American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
Treasure Hunts on South Padre Island, Part 1
While searching for blackberries last week in the woods of northern Michigan, I thought about a long-ago, summertime trip to the American River in northern California. Although my husband, Dan, and I had ventured to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in order to pan for gold, it was the blackberry bushes alongside the river that ended up yielding the most treasure that day. As Dan filled a small vial with gold flakes from the crystalline water, I managed to load my own pan with a heaping mound of ripe blackberries, which, naturally, we consumed that night back in our hotel room.
Of course, that's the wonderful thing about treasure hunting. Though you might not always find what you seek, you may still stumble upon something worth finding. Such has been the case each time we've ventured into the treasure-rich dunes of South Padre Island, a barrier island near the southern tip of the Lone Star State that, as mentioned in a previous post, we initially encountered in the spring of 2001.
Intrigued by stories of lost treasure, we ventured to the island after discovering an article about Steve Hathcock, one of the area’s most legendary treasure hunters. After crossing the Queen Isabella Causeway, the only road onto the island, we headed directly for Steve’s rickety, two-story establishment on Pompano Street. Then known as the Padre Island Trading Co., the store boasted a variety of used books, secondhand clothes, homemade jewelry, historical artifacts, and gourmet coffee. Unfortunately, however, it wasn't open on that first day. Beneath a “Closed” sign on the glass door, a handwritten note announced that the proprietors would be gone until Saturday, still a week away.
On Sunday, we noticed that “Saturday” had been replaced with “Monday,” but Monday soon came and went. A lanky young man on the porch told us that Steve and his partner, Kay Lay, both longtime residents of the island, had already returned from their trip and were probably unwinding in their apartment above the shop. While some folks might have been discouraged by such news, we simply spent the interim pursuing our own explorations of the unique little island.
By Wednesday, the store was open again. After much yarn-swapping, Steve – a local historian, locksmith, and masseur – agreed to lead us on a treasure-hunting adventure in the sand dunes north of town. Over the next several weeks, we fell into the rhythms of the island, basking in the warm gulf breezes and incredible sunsets over the bay. We spent many evenings with our newfound friends, sipping coffee on the back patio, making stir-fry dinners in the upstairs kitchen, playing with their three golden retrievers, and meeting locals like Steve Farrell, a wiry guitarist from New York, or Guatemalan Bob, a blue-eyed vendor of Latin American coffees. Then, after sharing countless tales of the island’s history and displaying finds like old coins, arrowheads, and Civil War bullets, Steve decided to make good on his promise.
On an afternoon soon afterward, Steve and Mike, a treasure hunter from Colorado, boarded Guatemalan Bob’s Land Rover, laden with metal detectors, headphones, binoculars, and scoops – the necessary tools of the trade – and proceeded up the island. Dan and I, meanwhile, rode in our own truck, toting a few essentials as well – namely, the boards, bucket, and shovel that might have helped to free us if we'd gotten stuck in the sand. Between seaweed-laden waves and grass-covered dunes, we bumped along the beach, through tracks made by other 4-wheel-drive vehicles. As Dan navigated our truck through the deep ruts of soft sand, I strove to keep my stomach from lurching into my throat. By the looks of their jerking heads, the three passengers ahead of us weren't faring much better. It would have been easier, of course, to have made this trip at low tide, when we could have driven atop the wet, hard-packed sand along the shore, rather than follow the treacherous ruts closer to the dunes, but in my experience, nothing on South Padre has ever started on time – including that day's treasure hunt.
Numerous legendary valuables are supposedly buried on the island, including gold and jewels from lost Spanish ships as well as $60,000 abandoned before the Civil War by John Singer, the cattle rancher and sewing machine inventor. But we weren’t in search of such finds on that particular day. Steve was planning to lead us to a newly discovered spot, a tidal flat beyond the dunes, where a fellow treasure hunter had stumbled upon a huge clay pot and a rusted chain in the sand. On his first journey to the site, Steve had taken photographs of landmarks along the route, though having left the photos behind, he was forced to rely on his memory to reach the first marker.
After a long, jolting drive about 25 miles up the beach, not to mention several premature stops along the way, we finally paused to assess the situation. Steve apologized for the rough ride and swore that the return trip would be a bit smoother. We’d already passed a few landmarks, mostly giant pieces of marine debris that appeared to move with the tides. As Dan and I questioned the accuracy of such markers, Steve attempted to find the final one near a specific set of dunes.
While the boys huddled atop a hillock, surveying the landscape, I drifted near the shore, photographing tiny sandpipers and majestic herons. Soon, we were back in our bumping vehicles, navigating steep precipices between the dune line and the sea. Near the final marker, we parked the trucks beside endless rows of multihued seashells, unloaded the gear, and headed into the sun-bleached dunes. We walked in single file, past snake holes in the grass and broken bottles in the sand. Deep into the wilderness, beyond sawgrass-covered mounds and thorny tangles of twigs and vines, we finally came to the site, where the greenish-gray lip of a large round clay pot peered above the surface. On such a history-rich island, it was thrilling to consider how long it might have lain buried or what purpose it once served.
Perhaps it belonged to the Karankawa Indians, who fought against the Comanches in the vicinity. John Singer might have utilized it to hide away his fortune, prior to the storm that washed away all his markers. Spanish or French merchants might have filled it with jewels or wine bottles, only to have lost it when a hurricane tossed their vessels ashore. It had been there so long that the clay had turned soft, too soft to unearth without destroying it. So, we knew that the original purpose might remain a mystery.
Since it was a mystery, too, what else might lie hidden in the flats, the five of us decided to split up, off to seek our own treasure. Bob trekked away in search of old colored glass bottles. Steve and Mike lingered around the pot, scanning the area with their metal detectors. Dan wandered off in the opposite direction, surveying the ground for telltale bumps, while I hiked several yards across a barren tidal flat, aiming for a faraway band of glistening water. As I neared the shimmering, tree-lined stream, I noticed small deer tracks crisscrossing the sand around me, along with random planks, pieces of rope, and bits of trash – either left behind by other human travelers or, more likely, washed into the tidal flats by sudden storms or floods.
After several minutes under the hot sun, I realized that I'd fallen for an old desert trick: the distant oasis. The trick wasn’t whether the water was a mirage, but how far away it lay. I had spied, in fact, the Mansfield Ship Channel, the manmade cut dividing South Padre Island from Padre Island National Seashore. Though tantalizing, it stretched three miles ahead, a distance I didn't have the time to hike. Besides, the sunlight was waning, and I was curious about the treasure hunts going on behind me.
As I trekked back across the sand, I noticed Dan standing above a hole, beckoning me to join him before the others, still ensconced in the dunes, had gotten wind of his find. By the time I reached him, I discerned an odd little smile on his face, a mixture of pride and puzzlement. He explained that he simply spotted a small lump in an open expanse of sand and began digging on his knees, soon discovering a long wooden beam and a rusted metallic fixture.
Not long afterward, Steve and Mike appeared in the clearing, discouraged by the sand’s metallic traces, which had rattled the discriminating mechanisms in their detectors. Intrigued by the piles of sand at our feet, they edged closer to Dan’s trench, amazed that a man without the proper gear had made the most significant find. Soon, all five of us, including Bob, who had returned with a few intact bottles, were uncovering and examining the pieces.
Steve surmised that Dan’s find represented the remains of a ship’s mast that, with the clay pot and rusted chain, might have comprised a whole ship’s worth of wreckage lying beneath our shoes. The sun was beginning to go down, however, signaling the hunt’s end, so we gathered as many artifacts as we could, leaving the pot and other concealed treasures for another time, and began the long trek back toward our vehicles.
As we loaded up the trunks and shook the sand from our shoes, the sun slipped slowly behind the dunes. It was time to head home, and despite Steve’s ardent promise, the ride back was even worse. The tide was still high; it was now dark along the coast; and one strip of “road” seemed steep enough to tip us over, as was evident by the 30-degree angle of Bob’s SUV ahead of us.
Still, in spite of the high tide, risky sand traps, and busted detectors, it felt thrilling to have searched through the deserted tidal flats for a hint of the island’s history. Hurricanes had driven priceless treasures beneath the sands of South Padre Island, treasures that could have funded their finders for life. Recalling Steve’s earlier confession – that “it’s impossible for a good treasure hunter to resist embellishing a yarn” – I find that there's no need to embellish. We didn't find any Spanish bullion or the Singer family fortune, and we weren’t planning to spend the rest of our days searching for them, but for one blessed afternoon, we began to understand the thrill of those that do. If nothing else, it gave us a taste of the fervor that dedicated treasure hunters must feel – and the fortitude required for someone like Mel Fisher to maintain his 16-year search for a sunken treasure fleet that seemed impossible to find. Sometimes, after all, such obsession can pay off.
For more information about South Padre Island, consult the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau (7355 Padre Blvd., 956/761-3005 or 800/657-2373, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.) or pick up a copy of Andy Rhodes' Moon Texas. In addition, stay tuned for my next post about further treasure-hunting adventures on South Padre Island, and of course, if you ever decide to experience your own Texas-style treasure hunt, I wish you plenty of luck!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and my Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of me in the tidal flats of South Padre Island © 2010 Daniel Martone / Text © 2010 Laura Martone