Unless you’re handy with a modified divining rod or have extraordinary extrasensory powers, the first step in the quest for buried treasure is to buy a metal detector. Although they can be purchased online, those who live within driving distance of an actual store generally prefer to acquire them in person; the expertise and guidance of an experienced dealer is key. Unlike many of their rural counterparts, San Diegans have it good in that regard, with three full-fledged shops in the county. “Full-fledged” is relative, of course; metal detecting, a rather esoteric and relatively expensive hobby — at least in terms of start-up costs — isn’t popular enough to support many stand-alone stores.
If you head to Columbia Metal Detectors in Escondido, don’t look for a sign with a big neon gold coin or vintage prospector photo out front; instead, pull up in front of the Inkwell Printing Company. It’s not that they don’t sell metal detectors — they have about 60 in stock, along with de rigueur accessories like long-handled, stainless-steel scoops and headphones. But, according to owner Frank Trutta, metal detecting just isn’t big enough to warrant exclusive floor space here. Nonetheless, business is good, spurred in recent years by an upswing in gold and silver prices.
Like most detector dealers, Trutta is a longtime enthusiast himself, initially selling the machines out of his house decades ago. When I asked him what draws people to the pastime, he said, unequivocally, “The thrill of the hunt.” I also wondered, “Do you have to be technically inclined to use a detector?” He replied, “No, they’re become pretty user-friendly. Even a five-year-old could do it; actually, a five-year-old — with the way kids use computers and cell phones nowadays — could probably do it better than you.”
He added, “If you buy a detector from me, I’ll take you out and show you how to use it.”
It’s a lot easier to uncover a treasure hunter than, say, a Morgan quarter, a widely sought-after silver coin dating from the late 19th Century. Although most participants are unaffiliated with clubs, you can find some of San Diego’s most fervent practitioners at the Coinshooters’ Clique, a group started in 1974. Russ Gish, the Clique’s president, told me what first drew him to this quirky, esoteric pastime. “As a kid, I loved reading about pirates’ treasure.” Gish, who has been sweeping his coils for over 40 years, is regarded by many as one of San Diego’s foremost experts on metal detecting — the equipment, the treasure, and the people. As for the last, he says that there are three principal motivators that drive detecting: “Greed, thrill, and an excuse to get out into the sun or under the moon.”
Although San Diego is not bereft of a past, it’s not the place to dig for Confederate Army belt buckles or Jeffersonian-era coat buttons; Old Town and Presidio aside, and with a nod to Horton and Serra, local treasure hunters aren’t on the speed dials of museum curators. Gish notes, “Unlike other parts of the country, we don’t have the history here in San Diego; what we do have — the Indian and old Spanish stuff — it’s all been covered up by shopping centers and houses.” So goes a coinshooter’s lament about the dearth of hoary diggables in Diego. That’s why Gish and his cohorts are largely beach hunters, wet-sand specialists at that.
Pick a holiday — any semi-major calendar standout will do — preferably one where Middle Americans inexorably scurry to the seashore because, well, that’s what they’ve always done. Now that the crowd’s in place, add the distractions of bikinis and booze (unless banned by the cops), screaming toddlers, and, of course, the earnest ones who think volleyball is a sport. With forgetfulness and frivolity at a fever pitch, it’s now time for the most important ingredient of all: seawater, preferably cold and rough.
Wet-sand hunters love chilly ocean surf, though they seldom venture too far into it.
Gish says that it’s the cold water of our not-so-beloved California current — more than anything else — that relieves us of our bangles, baubles, and beads. Thanks to typically sub-70-degree temperatures (often closer to 60, to tourists’ chagrin), as fingers shrink in the brine, well-fitted rings become loose, and those that start out loose end up lost.
Gish says that a fingerless ring will be moved three or four feet by each wave. As for relinquished bracelets, necklaces, and watches, he surmises that “roughhousing and grab-assing” in the surf are the usual causes. Whatever the cause, San Diego’s beaches yield more than a few items whose value exceeds the “sentimental.” But to find them, you’ve got to “read the beach.”
“When I go to the beach, I don’t see sand and water; I see dips and hollows, places where the waves deposit things. We could go to the same beach, and you might not find a thing. But after doing this for all these years, I know where to look.” Gish doesn’t say this with arrogance, just the kind of quiet confidence that builds over decades, much in the same incremental way the ocean crafts a stretch of sand; still, he doesn’t discount the chance that a tyro, with good equipment, patience, luck, and most importantly, a mentor, might come across some nice treasures after a few trips to the shore.
Gish says that the Coinshooters’ Clique (often shortened simply to “Coinshooters”) has roughly 60 to 70 active families, which, in most cases, means a retired man who is sometimes accompanied by his wife. (Gish’s own late wife, who lovingly derided him as a “penny hunter,” never joined him but did express a willingness to try on any stylish jewelry he came across.)
I asked Gish about the club’s name. “Back in the early 1970s, there was a local club called the Gem and Treasure Hunter Association. The president did some, uh, unethical things, like putting all the club dues right into his own pocket. So we broke off and formed our own group; when the prez heard about it, he became hostile and said to me, ‘So you effin’ cliquish people are gonna start your own Mickey Mouse club?’ We thought about calling it the ‘Mickey Mouse Coinshooters’ Clique,’ but we didn’t want to get in trouble with the Disney people, so we just called it the ‘Clique.’ ”