Although independent prospectors tend to be secretive about their strikes, Sulatycky talks freely about finding nuggets worth thousands of dollars on his last outing in the high desert of San Bernardino County, where he heads each week. He spends several days in advance researching a region's geological charts and historical mining data, studying the known vein systems in the area, then follows the trail of potential hot spots, using a high-end metal detector, picks, brushes, and shovels—often for days at a time. ("The best part about my wine business is that I can do everything on the iPhone," he says.) What an individual gold prospector makes can vary widely, depending on the time he invests, his skills, and, of course, his luck. After nearly three decades of restaurant-industry madness, Sulatycky finds prospecting both soothing and exhilarating. "It takes 100 percent focus," he says, adding that the physical nature of prospecting—lugging his heavy gear up and down mountains, hiking over uneven terrain without respite from sunup to sundown—might surprise beginners. "It is hard work. But anything else you might be stressed about disappears, because looking for gold demands your full attention."

"It is extraordinary how many emotional storms one may weather in safety if one is ballasted with ever so little gold."—William McFee, "Casuals of the Sea"

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James Marshall, the man who found those iconic nuggets, died poor. And for most of the other prospectors who headed west to seek their fortune, frustration and broken dreams lay in wait. One such disillusioned gentleman, Samuel Clemens, gave up and decided to try to make a living from writing, using the pen name Mark Twain. But the 21st-century prospectors, from engineers like Gates to speculators like Watson, have technology on their side. A great deal of science and research is invested in the quest for gold. And yet the romance remains. Sulatycky tries to describe what the forty-niners called gold fever: "You are digging and digging, and then you find a nugget, and you reach down and pull it out of the earth, and you realize you are the first person to ever lay eyes on this gold." Or, as McCracken explains it, "When you uncover that gold and it's yours—you found it—it is impossible to describe the feelings of lust, greed, and exhilaration that go through you. There is a chemical reaction in the body that is more powerful than anything you can imagine. You just have to keep coming back for more."

See Great Moments in Gold History

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