The world's worst hobby.

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Aug. 18 2003 10:42 AM

Full Metal Racket

The perverse thrill of metal detecting, the world's worst hobby.

Listento Emily Yoffe discuss this topic on NPR's Day to Day.

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"I know, but I don't like it. Please stop. This is your last beep, Mom. I don't care if it's the world's best beep, just stop."

But I couldn't stop. I had to find just one good thing. I told my family I was going to metal detect on our way up the East Coast. My husband greeted this with the same enthusiasm Sony Pictures would bring to distributing Gigli: Part II. Our first stop was Manhattan, where my brother-in-law and 13-year-old nephew were eager to become detectorists. My brother-in-law recommended searching in Riverside Park, and the five of us set off. He also suggested I limp a little, making the metal detector look like a crutch. When we got to the park my husband took my daughter's hand and started putting disavowal distance between us. "Someone has to be able to bail all of you out," he called over his shoulder. As soon as I began swinging my Tracker IV a beefy man in a green park police T-shirt materialized. I turned it off and limped away. It went that way for an hour. I found one bottle top.

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On to Maine. When we got to our bed and breakfast on Westport Island, I immediately saw that the living room sideboard was tauntingly laid with colonial era hand-forged four-sided nails that clearly had been dug up on the property. There was stuff here! The next day we went for a hike with the metal detector. But on every sixth tree was a "No Trespassing or Else" sign, and I began to fear we might find ourselves in some Down East version of Deliverance if I started detecting. I did do some in the sand of a little cove and found a nail—not hand-forged and not four-sided.

My husband begged me to give it up. When I refused he said, "Maybe you need to put yourself in the hands of a higher power."

"Yes, the Bounty Hunter Sharp Shooter II," I replied.

We arrived at my last hope, the home on Deer Isle of my sister-in-law and her husband. Their house had been built by a ship captain in the 1880s. They could see our family was in extremis and agreed to let me start detecting immediately. I walked across the yard, and at the point where field turned into woods I got a strong beep. I dug and found a large, semicircular handle for a kettle. It looked old and the turned-up corners of the handle were four-sided. Eureka! Of course, now I couldn't be stopped. I plunged into the woods, which had obviously been a longtime dump. Broken glass and trash were everywhere. There were piles of metal—bed springs, a bicycle wheel, car parts. So much metal that my detector was useless—it was like turning on a silicone detector at the Miss Universe Pageant. My brother-in-law, taking pity on me, got a big shovel and starting digging. We turned up wonderful old bottles and some pieces of china that the captain had probably picked up in China. I was satisfied. I agreed my metal detecting was over.

When I told my daughter, she was ecstatic. Then she said she had a message for other children who might have seen the commercial that seduced her into asking for the metal detector in the first place. "Kids, your birthday only comes once a year. Don't waste it on a metal detector."

In Human Guinea Pig, I take strange jobs, sample peculiar therapies, pick up odd hobbies, and generally try the activities that my colleagues have always wondered about but don't have the guts to do themselves. (Can you make money on an Internet get-rich scheme? What would a plastic surgeon do to your face? Can anyone be a telephone psychic?)

Is there something you've always wanted to do but were too scared or embarrassed to try? Ask the Human Guinea Pig to do it for you. E-mail me your ideas at guineapig@slate.com