Treasure on the Mountain

Too excited to wait for daylight, we began searching the wagon road in the early dark of an October night.

Joe and I had a plan one night in 1970. I had scraped together wages from a variety of odd jobs and mailed off for a Heathkit metal detector kit. My brother Arnold agreed to put it together for me: he always was an electronics whiz. Now it was done, and Joe and I had a plan. We threw some matches, water, weiners,  bread, pop and cookies into a couple of backpacks, tied on some sleeping bags, and I took a shovel out of the garage. Then, with the metal detector slung over a shoulder we set off up the road in the late afternoon.

The idea hatched a few weeks earlier when my Uncle Luke had piled us into the back of his Ford Econoline pickup to drive up to the cliffs. As we ground our way up the primitive dirt track we kept crossing wide ditch-like ruts leading off into the sagebrush, but we were too high up for irrigation. At the summit of the pass we stopped for a breather next to a small cairn of rounded basalt stones. There were several of those ditches leading through the gap, and my dad told me they were the ruts of a wagon road. As the ruts wore too deep into the powdery earth, succeeding travelers would break new trail parallel to the older ruts. The whole north face was interlaced with wagon trails, twisted into switchbacks. We scrambled back into the pickup to continue our trip and a low flying private plane buzzed us, sneaking over the gap in a shortcut across the forbidden airspace of the Hanford Reservation. But I was pondering the plan.

Joe’s folks had given him permission to spend the night with me as long as his brother Curt came along, but they didn’t suspect exactly where we’d sleep. But what’s the use of a metal detector if you don’t use it someplace where there’s probably lost treasure? Our destination was the old White Bluffs Trail where it crossed the low ridge on Saddle Mountain.We were going to follow that trail down the south side of the mountain, onto Hanford where people never went: it would be unsearched and undisturbed. We were going to search for lost goods from the wagons that crossed the pass more than a hundred years before.

It was October, and night came early. By the time we reached our target area it was already dark and it threatened to turn cold, so we planned to lay out our blankets close beside a fire. But we were wary of getting chased off the Hanford Reservation, so when we built a fire we kept it small and placed it in the bottom of a wagon rut where it wouldn’t be visible from a great distance off. And although it was late, we couldn’t resist trying our luck with the metal detector in the dark. No finds, and after our long hike we were ready to lay down by eleven o’clock.

Next morning I woke up before dawn, with scarlet wisps of clouds in an otherwise clear sky. The others were still sleeping so I built a little fire for them and took a stroll across the slope, snapping a picture or two with a little Kodak camera. The hillside glowed golden and brown in the morning light and it was poxed over with Russian thistles. Some had broken free to become tumbleweeds, piling up in gullies. Where the trail crossed the next gully I found it was lost beneath a great pile of them.

We worked the ruts of the old White Bluffs Road as soon as the sun came up.

When I returned to camp Joe and his brother were up and using the detector. Joe hailed me from a distance and I jogged back to them to find him poking gently into the dust with an ice pick. Soon he had uncovered our first find, a flat chunk of iron broken off the leaf springs of an old truck. Our lust for treasure reached a new high. In the next several hours we uncovered a total of five historical artifacts: another broken spring, a open-side link from a chain, a strip of metal torn off a wagon or truck and a small metal pin off some harness.

Across the gully, and deeper into the Hanford Reservation the trail ran onto a patch of earth that caused the detector to register continuously. We speculated about the cause. An iron deposit? Scattered bits of metal shavings? An underground bunker used by the military to support Hanford’s security? That last suggestion was a little too scary, and we turned tail to head for home.

My catalog of finds from that expedition to Saddle Mountain.

I carefully recorded our experiences in a worn out green paper notebook that I still have. My pen and ink sketches of the trail and artifacts are three-hole punched and inserted into a longhand journal several notebook pages long. There are a few blurry photographs mounted on the pages.

I don’t recall ever taking the metal detector up on the mountain again. I never used it in the places a modern treasure hunter would seek out, like Corfu or Taunton or the scattered ruins of old homesteads. It got stuffed into a basement cupboard and may still be in the old home place. But I did explore that section of mountain again one time. I found a few concrete foundations laid out on a bitterly dusty slope. A couple of steps led up to nowhere. There was a deep porcelain-lined cistern beside one of the walls. It was miles to White Bluffs and miles to Taunton, with nothing but sand, brush and stones in between. I wondered why anybody would ever have spent their energy building a home on this desert. At a museum I later found a 1912 atlas that showed the details of Adams County. There were four black squares shown about where the foundations were, and a place name: Daniels. Whoever lived at Daniels in 1912 left decades before my visit, and if anything was left of their homes, the army knocked them down when the Hanford Reservation was created.

We didn’t find any gold that night on the mountain, but the memory of that campout when I was fourteen has never left me. That golden dawn, the mysteries of that metallic patch of earth on the hillside and the abandoned cistern beside the vacant foundations–those are gems I still treasure. That, and the memory of my teenage friendships.


One response to “Treasure on the Mountain

  1. I had similar plans of treasure hunting when I was that age. I managed to find similar iron trinkets. We lived near a gravel pit that had been used as a dump, and I found several license plates, from 1928, 1936, and 1942, they were very rusty, but I was able to restore the 1942 a bit with some anti-rust stuff my granddad had. There was actually paint on it once I wiped away the rust. I bought a new metal detector a couple years ago and the best I ever managed was a 50 cent piece in my in-laws’ yard!

    Great post!

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