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Where does the story begin, is the question. Does it begin a hundred million years ago, when molten lava spewed up from the center of the earth and, as it cooled, left behind veins of gold criss-crossing the landscape?
Or in 1782, when a bowlegged fellow with bad teeth named Thomas Jefferson found a gold nugget on the banks of the Rappahannock River near Fredricksburg? Or was it in 1861 when four Union soldiers camped near Great Falls noticed a tell-tale glint in their newly-dug firepit? Or how about a Sunday just last month, when four unemployed layabouts stood in line at the 7-11 on Rhode Island Avenue, hungover and bleary-eyed at 2 in afternoon, clutching a sheaf of grainy black-and-white photos depicting some sort of stone obelisk, and a hand-drawn map of Rock Creek Park that upon closer scrutiny does in fact bear an ‘X’ marking the spot.
Yes, I like this last one. The line is a dozen people long and unfortunately we’re at the end of it. We intended to start out earlier but none of us has held down a job for years, and getting up before noon proved to be harder than we remembered.
“Can you hurry it up,” shouts Kyle. “We’ve got golden treasure to dig up!”
The people in front of us turn around and we must look desperate because they all step back and gesture for us to go ahead. Even in this cynical era, the mention of buried treasure still strikes a chord.
We file past these kind people and dump our purchases on the counter. Trail mix, bottles of water, two-liters of soda, family-size packages of cookies, boxes of cereal, sandwiches—it doesn’t matter, it’s all expensed. We haven’t worked for years, so this 7-11 shopping spree is like Christmas for us. Joe, laid off from his job as a picture-framer, and Haley, laid off from her job as a librarian, have each been on unemployment for over a year, on their second and third extensions, but what with the squabbling among our elected representatives, the gravy train might be grinding to a halt. Kyle hasn’t worked or been on unemployment for almost a year, and my own unemployment ran out just the previous week. It’s been three years since I last worked, and 104 weekly checks later (your tax money at work, folks!), the prospect of plunging back into cubicle anomie quite frankly makes me soil my jeans. So when City Paper asked if I’d be interested in investigating a tip they’d received about buried gold treasure, I jumped at the opportunity, as did my fellow good-for-nothing welfare leeches. And it goes without saying that while yes, I’m here to get the story, I’m also here to get the gold: a thousand dollars an ounce and rising, thanks to Goldman Sachs, the Greek Finance Ministry and Glenn Beck.
Office job, here I don’t come!
How, you might ask, did we find out about this buried treasure in Rock Creek Park?
Josh Bowers is an employment lawyer based in Silver Spring. When he moved to a new house in Chevy Chase four years ago, he set to work on a massive flowerbed. Working with a pick and shovel, Bowers dug a trench in his backyard and to his surprise, unearthed large quantities of gem-like crystals. It was quartz, a mineral common in Chevy Chase. When the area was still dirt roads and wooden shacks, townspeople used chunks of the crystal to mark property lines, and large crystals are still visible on streetcorners and front yards all over the area. An avid rockhound, Bowers knew that the same geological processes that created quartz often meant gold in the same area. He went over his yard quartz with a magnifying glass but, alas, didn’t find any gold.
His curiosity was piqued, though. He asked around and a neighbor, a former attorney in the White House General Counsel’s office, told him that her great-great-grandfather had owned a gold mine in Chevy Chase. While researching historical records for mention of the mine (he found nothing), he learned that the D.C. area had been the site of a serious gold rush, with dozens of mines within an hour of the District, some of them maintained through the 1950s. A metamorphic geographical feature called the Piedmont Plateau runs down the East Coast, roughly from NewJersey to Alabama. When the Piedmont was being formed, or soon after, molten lava swelled up under solid bedrock and as superheated masses of steam vented through the rock and cooled, it left behind various mineral precipitates. Quartz is one of the most common ones; a less common one is gold. All the states in the Piedmont Plateau have deposits of valuable ore and gemstones, but today most of the mines have either been exhausted or outvalued by real estate prices. Great Falls, for example, was a center of gold production, but nowadays even a low-end McMansion is worth more than all but the richest veins of gold, especially after you take production costs into account. Abandoned mines, some capped, some not, dot the suburban landscape. In fact, MacArthur Boulevard was paved with tailings from an old gold mine.
Bowers was in Rock Creek Park one day with his son when he noticed quartz in the creekbed. Remembering the quartz-gold connection, he did some research and found a real-estate map from 1891 that showed that one of the farms purchased by the government to form Rock Creek Park was owned by a family named “Shoemaker.” A light bulb went on. In his book Maryland Gold Fever, local prospector Walter Goetz mentions that the government had to quadruple its bid on a Shoemaker farm at the last minute, after gold was found on the land. Eureka!
Superimposing a map of the old Shoemaker farm over a map of modern-day Rock Creek Park, Bowers determined that the old Shoemaker farm was probably located near the present-day park maintenance yard. He walked the area, looking for anything conspicuous, and stumbled upon a mysterious stone obelisk planted in an especially quartz-rich area of the creekbed, looking for all the world as if it had been placed there deliberately. He took some pictures, compiled his findings, and sent them to City Paper, which forwarded them to me, who happened to have just exhausted my last week of unemployment. I called up a few of my fellow jobless wastes-of-space. We’d dig for a few hours (and break a few park rules—after all, prospecting is banned in national parks, and if we found gold, it would be illegal to remove it from the park) on the slim chance we might strike it rich.
We park near the stables in Rock Creek Park and disembark into the woods, groaning and clutching our junk-food-filled stomachs. We walk past the corral and into the woods. I stand holding map and downloaded cell phone compass application side by side, trying to resolve the two.
“Which way should we go?” Haley asks. I attempt to chart our course: Let’s see, if the needle points north, the gold should be east of here. Which way is east, left or right? Hmm, I know the sun rises in the east. All we have to do is wait here until dawn tomorrow! I look up and everyone is waiting expectantly. Right then a woman on a horse trots past and without breaking stride, the horse shits at our feet.
We move off in a general easterly direction, and soon we’re in the middle of the woods.
“Let’s make a pact,” suggests Kyle. “When we find the treasure, let’s agree that we won’t immediately start killing each other in a frenzy of greed.”
Joe snickers. “I sure hope we find this treasure. I’ve realized over the past several months that I would be very happy never working again. I wish I could stay on unemployment forever.”
“Me too,” sighs Haley.
We emerge onto a grassy promontory that, according to the map, overlooks the site of the treasure. I gather them all around and pull out the photos.
“Here’s what we’re looking for,” I say. “According to the map, it’s just down this hill, right at one of the bends of the creek.” Everyone nods and we fan out through the woods. “What are you going to buy with your share?” I yell to the others as we comb our respective sections.