An unabridged version of this month’s “Let’s Go Get Stones” column — almost five times as long, with additional photographs — is available to read here.

The author pans for gold using these tools of the trade.

I am standing outside in the early afternoon sun of December. I am panning for gold in my front yard. It is here that I wash the dirt that I have collected from various stream beds and dry washes throughout our little corner of southeast Arizona.

The science behind panning lies in the fact that gold is denser than most other elements and will settle to the lowest point in your pan when you add water to your mix and then slosh your slurry back and forth, each motion meant to drop the gold down while floating all of the less dense material out of the pan.

What is left behind is black sand and it is in this black sand that gold can sometimes be found. The fact is, though, that I have yet to authenticate a single flash in my pan.

Today does not seem to be the day that my discovery is to be made. I am washing, washing, washing and I wonder if the only thing of value is the precious Arizona water that falls onto the ground, or maybe it is the time that I am expending in my search. Both the water and my time may be of finite quantity.

I finally exhaust a small collection of Planters Nuts cans that had built up in my garage that hold samples from several trips out rockhounding. I decide to go and collect from a place which yielded an ample amount of dense, black sand in the past. I am setting my sights on Duquesne in southeast Santa Cruz County.

Today’s drive happens to be one of my favorites. The route takes me up Canelo Pass Road and down into the San Rafael Valley. I pass some pine covered hills and plenty of green prickly pear cactus and red branched manzanita. Down in the valley the once lush summer grasses have turned yellow and between the clear blue sky and the grasses I feel as if I am driving through a Ukrainian flag. Hawks circle looking for lunch. Open range cows cast leery glances as I slide slowly by.

Every time I enter the San Rafael, I am reminded of my first time. Back in the early 2000s, on our first trip through Patagonia, my wife and I were enjoying our first decent cup of coffee in Arizona when a woman walked by us on her way into the Gathering Grounds. She remarked that we should check out the valley, that it would knock our socks off. 

We meandered out Harshaw Ave. and under Red Mountain. Nice. Further along we drove in and out of the wash that is San Rafael Valley Road, through Goldbaum Canyon, past an idyllic little ranch in Willow Spring Canyon. Very nice, but my socks were still on. 

We were looking for a place to turn around when the road began to gain in altitude. At the top of the rise was the sudden expanse of the San Rafael. Grasslands and distant mountain ranges. Dirt roads. It was love at first sight. It still grabs at me when I drive through. Something there makes me sense both the eternal and the ethereal. 

As I move further south on this day, though, I am feeling some apprehension. I am wondering if a Great Wall of Shipping Containers is going to confront me when I reach the T intersection where FR 813 comes to an end. 

On this day the vista is still unblemished. A fence is still in place. It varies in design but consists of chain link bent southward at the top with barbed wire. It is backed up in places by Czech Hedgehogs designed to repel the advance of tanks and wheeled vehicles. 

I turn west and head towards Lochiel and beyond that towards Duquesne. In Duquesne I veer left onto Old Duquesne Road and then left again onto Smugglers Road. South of town the road delivers you back into public land. I park near a dry wash just beyond some stone pillars that mark the boundary between the places where I can prospect and the places I cannot. I am careful as I walk up the stony wash with a hand shovel and an empty can in my hand. The temperature is in the low sixties and that seems to be the borderline for snake activity.

I look at the wash and try to imagine it as the riffles on the edge of my pan. If I were a nugget of gold, where would I settle? In a low spot made narrow by two boulders I sink my shovel into gravel. I go as low as I can go and then begin scraping dirt into my container. It fills quickly and I walk out and drive home and put the can into my garage. It still has not been emptied nor its contents washed.

The gold, I guess, is in the prospecting.