‘The Secret’ treasure hunters flock back to San Francisco; high demand for dig permits to find hidden jewel

SAN FRANCISCO — A treasure hunt is back on in San Francisco as amateur sleuths are again digging through city parks, looking for something buried 40 years ago.

We are talking about “The Secret,” a book written back in 1982 by author Byron Preis. With a set of mysterious poems and illustrations, Preis laid out the clues for finding 12 jewels buried in 12 cities around the country.

Only three of them have been found, and the one hidden somewhere in San Francisco had a lot of people looking – until the pandemic. The city stopped issuing dig permits in 2020; now two years later, it may have more treasure hunters than it can handle.

“My first dig date was the first week of June 2020,” said treasure hunter Darren Hicks.”I thought ‘oh my God, I’ve got to wait six or seven months.'”

When Darren Hicks applied for a permit to dig up a San Francisco city park, he had no idea he’d end up waiting two and a half years. But his wait is over, and he’s finally probing away.

The spot he has landed on: Portsmouth Square, known as the heart of Chinatown. Not to get too deep into his solution, it’s largely based on some historic context of the park, and several very specific visual cues in the illustration.

“Then, low and behold, I turned to the left and this looked just like her nose,” said Hicks. “So, for me, it was pretty much the only logical place to dig.”

The digging begins under the watchful eye of a park ranger. Hicks, of course, is doing this the right way while some others have not. What you might call guerilla hunters have descended on several locations in the city, occasionally ripping through irrigation lines with illegal digging,

As for getting a permit, a lot of treasure hunters are finding that to be a quest of its own. And to pull back the curtain a bit and  remove some of the mystery, we needed to talk to the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, and someone who would rather keep their identity a secret.

“The other day I got an inquiry that was all in French,” said a Rec & Parks worker identified only as Pearl. “I don’t speak French, so I had to use Translate, but I was able to figure out how to respond, in French.”

The unofficial job of park treasure czar has passed through several hands over the years, and given the enthusiasm of some treasure searchers, they’ve found the best practice is to have a generic treasure email.

“Right now, we are backlogged through the end of 2022,” said Pearl. “So any new permits are going to be done in 2023.”

Those requests are processed in the order they’re received, but the biggest constraint is manpower as the city can only staff two digs per week.

“Once people understand that there are other treasure hunters around, and that it’s not just two folks but hundreds of people across the country in the world, they understand a little bit better that they need to be patient.”

Back at Portsmouth Square, two and half years of patience is not paying off as hoped.

“Man, it’s solid,” said Hicks “If this is the resting spot, it’s rested here too long. Oh, man.”

This dig will end like every one before it – a lot of sweat, a hole in the ground that needs to be patched up, and a sense that something hidden for 40 years may just be inches away, or somewhere else entirely.

“At this point, it looks like I won’t know,” said Hicks. “Maybe none of us will.”

This reporter has spent years watching people from all over come dig in all sorts of places, based on all kinds of interpretations of the clues. Even those who had ground penetrating radar didn’t come up with anything. 

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