In spite of everything, dad could never bring himself to call Saginaw home. He married there, raised two children, and knew the city inside and out. He was a lineman for the local power company. That was his platform during his election campaign: “A man who knows your side of town.”
All of it was true, in fact. He got a bird’s eye view from a bucket truck. It wasn’t enough to get him elected, but it got our family more name recognition than any of us were really comfortable with. Opened a lot of doors, too.
None of it really mattered until mom died. Liver cancer. They didn’t find it until it was already too late, and dad took the loss hard. Had to get away for a while. Spent a lot of time outdoors after that. Shiawassee Refuge. Tobico Marsh. Even visited the Manitou Islands a few times.
That’s how the old maps ended up on his wall.
My brother and I thought it was just a passing interest. One or two old maps surveying the Michigan midlands. Maybe dad was finally adjusting to living in an empty house. Maybe he could finally call the place a home — though the prospect seemed less likely when you considered how much of the housekeeping mom had been responsible for.
Dad just . . . let it go.
Three months passed before I asked about the maps. His collection had grown in that time, and he’d spent a small fortune on them, buying from collectors and having the maps verified by surveyors and cartographers familiar with the countryside.
“I think there’s treasure up north,” he told me. “A man on the ferry told me the natives around here used to raid fur traders and caravans coming in from New York. Said he found gold up around Higgins Lake some years back. I figure there’s got to be more.”
“That’s what all this is about?”
But I’d already lost him. He stared at the maps pinned over the wall, a kind of desperate hunger in his eyes. Never once in my life had he struck me as a man enamored by adventure, much less buried treasure. Not the dad we’d grown up with, certainly.
I chose my next words carefully. Whether it was a hidden hobby, an unkept passion — even a coping mechanism — the last thing I wanted to do was isolate my dad with mom still fresh in the grave. You don’t do that to a person, especially family, when they need someone to lean on. So, instead, I gave in.
“Where do we start?” I asked.
I’ll never forget the look he gave me in that moment.
He spent a month catching me up to his search thus far. During the late nights gathered around our dining room table, he walked me back through Michigan’s history. I learned about the Fox and Sauk tribes. The Ojibwa. The Potawatomi. It felt like grade school all over again.
We spent our weekends hiking in the northern woodlands and state parks. I didn’t understand what we were doing there at first, but dad always had a map to guide him. I was just along for companionship and, honestly, that seemed like enough.
Of course, I’d put my own life on hold for this. My girlfriend understood and never complained, but she worked nights and I worked days. We shared our weekends off, and dad’s treasure hunt began to shoehorn my own relationship. For a time, as I watched him stand on rocky outcroppings, eyes dancing across those old maps with a compass in hand, it felt like I was doing a good thing. I was a son spending time with his father, helping him cope so that he could move on with his life.
That was before Mason Tract, when dad cut off the trail halfway through a ten-mile hike. Hauling a trowel out of his pack, managed to find a pouch with eight precious pieces of glittering gold. I’d never seen anything like it, and dad seemed in awe that he’d managed to find anything in the first place.
“There’s got to be more out there,” he told me when we made it back to the car.
“Probably,” I said. “You planning to look for it?”
He was quiet while I pulled the car out of the parking lot and back onto the road.
“No,” he said. “I think this is enough to remember her by.
“What do you mean?”
“I see the way you and your brother look at me,” dad told me. “Like I’m helpless. Like I’m obsessed with those damn maps. But I’m not. I just . . . I felt helpless when your mother died. I watched her waste away, and there was nothing I could do about it. I just needed to do something on my own, you know? To show myself that I could.”
I picked up the little pouch of coins from the center console, where he’d thrown them into the cup holders, and jingled them twice. He looked at the pouch, then back to me and grinned.
“I did find something, didn’t I? How about that.”
“Yeah, dad, you did. What are you going to do with them?”
He shrugged. “I’ll have them appraised, but I’m going to keep them. All but one, I think.”
“What about that one?”
We passed an old cemetery, and dad saw it through the window.
“Your mother always liked gold.”