I was seventeen and we were living in the house on Nightengale lane. Dad had just lost his promotion to become the VP of Blue Cross and Blue Shield. He dropped on the couch, his gray suit puckering up so the whites of his ankles shone. He yanked the tie at his neck.
“I’m done with insurance. The only time I’ll sell a thing again is pharmaceuticals. Pills. Something they’ll buy--or end up dyin’.”
I turned away but rolled my eyes. Dad was prone to givin' Jerry McGuire-esque speeches about sales OR ranting Republican doctrine on the virtues of pulling yourself up by your boot straps. He was a huge guy, broad shouldered and blond, like Thor. And when I was a kid, he was so tall that I thought everything he said must always be right.
He tossed down the tie and said, “The good news is, I got a line on a lost gold mine.” That was the year he decided to become a gold miner. Now I don’t want to give you the idea that this was completely out of character, he always was a schemer--went opal diving in the Yucatan when I was eight, bought a health club in Wisconsin for a dollar when I was ten and never paid his taxes, until he got audited. Despite the tendency to wander, to gamble away his whole paycheck so we had to eat dinner at my grandma’s house- he had been at his job for fifteen years.
Dad unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt, “They gave the promotion to Tony--I fucking TRAINED Tony. So I told ‘em to stick it. I’m pursuing other projects.”
I raised my brows to brace myself. Up until this moment, Dad considered himself a recreational prospector. He read every edition of the Complete Walker, where leaned how to pull labels off of soup cans to make his pack lighter, ordered topographical maps from the Department of the Interior (which he lovingly called “topos”) and researched how to strike a gold claim in New Mexico. When he quite his job, he graduated from hobby prospector to full blown freelancer.
FYI- If you wanted to strike a gold claim, all you had to do was print off the appropriate document from a state website, say that you were “claiming” the mineral rights to federal land via signature and then actually, stake it on the land--with a wooden stake. Think Tom Cruise and Far Away- only this is happening in 1996!
And I fully realize now that it’s probably just as fuckin’ weird that I retained all of this info- but, for a time it seemed like I just listened to him- if I showed that I was interested, was his bestest student- that he would check back in. Be the real dad. Not gambling dad or gold miner dad. The Real Dad. Atticus Finch. Bill Cosby.
Dad leaned over in his chair, his face lit up like Large Marge in Pee Wee's Big Adventure, “Here’s the deal. There was a prospector named Adams. Somehow he made friends with the Zuni Indians round Pueblo. They took Adams and his group to the site of this glory hole. Gold nuggets as big as your fist! The Zunis said Adams could take one mule’s load back to his cabin.”
“Mules. Zunis. Sure Dad, I’m with you,” I said. There was no sarcasm even though it all sounded like Goonies to me. Pirates and treasures and shit that my forty year old Dad should not be an expert about.
He went on. “So maybe raiders swoop in- it’s not entirely clear-the point is that someone burns the cabin to the ground and everyone in the party is murdered. Except Adams. He escapes on foot. Spent the rest of his life looking for that mine again--never could find it.” Dad leaned away, the lights brightened.
“And you can.”
“Course I can. I got GPS. And a topo map. Adams never had a topo map.”
That’s what brought me to New Mexico, 1,500 miles from my life: job at the photo store selling cameras, a slew of hippie friends who all wore flannel and listened to Beck. My college application back home in Iowa--incomplete and hanging over my head. I was out of my element, hosting a pack of Dad’s gear with only my trusty Nikon as a keystone.
So we were on Fox Mountain trekking down these deer trails. I was feeling mixed--maybe Dad was certifiable. But also feeling, superstitious too. Like when you believe in Santa or Jesus or the lotto--something good will happen- but if you didn’t really believe there’s no fucking chance for that big pay-off. I was trying to maintain the duality--secretly hoping he was right, that my dad was a hero, that he’d find the mother load and we’d all be rich; meanwhile choking on the facts- that the gold rush was 100 years past due. But Dad was sooo into it. He thought it was worth selling my mom’s piano to pay for airline tickets. It was worth letting the phone get disconnected so we could rent the hotel in Socorro. This gold mining dad was getting dangerous.
We hiked for an hour, my body not built for mountain country, the rucksack felt like lugging a corpse, soup labels or no--and Dad and I were winding around and around, up and down the forest paths. The trip wasn’t entirely painful. There were these really cool juniper trees; when I zoomed in with the macro lens, they had gray bark that looked like alligator scales- like nothing you’d ever in the woods in mid-west. It was Dad that was the pain. He had two compasses tethered around his neck, that GPS device--and we were still lost.
After a couple more hours, we reached the bottom of the mountain; we were walking along this valley and dried out stream bed that ran along the foot of it. I looked over to my right and saw this space that must have been clearing at one time- only now there were random sized trees sprouting out, much shorter than the rest of the forest, and piles of leaves and debris, and that’s when I saw these planks peeking out.
“Dad! Dad you see this?” I called.
Dad stopped breathing and stared. Then he ran over and kicked the leaves and wet mush away, exposing the frame of a cabin. It was the foundation of a burned-out cabin!
“Don’t just stand there, fuckin’ document this!” He yelled, and I snapped into action, took close-ups photos of the planks. I walked inside the cabin. I had this surreal, tingling sensation that I was standing on the graves of the Adams’ party. But I also felt on the verge of discovery too--like what could I find?” Maybe a piece of cracked plate Adams used hundred years ago. I wondered what kind of shit they ate back then, what they might have talked about in this room. I knelt in the leaves- I took close ups of the wood and wondered who touched this last.
“Get over here for Christ’s sake,” Dad called. He jumped into the mouth of the dried stream and was running his metal detector along this hollowed out log. The log was clearly axed out by tools, gray with age, but shaped pretty much a sluice box--that thing miners used to separate out gold.
“This could be it! This could be Adams!” he yelled, the metal detector squealed wildly. His face alive with smiling. Then he stopped, hunkered in the old stream bed and busted out his pan, shaking the dry, red dirt with a flick of his wrist.
I stood above and looked down at him. Oh my god, this could be it--fist-sized nuggets, the kind that made all his craziness, worth it.
I watched, felt this electric sensation, that we these amateurs but on the eclipse of an archeological breakthrough- finding something other people might read about someday. I looked over at Dad, in his ridiculous suspenders, in a frenzy of shoveling and dropping to his knees to shake the dirt in pan, then launch up again with this super Ape-like strength and keep digging, again and again and again. And nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
The regular bleeps and static fuzz of the metal detector died away. Dad sat down heavily in the stream bed. The red dirt greased into the lines of his face. The only things that sparkled were the flakes of iron pyrite--fucking fools gold--stuck to his boots. He was quiet, face deflated.
I expected him to laugh or something, toss down the gear, say he was a sorry, that the whole idea was crazy and he could see that in the end. He was ready to check back in. Maybe we’d go bowling back in the Socorro.
But he didn’t. He scratched the back of his head with a stick; his eyes passed over me, Adams’ cabin, and lingered on the sluice box. “What about Slaughter Mesa? That’s within range of where they found Adams. Grab the gear, so I can make it to the car before dark.”
Wow. I felt this intense throb. That feeling in any moment of being horribly embarrassed--my body a live wire, stupid numb. I was periphery. Dad’s vision, Adam’s vision, this is what was important to him. It didn’t matter what I learned, that I was his best student, that I was what he wanted. He didn’t see me at all. And he was never gonna be the dad I wanted--fist-sized nuggets or not.
My hands unconsciously moved to my pockets where I fished out the pack of Marlboro Reds I had stashed to smoke when he was asleep. I flicked the Zippo and took a deep drag. I didn’t look at him in the face, as if my not looking would mean he had somehow disappeared, that nether of us were really there. My voice drifted out, thick and sad, “Who are you?” I said, shaking.
He didn’t hear the heat in my voice. “What the fuck are you doin’?” he called up.
Spinning and woozy I said, “I smoke! OK, Dad? I’m a smoker!” I took a drag for effect. It felt staged. Not nearly as rich as I thought it might be. I shook my head, blurting, “And I’m a liberal. And I like photography too. I wanna be a photographer when I go to college.” I had no idea why these were the things I chose to say. They were just what spilled out first.
“Geez, April.” Dad as he folded up his mining shovel, “Pictures? What a waste. Why do something anyone can do? Everyone sees the same things.”
I mean what you even say to someone like that? It was just unreal. Like we were in exactly the same moment, and he was experiencing “The Deadwood,” but I was watching the History channel.
I steadied myself with another drag. “Well. Maybe we don’t.” I said.
He gave me a peevish stare. “Won’t you be sorry when I find that mine, huh? I shouda brought your sister instead.” And he stood up covered in dust, stumbling to catch himself on the bank.
With that I knew he was just never-gonna-get-it. And I needed to figure out a way to deal. Because I was seventeen, and living in his house, and all grown up was gettin’ closer but not quite there yet. And if I thought about that too hard--it didn’t feel like I could breathe. That’s what’s so fucking cool about pictures. You get put shit back where it belongs.
I dropped my smoke and pulled up my camera so I could see him in the frame. If you twist a 35mm lens to the infinity symbol, everything inside will be in perfect, equal focus. The red, dusty streambed in the foreground as intricately detailed as the birch trunk ten feet behind it. Sure, my dad was in the picture, in his suspenders with his shovel, but so was the deer path we trampled in on, that charred out cabin, those great gator-skinned trees. I was behind the lens- I’d choose what ended up in print. It didn’t matter if he ever saw the important things. I could.