Sunday, January 6, 2013

Panning for Vermont Gold

I was coming down with the flu and in bed when the Russians arrived for a stay in the treehouse. I heard the front door open, the clamor of suitcases and greetings, and a little feminine voice say, “Hi! What’s upstairs?”
            We’ll call the girl Verushka. She had just turned a precocious seven. H hadn’t said anything about the guests bringing a child, and when I heard her traipsing up the stairs, I pulled up the covers and pretended to be asleep.
            It was Monday. We don’t usually take guests during the week, but H thought the Russians sounded interesting, so he accepted them. They booked the treehouse for three nights.
            When I heard Verushka’s parents—Elana and Nureyev, we’ll call them—peppering H with questions, I rolled out of bed and went downstairs to help him entertain, tissue held tightly to my nose. The only Russian words I know are “do svidaniya,” and when I said it, Verushka laughed.
            “We just got here,” she said.
            “That means goodbye,” Elana said.
            “Oh,” I said. “Then how do you say welcome?”
            “Privetstviye.” Copying Elana’s pronunciation was beyond me, and I found that a smile and a nod worked just as well.
          H put out cheese and crackers, and Elana disappeared into the guest room to make some phone calls. She manages a team of web designers and needed to make sure everyone was on task. Nureyev gave Verushka his cell phone to keep her occupied with games while he talked about his own web business. When I told him I have a blog, he said he knows someone who makes half a million a year blogging.
“Where does the money come from?” I asked.
Nureyev was vague about the source of the fortune but said one gets advertisers by writing posts everyone wants to read, as if that’s as easy as splicing a comma.
            Just as I was getting interested, Verushka complained, “No one’s talking to me. Why does my father get to do all the talking? He’s always talking.”
            H scooted over to sit beside her on the couch. I wondered if it was her bedtime yet.
            I offered Nureyev a glass of wine or a shot of bourbon, but he said, “I drink three quarters of a bottle of vodka before I feel anything, and then I just feel bad.”
            Fine with me. I didn’t have any vodka anyway.
            Elana finished her calls and sat down to eat some cheese. We suggested some local restaurants for dinner, but Nureyev said the cheese was sufficient. Elana had brought a cooler of snacks from Brooklyn to eat in the treehouse in case they got hungry later. It was early winter, the time mice come in to warm up, and I hoped our local rodent population had no appetite for Russian nibbles.
            Normally I’m a patient B&B host, but I wondered why this family had chosen to stay in a treehouse if they were going to spend all their time in our living room. Thankfully, two hours later—after the cheese plate was empty—they retired to their lofty quarters for the night.
            At nine the next morning, Elana and Verushka came in from the treehouse. Elana helped Verushka dress and braided her long brown hair. We asked if Nureyev was getting up soon, but Elana said he was sleeping in and they’d have breakfast without him. I wasn’t feeling much better, but I helped H serve breakfast, making sure not to sneeze into the granola. After the dishes were cleaned up, Nureyev still had not appeared, and I suggested Elana, Verushka and I go for a walk. It was a bright, cold day, and Elana tied Verushka’s purple hiking boots and off we went, Verushka dressed in purple coat and hat to match her boots.
            I planned to take them a couple miles up a country road to see some horses and the mountain views, but after half a mile Verushka lagged behind. When Elana couldn’t coax her any farther, we ambled back. By the time we returned, a little after eleven, Nureyev was up and hungry as a bear. H fed him the cheese omelet and bacon he had kept warm, and I tried to hold up my wilted end of the conversation while Elana and Verushka went out to straighten their things in the treehouse.
            “What is this white stone in the yard?” Nureyev asked.
            “It’s quartzite,” I said, “brought here by glaciers thousands of years ago.”
            “Probably from the west,” he said. “There was a gold rush here two centuries ago. There is gold in your white rock.”
            “There is?” I said. “Gold?”
            “Probably. Gold, yes. Have you panned in the streams? There must be gold in the streams.”
            “No, I haven’t panned,” I told him.
            “You might have a fortune here.”
            Nureyev is a burly man with a bushy beard. He ate every strip of bacon, the omelet and several slices of toast.
“Where is the closest panning shop?” he asked between mouthfuls. I told him I didn’t think we had panning shops in Vermont. He checked his phone and found a place on the other side of the Green Mountains where he could buy such a pan, much to our surprise.
Sometime in the afternoon, after Verushka showed me a few ballet postures, they took off for a hike and some gold panning. That evening they returned, having no luck at the pan shop, which was long closed, but they had gone down to the New Haven River to hang out and sort through rocks. From somewhere Nureyev had procured a mason jar and filled it with river mud, which he was convinced contained gold. He planned to take it back to New York and have it tested and would let us know if he found the precious metal.
I’ve since discovered that Nureyev may be on to something. In the 1860s, more than five hundred prospectors came to central Vermont seeking gold. The Great Appalachian Gold Belt runs along the Green Mountains, and some veins have been found in the last few years as the ground has shifted. Panning for gold is legal in Vermont, and those with enough patience have found flakes and even nuggets but so small one needs tweezers to pick them out—hardly worth the effort. Gold does indeed hide in quartzite, as Nureyev said, but getting the metal out of the rock is tricky and can cost more than the gold itself. It’s better to wait for a sale at the local jewelers.  
On their final morning, Elana packed up, and Nureyev carried his precious jar of river mud to the car. Before he left, he told us, “My other interest is knives. I like sharp knives. Japan has the best knife sharpeners in the world. I take trips to Japan just to have my knives sharpened.”
I’m rather glad Nureyev didn’t spring his knife fascination on us any earlier.
As they drove off, I yelled, “do svidaniya”—and this time I meant it.

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