By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Dawn breaks quick and hard in Arizona's Superstition Mountains. Just after 6 a.m., the parking lot below the rugged road leading to the Tortilla Trailhead starts to fill up with trucks. Swaths of Mexican gold poppies are dotted with the purple blooms of hedgehog cacti on this spring Saturday, a day so pretty you can't imagine why anyone would call this rugged range "Hell's Backyard."
Near a cement slab that used to be a ranch house before the Forest Service torched it to keep out the drifters are the members of the Superstition Search and Rescue squad. They're looking for Jesse Capen, a 35-year-old Denver man who disappeared up this trail back in December. They've been out here at least six times in the past four months, combing the craggy terrain for any sign of his body, a shredded piece of clothing or the few belongings Capen brought with him to Arizona that weren't later found in his tent or his Jeep.
There aren't many clues, and that might just be how Capen would have wanted it. Capen was searching for the fabled Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, and like most of the other treasure hunters who've made their way to this remote area of the Tonto National Forest over the past 120 years, he was extremely secretive.
Capen was obsessed with the legendary mine. Though he barely mentioned the subject to family or friends, they found more than a hundred books and maps on the subject in his apartment after his disappearance. Capen saved up vacation time for two years so he could take a month off from his job as a bellhop at a downtown Denver hotel, giving him plenty of time to search. Last summer, he traded his car for a Jeep with four-wheel drive, a vehicle perfect for navigating the yard-high drop-offs on the pocked three-mile dirt "road" leading up to the Tortilla Trailhead.
Capen had been out to Arizona to look for this mine — probably the most legendary lost mine in American history — at least two other times in the past decade, though no one knew about those trips until after he disappeared and they searched his computer files. All in all, it's made for a hell of a mystery.
Capen's mother, Cynthia Burnett, regrets not asking more questions before her son left for Arizona. An experienced outdoorswoman herself, she says he was unprepared for what could happen in the backcountry. "He was there for the legend, and being prepared and thinking about his safety was not on his radar," she recalls. "I remember before he left, I said, 'Do you have a knife?' and he said, 'No, why?'"
Robert Cooper, commander of the search squad, says a lot of people don't have any idea how dangerous this area, fifty miles from Arizona's capital, can be. Several men in the first group of searchers who set out on the two-and-a-half-mile trail from the end of the road to Capen's campsite carry a sidearm. Mountain lions are the main concern — the area is crawling with them — but there's also a danger associated with the grizzled prospectors who squat in these mountains, hunting for gold. Not far from where Capen disappeared, there's a prospector living in the wild, poaching small game and dodging any Forest Service personnel who might make their way up the road to catch him digging on government land.
"We've seen [prospectors] dropped off and the vehicles leaving. They walk right past us. They don't want us to see their face. They don't want to talk to us," Cooper says. "We've found shovels, picks, pry-bars, axes, pans.... There's a lot of mine shafts in that area. You've got these Gold Rush guys digging all sorts of holes."
These Gold Rush guys — some Dutchman hunters, others regular prospectors — are wild cards. Not only are they secretive, but they've got a long and sordid history in the Superstitions; they're known to be dangerous. There are a few stories about the grisly deaths of Dutchman hunters, like Adolph Ruth, a retired veterinarian from Washington, D.C., who went into the mountains searching for the mine in 1931, only to be found a few months later with what appeared to be two bullet holes through his skull.
"If he walked into someone's campsite at the wrong time, you never know. I wouldn't put it past them," Cooper says. "I've had reports from people saying some guy jumped out with a stick and was screaming at them. For years, I've had reports of people yelling at hikers to get out of an area, and they've e-mailed me and I've told them, 'Well, then don't go in that area. If that guy wanted to hurt you, he would have hurt you. Apparently he was protecting something he believes is his.'"
Did Capen run afoul of a violent prospector? As Yukon poet Robert Service wrote, "Strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold."
Suicide is another possibility, though Cooper has never seen anyone do anywhere near this much work before offing himself. Usually, he says, those who kill themselves leave their wallet and keys in the car, absolutely sure they won't need them anymore. Even then, the body is usually about a half-mile in, at the first place where the guy could find a nice view.