By Spc. Alexander NeelyOctober 18, 2013
EL PASO, Texas - The mountain is called Caballo and after our guide, a 70-year-old renowned local author named William White, finished telling a treasure story and walked toward his tent for night, we're left to ponder the moonlit forest in total silence.
At approximately 7,000 feet, the sky is a stunning panoramic view of stars. But mostly, the 20 other riders and I contemplate in muffled conversation where the gold and treasure is hid on the mountain.
That's how things tend to go on Ol' Skool 4x4 tours. Unlike typical 4x4 clubs, which lean toward a younger demographic and require a nominal fee, Ol' Skool only asks for an adventurous spirit and respect for your fellow man.
There are no campfire sing-a-longs or wild partying, and during a ride, one of the drivers may veer off for some off-road challenge. Although the vibe is loose and the schedule unstructured, the group caters toward an adventurous guest - one who might drive 7,000 feet at 8 a.m., then, in the afternoon, hike for fossilized seashells, dig for crystals, and shoot weapons. Or in our case: all of the above.
Mainly, though, Ol' Skool has become an unparalleled group for rugged 4x4 - one that does not charge a single dollar for participation.
As he walked toward the tent, I asked White, author of "Tales of the Caballos," if he has ever found gold on the mountain.
"No," said the Vietnam veteran, laughing. "I've been down in many of the mountain's caverns and shafts, and I have never found gold. But it's as they say, 'The gold is just one foot deeper.'"
Remoteness is much of the peaks appeal. The 32-mile-long mountain range is located just 25 miles from Elephant Butte, New Mexico, but it is tucked away into acres of desert, and accessing it requires an hour drive on an uneven and unpaved road. Still, it is actually not hard to get to: vehicular access to the bottom of the peak is by Interstate 25 from the west and New Mexico State Road 51 from the north and several dirt roads from the east.
Aside from cattle, the mountain range is populated by deer, mountain lions, Oryx, black bears and coyote. Of course, there is also the occasional tarantula, scorpion and/or snake sighting, making most in our group, who adorned jackets and hats for the brisk morning air, shiver even more.
The safety briefing was given only minutes after our introductions. Firstly, everyone met Duane Shaw, president of Ol' Skool 4x4 and Department of Defense employee. There was John Franklin, president for El Paso's chapter of The Gold Prospectors Association of American, and his family.
Then, we met a former soldier and current U.S. Border Patrol employee named Cody, whose introduction was followed by a German Airman and his family. Overall, the final number was 24 people and 14 Jeeps - an average-sized group for an Ol' Skool trip, according to Shaw.
After more than 90 minutes of driving in a 4x4 convoy, the group stops in Elephant Butte to refuel and meet White, a self-described "seeker of treasure" for the past 30 years, whose three out of seven published books are about the Caballos. He spent much of his youth in California raised by a "family of migrant workers."
In 1965, White enlisted into the Marines and was deployed as an infantryman the following year to Vietnam. Home again, White married and raised a family. In an effort to "find something to do" when he went hiking, White started to go on treasure hunts.
"Originally, the hunts were never about treasure or gold," said White, "but something fun I could do with my children."
The mountain peak was reached by a narrow dirt road. We ride, occasionally at a 45-degree angle, over uneven rock formations and waist high grasses, stopping several times along the way to search for fossilized seashells or crystals, explore a mine shaft or a 1600s Spanish mission. I wonder by the time we reach the camp site if the brakes on my Jeep have melted.
Later, members of the group take advantage of the remote landscape to fire various weapons at man-made targets. Normally loud, a gunshot in a sequestered location severed the remote silence with the echo of a coyote howl coming out of a canon.
Afterwards, White guided me and several other guests - the German airman, his family, and two soldiers from Fort Bliss - to a cabin a half-mile away. Late-day sun calmly blanketed the cabin's aged wood, but inside was metaphors come to life: the torn and tattered possessions of a man who came to the mountain to discover a treasure he would never find.
In the evening, everyone gathered around a fire. It was story time by White, who regaled the intrigued audience with tales of treasure and revenge. Several feet away, the wood from the cooking fire had reached an auburn color. All stomachs were full. Several people were wrapped under blankets and others curled on the ground, but all eyes were fixated on White.
"[Milton Ernest] 'Doc' Noss discovered a gold crown in this mountain," said White, squinting from the fire. "But after his wife flaunted it in town, Noss took it back, and placed it back in this mountain somewhere."
To this day, White explained, men and women mine in the mountain, digging anywhere between 25 and 300 feet in search for Noss' gold bullion. So far, there has been no success.
In the morning, tents are packed, breakfast is served and Jeeps are started. The final ride, which snaked through rolling verdant landscape, halted only for pictures and an exploration into Rattlesnake Hole, a mining shaft from the 1600s.
Participants can be heard muttering to each other about the prospect of taking a shower or finally getting home, which only reminded me of what White told me around the campfire: "This is my home," White said, smiling, "this is where I want to be."