Illustrations by Ben Claassen
Illustrations by Ben Claassen

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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.

“An ergonomic gel-padded mouse pad!”

“I’m going to take my dog to the vet!”

“I’m going to eat at Wendy’s every night for a month!”

“Get this lump in my leg checked out!”

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for Xbox 360!”

“Imported Japanese pre-moistened toilet paper!”

“I’m going to arrange for a stretch limo to take 25 of my closest friends to a secret location and when everyone’s comfortable on leather banquettes and a little tipsy on Cristal and just dying to know what the surprise is, Clay Aiken is going to come onstage and they’ll have no choice but to sit there for an entire concert!”

“Some new pants!”

After a few minutes of searching, Haley yells out and we all run in her direction and there it is! The stone marker from the photo!

“Well, what are we going to do,” Joe asks.

I think back to the conversation I had with Josh Bowers. “If there is gold in the creek, I do not want the park to be damaged as a result,” he’d told me. I relay this information to everyone. Haley just looks at me contemptuously and Joe snickers and Kyle unshoulders his backpack, opens it, and brings out a small shovel.

Two hours later we’re all covered in mud and there’s a four-foot-deep hole where the stone marker used to be. Every handful, every shovelful of mud we bring up sparkles in the sun, but when we sift it down in the creek we find nothing. Finally we collapse on the banks of the creek and tear into our expensed snack hoard.

“There’s only about an hour of daylight left,” says Kyle, his mouth dusted with flourescent Cheeto particulate. “How much deeper are we going to have to dig? Check the book.”

I bring out my copy of Maryland Gold Fever, and flip through it until I find a passage describing local gold mines.

“Let’s see here … the first mine he describes had a shaft fifty feet deep. The second one … wow, this one was a hundred feet deep.”

Everyone has stopped chewing.

“So yeah, at most, like, ninety-six more feet,” I say.

In the still forest, their howls of frustration seem extra loud. We refill the hole with dirt and put the stone back in place.

I’d promised my fellow shameless noncontributors to society that we’d find gold, and in the following days my failure to deliver weighed on me. I called Walter Goetz, local prospector and author of several books on area gold, but he refused to talk to the media. (Sitting on his own mother lode, no doubt.) I then called Bowers and told him that our hunt hadn’t turned up anything conclusive. Bowers suggested I contact Jim Maxwell, a leading local prospector.

I called Maxwell and told him about our search for gold in Rock Creek Park. Should we go back and dig deeper?

“There ain’t no gold down there,” chuckles Maxwell, amused.

Well, then where is the gold?

“I can take you to a place,” he says. “I guarantee you’ll find gold there, if you’re willing to work for it.”

I call up my crew. On Easter morning, we meet Maxwell at his ultra-secret panning site in Great Falls, downstream from an abandoned gold mine. We park on the side of the road and pull on our hip waders and safety goggles. It’s just before the morning Mass and several women of indeterminate age emerge from a nearby McMansion in expensive floral print dresses and totter on heels to a waiting Mercedes. A white Porsche cruises by us and the driver regards us as one might an unexpected growth on one’s genitals.

Maxwell is a softspoken chainsmoker in faded bluejeans. By day he makes cabinetry out of his workshop in Daisy, Maryland, but in his off-hours he prospects for gold in area creeks, along with fellow prospectors Richard Nearman, 57, and Phil Goldman, 60.

I ask them if they’ve found a lot of gold here, and Nearman brings out several glass vials. “This is just some of it,” he says. He indicates some of the larger globules, about the size of an ant. “We call these pickers, because you can just pick them right out of the pan with your fingers.” He shakes a vial of tiny flakes, a saltshaker of gold. “These are more common. You have to suck them up with an eyedropper. They add up though.”

He unscrews a vial and lets us examine a few of the larger nuggets. We pass them around and yes, this is definitely the real thing. It’s almost incandescent and even the smallest nuggets have a disproportionate heft to them. At a thousand dollars an ounce, this collection must be worth a few thousand at least.

“I just hope this trip pans out,” says Kyle when we reach the bank of the creek.

He looks at each of us but we just look back blankfaced..

“That was a joke,” he says. “Get it? ‘Pan’ out?”

“I don’t get it,” says Haley.

The key to successful panning, Maxwell tells us, is to harvest our material from the very bottom of the creek. Gold, being heavier than the surrounding material, naturally works its way down until it settles on bedrock. (This is the same reason that even the tiniest speck of gold will settle to the bottom of an agitated pan of rocks and sand.) Once you’ve dredged up a few buckets of material, you use a wire rack to strain out the larger rocks, and then pan down the remaining grit. Among that grit is where you’ll find the gold. If you’ve been lucky.

It’s a warm spring morning but the water is still frigid. Jim and I set to work shoveling sediment up out of the bottom of the creek, as Phil and Kyle and Haley pick the larger rocks out of the buckets. I find the deepest spot and dig there, shivering collarbone-deep in water. This is done blind, as I can’t see even an inch down into the murky water. Sometimes I’ll bring up a shovelful of grit, sometimes a single huge rock which they unceremoniously throw back with no acknowledgement of the effort it took to bring said rock to the surface, and sometimes, because of the murkiness and the drag of the water as I bring the shovel upwards, the shovel will break the surface of the water and it will be completely empty, and everyone will laugh, some of them literally pointing and laughing as I consider swinging the shovel and burying it right in the center of each person’s forehead.

But I resist this impulse because I’m working toward something bigger than myself here. And isn’t that what it’s all about, folks? Not having to listen to inferior people talk about Brangelina around the water cooler ever again. This is what I think about as I shovel, my extremities growing number by the second, my core temperature dropping, my teeth chattering and breath growing short. I refuse to ever work again! After three years of freedom, I can’t go back to that world. Orangefaced bimbos in Marketing shrieking about tapas and appletinis in AdMo after work, proudly lanyarded Crisco-haired fuckfaces on the train in the morning reading the Express like it’s actually a newspaper, coworkers ambushing me in the break room with pictures of li’l Jordan at soccer camp. The customer is always right? Fuck the customer! Nor do I give a shit about “Quality.” I’m not working hard, I’m not hardly working either; I’m just slouching here at my desk looking at snatches of German scat porn in a desperate attempt to defibrillate my soul out of this living death. And yes, ironic that it’s Easter Sunday because just like that holy motherfucking zombie Himself, Jesus Christ, I too have been dead, entombed not literally but figuratively, in a cubicle limbo of powder-blue button-ups and white mochas (extra whip!) from Starbucks, and just like Him I somehow made it back against all odds. And I’m never going back! And if that means standing sternum-deep in untreated sewage shoveling rocks until I collapse from hypothermia, so be it.

But eventually my legs have become almost completely numb and I have to stop. As I recline on the bank of the creek I have a moment of clarity and it hits me that we have almost zero chance of finding any gold. I’m cold and wet and just when I open my mouth to suggest that we call it a day, what’s the point anyway, Maxwell asks if we want to go up and see the abandoned mine.

Why not? We walk upstream and through the trees I see a rectangular something seemingly hovering across the landscape with two men wearing sunglasses and caps hanging out the sides. It’s … a golf cart?

“Is that a golf course over there?” I ask Maxwell.

“Yeah,” he says, shrugging.

The mine entrance has collapsed and is covered over with a drift of sodden leaves. We kneel down and sweep the detritus away until an opening just large enough for one’s shoulders has been cleared.

“Go ahead, look inside,” says Maxwell.

I do so and after my eyes adjust, I can see the mine, a rough-hewn tunnel sloping back and terminating in darkness. It doesn’t look like much but what’s striking is how cold it is inside, not just a standing chill but a palpable emanation, an ominous wind from the depths of the earth or from the past or perhaps from a future where I fail to find gold, the chill perhaps of the breakroom refrigerator at my future job whooshing open as I survey an endless shelf of my coworkers’ initialed yogurts, and at that moment I can almost hear them behind me, extolling over lattes the virtues of the latest Michael Bay extravaganza.

A shudder goes through me and suddenly I’m motivated again to sift through our buckets of sand. A tiny chance is better than no chance at all.

We wander back to the creek as Maxwell lights a cigarette and Kyle and Haley go to work on several thousand calories worth of expensed junk food.

“We went on a panning trip to North Carolina a couple years ago,” says Maxwell. “We didn’t find any gold, but it was a great time.”

Have they ever discussed other panning trips, I ask.

“We’d love to go to California,” says Goldman. “They still strike it rich out there. Or Alaska. Most of that land’s never even been set foot on.”

“There’s this river in Arkansas,” says Nearman. “You can find diamonds down there, just lying in the riverbed.”

There’s a sort of frontier romance to panning for gold, the idea of the individual extracting wealth directly from the earth, with no intermediates or compromises. After all, for the first prospectors setting off into unmapped wilderness with just mule and pan, it was as much about the solitude as it was about the gold. Maxwell and his friends aren’t unemployment milkers like myself and my friends—they all have day jobs—but it’s apparent that everyone here is trying to get away from something. Of course, there’s no escape. Even in this little slice of pseudo-frontier, the illusion is pierced by golf carts full of sunburnt middle managers puttering across the horizon, and we all know deep down that the idea of never working again is no more plausible than a river of diamonds in Arkansas.

If I do have to work again, I could see prospecting as maybe an okay sort of job. If you could make a living at it.

“Could someone make a living doing this?” I ask Maxwell.

He smiles. “Maybe,” he says, but it’s obvious that he really means no.

But still! The prospector is driven on by that tiny inextinguishable spark of hope, that maybe. Maybe we’ll find gold! Maybe they’ll pass another unemployment extension! We grab pans and squat in the sun staring downwards as we swish our pans side to side with utmost delicacy and patience, sloughing off the pebbles and sand little by little to reveal there at the bottom of the pan … nothing. After an hour we’ve gone through a five gallon bucket of creekbed grit with no luck.

I’m ready for a break, but right then I look over into Kyle’s pan and as we both watch the sand winnowing down the side of his pan, what is that we spy—tiny, yes, but unmistakable—at the very same moment? Maker and destroyer of empires, muse of poet and philistine alike, emblem of marriage and commerce and other unsavory enterprises, the closest thing on earth to an absolute value … gold! We did it! Gold! Riches! Gold! Success! Gold! No office jobs! Gold! Doctor appointments for everyone! Gold!

Or, at least, a speck of it. Hey, it’s a start.