At the end of September, this column irreverently dedicated the 13th Annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt to my mother – “irreverently” in tribute to her appreciation for the weird and wonderful, the bright and beautiful. This epilogue is to report that she would have considered the outcome of the game howl-arious.
A dog found the treasure. Yes, you read that right. A big, lovable, Chocolate Lab sniffed out the worn leather pouch that traditionally holds the blue and silver medallion encased in an acrylic square. The pouch was safely tucked in the middle of a tight cluster of trees beside a creek bordering a fitness trail. A thin layer of pine needles ensured that no one simply walking past would spot it. But that didn’t stop Eli, our canine contestant. He nudged it out of its nest and, carrying the pouch gently in his mouth, trotted proudly back to his human companion. She and some friends had been trying to decipher the daily riddles that held the secret of the treasure’s whereabouts, but she quite honestly described Eli’s find that day as “dumb luck.” Fittingly, the game ended on the 13th clue of the 13th hunt.
Never in the years that our family has sponsored and organized this event have we been so surprised by the win. We’ve occasionally been taken off guard by a speedy resolution. One year, on the third in a line-up of 15 clues, a hunter with a hunch found the medallion behind a historical marker commemorating Nevada’s mining history. Another year a forest ranger suspected it was hidden on a trail near the California-Nevada border and presented it after Clue 5. On the other end of the spectrum, the 2010 game continued all the way to Clue 14, and we were beginning to think no one would find the pouch staked among sagebrush alongside a gravel road abutting the site of an Old West fort. Eli’s role in ending this year’s hunt will become part of its down-home folklore.
For more than a decade in Oregon our family played a similar game associated with the Portland Rose Festival. Some of our most beloved memories are rooted in researching possible solutions to cryptic rhymes, exploring unfamiliar roads and landmarks, and wandering down nature trails certain that we were about to spot the coveted prize. We came “this close” a few times, but we were never lucky enough to actually find it. Make no mistake, though. The memories we made were no less precious just because we came up empty-handed.
When we moved away from Portland in 1997, my son suggested that we start a treasure hunt in our new home of Northern Nevada. We could use our experience to design a truly engaging game that would encourage people to learn about the state, visit new places, and enjoy each other in the process.
Wouldn’t it be fun, he mused, to be the creators instead of the hunters?
To give credit where it’s due, he was largely responsible for the first couple of hunts. When the rest of the family climbed on the bandwagon, the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt became our personal, cherished tradition.
Some might argue that, when you stage a community event, it can’t be personal. On the contrary, it is very much so. For years we have guarded our family outings with the secrecy of an FBI undercover operation. The grandchildren were indoctrinated from birth and no longer need reminders to “zip it” when anyone asks what they did over a long, summer weekend. We kick each other under restaurant tables when one of us absent-mindedly starts a conversation about the hunt in public. If the topic comes up while visiting on our patio, we go inside the house. A few local businesses have supported the event over the years, mostly with in-kind services, but our family is solely responsible for the game from start to finish. We have purposely fronted the $1,000 prize because major cash sponsorships too often come with strings attached. The smaller the inner circle, the easier it is to preserve the simplicity and integrity of the hunt.
Yes, the game is personal for us. It was even more so this year because it was the first since my mother — the kids’ beloved Grandma Joy — passed away. As described in my September column, “This Hunt Is Dedicated,” she was the custodian of the opening clue, and her enthusiasm when we unearthed quirky details about Nevada’s past (or present) was contagious. She never really could walk trails with us, but she delighted in coming along for the ride to scope out the general area around potential hiding places. In truth, this year’s hunt was not the first we had to organize without her. Her contribution in 2013 was limited to modest cheerleading; she was enrolled in a home hospice program the week after the medallion was found.
On a recent Saturday night, the family gathered around the dining room table to enjoy buttery squares of freshly baked cornbread and steaming bowls of homemade beef stew, which I learned to make under Mom’s tutelage. The conversation turned to the recently ended treasure hunt and what she may have thought of Eli’s triumph. She loved animals of all sizes, shapes and species … more than she loved most people. She was rarely, if ever, without a dog by her side, on her lap or snuggled up beside her in bed. She considered her Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy, who died in 2007 to be her true soulmate, and animal rescue organizations were her charity of choice. To me, even her cheers sounded like the yelp of a happy dog or the spirited howl of a wolf. We have no doubt Mom would have taken great pleasure in this particular shaggy-dog story.
After dinner, my son read aloud a selection of comments from the social media page we established for the hunt. Some were intriguing posts from hunters comparing notes with each other or sharing suggestions with us. Some were petulant but harmless comments added by unsuccessful hunters expressing their frustration with the outcome. To our dismay, there were also over-the-top tirades published by angry competitors whose online road rage was startling. They cruelly cursed everyone and everything for their loss except the plain fact that they did not correctly decipher the clues. We pondered whether these attacks are evidence that the hunt has grown beyond our capacity as a family to continue in the same simple manner of the past 13 years. Attracting a grim, hardcore fringe is a sign of the times, it seems.
Our story hour ended on a decidedly positive note when my son read a long, humorous, inspiring tale submitted privately to him by a family that drove, hiked, explored and otherwise scoured nearly all of the seven counties that comprise the broad search area. Their description of midnight research sessions, determined excursions to places near and far, and toting a tired daughter piggy-back reminded us of … well … us. Though they didn’t find the medallion, they said the things they learned about Nevada and the memories they made are worth far more than the cash prize. Aaaah. Such a sweet amen.
Wouldn’t it be fun, my son mused, to be hunters again?
As mentioned in some previous columns, Mom harbored a long-standing fear that she would not be remembered. Unique hits on the Treasure Hunt’s main webpage and our social media page indicate that upwards of 20,000 people participated in or at least followed the hunt this year. With those statistics, being forgotten is not an issue. Mom would be both humbled and pleased, I’m sure. But, trust me, I knew my weird and wonderful, bright and beautiful mother. The smile spreading across her face and the gleam in her eye would be more for the goofy Chocolate Lab named Eli than for anyone or anything else. I can imagine her raising a fist in the air, as she so often did when rooting for her favorite football team, and howling, “Wooo-Hooo! Go, you little devil, go!”
There once was a doggy named Eli
Who could follow a trail with an eagle eye
But it was his nose
That outsmarted the pros
All hail to that four-legged furry guy