great-niece of the French scientist Louis Pasteur, she was raised in the walled village of Fondouk, Algeria, and is fluent in Arabic, Italian, Spanish and English, as well as her native French.

Flo Flo was a member of the French Resistance when she met Sedley Peck, an intelligence officer on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's staff. She became Ike's cook for a time (he taught her to cook American flapjacks) but her fluency in languages made her more valuable for keeping an eye on the Nazis.

After the war, the Pecks settled at Follows Camp, which had been founded by an aunt and uncle in the 1800s at the end of the old stage line that hauled trout fishers and gold hunters up the canyon from Los Angeles. The first weeping willows were grown from cuttings brought by a friend from Napoleon's willow on Corsica. After her husband died, Flo Flo eventually sold the camp and restaurant to Joe Davison, an affable former Newport Beach Rolls Royce salesman who took up gold hunting when his secretary told him he was getting "twitchy."

That Saturday morning, we were twitchy for gold ourselves. Marconi's lesson began with a prospector's tour of the East Fork. Marconi's day job is managing mail freight for United Airlines (lessons are on weekends only). But he has pursued gold for more than 20 years in Alaska and Northern California.

This is placer gold, he explains, after we get out of his car at an ancient stream bed high above the river. Hard-rock gold is the stuff brought up from the earth's depths, often with liquid quartz. It runs in veins through fissures in rock formations and takes tunneling to dig out. But when water erodes these formations, the gold is exposed and, being heavy, it settles, normally to the bedrock under a stream.

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