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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I brought my metal detector on our summer vacation—we drove from Washington, D.C., to Maine—hoping to add fun and profit to our holiday. As I packed it in the trunk for the trip home, my normally considerate husband had this to say about my latest pastime: "Now that your metal detecting is over—and believe me IT'S OVER—we will think of it as a hideous family episode, like something out of a Pat Conroy novel, that we must put behind us and never discuss again."

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. You can reach her at prudence@slate.com.

It's true that I had come to think of metal detecting as the world's worst hobby—frustrating, solipsistic, potentially felonious. But I had to admit that each time I turned the power dial on my Bounty Hunter Tracker IV and swung it over new territory, I understood how Bill Bennett must have felt before pulling that $500 slot: This time, baby, I'm going to hit the big score.

I started metal detecting for the latest episode of Human Guinea Pig, the column in which I do things people are curious about but wish someone else would do for them. But metal detecting was something our family actually did want to do, even without Slate's encouragement. It was my daughter's idea, actually. She requested a metal detector for her 7th birthday—she had seen a TV commercial that promised diamond rings and other amazing treasure. My husband and I thought it was an original choice, and even something—besides sleeping late—that we could all enjoy. After all, what could be more universal than the desire to find and keep a valuable object that doesn't belong to you?

After being completely confused by the detectors offered on the Web, my husband called one of the retailers. He explained that we wanted a detector that would be easy for a 7-year-old to use, but that would be suitable for finding Civil War artifacts, since we live close to some known encampments.

The salesman found this hilarious. "Believe me, you're not going to find any Civil War artifacts. I've been doing this for three years and I've never found anything valuable." (Presumably, after this conversation our salesman enlisted and is now in Iraq leading the search for weapons of mass destruction.) The salesman also said not to worry about getting a metal detector that would be easy for our daughter. "She might go with you once, then she'll get completely bored and not want to do it again." Instead of taking this advice, my husband insisted on purchasing one, so the salesman recommended the $130 Tracker IV. Then, perhaps remembering what line of work he was in, he said, "You'll have fun," which turned out to be the equivalent of saying "bon voyage" to the passengers boarding the Titanic.

You've seen metal detectors in action. They are the long poles with the dinner-plate-sized coil on the bottom held by men with Bermuda shorts and atrophied calves who are scanning the beach looking for jewelry and coins. There are millions of metal detectors out there. Debra Barton of First Texas Products, manufacturer of my Tracker IV, estimates the handful of domestic producers sell a half-million a year. Rosemary Anderson, editor of Western & Eastern Treasures, a magazine for devotees, says the hobby really took off in the '60s when the machines became lighter and easier to use.

Anderson pointed out that people who do it call it a "sport." The industry loves to tout the exercise benefits of metal detecting. But metal detecting would most likely constitute a real workout only for those recently released from solitary confinement. I also learned from Western & Eastern Treasures that people who metal detect are called "metal detectorists." It was gratifying we had our own "ist" like numismatists, philatelists, or contortionists.

The modern history of metal detecting is ignominious. Alexander Graham Bell used an experimental model in 1881 in order to locate the assassin's bullet lodged in President James Garfield. Unfortunately, no one remembered that Garfield was lying on a mattress with newfangled metal coils, causing the machine to emit a continuous whine, resulting in failure to accurately locate the bullet. Garfield's heart gave out when doctors cut into him. (Read more about that here.)

The beep of the metal detector, like the car alarm, the busy signal, and the colicky baby, belongs in the catalog of irritating sounds. The booklet that came with my Tracker IV instructed me to study the different tones emitted by the machine so I would know the kind of metal being indicated. But I could never keep straight whether the chirp that resembled a dying sparrow meant iron or the drone like that of a truck backing up meant copper.

It was time to find Civil War artifacts. The three of us trooped off to a wooded area behind a public school near where I knew Union soldiers had camped. A man who lived a few houses down told me that a workman once asked if he could metal detect on that property and had found belt buckles and eating utensils. The woods were muddy and swarming with mosquitoes. I turned on my Tracker IV and it started emitting chirps and beeps—it sounded like I had discovered a satellite outpost of Fort Knox. But every time I dug I turned up a hole filled with rocks and worms and roots. Occasionally there would be the pop-top of a beer can. As the salesman predicted, within minutes my daughter was begging to be allowed to go to the playground. She and my husband abandoned me to my attempts to contract West Nile virus.

After this episode I realized I needed help. I turned to my neighbor, Philip Dobak, a retired physicist and known metal detectorist. He told me one of his latest neighborhood finds was a 2,000-year-old Hebrew coin. I had a sinking feeling that I was now going to have to tell his lovely wife that Phil needed a neurological exam, when he ran across the street and returned with the coin. I was relieved to see it was hanging from a chain and mounted in the center of a silver Star of David. I asked to look at the rest of his treasures and he brought out a 4-inch-square box spilling over with a decade's worth of found objects.

It had the talismanic power of a shaman's chest. There was an 1879 U.S. silver dollar, British pennies from 1928 and 1938, a Chinese toy soldier circa 1940, a 1931 coin commemorating the 100th anniversary of the McCormick reaper, a class ring, a gold watch, a silver heart-shaped locket shot repeatedly with a BB gun, a wedding ring (I wondered if these last two were a set). The box filled me with a desire to release such lost things from their unwitting graves.

Phil said his favorite place to detect was the grassy strip that runs along the street side of many D.C. sidewalks. He called them a "renewable resource" constantly being refilled with dropped items. We went to such a strip next to a nearby park. Phil adjusted the arm length on my Tracker IV, resulting in the immediate relief of what was becoming a debilitating case of metal detectorist elbow. When the detector beeped Phil took out his knife, peeled back a divot (which he later carefully replaced), and revealed a piece of metal. In a half-hour we found a bottle cap, a piece of fence, a fist-sized mass of iron, and 53 cents. As we dug up our last quarter a woman opened her front door and held the collar of a straining dog.

"Are you from the city?" she called out.

"No, ma'am," answered Phil.

"Then I hope you're not digging up my yard."

"No, ma'am."

The confrontation exposed the underbelly of metal detecting: You have to do it either on public or private property, and neither the government nor the property owner necessarily wants you digging around like a colony of monkey-pox-infected prairie dogs.

Despite my newfound expertise, without Phil my further forays were a bust. A trip to a friend's yard where my daughter had dropped a ring the year before resulted only in the discovery of the sewer pipe. An attempt to find my editor's wife's lost engagement ring at a playground turned up one rusted nail. By this time my daughter was not only bored with metal detecting, she was appalled. On the way to the car from the playground I tried detecting on the grassy sidewalk strip.

"Stop it, Mom, someone might see you," my daughter said.

"But you're the one who wanted a metal detector," I said.

"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.

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