by Kent Ballard
I accidentally came across a strange subject while researching another article recently. It was the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. I thought it was odd that the writer was still talking about it in the present tense. Damned stupid writers anyway. What do they know, I asked?
Quite a lot, in this case. I read a few lines and the more I read the weirder things got. I thought I knew all about the story but came to discover I knew almost nothing. I knew that legend was a big deal in the past, but figured everyone had sobered up by now and that we all looked back and laughed about the tiny blip it made on the American conscious a hundred years ago.
Did you know there is an entire industry build around that legend? Do you know an estimated eight thousand people every year–most of whom have no business wandering around in a desert–still search for that bloody mine to this day? People have killed total strangers over it. They’ve dropped big rocks on them from above, set booby traps, or just shot them in the back and let them die face down in the Arizona sand. The only ones who have found untold riches so far are the dead people recovery teams drag out periodically.
I figured most of that nonsense went on over a century in the past. Nope. They hauled Jesse Capen out boots-first just two years ago. He’d told coworkers that he was going to spend another weekend hunting for the Lost Dutchman’s Mine and never reported back to work. The sheriff’s department searched for him, then a few relatives looked for him when the authorities gave up. Both parties asked all the other folks who were in the vicinity risking heat exhaustion, looking for the same mine. No one had seen him. It was around two years after his disappearance (when a professional rescue team was called in to helicopter yet another would-be billionaire to a hospital) that somebody finally found Jesse. His body was wedged into a crack running down the side of Superstition Mountain. The only way he could have gotten there was from above. They saw no reason to think foul play was involved. Apparently Jesse got tired of tramping around the mountain and decided the entrance to his mine was surely up along the side of it somewhere. He was not an experienced climber and did not have the proper equipment for it. They find people like Jesse every few years.
The article went on to explain that the legend of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine was just that to most of us, but for a certain percentage of the population it’s a curse. Because some people can take an interest in the very real Dutchman—his name was Jacob Waltz and he was actually German—and that interest will grow within them like a cancer cell. They want to know more. They read about Adolph Ruth and Dr. Thorne and the Peralta family and the more they read, the more fascinated they become. They read there are several maps in existence, all claiming to be the correct one, and they read over and over the verbal directions Waltz supposedly gave a nurse, and they come to believe not only does all that gold really exist, but that they alone can find it. Like any obsession, nothing can stand in its way. Divorces, broken homes, abandoned children, real fortunes lost, even the threat of death itself will not stop them.
A doctor once told me there are some simple rules in life. Never become too bored or too angry or too lonely. That’s pretty good advice. To that I would add never become obsessed—by anything. An obsession is not a keen interest. Many skilled modelers have built ships in bottles, but none have starved to death doing it. Or spent the family fortune. Or became unable to feed their own children.
Psychiatrists would argue there’s a great difference between an addiction and an obsession. But at some point that becomes immaterial. To my way of thinking they become the same eventually. We all know what a homeless street addict will do for his next fix. Anything. In darker moments we learn (and try to forget) that addicted soccer moms and upstanding businessmen will do exactly the same if need be. Unless they’ve seen it first-hand, most folks don’t realize the power gambling addictions have over people. I certainly didn’t until I met a man engulfed by one. What happened to him—and his family—wasn’t pretty.
Obsessions are damnably wicked, and on several different levels of wickedness. They can strike without warning and their victims never understand they themselves are being consumed by one. Most are temporary obsessions, like the guy at a party telling everyone over and over about “the best damned movie I ever saw in like, forever.” Yeah, sure, okay. In two months he won’t be so hyper about it. But other people will develop obsessions that will last the rest of their days.
I like most impassioned people. But a passion for a thing is not an obsession. An obsession will cloud a human mind to reality. Burt Rutan and Chuck Yeager are passionate about flying. Richard Feynman was impassioned with physics and his bongo drums. But the killers at the Charlie Hebdo offices were obsessed with images of Mohammed. The difference is not the strength of their feelings and convictions, but in the power of our own minds to warp themselves beyond reality and into the wastelands of vicious inhumanity. If you start dwelling on a subject and seeing things in it that no one else can see, it may be time to fall back and reexamine your beliefs. It’s possible you may be a pioneering genius but it’s far more likely you’re becoming a fanatic, especially if the idea of using force to make others see things your way becomes logical to you.
The prospectors searching Superstition Mountain as you read this are not terrorists, but I wonder what their families could tell us? Not all of it could be good. I’m sure there are folks who picnic on that mountain and laugh about Jacob Waltz’s legendary mine, but how many others have gone around that invisible bend where they can no longer see home? Or care about it and those they walked away from? Gold has always been mildly interesting to some people and a form of crystal meth to others. But unlike the faces of meth addicts, we can’t photograph people’s hearts and minds. We can’t see the gradual derangement over years, sometimes slow, sometimes with terrible speed.
There are worse obsessions than gold fever. Not many, but a few. Some obsessions are dangerous to everyone now. Hate and stupidity can travel at the speed of light thanks to computers and smart phones. If you don’t think it’s possible to lose intelligence, ask Jesse Capen what he was doing up there on that cheap rope before it snapped. Everyone said he was a nice guy, a warm and friendly man, a good co-worker. A guy just like us. He wasn’t born stupid.
He simply became obsessed.