The faint sound through the earphones is like the buzz of a mosquito on the other side of the room when you're trying to sleep. It nags at your attention, keeping you alert. Then, when you pass over a chunk of metal, it’s as if the mosquito has entered your ear, but it’s bigger than a mosquito — a mosquito hawk. Yet for you it’s a happy sound. You set aside your metal detector and grab your scoop. Who knows what riches may lie beneath the earth? And this time it might even be the Big One.
You have seen metal detectors. There you are on the beach trying to get a well-deserved rest and some old coot is putzing in front of you like he’s mowing a lawn — or maybe it’s a young guy or a woman or a kid. And every few seconds the person gets all excited and digs up a penny. It makes you paranoid in your wallet. It makes you wonder where you put your keys, your watch, your wedding ring, nose ring, nipple ring, necklace. Is this guy going to find it and take it away? Shouldn’t there be a law?
A metal detector has three basic elements. (1) A control box up top for the electronic components and batteries. (2) A search coil at the bottom that looks like a pancake or flattened doughnut that transmits and receives signals. (3) A four-foot, wire-wrapped stem to link the control box and search coil together. The whole business weighs between three and five pounds and costs between $200 and $1400, whether you want a basic model or one that’s good up to 250 feet under water. When the coil passes over a piece of metal, a signal is sent to the control box, then through a speaker or to your headphones. That’s when the buzz comes in. You can also buy sand scoops, digging trowels, hip-mount holsters, screens, bags, cases, headphones, extra speakers, recharge kits, different types of coils and coil covers, as well as T-shirts, baseball caps, and arm patches with various manufacturers’ logos. But this is just the beginning.
My introduction to metal detecting begins at Joe Johanek’s House of Treasure Hunters over on El Cajon Boulevard on a January afternoon. Joe’s shop is cluttered with metal detectors, magazines, books, maps, metal-detecting and prospect -ing equipment. He talks to me from the other side of his glass display case, which has several catalogs spread out on the counter. He is a thin, sandy-haired man in his 50s, with a mustache and blue eyes, and he speaks in a nasal drawl punctuated with “wells” and “you knows.”
“We have three types of detectors that we use worldwide. We have what we call single-frequency detectors; we have multi-frequency— that means they send and receive more than one signal at a time — and then the final one is the pulse detector—that means we strobe the signal. So while the single- and multifrequency send out a continuous signal back and forth, the pulse detector pulsates the signal. The pulse is the deepest of all the detectors because the strobe lets us eliminate the ground minerals the best, but the problem is we can’t match a discriminator circuit to it — that means what? We dig up the whole world, because we can’t tell what we’ve found. So we dig up bottle caps, pull tabs, nails — anything that’s metal. But the pulse goes the deepest. You can hit a dime at 12 to 13 inches; you can hit a quarter at a foot and a half. For a single-frequency, we’re basically looking at 8 to 10 inches on dimes and 12 to 13 inches on quarters — so you see we lose depth. Single-frequency is the most popular right now because you can put more features with it and it works the grass and trashy ground; that is, you can have coins mixed with trash and you can spot them all day.”
Joe goes on to describe different kinds of features: discriminators that distinguish between different types of metal; discriminators that customize the detector to look only for certain types of targets (gold instead of silver); tone ID with different sounds corresponding to different targets (quarters and nails); visual discriminators, etc. The greater number the features the more expensive the machine.
“But the problem with single-frequency,” says Joe, “is the more minerals or iron in the ground,-the worse it acts up. It goes crazy. The pulse, we have no problem with the minerals, but we can’t discriminate, we dig up everything. That’s why we have a third class that’s come out: the multi-frequency detector that combines the depth of the pulse with discrimination, which is the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, it retails at $1300. Most people who are using metal detectors in the parks don’t really need that fancy multi-frequency technology to block out the soil — it isn’t that bad. But the problem with the multi-frequency is that the more trash that’s mixed with the coins, the harder it is for the detector to see them. So you see that our problem is that there’s no one detector that does everything equally well. So most of the people, like Bill Hotchkiss, they’ll have more than one detector for what we’re doing.”
I ask Joe to pause in his story: How do you spell “Hotchkiss” and who is he? That’s how it happens that a week later I’m following Bill Hotchkiss and his metal detector along Mission Beach near Ventura and the lifeguard tower. It had been raining but the rain has stopped, though it shortly begins again. There’s a cold wind and the sun is just setting over the Coronado Islands—the only strip of color in a charcoal sky. No sunbathers today. Only half a dozen masochistic joggers, Bill Hotchkiss, and me. This is how these stories unwind themselves. One summer afternoon a year ago I watched a scrawny guy with a metal detector pace back and forth a dirty little South Boston beach with his eyes a million miles away and I asked, “You ever find much?” thinking he didn’t. And he said, “Last week I nabbed three Rolex watches.” So I thought about it, made some inquiries, learned about Joe Johanek’s House of Treasure Hunters, and now here I am.
Bill Hotchkiss is a 66-year-old retired San Diego police lieutenant who bought his first metal detector at a swap meet in 1985, the same year he left the police force. He has a rugged, handsome face with blue eyes, a shy smile, and graying black hair. He’s about six feet tall. Both of his knees have been replaced and he walks a little stiffly. He wears thigh-high neoprene boots, blue jeans, a blue rain jacket, a red cap, and yellow mouse-ear headphones. He carries a pulse detector with a flat 10-inch dish. Walking along the very edge of the water, he looks like an ungainly sandpiper, sweeping the detector back and forth. Sometimes he steps into the surf, then jumps back when a wave surprises him. He has a preoccupied expression as if listening to something far away. He stops to dig, then holds up an object for my inspection: a penny.
“You can’t take the chance of not digging when you get a signal.” His smile suggests that he has found many pennies over the years. “But it’s a good machine, it goes nice and deep.”
A minute later, he stops, calls me to the edge of the water, and gives me the headphones. “Do you hear that double click?” I hear two clicks almost on top of one another.
“That’s probably a nail. You always use earphones because of the sound of the surf— there’s a lot of little nuances of the machine you want to hear, little subtle sounds that a lot of people don’t hear because they’re not familiar with the machine themselves. It may be just a click, it may be just a null or a no-noise-in-the-background noise. The pulse machine works with a slight background noise and anything that disturbs that noise should be checked. It’s a very rapid click, much faster and lighter than a Geiger counter; it’s just a buzz, and it increases as you approach something, so you can pinpoint an object by going over it. But different things make different sounds even with a pulse. If you hit a nail, you can usually determine it’s a nail by hitting it one way and then going 90 degrees and hitting it another way and you’ll get a double dip because the length of the nail will give you a double dip.”
Hotchkiss slowly bends over and starts to dig with his scoop. I jump back from a small wave. When 1 look at him again, he’s holding a rusty nail, which he gives to me. The sun has disappeared. A golden line slivers the horizon of dark, dark rain clouds. Runners go by with grim, determined expressions. Hotchkiss and I stand by the water in front of ’Canes Bar and Grill. It begins to rain. With his yellow mouse ears and his metal detector swinging back and forth, Hotchkiss seems impervious to the weather as his faraway expression again over-sweeps his face. He begins to dig.
What makes Bill Hotchkiss different from other metal detectorists (one name) or coinshooters (another name) or treasure hunters (a third name) is his business: Bill’s Metal Detecting Service (“Lost It— I’ll Find It”). If you have lost
something made out of metal, Hotchkiss will find it for $10, which is basically gas money. Of course many people, in their delight at finding their Great-Aunt Tilly’s diamond ring, may give him more than $10, but they don’t have to. Sometimes Hotchkiss will not find it, but he will come back day after day before he gives up. Beaches, parks, baseball fields, cemeteries— he has retrieved lost articles from practically every location.
"There was this lady who was leading two colts through the gate and one nipped at her and just took the setting off her ring and she didn’t know if it fell to the ground or went into the horse’s mouth. So she kept the manure for a week and a half and then she had me go through it with the detector to see if I could come up with anything. I didn’t find it, though I would have liked to have — that would have been a great story.”
But mostly people call Bill’s Metal Detecting Service because they have lost something on the beach.
"People lose watches, rings. They’ll put rings on blankets so that they won’t lose them when they go in the water, then a half hour later they’ll flip the blanket and that’s it. Keys are the same way — people are always asking me to find keys for them. Or people will say they lost a ring in the surf and I’ll hunt where they lost it and, depending on the tides, I may go back two or three times to see if it’s there. 1 go about 20 feet into the water, about 10 feet past where it’s breaking now. I wouldn’t want to get up past my knees, but on occasion you get swamped. In fact, it seems like when you’re all ready to quit and you’ve been careful all day, it’s that last wave you’ve decided to tackle is the one that gets you. I charge people $10, then whatever they want to give me. Usually they’re generous. The people who lose things are not necessarily the richest people and I do it as a hobby and it means a hell of a lot to them to get back whatever they’ve lost. Mission Beach has a different sort of crowd than Coronado and La Jolla. It has a higher density of people and that’s really what we’re looking for, because the more people, then the more things are lost.
“But the best experiences have definitely been finding things for people. You get the enjoyment out of getting it back to the person. Often they have given up all hope and then you find it for them. You get a lot of hugs. I got a call one evening and this lady was in hysterics. She and her dog had been playing up in Del Mar in the surf and the dog’s paw had just caught her ring and flipped it off. She had enough sense to take some landmarks and when I got up there she showed me a kind of triangular deal and I worked it for four nights because the tide was low at night and on the fourth morning I found it for her. It was a $25,000 Tiffany wedding ring that she had. She and her husband had just come from Texas and they had taken the rider off the insurance. She was very happy.”
But Bill’s Metal Detecting Service occupies only part of Hotchkiss’s time with his metal detector. He calculates that he searches the beaches five days a week 12 months a year, working the low tides often before sunrise or, in the summer, starting at midnight and working until three or four in the morning. After all, it’s a passion.
“The best time is after a good storm where the waves have really whipped up the sand, that’s when you’re going to find your best things. When the sand is cut at a right angle, when there’s a bank there, then your stuff will be out about ten feet. Winter’s probably the best: wet sand. In the winter not many hunters are out —just some of us diehards.”
After joining the San Diego Police Department in 1959, Hotchkiss was promoted quickly, spending only three years as a patrolman. Most of his career was in investigations, including homicide, narcotics, and two years in charge of internal investigations, where the police investigate the police. (“I hated that. You walk into the cafeteria and you see people turn away and your friends’ faces fall.”) It seemed to me there must be a connection between police detecting and metal detecting.
Hotchkiss shakes his head. “I don’t know if there’s any connection with the work that I did as a policeman, but I sure tie it in with fishing. It’s almost identical to fishing. I used to be called Wormy Willie when I was on the police department because I was obsessed with catching large-mouthed bass. Then a couple of years before I retired I lost interest entirely. I sold all my gear. Then I started this.”
One might think that there are vast amounts of money to be made with a metal detector, and indeed that may be the case, but for many like Bill Hotchkiss the money hardly comes into it. At the beach he finds mostly rings, some nice gold ones, but usually silver. He finds lots of small change, keys, and cheap watches.
"To me what’s most important is the search itself,” Hotchkiss tells me. By now we are back at his van and he’s peeling off his neoprene boots. He’s found a couple of dimes, a couple of pennies, and a nail. The rain pings off the van’s metal top. “Once you find what you’re hunting for, that’s it. No more, it’s over.” Hotchkiss gives a rumbling laugh. “The enjoyment’s gone for me. I have a friend who says, ‘When this starts to be work, then I’m getting out of it’ And I think that’s my idea too.”
There is a paradox here. The hunter (coin, relic, treasure, whatever) is to some degree living in the future — the time when the Big One will be found. On the other hand, for many the act of hunting is more important than what is found. The search (present time) often means more to them than the discovery (future time). It reminds me somewhat of fishing My brother, an avid trout fisherman in northern Michigan, always tosses the critters back for reasons that have nothing to do with kindness.
On another evening I talk to two more coinshooters, Ken and Jean Nikodym, in their house in Ocean Beach. Ken worked for the post office in San Diego for 37 years, retiring in 1984 as a manager in charge of 14 postal stations. Originally from South Dakota, he still has the trim, windblown look of the northern plains. His wife is equally trim with a confection of white hair. Both wear glasses. Ken speaks slowly; Jean speaks quickly with the result that she tends to complete the sentences that he begins. Like many couples married a long time, they function as a single unit. Treated nearly as an equal is their small dog Scooter that darts about and can do no wrong.
The Nikodyms as well as Bill Hotchkiss are members of the Coinshooters of San Diego, the local metal-detecting club and one of about 50 in California. Established in 1972, it has approximately 80 members.
It is a comfortable, modern living room with a picture window looking out to the north. The Nikodyms go back and forth talking about what they have found. Ken will begin a sentence and Jean will hurry ahead while the dog Scooter trots affably around the room seeking out scratches and pats. Mostly the Nikodyms stick to Ocean Beach and they don’t do much detecting in winter unless there’s a good storm, but they like to go where there are big hotels.
Ken says they are down to six metal detectors. “In the summertime we go out every day.”
“The dog has to be walked,” says Jean, “and he has a lot of dog friends out there.”
“We’d find spoons, toy cars, pagers,” says Ken. “It’s a little bit of something in addition to the exercise.”
“I found three Rolex watches,” says Jean, “but they were all made in Taiwan. I found lots of pagers last summer. You’d get a $ 15 reward from the pager company. 1 found two in one week. I’d call the person and say, ‘You lose something?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, I got drunk and fell off the seawall.’ We don’t tell the other club members if we find a beach we like. We’re very secretive, even in the club. What you want are places with big hotels rather than local beaches, because then you find more gold rings and diamonds, but you also find hundreds of hotel keys. Coronado is great for gold rings.” Several times I have been told that a person’s finger shrinks about one size in the cold water, which is why rings slip off so easily. As Jean describes the gold rings, I wonder if I hear an element of greed in her voice. But then she continues:
“I don’t like to find gold rings because they mean so much to people, but we’ve been able to return a lot of them. But you make them describe the ring to you first. We find class rings and give those back, or Navy rings, as well as beepers. We run ads in the newspapers if we find something really nice, but we never get any answers. People stop you and ask you to find things. One woman lost a one-carat diamond in a beautiful setting and she was so upset. And we found it and she wanted to write us a $500 check, but we never take any money. We find rings all the time. Once we found a beautiful ring for a girl who had the same name as our cat. We didn’t want her to give us anything. She gave us a bottle of French champagne but we don’t like champagne.”
As they describe the best of what they have found — Omega and Gucci watches, 14-karat rings — I feel that they lack the passion that was evident in Hotchkiss. Their enjoyment is mellower, it is linked to exercise; they wanted a hobby for the family. But then they begin to talk about their five two-week trips to England and their voices grow more excited.
“England’s a treasure hole,” says Jean. “The whole country’s a treasure hole.”
The tours are arranged to southeast England, where farmers’ fields are rented during a period between plowing and planting. Men and women with metal detectors then hunt along the freshly plowed rows listening for that mosquito-hawk buzz in a land where people have been losing metal objects for several thousand years.
“In England,” says Ken, “you dig up traces of wars going back to the Romans up to the present day.” His oldest finds in England were Roman coins and a piece of a Bronze Age ax. One coin was featured in the magazine Western and Eastern Treasures and he shows me the issue: a 1603 hammered silver coin from the reign of King James.
“A plague went through Norwich, England, twice,” says Jean, “and they burned down the village at the time and so there are a lot of very good things in the ground.” She tells me about a 24-karat gold ring dated 1704. “When I found it I screamed. I said, ‘Where’s my husband?’
“When you’re working in England,” says Jean, “and you’re working in the furrow of a field all by yourself and you find an old musket ball, it blows your mind, because you know it’s been there a really long time. Nobody’s touched it for hundreds of years. Then you come back to San Diego and things are rather dull.” She laughs almost hesitantly. “But I find the buttons as interesting as the coins, I don’t know why. These things are not really worth anything but it’s history. I didn’t really know the difference between a Celt and an Anglo-Saxon before going over there.”
“In Dover they even have airplanes buried in the fields,” says Ken. “The ground was soft and the planes were shot down. They found a German fighter plane buried 18 feet down in the ground with the skeleton of an Austrian pilot with his dog tags still around his neck sitting in his seat and so they sent his body home.” .
As Scooter springs from chair to chair, the three of us ponder the likelihood of using a metal detector to discover a downed German Messerschmitt. Sometimes it’s surprising what can make us feel most connected to the world — to dig up a 300-year-old pewter button from a woman’s dress and to think about that woman and how the button happened to fall there. A brief question to make us pause in our personal journey before we again hurry forward.
The monthly meeting of the Coinshooters of San Diego is held the following Friday night in the cafeteria of the San Diego County Office of Education on Linda Vista Road. The name of the club is displayed on a blue banner hanging between small flags. About 40 members are spread around eight tables. Along one wall are displays of what members have found since the last meeting. The president of the club, Terry Monteith, leads the group in the pledge of allegiance. Monteith is 51, tall, and wears a gray sweatshirt, blue shorts, and a red-and-white cap. He drives a liquor and wine truck for Young’s Market. Monteith and his wife have five metal detectors and he’s been a coin-shooter since 1975.
Partly I am here out of curiosity and partly because I want to move beyond the beach and park hunters to other areas of metal detecting As Joe Johanek at the House of Treasure Hunters had told me: “The four big areas of detecting are park and old homesite hunting. Then we have the surf or waist-high water hunting. Then we have relic hunting which includes of course treasure hunting, where there’s old forts, old trading posts, that kind of stuff. And the fourth would be the diving—the Florida guys who are after treasures. And in the fifth one, which is the most expensive, is the deep treasure hunting like hunting for the Emperor Maximilian’s treasure or Pancho Villa’s treasure, the big buried treasures, which are down 20, 30 feet or they’re maybe in a buried cave.”
I sit with Ken and Jean Nikodym. Bill Hotchkiss and his wife sit at a nearby table. There are announcements concerning potluck suppers and several raffles. Jean wins a silver dollar. Someone asks if they can start having organized Sunday hunts once again — he had enjoyed one held the previous year at an old Girl Scout camp.
During a pause while people look at the exhibits, I talk to Terry Monteith.
“I do some beach hunting,” he says, “to keep in tune with my machine; otherwise you lose track of what it’s trying to tell you. But what I like best is getting into the back-country, doing the stage stops and ghost towns. I’m an antique person. I like old things. But I like the thrill, getting the signal, the noise in your ears, and not knowing what you’ve found until you have it in your hands. It’s not necessarily valuable but it’s old, and if it could talk, just think of all the stories it could tell you about who held it last and where it’s been.”
Once people are reseated, Monteith begins the show-and-tell session in preparation for the club’s monthly competition for the oldest object found, the most unusual, and most valuable. There are old knives, coins, watches, gold rings, even a pair of false teeth. But immediately one man seems to rise from among the others with a mass of impressive discoveries: a powder flask from 1857, musket balls flattened into poker pieces, part of a Bowie knife, a gold bracelet, and a number of pre-Civil War coins, including a silver coin from 1828.
The man’s name is Jim Walker, a 55-year-old retired naval electronics officer, who grew up in southeast Georgia, joined the Navy eight days after graduating from high school, and came out to San Diego in 1976. Walker is about five feet seven, with a handsome, hawkish face, and thick graying sandy hair combed back over his head. He looks remarkably familiar until I realize how closely he resembles the actor Charlton Heston, though somewhat scaled down.
As Walker shows what he has found he talks about the need to do research, study the old maps, visit historical societies, dig out old journals and diaries in the special collections of libraries. It becomes apparent that if there is such a thing as a professional, then Walker is the man, or perhaps his passion just burns brighter and hotter. In speaking of the need for research, he doesn’t quite harangue his fellow club members, but he is insistent.
As Walker talks, Ken Nikodym leans toward me and whispers, “He knows all the best places.”
Walker wins two parts of the competition with his 1828 coin and his gold bracelet (a gold nugget wins the most unusual). Soon I learn that he is president of the bottle-collecting club, has a large collection of glass insulators, as well as a collection of date nails: the nails once driven into railway ties to indicate when they had been laid. In fact, Jim Walker is a collector of many things and if he lived in an airplane hangar instead of an average-sized house in Clairemont Mesa, he would be an even greater collector. Once Walker begins to collect something, he learns everything he can possibly learn on the subject. For instance, later in the evening he gives a talk on fruit jars, showing his own collection of cobalt jars, which are the rarest and most expensive since the nickel ore that produced the blue cobalt color was expensive and the color itself was used as a whim. Walker insists: “You look for crudity, you look for color, you look for original closure, and you have to do your research.”
Walker is conversant with many subjects, takes pride in his knowledge, and likes to display it, but he’s also quick to defer to those who know more. He talks almost to the point of bragging but doesn’t brag. Yet he is far more than the weekend hobbyist. Watching him with the other club members is somewhat like watching Arnold Schwarzenegger take part in a friendly Indian-wrestling contest. Many of the club members clearly have great admiration for him; some are tolerant, some are irritated. I look around for Bill Hotchkiss but he has disappeared. Later he tells me, “I’m not into artifacts. Hell, I would have thrown half of that junk away.”
But artifact hunting is only one area of Walker’s expertise; the other is competition hunts. Walker has won over 100 trophies and is considered the number-one competition hunter on the West Coast. Terry Monteith explains to me the difference between organized hunts and competition hunts:
“Well, organized hunts, they have beach hunts, which are the easiest because of the sand, but they have many in the dirt — fields and parks. They plant coins and tokens with numbers to correspond with prizes. And they’ll have fun-hunts, like night hunts that you have to do without lights and the coins are on top of the ground, but they might plant the coin in mustard or mayonnaise to make it all gooey. But they’ll also have competition hunts for speed and difficulty, where you get first, second, and third prize and a trophy, maybe you’ll win a metal detector. Jim Walker is the best competitor around here. He’s fast and he has no wasted movements.”
And later Walker tells me, “Winning trophies is no more different than riding dirt bikes or whatever, it’s just something you like to do. I’m good at swinging my metal detector. An organized hunt might be simply seven or eight different events starting on a Friday night and going all the way through Sunday. Many of them are called finders keepers, gold hunts, treasure, any name you want to give them that’s easy. I’ve got a whole dossier on every hunt I’ve ever been to. The competition hunt is totally different. It’s again a field or a prescribed area and in that instance they bury targets which are only good for points. All you’re looking for Is the most and the quickest. That’s all that it’s about. I was born in south Georgia and I was an avid hunter and fisherman like most people in the South. I set records for bass fishing and I had my pictures in the paper when I was just a kid. So I’ve always been a competitor — bowling, I still bowl pretty good when I put my mind to it. It’s just a passion. Everything that I pursue I’ve always pursued it to the hilt. Not always good, I guess, for relations but that’s the only way to do it in my opinion.”
Jim Walker is an artifact hunter, a relic hunter, and after I promise not to pry too deeply into his secrets, he invites me to his house to talk. We sit on a couch in his living room. On a shelf across his picture window are a row of blue- and violet-colored insulators. One living room wall is brick, one wood paneled, and one is a mirror. A beige rug covers the floor. Plaques commemorating his victories in metal-detecting competitions hang from the paneled wall and shelves display a number of metal-detecting trophies, including one seven and a half feet tall. In a closet in another room he keeps his first metal detector, purchased in 1968, still in its original box. Walker is talking about research.
“I have quite a library on San Diego and I’ve read every book that probably exists on the history of San Diego. That’s where you formulate your plan of attack for seeking out these old spots. Sometimes you’ve just got to go down here to the historical society, look through the archives, that kind of stuff, which is available to all of us, but most people are too lazy to do that. Topographical maps, survey maps, you find and seek out and buy all that stuff, if you can ever get your hands on it.
If you can’t, you just read it and make copies of it. But it’s like a cache hunter or a full-time treasure hunter, you get all the facts and figures together, then you go seek the fruits of your labors so to speak. So, over a period of years you develop a sixth sense . for that kind of stuff. I can go out and take a drive out into the country or drive along a riverbed and pretty much figure out where the stuff is. It takes a knack to do that.”
As an example, Walker describes the camps of the Chinese laborers who built the western railroads in the 19th Century.
“Those work camps were systematic work camps. They’re documented fact. And most of the camps were about every five miles. In that day five miles was a long time, when you were using horses or whatever, so five miles was about half a day’s travel. So five-mile camps is pretty much a rule. When you go out traveling the tracks, once you find a single camp, you can truck on down about four, five, six miles and you can find another one. What’s left at this point is glass. The glass is one of the most predominant identifiers. Now that’s on the surface. The other item is the iron. Flattened tin cans, the normal refuse kind of thing. It doesn’t matter if the Chinese ate a little differently than the white man, they all had their tin cans. The Chinese had their tea, they had their other means of keeping themselves happy. All of them played poker a lot. So finding good coins is where a metal detector comes in. Sometimes you’ll find Chinese coins just laying on top of the ground. They have no value, Chinese cash coins they call them, with holes in the middle. The Santa Fe and Central Pacific completed their tracks out here about ’82 to ’83, from Arizona into California. And of course they had to continue working on the tracks for many, many years, manually, I’d say up until-prob-ably the ’20s or ’30s. By that time the Santa Fe, all the major lines, had established workcamps and those are all known sites and documented on maps and easy to come by. But it’s the little out-of-the-way camps in between which produce the most valuables, because those were never marked on the maps. And those had most of the activity that produced the good stuff, I don’t know why, but it is — everything from gambling and coins to the kind of workers that got away from the camp and did their own thing, you know. So those are the camps you want to find. You’ll find a lot of money and stuff scattered, and tokens— the early brass trade tokens. In those days trade tokens were a big thing. Go to the local bar, you’d get your trade tokens for a drink at the bar and you’d put it in your pocket and take it back to the work camp and lose it. Or they had to move on and they weren’t going back to that town so they just tossed them because they were worthless. To us now they’re worth quite a bit of money.”
Other places where Walker searches for relics are ghost towns, especially in New Mexico, saying that the ghost towns of other western states have already been over-hunted.
“Every building in a ghost town had a trash pile out back, or a privy, an outhouse, which is where most prizes are found. So I’m an avid privy digger; I have my tools of the trade for that also—four-foot probe, six-foot probe, and those go along with the detector. I also have my sifting device, my screener, sifter, shovel. But in a ghost-town environment there are often no buildings, which is the typical ghost town. The ghost towns that have lots of buildings are off-limits anyway and you can’t really do anything except walk around. But the remote sites that have a few broken-down buildings, a few boards laying here or there, maybe the remnants of an adobe building, which you’d call melted adobe — they melt because of the elements, because of the rain. That’s where your older stuff will be. The biggest giveaway is melted adobes. So now you’re way back before the turn of the century. After that they started using more wood and lumber. Or you’re looking for square nails, which gets you back to the turn of the century or earlier as a rule. Just like tin cans. Every tin can tells its own story. You can go out to a dump and in just a couple of minutes of walking through it and kicking tin cans around you can tell whether you’re wasting your time or not. I can date a tin can just by a glance at the bottom. The earlier cans are soldered together. You see little circles on the bottom where the hole was and that little circle dates the can back to the 1880s and they were using cans back to the Civil War anyway. Before that it was mostly glass and other types of containers. So, yeah, cans are a first giveaway on the surface. So you can date a ghost town that way too. Like I say, ghost towns are documented as a rule and they usually existed for several reasons—one being that they lay on a route of transportation. Or maybe they were a gold- or a silver-bearing community; a ghost town may have started because of the gold — there had to be a reason for those people to gather together. They all had like interests. Some lasted longer, some lasted shorter, the short timers are the ones you want, because they’re the ones that had a lot of heated activity over a period of years, such as gold-producing areas, and then they fade away. The people just kind of walked off and left everything.
“And I look at the trade routes, most of which have been documented. Again back to books and research, if you can find the old maps, which are hard to come by, early survey maps. Cavalry camps, Indian War-era camps is one of my specialties, and there are good books written on forts of the West, some even have drawings of the barracks and buildings, how they were laid out in a camp, but those have been visited by everybody for that reason. So the cavalry camps that were not documented are the ones that produced the serious artifacts, and that usually comes from researching diaries, reading journals, privately done stuff that you don’t find on the market. That’s where the true treasures are found. Let’s say as an example the Mormon troops that came over from Salt Lake during the 1850s and helped settle the West and this part of California. The routes these people took, the journals, maps, things of that nature that relate to the Mormon Battalion are extremely valuable documents. There’s books written by these guys because they were required by the government to write reports. Those are extremely rare books. Those show sketches, diagrams, maps, and those are good research tools. So when you find those routes and you’re willing to go out, motivated to go out with your detector and your camera and with your snake boots and everything, then that’s where you’re going to find the good stuff. And that’s a lot of work, most people are too lazy to do that. That’s why they stick to the beaches and the local parks.
“Another important trade route was over here in the desert on the other side of the mountains, that trade route started in Sonora, Mexico, and came up through the Forbidden Desert across the river in Yuma and other places along the Colorado and eventually ended up near Los Angeles. That’s the original trade route when all this was Mexican territory. So if you’re fortunate enough to find sites on those routes, then that’s where you find the good stuff. That’s where you find gold coins, early gold coins, we’re talking pre-Civil War stuff: Spanish reals, half reals, quarter reals, one reals, I’ve found all of those coins. Crosses, a few religious artifacts, they’re tougher to come by, but occasionally you’ll find solid-silver crosses or something of that nature, which are quite collectable. But the main thing is you gotta get out there and tromp where they tromped, that’s the important thing. And I enjoy it, I just pack up and spend eight hours out there with a backpack, a canteen, and a sandwich or something and just walk, walk, walk, until you cover a given area that you mark on your map or in your memory bank or whatever and the next time you go to a different area and you cover as much ground as you possibly can. ’Course you never find everything, you can’t possibly swing a detector over every square inch of ground, especially in a desert environment when you’re working among sage bushes, cacti, rock piles, uneven territory. So you can only cover a percentage of that ground and it takes years of continuous energy to cover it.
“For example, I’ve been pursuing date nails in those old railway ties for 15 years. I’ve covered almost every mile of ground between Needles, California, to Barstow. That’s a long way, I mean that’s 150 miles by car. You go out whenever you can, like on a weekend or whatever. You cover a mile in your car, you park it and walk, and then you go back to your car and drive another mile and walk another mile, constantly swinging until you find those little hot spots. So it takes a long time to cover the ground because no one has ever documented these sites and they’re not just there for the taking, so you got to work for it and that’s what a lot of folks don’t understand. It’s kind of like finding a gold mine, you find a gold mine, you don’t run into town and put it in the local paper, ’I just found a gold mine out at so-and-so, here’s the latitude and longitude.’ Well, you just don’t do that, nobody does that, they didn’t do it in the old days and they don’t do it now. So finding choice relic sites is just as secret and just as sacred as anything else. Finding an abandoned adobe out in the middle of nowhere that you know dates from the 1840s from the Gold Rush era or into the 1850s, I mean those are sacred sites. Those are sites that produce the quality items, not quantity. They produce quality and that’s a key word in relic hunting: quality versus quantity. If you go to the beach, quantity is it. Quality is fine if you find a gold ring or whatever, but most people say, ‘Oh, I found $13 in change yesterday.’ ‘Big deal’ is what I say to myself; ‘How many of them were pennies?’ ‘Oh, there were $5 worth of pennies.’ I don’t even pick up pennies anymore to be honest with you. It’s just the mentality you develop.
I mean, I used to do the same thing. I used to spend hours and hours at the beach raking in the v coins and I’d put them in a bucket and tumble them and clean them and take them to the bank every now and then, which is a normal thing for a coinshootcr to do on a beach.
“But with relic hunting you go out and look for military cartridges and you start finding those big-caliber cartridges, which you know were fired during the ’60s and ’70s and the Indian War era, and you slow down because you know you’re either in a campsite or a possible attack site or someplace that had military activity, because those brass cartridges, they sound off pretty good. They’re fairly easy to find, anybody with a detector could find them. Then you look for the eagle buttons or the uniform items, belt buckles, the other little accoutrements that fell off their uniforms. Out here the eagle buttons, even in the ground, in the sand, are well preserved, they’re not corroded, they’re not bad. You can take them and nib them with your finger and you’ve got a nice dark patina on it. Like I had a couple in my display the other night. They were just as nice as the day they were dropped. Those are the things that you really seek, even though they don’t have extremely high value. Buckles are good of course. I’ve found a few U.S. buckles myself over the years. So all of those things comprise the personal collections of most relic and artifact hunters. Those are the kind of things that are dear to your heart. You spend hours and hours, walking and driving, you drive 150 or 200 miles just to get there and hunt all day and you find a handful of stuff and that’s all you’ve got to show for it. You might find one old coin or something and that’s worth it to me. That’s my passion.”
Outside it’s raining. A huge bougainvillea weighs down the roof of Walker’s front porch. Cars hiss by. Listening to him, it’s hard not to feel his passion. Walker speaks very precisely but with a suggestion of a Georgia drawl. I find myself wondering about buying a metal detector and wandering 40 miles in the wilderness. Maybe in another life.
“There are others who do the same thing. I’m certainly not alone in the field, and just like anyone else, you go with the pros when you want to learn what to do and I’ve done that. There are a few folks out there who have collections much larger than mine and have pursued this area of hunting many years before I did. So I was taught by them and taken to spots by them and I do the same thing with a few people. But if you don’t enjoy the hunt, the end result just doesn’t have any meaning. If you think about it, that’s true of everything in life. If one has a job and they happen to roll through their entire life and never have any fun at it, they’re usually not the most happy people in the world.
“The whole Colorado basin is a very fruitful area to hunt and research, from the Mexican border all the way up to the Grand Canyon. That’s a lot of territory. One of my favorite stomping grounds is 300 miles or so from here, about a six-hour trip, so it’s not something you do every day. I’ve just always been a history buff and I guess my passion is really military— ghost towns and cavalry sites— because I’m a 30-year military man. That may be part of it, but I wasn’t a ground soldier or in infantry, I was a sailor in electronics, but it probably rubbed off on me a little bit. But just the idea of finding an item in its dropped position or the original place it was deposited, lost or whatever, makes you feel like you were there, trying to relive a piece of the past, I guess. Finding a cavalry site where you know there’s bullets around, cartridges around, and not knowing what went on, trying to envision a battle that took place or whatever. Or if it’s a campsite, just picturing the daily life, just trying to put yourself in their position, I guess that’s what drives people to do it. In my opinion it’s what drives people to treasure hunt, to salvage, to seek out those sunken ships. It’s not the wealth that’s there, the potential of getting wealthy, because you’re not going to get wealthy hunting at a cavalry or a military site out West. If you’re lucky, you might find a gold coin or something of that nature or a rare thing or some personal item.
“Personal items are really highly desirable. The other evening I didn’t make a big deal out of it but in my case was a gold ring which was solid gold, 24-karat. I tested it and it was made probably by the Mexican artisan who was supposed to have been in that particular townsite who was known to make very good Mexican jewelry. Of course the ring could have been made anywhere, but since I knew exactly the time frame, 1862 to ’65, that it was made, that meant a lot to me when I dug it up. The fact that it was gold meant a lot and the second thing was that it was a lady’s ring, and then, third, trying to figure out who made this ring. How was it lost. All those things go through your mind when you find a personal item like a gold ring. People just didn’t throw their gold rings out. It’s like they didn’t throw gold coins around because they were too valuable. They might throw a dime away or a Mexican coin or something because it didn’t have a lot of value to it, but gold was precious and it always has been precious as long as man’s been around. Those are the kinds of things that get you really excited.”
Treasure hunting was the next area of metal detecting I wanted to learn about and my inquiries led me to Mike Head, 43, who lives up in the hills in Ramona. Driving out there 20 miles or so one bright January morning with the mountains getting closer and the snow sparkling on the peaks, it seemed that I was also driving 20 years back in time, though the stream of San Diego-bound traffic indicated that the city sprawl would reach Ramona soon enough.
Inside Mike Head’s ranch house it seems that every available surface displays photographs of his two children and family members. Head is a big bear of a man, with small ears, blue eyes, and a round reddish face. He has a gray mustache, gray goatee, and wears glasses. He worked for the Ramona water district for 18 years but then injuries to his back and knee led to early retirement. Head has no interest in beach and park hunting. Nor is he interested in clubs and all the rest. He has no interest in digging a silver dollar out of a jar of mayonnaise in a novelty coinshooters’ hunt — he’s after treasure. And as a treasure hunter, he is also wary. He tells me about it as we sit at his dining-room table.
“In the past. I’ve had people — you’d be surprised — people come knock on your door, you know? And it can become a situation that gets a little scary sometimes, because there’s a lot of nut cases out there, believe me. They’re looking for help. They’ve got a treasure they want you to go find. Or you’ve got people that come knocking on your door saying, ‘Well, what have you found?’ and all this stuff. And people are crazy, man, I’m not being paranoid, but there’s a lot of people out there that think if you found something that it’s theirs. There’s been people that have found things and wish they never had, because the next thing you know, you’ve got five people taking you to court saying it’s theirs even though they know nothing about it. The ones that put the work into it are the ones that lose. We’re not talking about going down and finding a few coins on the beach. I mean large things. Gold bars, silver bars. I mean, we’ve been followed. I mean, people have actually waited. We’ve gone on four-day trips and had people follow us. There was a trip one time in the desert years ago where we were going to this one area and a guy followed us way out in the middle of the night. He was out digging where we were supposed to be. It sounds almost like something out of a book, but it’s true. There’s people out there like that.”
Mike Head bought his first metal detector when he was 12 for $19.95, ordering it from an ad in a western magazine. His father had been in the military and the family moved into the San Diego area in 1965, settling in Poway. With his detector, Mike and his father explored the Indian camps around Poway, then moved farther afield to other Indian camps and ghost towns, finding arrowheads, pottery, bottles, and once a pot of coins. As years passed, Mike Head bought better machines. He began to do research. He talked to old-time treasure hunters and he began to write articles for the various treasure magazines — Treasure, Treasure Found, Treasure Search — which have since gone out of business. And all the while he kept his eye on a bigger prize: the Big One.
“I love doing it, but as far as finding the Big One, no, I haven’t found it yet. Every day though, it’s knocking on my door. We’ve got some good leads on stuff. I’m working on a couple that hopefully will pan out. It’s going to happen someday. That’s why I say it’s better to look for, say, 20 gold bars than look for 2 coins. Two coins is fine.
I mean, everybody’s got their thing. I’m not putting nobody down. But to me, it’s better to look for something big than something small. I’ve kind of done both and I like looking for the bigger stuff. It takes a lot of research. I mean I’m always collecting books on things. You become a historian. If you don’t have any idea of what really happened or when it happened, you’re spinning your wheels. A lot of people think you just grab your detector and run out into your backyard and become a millionaire. I mean, when I first got into it, years ago, I probably thought, well, I can go out there and 1 can be the lucky one. You know? I ain’t got nothing better to do. I can go out there and traipse around for a few days and maybe find it. Well, I guess that’s possible, but it never was for me.
“It’s only been in the last six years or so that I’ve been looking for the big stuff. I used to go to the beach and I’d find coins, or I’d go to parks. But as much time as you spend doing that, you might as well spend time looking for something big. I’m not putting down the beach and park hunters. That’s great. And in the long run, till the Big One comes, they’ll probably do better than I do. The people who do it, they find it relaxing and they get something out of it, out of the camaraderie, because a lot of times they’ll belong to clubs or whatever, you know? There’s a lot of people that need that and thrive on it. I’m just the opposite. I can hole myself up someplace. I don’t need nobody. I can associate with people — don’t have a problem with them — but I’m just as happy by myself or with a couple of other guys out in the middle of the desert. There’s a lot of people that need other people. They enjoy the company and all that. I, myself, think that if you keep your mouth shut you’re a lot better off, usually, than not.
“But there’s kind of a division in metal detecting. There’s the coinshooters and small-relic hunters on one side. And that’s great. Everybody’s got their own thing. Then on the other side, you’ve got the professional guys.
I would put myself as starting to get into the professional side of it a little bit, where it takes better equipment, more research, more time, and you’re looking for the bigger stuff or the really unusual, which turns out usually to be bigger stuff — compared to the average guy that’s reading the magazine off the shelf and looking for coins and stuff at the park. For the detector over here, to look for coins, a good one, you pay 800 bucks, you’ve got a dynamite detector for looking at the park or the beach. For something that goes 20 feet deep, it’s going to cost you $25-30,000 for just one detector. You see what I’m saying? There’s a division.”
During most of his years of metal detecting, Head has stayed in the United States, concentrating on California and the Southwest, but the higher he sets his sights, the more he feels obstructed by what he sees as the many restrictions — no hunting on federal land or land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, constant interference from archaeologists, and various regulations — restrictions that relic hunters like Jim Walker also have to observe. But Head finds them particularly frustrating.
“There’s a safe we’re looking for up north. It’s been found twice. Never got it out, but it’s probably got some good stuff. That’s another weird one because it fell in a river and the river belongs to the state, so you run into problems again. The bureaucracy and stuff is real kind of stifling for the treasure hunter, because you want to do everything legally. I mean, you don’t want to do things illegally, because if you found something good, they’d take it from you. It’s really tough. Then there’s the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which basically says that anything 100 years or older belongs to the state and that you can’t be digging holes underneath state property. I understand their idea of wanting to preserve the property and all that. I don’t think you should go out and just start digging a bunch of holes. But I think the state ought to work with people and give them a real chance to recover something and not rip them off either, you know? There’s a few things out in the desert, places I know about, but it’s all state park, so forget it. I mean, just no way. So these days probably 75 percent of my stuffs in Mexico and only 25 here. I mean, you can actually go and do something without spending a lot of time and possibly a lot of money to — and I’m not saying that in the sense of go down and rape and pillage Mexico. When I’m down there it’s usually with other Mexican people that have found something and need help. It’s the way the United States used to be back in the ’50s, probably. Sometimes you say you’re born a hundred years too late. You look for the simpler times, I guess. You’re not running from responsibilities, but sometimes you wish things were a little easier.
“Mexico’s kind of a different place even though it can be kind of scary. They’re great people, but when you talk about making $100 a year or whatever compared to being able to take a gamble on a gold bar worth, depending on the size, maybe $10,000. They’re going to look at you and say, 'Gringo, I’m sorry, buddy, but that’s a lot for my family.’ And it wouldn’t take them much, I don’t think, to knock you in the head, put you in the hole, and cover you up. So it has its dangers too. You just got to be careful. I mean, I’ve resigned myself — usually when 1 go to Mexico if I find something, everybody shares. That way we don’t have a problem. And if they want it all and I can walk away, that’s fine too, because I can always go another day to Mexico, you know? That’s the way I look at it, you know? I mean a lot of people say, 'No, it’s mine. I’ll kill you for it.’ Hey, take it with my blessing, buddy. I’ll come down and have a cerveza with you sometime, but I’m going back home. I’m glad for you. I mean.it ain’t worth your life. It really isn’t. There ain’t nothing worth your life. But you could spend all your time in Mexico. I mean everybody and his brother will come up and say, ‘Come look over here. My grandmother said this. My grandfather said he’d put something here before he died.’
“I mean, we were down there one time looking for the Pancho Villa stuff. This little town, they had a couple buildings there. They called them the Depository. They were built by the Spanish in the 1600s to hold gold and stuff. Beautiful buildings. Still not in too bad of shape. And this lady that owned one of the buildings, she’d made a little store out of it. She wanted me to work on this wall that rose up about 25 feet over the first story. She said her grandfather or great-grandfather, during the Pancho Villa period, had stuck some gold coins in it, taking one of the bricks out. She wanted me to look for it. So I told her, ‘Well, how am I supposed to get up there, you know? Do you have a ladder?’ They wanted me to hang off a rope from the top. They would hold me, and I would hang off a rope and go across this wall with my metal detector, and I didn’t think that was that good an idea. But I went as much as I could. I was hanging from the rope but I didn’t find anything.
“Then the mayor of the town came and found me about nine o’clock at night and he says, 'How about looking at this one adobe for me? I know there’s probably something that’s been buried there at one time.’ I said,
‘Sure, why not?’ So, we go over there and he unlocks the door. Got a couple flashlights. And this whole place is filled with nothing but junk. I mean metal — I mean box springs— I mean, you know, metal box springs. There’s probably 20 or 30 of them all over this place. So, then I’m trying to tell him, ‘Well, you know, I can’t use the metal detector. It’s going to pick up all this stuff. So, you’re going to have to clean it out.’
“So he gets a couple of guys. Soon more townspeople are aiming and people are standing around. He tells a couple of guys to start moving stuff, and after probably ten minutes they decided, well, you know, there’s too much stuff. So they said forget this. So, he goes, ‘Oh, the backyard. There’s got to be stuff in the backyard.’ Okay. So, we go to the backyard, and the grass was about this high. So he goes, ‘This area over here.’ So I go over there and I start using the metal detector, and I get some noise. They follow you around. Everybody thinks, ‘My God, we’re going to find the Big One right here.’
“So I’m walking, and there’s a guy with a flashlight, but he ain’t even shining it. Next thing I know, I’m on the ground. I cut myself and stuff. I get up and I look, and there was stacks of barbed wiring and I’m going through these big rolls of barbed wire all over the backyard. So I ended up telling him, 'Look, I just can’t do it.’ He wasn’t real happy about it; he was the mayor of the town. But I said, ‘You’ve got to clear it out. I just cannot do this.’ Middle of the night, I’m out there. I mean, crazy. But we didn’t find nothing.
“But the same lady that had the big building with the wall, she calls me the next day and says, ‘Come on over.’ There’s supposed to be stuff buried in the building. So I go over and she opens the back door that leads to a back room, and the room was probably about 10 feet by 100 feet long or more. It was unbelievable. It was really a neat room. But it’s all filled with car engines. The whole thing’s filled with car engines, all the way. And she goes, ‘I think somewhere here we poured concrete 10, 15 years ago, but if there’s a treasure we’ll dig up the concrete if you can find it.’
“I said, ‘You’ve got to move all these engines out of here.’ She goes, ‘Will you help?’ I said, ‘No.’ You know? I mean, I don’t know. There were 100, 200 — I don’t know how many were there. All car engines, just stacked inside this room. You know how a metal detector would react to those car engines? And it was a huge room. I said, ‘Forget that.’ I mean, it’s so funny, some of the things you do. I mean it’s kind of funny.
“But like I said, it’s also kind of scary sometimes, because there’s no set rules and you’re dealing with a lot of people that don’t make much money. I’ve been in situations that I wondered if I was going to die or what was going to happen. One time we’re out in the middle of nowhere. It was way down in Mexico. Supposedly there’s an adobe down there — part of an adobe—that used to be a church in the 1600s. So these guys said, ‘Can you look at it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess.’ I had a two-box, which is a detector for mainly bigger stuff and supposed to go really deep, though I think a lot of the manufacturers’ claims are B.S. Anyway we drive quite a ways and don’t see much of anything. We come to this little town, it’s like a store and a bar and I don’t know what else. And these guys come up on horses — all these cowboys. Well, these are the guys that we came to meet. They want us to look. So, I said, ‘Okay, fine.’
"So we drive through all kinds of countryside — opening gates, closing gates — just keep getting farther out in the middle of nowhere. The guy with me, this Mexican-American guy, it’s a long story, but I got hooked up with these people on this other treasure hunt. It was a good prospect and there was stuff there, I think, but this guy was ripping people off, basically. But at that little town he’d bought some lighter fluid, some tequila, stuff so dear that it would probably kill your liver. He’s drinking that in the backseat and we keep driving and we get to this last gate, and I guess it wasn’t that much farther, and he has to get out. He’s sick. So, I said, ‘Fine. Don’t get sick in the car,’ because I’d rented the car.
“So we drive up under these trees. The cowboys are there and stuff. Well, I see this little adobe — I don’t even know if it could have been a church. It wasn’t very big. And I get out my detector and I’m starting to work and I’m checking the ground. Well, it starts raining. So then I’m trying to put plastic bags on my detector. It’s about an $800 detector, so I’m trying to get bags on it and water’s still getting inside. So I’m going, this is great, this is real great. We’ve come all this way, you know?
“So I feel something hit me, and I turn around and it’s one of the guys on the horses pushing me, asking me what I’d found. I said, ‘I didn’t find nothing.’ And he goes — my Spanish was not real good. He’s telling me to put the detector down. And I said, ‘Why?’ And he pulls out a gun and says, ‘I’m going to shoot it.’ And I said, ‘You’re going to shoot my detector?’ And he’s, ‘Yeah, we’re going to shoot it. It’s no good. You didn’t find nothing and stuff.’ And they were drinking beer and stuff. And there’s probably, I don’t know, like six of them or so, all on horses. So they start pulling their guns out. They want me to put my detector down and they’re going to shoot my detector up.
“So I’m yelling for this Mexican-American guy. ‘I don’t know where you’re at, but you better get over here.’ So I’m heading toward the car. So I set the detector on the hood and they were going to shoot it on the car, and I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s all I need. Shoot up the car that I rented.’ So then I take it down off the car and I’m trying to stick it up underneath the car. And they’re yelling and screaming how they’re going to shoot this detector. And finally the Mexican-American guy woke up and talked to them, but they were getting hostile; they were ticked off. You know, it cost me like $60 to have my detector fixed — it got water in it. So then it’s really kind of wasted because it was the only one I had on that trip. We still had a few days left and I’m with no detector. It really wouldn’t do much.
“Well, I’ll tell you another one real quick. I mean it’s really— it’s about treasure, but it’s not. One night we were stopped by narco agents, real late at night, driving back. This guy—a Mexican guy with us—said he had to go to the bathroom, and we were using the toll roads because it’s so much nicer. And we were just at the toll booth and I see this car with these guys sitting in it. They didn’t have uniforms or nothing. It’s like two in the morning and we’re driving straight through; wanted to get home.
“I told the guys with me, I said, ‘These guys have got to be cops or something.’ I said, 'Just keep driving, and you can go to the bathroom down the road a ways or something.’ ‘Oh, no,’ the guy says, ‘it’s okay.’ So he pulled over and these guys in the car were on us just like that. You know, banging on the car, looking for false panels. Started taking our stuff and just throwing it out. So I’m sitting there going, ‘This is real great.’ So then they find — One of the guys with me, friend of mine, he had a hacky-sack — so they find the hacky-sack and they throw us up against the wall, you know? They think they found drugs. So we’re trying to tell them, ‘Look, it’s for playing a game.’ And they’re going, ‘Yeah, right.’ You know?
“So, two in the morning, we’re out there playing hacky-sack, trying to show them it’s not drugs, hopping around and stuff. And they get the idea and they start laughing and calling us idiots, and after that, we told them, ‘Look, we don’t have nothing.’ They just laughed. I mean they’ve got all our stuff thrown everywhere all over the road. They said, ‘Fine. Go. Get out of here. You’ve got two minutes to get out of here.’ So we’re throwing stuff back in the car so we can leave.”
Head has six metal detectors to use for different jobs, single- and multi-frequency and pulse induction, then more specialized detectors such as the two-box and a ferromagnetic probe, which looks like a broom handle and only responds to iron and steel. Other times he calls in specialists, such as a friend who has underground radar equipment that can cost up to $100,000, whom he will cut in for a percentage. Or he might have to hire heavy equipment —backhoes and bulldozers.
“I have a full-time attorney that works with me to secure permission to get on different properties and things. I mean it gets expensive. It’s real hard to get insurance liability, because most times you go on anybody’s private property, they want you to have insurance, and usually the minimum is a million. Well, to get insurance you have to do the same thing as any underground contractor—and insurance runs about $350 a month.
I buy it in three-month lots if we’ve got a big project going. Also when I do contracts, if I’m looking at somebody’s property, we have to have gag orders. If the owners open their mouth, they’re in trouble, because that’s how problems begin. You find a pot of coins or whatever, and the owner’s telling his friend who tells his friend. Next thing you know, you got Joe Blow coming over and saying, ‘You know, my grandfather buried some stuff there and that stuff's mine.’ So he gets an attorney, and your attorney goes after him. Well, the next thing you know, this thing’s tied up in court, and by the time you’re done, the attorneys are all putting the coins in their pocket, you’ve sold your house, and that’s the end of it.
“Then there’s the greed business. That’s one of my key things with anybody I work with, especially the guys that are my partners. I sometimes have to tell them—they get a little excited— we’re not going to be greedy. Because greed is going to kill you, literally kill you. I mean, can you imagine finding 50 or 60 gold bars and saying, ‘Okay, I’ve decided I want more than what you have’? So I tell the guys or, say, if we’re working with a private individual or a corporation, ‘How are we going to split this? What are we going to tell the attorney to try to get for us?’ Well, of course we want the most we can get, but I’m not going to spend a month arguing back and forth because of 10 percent or something like that. To me, something’s better than nothing, because a lot of times you can get to where you’re being too greedy, and they’ll tell you, ‘I don’t want to deal with you. Bye.’ It is better on big stuff — you need an attorney. I mean one project that we did a couple of years ago, it took probably three months just with the attorneys fighting back and forth to even hash out a contract”
Stories of suspicious characters, stories of coming upon armed soldiers deep within Mexico, stories of treasures lost or soon to be found, and then the stories that Head avoids—current projects, specific locations, the place he is going to tomorrow — and lighting all his stories, like the desert sun at high noon, is the Big One.
“But finding the Big One, that’s what everybody wants to do. I worked with a guy for a couple years. I don’t know whatever happened on that. I don’t know why he never — I don’t know. I never got any word back from him, but we’d correspond back and forth, working on one in Texas called the Spider Rock treasure, and he found some stuff that’s down there. It’s quite an unbelievable story, and he found some clues he dug up, some things like a shell that had a bunch of markings on it — a conch shell. Had a bunch of markings on it, and some slabs with carvings on them and stuff, that he dug up. And I told him what I thought it represented and stuff, and we’d go back and forth corresponding. That was a couple years ago. I haven’t heard from him. That’s not unusual. I don’t know. Maybe he found something big.
“It’s fun, and finding it — once it was in your bank account — would be great. But a lot of it’s great, just the search, taking a little bit of information, keeping things together, and following signs. One of the main things I’m getting into is more Spanish stuff. And the Spanish would mark a lot of things. They would move rocks on a mountainside making a face or an animal as a sign pointing to a mine or a treasure. And that’s where my expertise is heading more, toward the Spanish stuff. Because they were people that had pretty good amounts of gold and silver and a lot of times they buried it. There’s so much stuff in Mexico it would spin your head. I mean I’m working with a guy down in Mexico right now. We’re following a king’s trail. It’s to a king’s mine out in the middle of nowhere in the mountains.
“I worked on one a few years ago; I’m still kind of working on it. It’s way down in the south. There’s stuff there. We’ve got papers where it tells you what’s there and how to find it. But I don’t know how to get it out. We’d have to work a deal with the government and it would be real tricky. I don’t know if the government would want all or what. There’s a lot there. There’s already been a few things found. It’s quite a story. One cache, it was put there by a pirate in the 1600s. And one of the caches was almost 300 gold bars. How the whole thing got started was that these Mexican guys came down into the area looking for anybody that knew the area real well and they found this guy in his 60s that grew up there all his life. So they had this big rawhide map. They showed it to him and he took them to one of the sites. There’s actually— I think there’s about six sites. And they used a dozer— the cache had been put in an empty well and covered over. And it was on kind of like the side of a hill. So these guys took a dozer and they cut in the side of the hill and they finally broke into the well shaft. So him and another guy went in there and they
pulled out these 300 gold bars. The amount of gold that was pulled out of there was probably close to half a billion dollars’ worth. And they now own a big ranch in southern Mexico.
“But I’ll look for anything, just about as long as it’s got good roots to it — like it’s documented — because if not, you’ll spin your wheels. Why waste time? They’ve got a good one going right now in Virginia that I’d like to — it’s kind of a toss-up. It’s one of those ones you get a gut feeling on that you think maybe I should look. It’s about a guy that robbed a bank in the ’30s and this guy, a friend of a friend’s dad, said the guy talked to him and told him where it was, but they never went back and got the money. And where it’s at is real easy to find. I mean it’s one of those runs that you almost can’t miss, but I don’t know if it’s worth — I mean you’re looking at probably a minimum 12,15 hundred bucks to go back there and do it. But somebody could have found it. I don’t know. I mean I’m pretty sure the guy’s reliable that it was told to, and I’m pretty sure that he’s not lying about that, but I don’t know. I mean it’s one of those ones — I’ve just got a gut feeling that it would probably be a real good one. But I don’t know if I’m going to do it or what. I mean that’s pretty far away. It’s expensive to go back there, rent a car. I could probably, within a day, find the spot he’s talking about and see if it’s there. I mean that’s one of those things, just like Mexico. I hear stories all the time of different things.”
Because of his bad knee, Mike Head limps a little when he walks. A big bear of a man. It’s hard not to think of him right at this minute working his way across the Mexican desert, a torn shirt and beat-up felt hat, a ragged backpack, under a sun so big that it seems to fill the sky, swinging his detector back and forth, waiting for the first click of a gold coin.
I had one more person to talk to — someone who used a metal detector to hunt for treasure underwater. Spanish galleons, sunken clipper ships, 20th-century freighters, pleasure boats, all the riches of the deep. The man’s name was Joe Barnett, a 56-year-old retired lifeguard whom I talked to in a hotel restaurant at La Jolla Shores.
A bodysurfer, Barnett is muscular, handsome, tanned, with a long straight nose, strong jaw, short dark hair, and brown eyes that crinkle when he smiles. Maybe he is five feet eight inches. He wears jeans and a green sweater. Although 56, he looks 10 years younger. He grew up in southern Michigan and spent much of his time with Indians in the western part of the state. “That’s where I learned and developed my way of understanding not only where villages were in the olden days but how to find arrowheads and how to find things that were discarded or lost. Treasure doesn’t only come in the form of silver and gold, it can come in the form of beautiful artifacts, or offensive-defensive Indian weaponry, which I very much enjoyed hunting. I became very adept at that.”
Barnett talks precisely. In fact, precision is for Joe Barnett both a passion and an ideal, almost a religion — to erase the emotional, the fallible, the vague, the foolish, the irresolute, to remove as far as possible human error. He attended Michigan State University in the mid-’60s, studying criminology and psychology, living in East Lansing during a period when I myself lived around East Lansing, and I found it odd to think that I had most certainly passed Barnett on the street 35 years ago.
“I used to go out with the Michigan state troopers and see what the fieldwork was like and I thought it was interesting but what impressed me most at that period of time was that nobody knew how to approach a patient who was in something like a car accident. They would scoop and haul a patient and I’m sure these people were further injured in the process. That caught my interest and I started taking medical and trauma courses for paramedics. When I came to San Diego in 1968 I noticed that the lifeguard service was very advanced compared to anything else I’d ever seen. The surf, the cliffs, the water temperature, the wave action warranted the new study of the emergency medical technician phase, and the statistics eventually allowed that to come to fruition. The first EMT courses were to be held down here, so I filled out an application to become a simple rescue lifeguard both in L.A. County and in San Diego. So I had my choice and I decided on San Diego because many of the responses in the L.A. area, in particular Santa Monica, were suicides and homicides, disturbances, fights and things, and I certainly wasn’t interested in the negative side of human nature, the sociological consequences of people’s own demise. Here was real trauma: big surf. When I took the EMT courses here, we had actually doctors teaching the courses — wonderful instructors, very patient doctors who gave us a lot of knowledge.
“I started in ’69. The first actual day of lifeguarding at a cove in Mission Bay was one of the most dramatic things that has happened to me on the lifeguard service, which was a car with four people off the old Ventura Bridge. I approached that situation in a state of shock. I certainly wasn’t prepared for anything like that — knocking open the back window and retrieving people, some were near-drowned — nobody was completely drowned — but it was quite an interesting scenario to see how you would react and use all your knowledge and training into the actual fieldwork of doing it and keeping some sense about what is happening in the chaotic nature of an atypical rescue. I came through fine in treating people and I felt very comfortable. When my lieutenant arrived on the scene, I told him we needed certain kinds of extra first aid equipment immediately. He looked at what he could see around me and he just fainted, because he would dilate out at the sight of blood. Quite an introduction to the lifeguard service those first weeks of lifeguarding. After that came a permanent life-guarding position and I held that position mostly up north on the rocks from La Jolla Shores to La Jolla Give—a lot of dynamic surf, and I love those kinds of rescues. My expertise is rescue and stabilization of people, overlapping with emergency medical technology and aquatic medicine, retrieving persons from the water, keeping them alive from the field to the emergency room. It was a wonderful experience, but in the late ’80s I had some trauma that occurred — in all the years that I’d been lifeguarding I had about 23 injuries and about 4 or 5 that will stay with me for the rest of my life — and in the late 1980s I hurt my back in a few minor ways and one major way when we had a rescue that entailed picking up one of the very large surfboards in a confined location to get out to some people who were in trouble. My lower back completely went out on me and they had to take me away. So after that I was probably a percentage of a risk to the city to make rescues and reach the point where the back would give out in the ocean and I wouldn’t be able to get to people I needed to get to and get in trouble myself.” Barnett tells stories of other rescues, other injuries that occurred during his 23 years as a lifeguard. But during the 70s he kept up his interest in Indian artifacts, going down the old Indian routes on horseback, finding arrowheads, pottery, and other Indian artifacts. Increasingly he became interested in how wave action affected objects lying on the hot -tom, whether they be 10 feet beneath the surface or 100. And as a lifeguard, he found that people often asked him to look for things they had lost.
“I would go down with a weight belt and a mask or a snorkel when I wasn’t on duty and I got many letters thanking me for retrieving rings or glasses from impossible situations, a tiny needle in a haystack, that kind of thing, but in looking for things that were lost I had found other things and I started to tunnel vision. Dunking for treasure, generally speaking, is like looking for lobster and abalone. You have to tunnel vision what your mind’s eye needs to think about and to see. So you have to think about what you want to find, view it in the gray matter, and always file it, and the more you use it, the more sensitive you become and your peripheral vision will pick up a mask or a snorkel or things that arc hiding, things that don’t look exactly right in the ocean among what’s indigenous and natural.”
But it was finding these “other things” that impressed Barnett — that in looking for a ring, he found other rings and coins. And he put together two ideas, both quite simple, but they pushed him along the road to treasure hunting. The first was that “the ocean is a great hardware store.” And the second? “Wherever man is,” Barnett tells me, “he will always drop and lose things. And where those things go has always been kind of a mystery.”
It wasn’t enough, however, just to go out and look, tunnel vision or no tunnel vision. What about wave action, how do currents, storms, changes in the weather affect foreign objects lying at the bottom of the sea? Joe . Barnett after all, is trying to erase chance, uncertainty, human error. He wants to make treasure hunting a science.
“I had come to the point where I wanted to do something that had never been done on this ocean. I used to take coins — pennies, nickels — and I used to drill holes in coins, all sizes of coins. And I used to get slugs that would look like a ring — the size, weight, shape of a ring— and get a monofilament line, and I used to take all these things — even my track medals from high school and Michigan State University — and I used to plant those up and down the coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara. I used to have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of things planted. Then I used to let a certain time go by, like a season or a whole year. Then I had this little black book where everything was— I used to make marks on trees and marks on walls, marks on rocks. I used to take pictures of things, where I had planted things. And I eventually got back to those locations and I saw once and a while, not all the time, but I used to see a line coming out of the sand or what we call top-overburden, liquid sand in the ocean. I used to pull on the line and it wouldn’t come right out and some lines, as 1 would follow them, would stay relatively shallow, not straight down. I used to fan out sand and move enough liquid sand and I could get to it — Oh, it’s one of my coins—but they led to other things that were lost that I did not plant. Now by size, weight, and shape, because of these experiments, I know where a coin will go, I know where a ring will go,
I know where a lead sinker will go. For example, as an experiment, at one place where the surf was dynamic enough, I threw out a rod and reel. A few months later I came back and found what was left of it. The rod of course was broken into a few parts. But what was quite interesting and amazing was that the reel, every nut and bolt that had a screw apparatus was unscrewed, everything was taken apart in the reel, and the brass was here and the bronze was there and everything was set up as a hardware store underneath the ocean just by its size and weight. It was a wonderful thing and it’s called a realization. It’s called knowledge; it’s called a revelation of knowledge. A light comes on and you say, Hey, now that makes a lot of sense....”
Having worked out three main theories on how and when to find things, Barnett decided to try to prove them in different places around the world. A few times I asked him to be more explicit about his theories but he simply cocked an eyebrow as if I were stupid. Sometimes a journalist is forced to ask. In any case, the first place Barnett visited was Hudson Bay in 1981. “I made my theories up before I got there and my theories worked out quite fine and I came to a shipwreck and the shipwreck had among other things a beautiful set of solid-silver silverware and imprinted on the back of the giant tablespoons were Hawaiian trees — quite impressive in cold water.” Then he continued to work his way down the East Coast and whenever the conditions were right to enable him to apply his theories he met with success. As he speaks, he shows me photographs of coins, rings, and bits of metal combined in what he calls concretional conglomerates — Civil War swords, knives, an initialed officer’s ring from the Civil War (Barnett has been searching for the family in order to return the ring). More trips followed and his skills increased.
“In between my trips I used to go out on sandy beach areas and I used to dig holes at night — Mission Beach and Pacific Beach — because in the summertime when the tide would reach its maximum between eight and ten at night we’d have a great minus tide going out and so I could dig a deeper hole and not get the liquid sand and I would get down into a certain area that I wanted to that has to do with strata-layers and electroless-layers —things that are part of a theory but not the whole theory. But as the tide would come back up at two or three in the morning the water level under the sand used to rise and I used to have this great giant hole that I’d dug. I used to have my rimless glasses with no glass and I used to have a biological experiment notebook and played like I was doing a biological project so when the police officers came along they wouldn’t find it was so strange that I was digging a hole at night. And as the tide would rise, I would try to prove my theories and find old things that had been lost many years ago. I did that experiment on and off for three years and it simply proved to me that treasure can be found without a metal detector and it gave me the realization of where treasure is—it’s just a matter of getting to it. In a scientific way, it made a lot of sense to me.”
As Barnett’s reputation grew, he was asked to join other expeditions or people came to him with money, hoping to invest in him. Although he has had experiences with both, he is also leery. Often on other people’s expeditions, he has felt his own high standards compromised and he tends to be suspicious of wealthy investors. “Some people who have offered me money I can tell are high-stress people who are the kinds of people in it for the greed. You want to stay away from these kinds of people as much as you can, although the money that has been offered to me is tempting, but it’s not your money and you really need to approach any situation as though the money you spend is your own hard-earned money.” On the other hand, Barnett sometimes gives lectures and slide shows in order to meet and attract people “to help me out on a quest” and to raise money for his trips. Several times he has had investors whom he describes as “nice fellows who have a lot of patience." But the laws concerning treasure and archaeological finds that hamper Mike Head and Jim Walker also place restrictions on Barnett and so most of his work is done outside the United States.
“Any treasure-hunting operation should be approached in small increments, moving from the simple to the complex. You look at the location, the country, the people who make up the country, the restrictions of the government, the kinds of things you need to put together so that you can do it and do it legitimately. You look at it as a marine archaeological site of information so that you bring the right people. My passion actually is more for the finding than the money involved. Sometimes I find things and put them away and forget that I have them, because the actual figuring out of the proper equations for the hunt is a lot more exciting than actually finding something. The anticipation, of being on the cutting razor’s edge of looking for something is extremely exciting. Remember that when these theories need to be proven in primitive areas, you are looking at possible third world countries, atypical adverse conditions as well as food and water that may be unhealthy. So you go to books on dangerous marine animals or to Scripps Institute (sic) of Oceanography — that which bites, that which stings, that which is dangerous to eat — you get all of those numbers about whatever part of the world you’re going to and you study all those things that could eliminate you, places where even the people could eliminate you. Of course, when you’re talking about artifacts like gold and silver, then you get into a situation where there could be the kind of competition that may very well eliminate you. So you need to be a people person in understanding customs, understanding con people, greedy people, people who are extremely evil, people who are very kind, people who are straight shooters. You have the whole human spectrum there.
“The serious treasure hunter has to do a certain amount of research, which is time and money, or he has to hire somebody to go to archives for the shipwrecks, that kind of thing. If I’m doing research and I’m looking for old vessels in a location, on the way you find yachts, sailboats. I’ve found airplanes that arc upside down. One time I found an airplane with an attache case that was opened up and in the airplane were hundred-dollar bills floating around, but most of them were gone because the doors were open—a typical drug plane, I guess. So you have to be careful because you’re in uncertain areas and you could be eliminated. So there are some risks involved — you’ve got to mind your own business. I meet CIA and DEA people all over the place. They’re very nice people but they’re just in and around those areas. Military people — it’s amazing what’s out there. But it’s super-primitive.”
As Barnett talks I look over his shoulder at the water where surfers in wet suits are trying to catch a wave. In the restaurant, two waitresses are beginning to set up for lunch. The speakers in the ceiling are giving forth a vanilla-flavored version of a Beach Boys song. It’s a lazy, unscientific scene. Barnett is describing new and amazing scientific discoveries that came to him on his many trips—how pieces of metal slowly move toward each other underwater, the more recent pieces moving toward the older pieces, so that finding one piece can often lead the hunter to another.
“What is interesting in shipwrecks and how I found shipwrecks was that when I started to travel to primitive areas thousands of miles away, whether it be the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, South America — places where I had been to do my experiments and to prove my theories — I found something which I didn’t predict would occur. In looking for treasure, something takes place that I don’t think has ever been written about. Let’s go back and talk about a ship that has sunk. Let’s go back and talk about a locomotive from the 19th Century that slid off a barge in choppy water. Let’s talk about a great piece of steel at the bottom of the ocean. No matter where it is, it will eventually rust and flake; eventually its molecular structure will break down to the extent to where it loses its integrity, where the steel is brittle, where you can go up and chip it off. When you have a brand-new piece of steel and you look into it with an electronic microscope, you’ll see that the molecular structure is spider-webbed. It’s tight. You take that same piece of steel and throw it in the water, eventually the molecular structure separates and begins to point magnetic north. It turns into a magnet — a piece of iron can turn into a magnet. In any event, there are certain layers in the ocean that are drawn to that location and because they are drawn to that location other things collect and suck it to it through electroless-layers, even though that may be a misnomer, but it makes a lot of sense to me and it does exactly that.
“So if you have a nucleus of a shipwreck with a lot of iron— cannons and cannonballs — it seems able to draw different things that are lost in a certain area around it. It’s an amazing thing to see. It looks like the sun with
rays going out but the rays are coming in. So you have certain colored layers that go towards it and get thicker into literal treasure troves. So in and around shipwrecks you’ll notice things from the 16th, 17th, 18th Centuries, you’ll find contemporary things that have aligned themselves going to the shipwreck. It’s called intrusion. If you’re doing a marine archaeological study on a time capsule, a shipwreck that’s together, all of a sudden you’ll have contemporary things here and there.
“The trick to finding those colored layers is to know when to look for them, to know how to look for them, and the success of a treasure hunter, like myself, who mostly doesn’t use a metal detector, is that he can take a trip and know beforehand that those variables will be brought together so that his trip is successful in the kind of percentage he needs to at least pay for the trip or at least for it to be worthwhile — payment is in knowledge or payment is in sometimes finding things. I’ve come to the point now where by word of mouth people call me in on projects because they’ve lost a trail of coins, a scattering of coins in a scattering of a shipwreck. A shipwreck may tumble for three miles before it really breaks up and settles. And I use the same size, weight, and shape theory, and color theory, no matter what the matrix is of the sand, which is different in different places. They call me because I produce. They call me because I’m not as expensive as a person who drags a magnetometer around the ocean bottom, which could turn up anything, a car, airplane, and it may or may not be the scattering of the shipwreck they hope to find.
“You see, there’s a difference as to where things go by size, weight, and shape. When a shipwreck goes down in violent ocean versus a shipwreck that goes down in a placid ocean condition — does it just end up as a time capsule when it’s quiet or when a ship gets torn up by the great dynamics of crisscross swell and backwash swell and great non-negotiable storm swell — what happens to it? All those great old vessels were built in such a way that you would practically have to have cases of dynamite to tear the ship apart because the structure was made of big beam trees locked in such a way with great bronze spikes to hold the ship together, with the poop deck or high section of the ship designed to break off from the main body of the ship and surf towards a reef or towards the shore. A certain amount of treasure was kept up there in treasure chests so that would be a raft to save the captain and more important people on the vessel, while the crew were expendable. Heavy bulk treasure in bars of silver, gold, and great coinage were used as ballast under and among the ballast rock with cargo above it so nobody in the ship could get at it and it would be lost with the shipwreck. So by size, weight, and shape what happens in liquid medium? Where do these things go over a period of time? That’s where my three theories come in.”
Unable to help myself, I again ask Barnett about his theories.
“Weather, time of year, every variable is part of the equation — however, there are the three great elements that are constant in nature and that will give me the answer. Those elements and that constant I’m not going to mention to you because that’s a trade secret. That’s my purchase power and I have a good enough purchase power to command a certain price. Sometimes I go on location without pay to further my theory as long as they pay for the trip, pay for the hotel, food, because I know the particular people involved. Maybe it’s a marine archaeological study on a sunken ship that is supported by grant money so it is more of a contribution on my part, because they don’t have much money to work with.”
Talking to Barnett, I realize that he is something of an ascetic, perfectly happy in his own company, although he also refers to many friends. He likes setting himself a problem and solving that problem. He likes living simply, frugally. He tells me, “I’m one of the very few responsible people with credit cards.” He finds enough to pay for his trips and to keep him going. To raise money for bigger projects takes a little longer. Finding treasure is more an intellectual matter than a monetary one. He tells me about a vessel from the 1600s that he has found in another country. Opening his backpack he shows me part of a conquistador’s sword from the shipwreck and a bronze spike.
“The ship has so much weaponry, offensive and defensive, that to me it looks as if it was built like a Brinks truck is today. They definitely carried a consignment of gold and silver. So this area I want to approach. This might be the one that I would want investors’ money for. This may have a lot of gold and silver. At the present time I want to go back there and see if the shipwreck is still there. So if I have investors’ money I’m going to approach this with a smaller vessel to do a test survey site. If I tell the government of that country where it is, they’ll say thank you very much and you’ll never hear from them again and they’ll be on it or give it to somebody else. The best thing in a situation like this is see if there’s anything on it and then you go from there. You go for the proper permits and cross your fingers that you’ll be able to get them. There’s another location where I have found my first gold coins and they are left in that country with a man who protects me there, who actually runs the government. But I’ve had meetings with the minister of finance, the prime minister and this man, and they would like to see me work this shipwreck. About once every two weeks I hear from these people. It’s been a few years but they’re very careful on how to approach this thing, because they were hurt by a big treasure-hunting company years ago. But they’re looking at me as a small fish and they’re looking at me a little differently. So this is very, very important to me.”
But the very idea of its “importance” is worrisome to Barnett.
“Treasure hunting should always be kept as a hobby. You should have fun treasure hunting. The minute it goes over into something else, as stress for investors’ money and payback, that kind of mentality, then it will break down and things won’t be found. It is almost as though nature is saying that if you’re out here in a shipwreck area and you are going to hunt for this shipwreck, that if you don’t do it with humility and kindness, and if you’re greedy and if you’re going to take and take, then it’s almost as though an automatic curse falls over it and envelops the whole operation. I think that man does that to himself and destroys himself because of it. That’s why I’m a loner and why I like doing things alone.”
Barnett continues to show me dozens of pictures of what he has found — jewelry, coins, antique weaponry, on and on. Everything he finds, he puts in bags that he later sorts and classifies. Much he gives away as gifts, much he has given to museums.
"You find a gold ring. What’s it worth? Not much. Now if I find a three-carat diamond, that’s something else again, but how many of those am I going to find? But am I in the business of merchandising gold? Am I going to melt it down? Of course not. The actual worth of a 14-karat gold band if you melt it down is about $22. So you have to have a lot or you have to have gemstones or you have to have rare coins. But something else about shipwrecks — everything you ever find in a shipwreck can be sold. So even though this might be an insignificant metal coin of some sort, because it’s in there it might be worth 20 bucks. It all helps.”
I ask him why he has avoided using metal detectors.
“It was partly a matter of discipline that I didn’t use a metal detector, but now I know when to use one and when not to use one. I do use a metal detector when I need to because it helps me where I want to go and to use it as a scientific adjunct extension of what I’m doing. But I’m too disciplined now to let it weaken me because I don’t depend on it. But remember, you can go in and out of countries and get it taken away from you too. You use a metal detector when you find a spillage and trail of coins that are mixed up in the matrixes of overburden — that is, not visible— but they are there. Then, instead of uncovering every inch of it with my hands, because they are within metal-detecting range. I’ll use the metal detector. I’ve found a piece of eight 25 inches deep using a Fisher Quicksilver CZ-20 [a $1300 pulse induction machine]. I got so excited that I called the company because that was more than twice what I would have thought possible.”
During the early part of our conversation, I had thought Barnett rather machine-like himself, but then he shows me a photograph of a beautiful gold ring made in 1917.
“It’s the thrill of finding things that’s important for me. That ring there I found off the coast of Southern California. The inscription on the inside is from a jewelry store, which is still in existence. I went to the jewelry store and learned that the ring had been lost by a lady over 60 years earlier. So I traced it back. The lady’s son is an attorney so I got ahold of him. It turned out that the lady was soon having a birthday party — she was in her 80s then and this was about 15 years ago so I suppose she has passed away by now. Anyway I bought a little box for the ring. Of course it was a private party and here this strange guy like me walks in. Then I gave her this little box. The minute she opened the box she just started crying. She recognized the ring immediately and she told the whole story. She’d lost the ring in the ocean over 60 years before, when she was a young girl in her 20s. Isn’t that a neat story? That’s certainly worth more than the ring. Those are the experiences that are golden.”
Barnett’s eyes crinkle with pleasure. We look out at the surfers. I think of the Tiffany ring that Bill Hotchkiss found for the lady in Del Mar, the English ring from 1704 found by Jean Nikodym, the Mexican gold ring from the early 1860s found by Iim Walker, then the ring that Joe Barnett had returned to the elderly lady. Even Mike Head had spoken of an object he had tried to return, although in his case it had been a small cannon from a frontier battle. These rings (and perhaps the cannon) exist as emblems of a legitimate passion. Many treasure hunters live in the future—what their lives will be like when they find the Big One. A few others, the lucky ones, have found a satisfying way to live in the present until the future and perhaps the Big One comes along.
— Stephen Dobyns
Stephen Dobyns has been a reporter for the Detroit News and is the author of 9 volumes of poetry and 20 novels, the most recent Boy in the Water (Henry Holt & Company).