Puzzled by Sandra A. Miller
“I think we should search together until we have a good reason not to,” David suggested.
So we began, the two of us wading side-by-side through an overgrown patch of weeds bordering the community garden in Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field. Wearing raggedy jeans and long-sleeved tee shirts, we could have passed as gardeners. I even had a trowel sprouting from my back pocket, while David carried a card spooled with 250-feet of twine in his. But, of course, we weren’t there to spread mulch or check on seedlings. We had no legitimate interest in the garden itself, but rather what may be buried beneath the cool May dirt.
David is a brain scientist with a passion for codes and clue cracking. I am a middle-aged teacher and writer with a treasure obsession.
We were there to look for a chest filled with coins.
We had spent the drive from Boston to Brooklyn dissecting clues and creating a digging strategy, lapsing occasionally into giddiness as we forecasted that exact moment when we would drag the treasure chest filled with 10,000 “gold” Sacajawea dollars from New York City soil. Some enterprising puppeteers had set up the “We Lost Our Gold” treasure hunt as a publicity campaign for their work, and anyone was welcome to try and crack the complex series of online video clues then go to New York City dig up the chest.
That’s what we wandered next to the largest community garden on the East Coast, one with thirteen double rows of numbered plots, each row marked with a letter from A to M for a dirt grid divided into approximately 500 equal-size pieces. Of the approximately 3.5 million square feet of open space in the five boroughs, David had determined that this defunct airport with its crisscross of abandoned runways, bird sanctuaries, and historic hangar buildings with blown-out windows and crumbling brick facades was the right site. And that somewhere in the garden an X marked the spot.
“What do you think?” I asked as I peered through the chicken wire fence into the daunting expanse. I wanted to get started already, find the spot and start churning up dirt until the steel edge of the shovel thudded against the wooden lid. Without really knowing, I could imagine the sound of hitting upon that chest—dense and slightly metallic with a trace of hollowness. Thunk. I wanted to dig. Right then. Right there. But I also wanted to respect David’s expertise by not overriding his methodical approach. So I stood to the side, curling my hands into fists while David attentively surveyed the garden. Finally he turned to me with his scientist’s composure. “I guess we should have a look,” he said.
We decided not to haul the wheelbarrow or two steel shovels from his SUV until we needed them. As for the metal detector purchased from Amazon a few days earlier, David was hoping not to need it at all and return it unopened for a refund. The idea of a treasure hunt was to find money, not spend it.
“What exactly should I be looking for?” I asked, trailing him through the gate. “Give me specifics.”
“Maybe a parrot, or anything having to do with pirates,” he reasoned. “There’s probably going to be some obvious clue, possibly even a potato.”
“A potato? What does that have to do with pirates?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet. But it’s one of the clues.”
“Okay, I’ll keep my eyes peeled.”
For a long while I followed behind David as he walked and stopped and pondered, without either of us noticing anything remarkable. With so much garden and so little time, I suggested we try divide-and-conquer.
“Go for it,” David said. “Shout if you see something curious.”
“Curious? I’m going to find this treasure chest.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said, “the way you notice things.”
I smiled at him, pleased to be so understood, and wandered off between rows D and E, hunting for potential clues but not feeling terrific about the garden. The thing is, according to David’s tutorial in the car that morning, all clues pointed to this old airport, but the community garden remained a large uncertainty. We still needed some identifiable, on the ground clues as they are called in the treasure-hunting lexicon. More specifically, we needed a crow’s nest, pirate ship, and flying birdy—or at least real-world representations of those things.
Continuing down the dirt path alone, I scrutinized each garden plot, some of which had already been planted for the season, while almost as many remained barren from winter or overgrown with tangles of dry weeds. A few rows over, I noticed David, his face inscrutable, staring intently into one of the plots.
He signaled me over. “What’s that?” he asked when I arrived at his side. He was pointing at some feathery growth in an otherwise empty plot. “Potatoes?”
Coming from a farm family, I knew my vegetable plants. “That’s asparagus,” I said. “It matures in early spring, then bolts like crazy when it warms up.”
David nodded and pointed at some greenery in the adjoining plot. “What about that?”
“More asparagus,” I told him. “Over there, too.”
“Really?” he said. “What’s keeping asparagus from taking over New York City?”
“Who says it isn’t?”
We continued walking, this time together, aware of glances from legitimate gardeners, like the paunchy biker guy with long balding hair who kept swiveling his head in our direction, and a woman battling her sixties with a bottle of peroxide and midnight-blue eyeliner. Holding a cigarette in one hand and a milk jug repurposed as a watering can in the other, she returned our hello with a nod.
“What are they going to do when we start digging up the treasure chest?” I whispered.
“Don’t know,” David said. “Let’s worry about that when the time comes.”
But the time wasn’t coming. After casing the entire garden, we had found nothing that told us, Dig here. While David didn’t actually act disheartened, I heard disappointment in the subtle droop of his voice, straining for cheerful when he suggested we explore some more.
The park was enormous, far beyond anything we could tackle that afternoon without another targeted spot to focus our attention. Though we tried to be strategic, we ended up darting about in various directions, covering acres of land as we circled the overgrown fields around decrepit hangar buildings. When our efforts produced nothing, we broke out the metal detector and took turns poking the black sensor head into the shrubbery along the side of the parking lot. While David was having a go of it, I walked across the asphalt lot, stopping when I happened upon a puddle of blue and white crockery shards, a broken plate from someone’s upscale picnic perhaps. I kneeled and picked up one of the pieces. Though it wasn’t a clue, it felt like a sign, the kind I found everywhere. I pocketed my treasure and rejoined David.
“I still think it’s around here somewhere,” he said, “but we’re missing major clues. We probably came here too soon.”
“No!” I insisted. I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving without the treasure. “We can find it. I have such a feeling that it’s here.”
“Feelings aren’t clues.”
I didn’t say it, but thought it. For me they are.
We walked along in silence until we came to the Kings County Fair, one of those honky-tonk set-ups with bagged cotton candy and metallic-smelling rides yanked off of some dirty flatbeds. At the makeshift bar in the food tent, David ordered a soda while I guzzled two glasses of water then, without David, jogged back across the lot to the massive stretch of park that, in the course of one day, had become a 1,400-acre conundrum that we needed to solve by dusk. I trotted down a long runway-turned street until it crossed with another street, compelling me to stop, right there in the middle of the empty intersection.
X marks the spot, I thought. If only the paved roads allowed for digging.
It was coming on twilight, that muted time of day that always made me afraid of losing something. Already I could feel time slipping away to the tinny sounds of a carnie soundtrack.
“Where?” I asked out loud over the metallic jingle. “Where is the treasure?” Closing my eyes and opening my hands as if catching rain, I waited for a pulse of energy where my fate, life, and love lines intersected in the vortex of my palm, the place where I felt my faith, got a read on an approaching stranger, or felt a tingle when drawn to someone intriguing or something captivating.
I lifted my hands higher, not really caring who was looking. Plus, no one was looking. This had to be the most deserted place in New York City. “Where?” I asked, as I had so many times before under wildly different circumstances. Where are the parents who are supposed to love me? Where is my life’s path? Where is the one I’m meant to love? I sometimes wondered if where wasn’t my first word. I just didn’t want it to be my last. I’d been looking for that elusive “where” my entire life. And here I was on a Friday afternoon in a defunct Brooklyn airport, looking again. Where?
I sat down on the side of the runway in the dry bramble, once wetlands, and waited for an answer. Nothing came. I scanned the ground for a clue. More nothing. Finally, I stood and walked back to the tent to find David. He was sitting at the bar inspecting pages of handwritten notes. He swished his mouth as if gargling his thoughts. “Let’s try the North Forty again.”
The North Forty was a wooded part of the park popular with birders and hikers. Though we had attempted to check it out earlier, a sign warned us to Keep Out. Plus, park service cars had been vigilantly policing the sheltered area, probably fearing that horny teenage couples would stagger in after a grope on the tilt-a-whirl. Short of asking for a police escort to help us hunt for treasure, we had no viable option for legally gaining access. But in a turn of luck at that late hour we finally had a break in the cop car presence. We parked beside some Jersey barriers and cautiously started walking along an exposed bit of grass, not quite reaching the entrance to the promised North Forty woods.
“What do you think?” David asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, echoing the doubt in his voice. The sky was dark and the woods darker. “Are they really going to bury the treasure in a place we’re not supposed to go?”
“The website said no.”
“So, maybe we turn back.”
We looked at each other for a long moment. Then we both turned around.
It would be nearly seven o’clock before we drove out of the airfield with the wheelbarrow bouncing around in the back of the truck, no treasure chest to lock it in place.
This is an excerpt from Sandra A Miller’s book TROVE: How One Woman’s Search for Gold Opened Her Path to Hidden Treasure. To find out more: SandraAMiller.com