Herbie Herbert steers down the road, head swiveling, eyes peeled. Just past where Scottsdale's plazas and office parks give way to desert, he sees something in a dry wash."There's a spot," he says. "Where you see black sand, there's gold."
A few thousand people across the Valley prospect for gold as a hobby. Most, like Herbert, go through local clubs to gain access to claims around the state where they can pan for the precious metal hidden in the sand.
Hunting for gold is a good way to get your hands dirty, Herbert says, and with gold prices soaring at around $930 an ounce, it's much more lucrative than gardening.
Herbert, 73, pulls his diesel F-250 down into the gravel shoulder and hops out. Fast as a '49er staking a claim, he's on one knee fiddling with the lawn mower engine that powers the rumbling sluice box he uses to separate gold and black sand from regular rocks.
"I'm a lucky prospector," Herbert says, his Massachusetts accent still strong after 16 years in Scottsdale. "We'll find something."
Dan Ware, owner of Promack Treasure Hunting, a mining equipment store in Apache Junction, says the prospecting hobby is growing rapidly. When Ware took over the shop three years ago, gold was at $250 an ounce and the club based there had 70 members, most retirees. Now gold prices have nearly quadrupled and the club's membership roll has climbed to more than 400, including more families. He sees the trend continuing as the economy stutters.
"When people have a lot of money they do big things. When money's tight people still do recreation, they just do it on a smaller scale," he says. "This is a very good hobby for a family unit to do, locally, that doesn't cost much."
Not only is a basic prospecting kit fairly inexpensive - Ware says he can set customers up with the basics for about $35 - unlike most hobbyists, prospectors can sell the fruits of their labor.
"Very few fishermen ever get as many fish as they pay for a license and tackle," Ware says.
Herbert, whose denim-covered cowboy hat bears the pin of his outfit, the Phoenix-based RoadRunners Prospectors Club, isn't too concerned with what he finds. Unlike some folks he has panned next to, Herbert takes a Zen approach to the hunt.
"Some people are very greedy. They want it all," he says. "If you don't want it all, you'll find more."
Mary Engbrecht, also part of the RoadRunners club - at 1,400 members it's one of the largest in the country - says she likes prospecting because it's an outdoor activity. An Arizona native who lives in Ahwatukee Foothills, she says the lore surrounding the hunt is as exciting as finding something.
"It gets you out to beautiful areas of the state," Engbrecht says. "We take along a picnic lunch and, yeah, we work for three or four hours, but then we sit down and enjoy our lunch."
As Herbert deftly dips a plastic gold pan in and out of a water bucket, sifting off the blonde sediment and leaving behind gritty black sand and tiny gold flakes, he gets a glint in his eye.
"Look there, it's gold," he says. "Gold looks the same in the shadow as it does in the sun. You can tell it right away."
For a split second, it seems as though the dispassion of Zen has escaped him, like he's gotten gold fever. Then it's gone.
"It's just the thrill of the hunt," he says. "If I find it, good. If I don't find it, good."