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Gold Rush Spirit and Ambition Endure

Heritage: Here, the impossible dream is anything but, history and the present prove.

May 16, 1999|TERRY McDERMOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLOMA, El Dorado County — Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series of articles examining the origins of the California dream and its contemporary possibilities.

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California was born here on a morning in winter in the cold, fast water of the American River's South Fork. Nativity occurred, quick as a glimpse, at a bend in the river between Dutch and Indian creeks, below the scrub pines of Murphy Mountain.

You could argue that some form of California had existed for decades, even centuries, before the itinerant millwright James Marshall waded into the water that day and saw the bright yellow nuggets at his feet. It's true, of course. There was something here, lots of something:

There was a state-long archipelago of native settlements that at one point held a quarter of a million people. There were the fitful ghosts of two empires--Spanish and Mexican--and fantasies of a dozen others. There was land, thousands of empty miles of desert and seacoast, mountain and valley, barren rock and fertile delta.

There were, in total, millions of acres of something. But whatever it was, it might as well have been nothing because it wasn't California. Not the California, in any event, that would sweep into the world imagination, take up residence and, for 150 years and counting, refuse to leave. Not the California of the drugstore counter, the comedy club and the casting couch; not the California of warships and silicon chips; not the California of rockets and love-ins and professional beach volleyball; and certainly not the California of the four-car garage and the $5-million tear-down.

Which is to say, not the California that in an instant became the would-be pot at the end of a million rainbows.

In 1848, when Marshall discovered gold at John Sutter's sawmill, California had a nonnative population of 18,000 people. News of the gold's existence was muffled for most of a year beneath a quilt of mistrust and disbelief. Then it exploded, a cannon shot across the world's bow, setting off a scramble so wild and furious that the only way the unafflicted could make sense of it was to describe it as a disease: gold fever.

An editorialist at the Hartford Daily Courant wrote:

"Thither is now setting a tide that will not cease its flow until either untold wealth is amassed or extended beggary secured. . . . [It is] the center of universal attraction . . . all creation is going out there to fill their pockets with the great condiment of their diseased minds."

The writer, in other words, wished he could go too. Who wouldn't? If streets are truly lined with gold, you'd be a fool not to walk them.

It didn't matter, really, what had been in California. When James Marshall hollered, "Boys, by God, I believe I have found a gold mine," a new California was born and with it something that came to be called the California dream. It has sometimes been difficult to tell which has been the more powerful of those two inventions: the place or the vision of it. In the new California, the streets would always be lined with something, gold or movie stardom or orange groves or airplanes--or even ideas.

With the gold, the die was cast. Everything that followed was as certain as sunshine.

A Face in the Out-Crowd

Pete Oliver is the kid in the back of the class, the one you never noticed. He didn't get the grades or the girls, didn't score the touchdowns. He worked at the Shell station and had no time to run with the cool crowd, not that anyone asked. Indifferent to school, intense and inward-looking, he sank from view into his science fiction and his guitar. He got by.

When his high school classmates went off to college, Pete went nowhere. He made the short move down from El Dorado County to Sacramento, where he worked hard jobs for low pay and hung out around the edges of the fledgling rock scene.

He had from early on been interested in computers. When he was a kid in the '70s--before the microcomputer revolution was launched--his science-teacher father would indulge him by taking him down to the computer lab at UC Berkeley and letting him punch cards on the teletype.

"I wrote a program that said, 'Hi, how are you?' When you answered, it would swear at you," Oliver says.

Dumb, but a neat trick. He was hooked.

After high school, Oliver wanted to do something in computing, but money--more precisely, the lack of it--kept him out of college. That, plus a conviction that the world was moving too quickly for a college degree to be worth the investment. He compared the four years of college to what he might learn in half the time at a vocational school.

"It seemed the two extra years of school would have made everything I learned the first two obsolete," he says. So he went to a local vo-tech where he learned rudimentary programming. Then he took a job pushing carts full of computer tapes around the floor at a Sacramento company called Cable Data. "It was a sweatshop, didn't pay well, but it ended up being good training," he says.

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