I spent a morning last June bringing up the rear of a dusty caravan, as it wound its way through long stretches of barren desert under a blazing hot sun. There's so little annual precipitation in this part of the country that few things grow here — and the drought had left the sparse creosote brittle and withered.
In the distance were mountains of sun baked rock—solidified mud it appeared— having been under the broiler for millions of years these mountains had turned to stone. Maybe it was a lava flow, now so dry it was disintegrating into the fine dust which choked out the blue sky above. “ How hot does it have to be to turn lava to dust? ” I wondered.
Our caravan was moving in their hypnotic direction, mile-by-mile inching closer—weaving through a broad section of muted hills, and then starting a steep ascent. Here and there were abandoned homesteads. They had been left decades ago by people far more optimistic than I’ll ever be. The glass windows were gone—surely melted, and the doors were oddly missing on every structure. Local artists used these buildings as canvas now, and their hands had produced schizophrenic musings. What they had to say was disturbing, and it all seemed ominous.
I looked at the thermometer on the dash… 106 and it was barely noon.
The switchbacks up the mountainside cut through two mining towns; ones with histories almost as old as the colonization of the west. They still possess all of the qualities of a frontier town; one grocery store, one laundromat, one, bank, one hotel, and a cafe. You’ll find a gas station or two now; one to accommodate the locals, and another to fuel the certain exodus of every out-of-towner.
Every building that ever was, remains. It's as if the locals could not come to terms with the end of anything, so they kept it—all of it—and it just sits there roasting in the hot desert sun. There’s dozens of old signs with broken lights and chipped paint, hanging lopsided with few bolts left to anchor them to their posts. The wind uses them as chimes. All along you can hear a rhythmic groaning and creaking—every motion turned to strange music by the hot arid breeze which regularly blazes through these petrified canyons.
Every now and then we’d pass a local sitting on the front stoop; just watching people pass on by. They didn't attempt to wave (or even raise an eyebrow) despite the spectacle a network television production crew makes when converging on an idle town. They seem to have resigned themselves to the mundane. Perhaps they're sensible enough to know they already possess one of life’s best gifts; a slow-ticking clock. Maybe they'd exhausted themselves of adventures and they knew where we were headed. Maybe they knew we weren't going to find a treasure anyway. Maybe they didn’t know much at all.
We’d made our way through the last town end-to-end in just 4 minutes—which would had been quicker but for the flashing 25 mph hours signs peppered here and there. I imagine the town voted to drop the speed limit to such a crawl in hopes “out-of-towners" might notice them. If you are in too much of a hurry then there's plenty of patrol vehicles to ensure you're paying attention.
The marquee on the bank read 108.
Ever climbing we reached the top of this mountainous country, and we were greeted with a dreadful sign, “last service for 90 miles." [Gulp]. We continued on, now spiraling downward in a slow, grinding corkscrew of gravel and 10 mph curves. No need for enforcement here, gravity takes care of that. A fine dust choked the air vents, and the air-conditioner was having a hard time keeping up in the relentless heat. The sun was pulsating, and the vegetation seemed on the verge of turning to ash.
We were out to find a lost treasure; a hidden canyon of gold. Jesse had enraptured us with a legend—set in a time before Arizona had been founded. It was a hostile land then—one most settlers were keen to overlook due to a rational fear that they would quickly end up a bleaching pile of bones in a God-forsaken land. Then, a league of undaunted prospectors exhausted from their forlorn efforts at Sutter’s Mill began to look this direction.
One particular party of 20 men made their way east from California, then north over the same barren desert we'd just travelled. Prospecting for gold, they'd found a bonanza; a zig-zag canyon strewn with fist-sized nuggets. But, their attention quickly turned to survival—for these canyons were already home to a breed of men perfectly adapted to its unforgiving nature, and they didn’t take kindly to strangers. Only three of the prospectors got out alive.
Returning to the nearest village from whence they came, the terrified survivors relayed landmarks along the route in hopes the treasure would be easy to relocate. It wasn't. Many attempts have been made hence to find that gorge filled with gold.
Now here we were following clues with the advent of 21st century technology: satellite images, mineral resource charts, reams of historical archives, maps and GPS coordinates—all matched to the research Jesse and his brother had put in over the past three decades. The narrow washboard road kept twisting deeper into a desolate uninhabited land; corners now so tight they appeared to turn back upon themselves. Soon, I was no longer following vehicles—simply a string of red illuminated lights hovering in a white haze of airborne dirt.
A half-an-hour in there stood an abandoned church; only its concrete skeleton and the iron cross remained. No other evidence of habitation exists in that rugged and barren wilderness. That is, until you round the last bend.
Quite suddenly we were awestruck with a wholly unexpected burst of green. Standing guard to the entrance of a serene canyon, old gnarled black mesquite contorts in bizarre angles. From their thorny branches burst delicate fronds—each enthusiastically flashing greens and yellows as if waving to greet you. The dust begins to clear and the smell of the earth returns.
A bewildering mountain stream erupts from nothing— like Eden.
The air is suddenly cooler, and a twinkling light show plays off the river—which cuts through a pumpkin-colored gorge. The valley (if you can call it that) is just wide enough to give the river room to flood. The entire length of it has erupted in life.
Iridescent blue butterflies and flame-colored birds play in shimmering pools, while eagles soar high above. What a view they must have! Beaver have crafted a network of placid pools and percolating falls. Standing on the gentle banks I watched dozens of streamlined fish race past with showy orange fins. They stood out so vividly against the black-silted bottom—as if God himself had given man every opportunity to catch one. They surely fed the bedraggled prospectors who’d camped here more than a century ago.
The caravan had stopped—and now the production crew was all noise, loading and unloading; listening to each other on short wave handhelds; pointing and fussing over buttons and wires. Tugging and pulling. Stopping and going. They seemed to miss it all.
Soon enough I had to abandon my two-wheel drive, to be bounced and jostled about as a young assistant ferried me deeper into this paradise. He was all jitters and haste, and he spoke of things and places of a far more urban nature. I sat stiff-armed, bracing myself for his next boulder hit. He seemed so unaware. A mile or so in, after criss-crossing the river, he dropped me off in a remote grove of towering old mesquite. This was the location of the crew's intended base camp. Leaf debris littered the sands —and I trepidatiously looked about for rattlesnakes as he sped off to reunite with his people.
They were all there to help Joshua and Jesse tell an epic tale. Talented and bright— each brilliant creatives in their own right—they race at a feverish pitch to capture every word and every gesture as Josh and Jesse set out on their search for treasure. I admire them for their craft, yet it can be quite humorous to watch LA inhabitants in the wild.
Earlier Josh and Jesse had taken to horseback, traversing the boulder strewn flood plain with greater ease—and getting farther-and-farther away. The entire crew burdened with lights, cameras, drones, tripods, battery packs, first-aid equipment, and coolers filled with ice and water—were trudging along behind them—trying to keep up. They had moved far up canyon, and before long I could not hear them anymore.
I sat alone for hours watching the canyon display its natural wonder; listening to a babbling brook and birdsong echoing off the canyon walls.
Long after dark, they all returned—and the camp set-up was like the scene from Disney’s movie Tarzan. Clanking and clambering abruptly drowned out the melody of nature, and the surrounding darkness seemed to grow. Jesse strolled in looking half his might—thoroughly spent—and Josh was no better. The seasoned production crew seemed none the worse for wear, and they hummed along at a high pitch; still planning, preparing meals, pitching tents, and hovering over electronic devices. This went on for two more hours.
Very late that night I lay in the open air of the canyon, having nestled in alongside Jesse in the bed of a recently new [now battered] pick-up truck. Josh exclaimed his last words of the day from inside his sweltering tent as he laid his bony frame over a six foot square of fist-sized stones, “This sucks!”
They were completely exhausted. Soon after, we all dropped off into a state of unconsciousness.
It happened quite suddenly then — at about two o'clock in the morning. I heard a bright cheery chirping in the distance to my right—to my left, a deep warbling. In the forefront, an uplifting whistle. I opened my eyes to see what so thrilled the birds of the night. The air was heavy as if to hold me still, and my body was still numb from sleep. I did not move one inch.
Directly overhead was a radiating tapestry of a billion stars, adorning the night sky as glittering gems of unfathomable beauty. Shimmers and sparkles flashed upon the clearest skies I had ever seen.
The whole vast expanse above me was set against a backdrop of sapphire blue, and a brilliantly lit half-moon cast enough glow to see the sleeping world below as a fantasy.
Galaxies were visible from the beginning of time—erupting as pale pink and purple wisps, and spirals. A planet was brightly burning just above the towering canyon spires. Meteors streamed long threads of yellows and blues, and white orbs laid out familiar astronomical patterns; the Big Dipper, the Little, the Belt of Orion and fittingly, Horsehead Nebula.
There—in the middle of it all— was an intricately jeweled centerpiece afloat in a milky constellation. Each gem illuminated and dazzling. It was magic—if ever there was!
Here on earth, thousands of cicadas buzzed at an electrifying pitch; crickets chirped along the riverbed; and the birds sang a song which lulled the rest of humanity to sleep. They surely contrived to keep it secret.
The finest treasure was displayed before me as the heavens. I felt suspended from it, as though a celestial body adrift on transient hues of lapis blue and infinite black. It hung over all the world.
Beside me lay an exhausted treasure hunter—lost in a dream.
I gently nudged him. “Jesse” I whispered—"look!" He stirred, and uttered something unintelligible, then fell back to his pattern of long slow breathing.
He’d be up again at daybreak headed deeper into that canyon with a heavily outfitted crew in tow—all off to find a treasure.