The Ocotillo Treasure Expeditions

When I was a kid, sometimes we’d go treasure hunting on the way back from grandma’s.

Mexicali, Mexico, lies about two hours away from the coast, right against the United States border. When I was in grade school my family would take the long drive in our minivan to visit my Mexican grandparents and extended family; my mother and her five siblings grew up there, and many have remained to raise families of their own. I couldn’t tell you about that city; I only know it through a car window.

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On the American side of the border is Calexico. Calexico, in the Imperial Valley, is farmland. Where the irrigation stops, it becomes an endless, rocky desert, scattered with small brambles, dried ocotillo cacti sprouting like roots towards the sky, and the occasional abandoned structure or rusted water tanks. Bullet holes aplenty. Beneath the sky on the edge of a flat earth are mountains of granite and sandstone. Far away they can be purple in the air, becoming blue as you near, and turning brown and beige when you’re close enough to see that they are nothing but endless hills of sand-colored boulders. I call them granite. Hell if I know anything about that.

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Outside of Calexico is nothing, and two throws from nothing is the small town of Ocotillo. On the way back from grandma’s we’d stop in Ocotillo.

Ocotillo is a road stop town, a place to fill up the tank and take a leak. Most of the homes are mobile buildings, and most look abandoned. Indeed, a sweeping glance of the landscape would suggest there are probably more abandoned buildings and rusting car frames than people. The local bar is called The Lazy Lizard Saloon; a hand painted lizard in sunglasses reclines on the front of the lone-standing building like Joe Camel’s reptilian cousin. Nearby, closer  to the highway off ramp, is a wooden building painted dirt brown where we’d stop to get ice cream or sometimes a burger. The windows are boarded up now.

Lazy Lizard Saloon

The main road runs from horizon to horizon like a lost kite string unfurled across the desert. You can stand in the middle of the road and see how it seems to go nowhere, forever, and beyond nowhere lay those mountains. That’s where we would do our treasure hunting.

It was a long drive down that road, especially for a child in the warmth of the car; I don’t think I was ever conscious the whole drive. I’d try to fight from nodding off and my head would bob like those drinking bird toys. Then the road stopped, or perhaps we turned, and we drove off onto the bare desert floor in a white minivan. Before the white minivan we may have been driving in my dad’s red pick up, but I’d be lying if I pretended to actually remember. I only know that those mountains were far and away, beyond the paved road.

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We had a drawstring canvas sack emblazoned with pink desert rose on its side. This canvas sack was hugely important; if we had it with us, it meant we were going treasure hunting. The only thing that could stop us was if the sun was burning too hot that day. Sometimes it was. If the sun was running full steam, we might have stopped in Ocotillo to get a drink and then head home.

In the canvas sack was a small shovel, a garden spade, and a small hammer. Perhaps it was a rock hammer; it was a little pick axe of indeterminate purpose. These tools leant legitimacy to our endeavor. These were the tools of the trade. I would hold the small pick axe and feel its weight, and run my fingers over the worn metal and its brown patina. It had a smooth texture with remnants of sand on its grip and looked about a hundred years older than I was. The shovels had more evidence of prior expeditions, the spades speckled with small dirt clods, the tips blunt and bent from impacting the hard earth. We were treasure hunters.

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It wasn’t doubloons we were after. My older brother and I were after gems and interesting rocks. Of course, we hoped of the possibilities of finding gold nuggets or even pyrite (fool’s gold), but we were happy to find anything that looked interesting, like petrified wood and mica. Mica is a fragile crystalline rock that was evidently abundant, because I always seemed to bring a few slivers of flaky mica home. I was also particularly interested in finding geodes. A geode, if you aren’t familiar, is a round rock that is hollow and the inside sometime contains formations of crystals. How do you know if something is just a rock, or a hollow geode? I don’t know, but we did find one or two, and a few that were just solid rocks that we ended up smashing with a hammer like tiny coconuts in hopes of revealing the gem-encrusted innards. Think of it: a plain rock, invisible except to a real treasure hunter, revealing its crystalline splendor only when shattered.  Pure potential, and more often than not, pure disappointment.

As we drove closer to the mountains, the flat desert land would rise up into hills and canyons, and finally we’d leave the white minivan to begin our expedition. Treasure hunting is difficult business. My mother and father would perhaps wander about, enjoying the scenery, while my brother and I searched over the landscape for signs of any abnormalities in the dirt and rock that would suggest at the vein of pure California gold that ran beneath. Often we’d find seashells embedded in stone and other small fossils; I lusted at the thought of finding a genuine prehistoric shark tooth in the desert. I would have giving my soul to find a dinosaur bone. Really, a legitimate dinosaur would be infinitely more rewarding than a gold nugget, but I don’t recall considering it a viable possibility. I was a very grounded five-year old.

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I also considered the possibility of finding arrow heads. I suppose I thought Native Americans were very reckless with their arrows, shooting arrows everywhere, all the damn time, leaving arrowheads lying around like cigarette butts. Silly Indians. I don’t know what they’d be shooting at in the barren desert but that wasn’t my problem. Of course, we were far from any habitable place and especially far from any arrow-wielding Indian. Later, I bought a small, stone arrowhead at a gift shop at the Grand Canyon, but I knew it was a reproduction. When I briefly joined the Cub Scouts, I got a plastic yellow arrowhead to wear around my neck on a leather string, but it was even faker than the Grand Canyon arrowhead. Oh well. Some day.

[Some years ago I studied with Prof. John Ricks at Stanford University. John Ricks is one of the leading experts on flint knapping – making stone tools like hand axes using only the stones themselves . He said that he taught himself by smashing stones together in the pitch dark. You smash your hands up pretty bad but quickly learn to control how the stones chip. Yes, he did demonstrate. Perhaps I should try to make my own arrowheads.]

At the end of the hot day, all of the little bits of mica and geodes and fossilized seashells were pretty pathetic, but it didn’t matter. We’d return the tools of the trade to the canvas sack and tie the drawstring shut, and our hard day of trudging through the canyons in search of geological splendor would earn us that soft serve ice-cream. To quote a Disney film, not all treasure is silver and gold. Mostly it’s just mica and geodes.

imperial valley

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sunset over calexico

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