I grew up knowing there might be gold under our house, in the foothills of California’s mountains.
I spent most of the first 18 years of my life there, in a place called Nevada County, surrounded by towering pine trees, clear blue skies most of the year and murmurs of the occasional bear or mountain lion sighting.
It’s a weird place, founded in the gold rush days, and equal parts churchgoing middle class, suspicious backwoods folk and patchouli-scented hippies who fled to the hills from San Francisco.
Up behind the house I grew up in were dusty trails through the old Empire Mine, a danger-filled playground full of rusty old hunks of mining equipment tangled in blackberry bushes. We dug elaborate forts and played around old mine waste piles that years later we learned were probably contaminated with things like cyanide and mercury. A friend got bitten by a rattlesnake there once, and his arm swelled up like a black bicycle tyre by the time he got to my parents’ house.
Nearly 600km of old tunnels from the mine ran beneath the earth, deep under our house. Sometimes I’d put my ear to the ground and imagine I heard echoes from those old tunnels far below, knocking and whispers.
The past always felt nearby, the images in black and white photos of grimy men digging below our houses for treasure. Buildings from the gold rush era clustered downtown and my high school mascot was, of course, the Miners. We were modern and listened to Depeche Mode and Bon Jovi songs on cassette decks, but something older was always there.
Even now, it seems a bit unstuck in time, free of the endless strip malls and traffic jams that clutter most of California. Tourists regularly surge up from the generic flatlands to see a town without a Wal-Mart.
There was one year the snow came suddenly right on Christmas Eve. From our living room windows I saw white covering the entire valley, repainting everything in sight, thick and new and fluffy enough that plump dashes of snow piled up on power lines outside, balanced like strips of clouds fallen to earth. It’s taken many years here in New Zealand for me to get used to a green Christmas.
I graduated high school and left there more than 30 years ago, but I also never really left, because friends or family have always been there to return to. I’ve lived in Mississippi, Oregon, even New York City and then somehow ended up perched here at the bottom of the world in Auckland. I love it here - the way a sea breeze is never far away, the endless greenery instead of parched yellow grasses.
Yet the places you grow up latch on to you. I drive up into those foothills, the pine trees rising from the vast flat Sacramento valley, into the higher reaches of the Sierra Nevada where savage granite peaks erupt and ice-cold rivers sluice through canyons, and something in me always exhales, reunited.
To appropriate a Māori phrase of belonging that has always rung true to me: those are my mountains. Those are my rivers.
This year, my parents, now in their 80s, moved away from Nevada County, back down into Sacramento closer to family and medical care. It was the end of something. For most of nearly 50 years now, myself or someone in my family has always lived in Nevada County. Those ties have slowly fallen away. On the next visit I won’t see so much of the pine needle-strewn sidewalks and folksy shops and traces of the gold mining days that I’ve always thought of when I think of ‘home.’
Still, those are and will always be my mountains, even if visits get further apart, even if I end up living the rest of my life out here, on the far side of the world.
* Nik Dirga is a digital journalist for RNZ and freelance journalist for the Australian Associated Press and others.