VERNAL — The legends haunt these mountains like ghosts: Vanished prospectors. Dead Spanish miners. Indian guardians.
There are skeptics, of course. Those who claim there is no gold in the Uintas of northeastern Utah. But Joseph Hicks isn't one of them.
Stepping carefully down a mountain path he has trodden countless times in his 78 years, Hicks stops at the mouth of a man-made tunnel that snakes into the rock.
Hidden somewhere behind this rock at a place called the Polecreek sinks, the retired science teacher believes, is an old Spanish mine laden with gold.
So what if any trace of the mine has long since vanished? Or if that tunnel — $100,000 worth of digging, drilling and blasting by men as convinced as he was — turned up nothing?
One man died here 19 years ago, blown up by dynamite as he blasted the tunnel meant to find the mine. Another may have died as an indirect result — his body broken by the disappointment of a lifetime's failed search.
Men don't look that hard for nothing.
"It's quite awesome," Hicks said. "I used to believe it was all nonsense. But based on the intensive work put into this place, on everything they went through, I believe it's here."
Stories of Spanish conquistadors unearthing gold in the Uinta Mountains still feed a frenzied legend of mysterious clues, Indian curses and — for those with enough bravery and luck — untold riches.
They are fueled by descendants of Mormon pioneers, who say the church struck a deal with a Ute Indian chief in the 1850s to reveal the location of a sacred mine to a church emissary, then buried the secret — and some of the gold — in the church's Salt Lake City vaults.
In the towns of Vernal and Roosevelt, along U.S. 40 on the mountains' southern flank, residents recite the stories in bars and cafes. Many have spent time looking for treasure themselves.
For some, the search is little more than a serious hobby. For others, finding the elusive treasure can be a lifetime quest.
"For some people, prospecting gets into your blood. It becomes an obsession. You can't think of anything else," said Hicks, who has been searching for the mines for close to 60 years.
"It's broken up more than a few families around here," he said.
The gold also has attracted professionals.
The Ute Indian tribe partnered with a treasure hunter named Jim Phillips in the early 1990s. Phillips claimed he had new technology that could locate caches buried by the Indians or the Spanish. After three months of digging and blasting massive holes in the dun-colored earth, the tribe pulled the plug.
One of the world's most famous treasure hunters, Mel Fisher, spent some of his last outings here before he died in 1998, lured by a clue about a Spanish treasure trail that reached from South America into the Uintas. Locals say he carried something out of the mountains by helicopter in 1994, but representatives of Fisher's company say he left empty-handed.
Fantasy vs. fact
With its vast empty spaces and long history of prospecting, the West is full of stories of lost mines and hidden treasure, and there are thousands of professional and amateur treasure hunters looking for them.
Most of these tales are more fantasy than fact, historians say, and there are few documented finds of any value. In Utah, there is little historical evidence of significant mining by Spanish conquistadors anywhere in the area.
But in the world of treasure hunting, the story of these mountains has all the necessary elements to raise them to the equivalent of solid-gold real estate: tantalizing clues, an element of historical truth, the promise of huge riches and mysteries that have yet to be fully explained by historians or scientists.
"I don't think anyone in Utah would say it isn't true," said Floyd Mann, a professional treasure hunter who lives in Salt Lake City and runs a Web site called LostTreasureUSA.com. "There is too much evidence out there to deny it."
Much of that evidence was compiled by one man who devoted his life to searching for Uinta gold and piecing together the clues that he hoped would ultimately lead him to a fortune.
Gale Rhoades became the mountains' foremost historian and his life a morality tale on the powerful grip of a legend.
The gold became an obsession, friends and family say. He collected maps, searched archives and talked to hundreds of people.
He scoured the mountains for more than 20 years and died in 1988 a penniless man, divorced, living on caffeine and cigarettes, those closest to him said.
Although he never found gold, his articles and books have inspired Web pages, discussion boards and more treasure hunters.
"I think he truly believed he would find the mine," said Rhoades' ex-wife, Beverly. "I think he went through his destiny writing the books and collecting the stories. That opened the door for so many others."
Growing up with his grandparents, Rhoades heard tales of his great-great-grandfather Thomas Rhoades, the Mormon pioneer who is said to have been the church's emissary to the Ute Indians and the Uinta gold.
Mormon patriarch Brigham Young had struck a deal with a Ute chief, Wakara, Rhoades believed. The Indians had been enslaved by the Spanish as they dug shafts into the Uintas in the 1700s. The tribe agreed the church could have the gold from a sacred mine as long as only one man knew about it — a deal that, after Thomas Rhoades died, was extended to his son, Caleb.
Through their own exploration in the Uintas, Thomas and Caleb found other mines as well, bringing the total of what are known as the Lost Rhoades' Mines to at least seven, Gale Rhoades believed.
The geology of the Uintas doesn't suggest that significant deposits of gold should be found there, scientists say. But prospectors marshal their own evidence.
The mountain is covered with what appear to be old Spanish symbols carved into rocks. Hikers and prospectors have found stone ovens that could be gold smelters and shafts that appear to be the remnants of old mines.
Searchers believe that the failure to find gold is only a testament to how well it has been hidden by Indian guardians (descendants of Wakara's band in some stories; spirits in others).
"Gale Rhoades once told me that the reason nothing is being found is that the bad spirits don't want good people to get the gold and good spirits don't want bad people to get it," said Patsy Sursa, a homemaker and longtime prospector near Roosevelt.
Still, the protection didn't stop Gale Rhoades from trying. He had several maps, one purportedly drawn on Caleb Rhoades' deathbed. He believed he came close several times and repeatedly gathered investors to explore promising sites.
"You'd find good areas, you'd have the documentation, but the people who had the money wanted everything in an instant. They'd find the cost of equipment, bonding, everything so difficult that it was hard to keep them working on it," Beverly Rhoades said.
The closest he may have ever come, she said, was the Polecreek sinks. A wealthy investor fronted nearly $100,000 to blast 88 feet of tunnel before giving up.
The site became the subject of a legal battle between Gale Rhoades and another family who also claimed rights. While trying to extend the tunnel, one of the family members, Wally Muir, died in a dynamite accident in 1986.
Gale Rhoades "was really, really convinced that was the sacred mine because of the description and the way it matched Caleb's," Beverly Rhoades said. "He promised he would never get obsessed with it, but over the years, he did. I tried and tried to get him to go back to work, we'd both go back to work and do it as a hobby. But he just wouldn't back off or give up. By then, it was a need rather than a goal."
Rhoades died of a heart attack while exploring yet another gold mining claim.
After his death, his maps disappeared. Someone apparently broke into his apartment, family members say, and the briefcase he always carried vanished.
Locals say some of those maps have since surfaced and are still being used to track down the gold.
The search continues
Arnold Ufford, who has been assaying gold from a backyard shop in Vernal for years, said he still doesn't know whether the stories are true.
During a busy summer, he sometimes gets three or four people a day who come to him with rocks or nuggets they collected in the Uintas. He can count five or six people who are working clandestine mines, hauling out rock on their backs, often at night.
Most of the rock is worthless, but there are a few samples that do indicate gold, such as a rock brought in recently by a hunter who said he found it in what looked like an abandoned mine shaft.
The gold "is coming from somewhere," Ufford said.
Bobby Chapoose, a Ute Indian, was one of the tribe members who accompanied Jim Phillips for three months as he explored reservation lands for the Lost Rhoades' Mines.
He watched day after day as Phillips dug and dynamited without finding so much as a nugget.
"I'm a realist," Chapoose said. "You show me or you don't.
"It's like my grandmother, she used to tell some whoppers," he said. "An archaeologist would come around and pay her $20 to tell her stories. After he left, I'd go up to her and ask, 'Are those stories true, Grandma?'
"She'd just smile and say, 'Now, let's go get some pop.' "