The late 20th century has staked a few claims upon Stephen Ryland's Cal-Gold minining shop in Pasadena, which the geologist opened in 1979. Most of the prospecting pans Ryland sells have gone from iron or steel to molded plastic; one model is as radioactively orange as a Day-Glo Frisbee. He also does a brisk business in metal detectors and automatic gold-sifting dredges powered by Honda engines. Finally, a silhouette of a prospector and mule pops onto your computer screen when you access the store's Web page (http://www.treasure.com).
The 1849 gold rush may have lured miners to Northern California, but the state's prospecting population has evened out since--the Gold Prospectors Assn. of America claims roughly 15,000 members below San Luis Obispo, about the same number as above it (the east fork of the San Gabriel River in the Angeles National Forest is popular with prospectors hereabouts). And, sooner or later, many of them end up at Cal-Gold.
Ryland is not one to stoke unrealistic expectations in a fresh-faced prospector bent on striking the mother lode in the well-fleeced streams of the San Gabriels. "I tend to be in this industry the force of reason," Ryland says. "Sometimes I get into trouble for that." If his customers insist on pressing him about how much ore they might capture in a day's panning, he tells them, in effect: If you're really lucky, you might make five bucks.
Ryland instead sells latter-day prospecting as a pleasant, alfresco recreational activity. "It's a hobby," he says. "Like Rollerblading." The prospector might even attain the pulse-quickening pace afforded by a StairMaster. "If you shovel dirt as hard as you can for a half hour, there's plenty of aerobics," Ryland says. "In fact, there's some anaerobics, too."
Still, the weight of all those lonely seasons spent knee-deep in a frigid mountain stream can prove too much for a man, no matter how hardy. Ryland recalls the time a fellow barged into the store and declared he was quitting prospecting for good. "I want to sell all my equipment," he cried. "Everything!" Ryland asked why. "I'm giving that all up," the prospector vowed, "to go into bowling."