SAN ANTONIO - There's still gold in them thar hills. Or so some hopeful souls are betting.
With the price of the precious metal near $1,750 an ounce, a new generation of prospectors is heading into the hills with picks and pans, following in the footsteps of American dreamers who over the years have pinned their hopes on a lucky strike.
"The higher the price goes, the more people come out of the woodwork," said Tom Pickens, part of a group that prospects for gold in the Llano River in central Texas.
"More and more people are going to come," he added.
These modern-day prospectors may not have the grizzled beards and floppy hats of the treasure seekers who explored California, the Dakotas and Alaska in the 19th century.
But those 49ers would recognize the gold pans and water sluices still used to find the elusive metal.
In Texas, prospectors these days focus on what is called the "Llano Uplift," northwest of Austin.
The granite formation, where flakes of gold and silver were mined by the Comanche Indians, served as the basis of the legend of the Lost Mines of San Saba.
Tales of entire cities made of silver and gold lured adventurers from the Spanish conquistadors to Alamo defender and knife inventor Jim Bowie into the hill country of Texas.
Pickens and his fellow prospectors don't have their dreams set quite so high. While there is gold in the area, it is not likely to be more than powder or pea-sized pebbles, he said.
"You could go into the Llano River, get your pan out there, get a shovel full of sand, and you might be able to find a flake or two," he said.
The rivers are so loaded with sand and minerals that it's difficult to retrieve the super-fine flakes, he said.
"There are times when I will look down and see five or six flakes of gold in my pan," he said. "But when you need 40,000 of those flakes to fill a vial, you need to keep prospecting for weeks and weeks."
Pickens concedes that for the roughly 125 people who pan for gold in central Texas regularly, it is a way to get outside, get some exercise and experience nature.
If there have been any modern-day versions of James Marshall, who discovered a major lode of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848 and sparked the California gold rush, he said he probably would not have heard about it.
"Most prospectors are quiet," he said. "If they do find gold, they keep it to themselves."
Ralph Aldis, with San Antonio-based U.S. Global Investors, says there are dumber things to do these days than prospecting. "There has been a strong run up in gold prices because of speculators," he said.
"We think the price will continue to rise."
In Texas, rivers such as the Llano are owned by the state, and anyone willing to pay a $250 permit fee and clean up after themselves can stake a claim.
When gold prices rose in recent weeks, Pickens said his phone started ringing with calls from people who want to join the gold rush. "It's like a scratch-off ticket or something. You keep thinking you're going to find a glory hole or the mother lode," he said.
"But right now, I still have my day job." (Editing by James B. Kelleher and Ellen Wulfhorst)
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