What Men Call Treasure

The Search for Gold at Victorio Peak

By: David Schweidel / Robert Boswell

Legend says treasures lie deep inside Victorio Peak: A parable about obsession, hope and humanity.

Categories: Adult | All Books | History


Legend says treasures lie deep inside Victorio Peak:  A parable about obsession, hope and humanity.

What Men Call Treasure from KRWG, a New Mexico PBS station. The authors are interviewed and it's a great chance to see Terry Delonas, a major character from the book (the grandson of Babe Noss).

In 1937 Doc Noss—part-adventurer, part-conman—and his wife Babe discovered fabulous treasure inside the caverns of New Mexico's Victorio Peak. They dynamited the tunnel to hide the treasure from other treasure hunters. At least that's what they said happened. Babe's grandson Terry Delonas grew up listening to his grandmother's magical stories about her dead husband and Victorio Peak. Her stories were his legacy. In the 1980s, Terry, a gay man, tested positive for HIV. He decided searching for Victorio's lost treasure was the only dream that would give his life meaning. With his grandmother's grit and her gift for talking her way through tough places, he found money and support to follow his dream and overcome many obstacles—bad weather, broken equipment, the Army, Congress and other fortune hunters. But Victorio Peak, that inscrutable and mysterious mountain, would not give up its treasure.

Robert Boswell, an acclaimed novelist, is the author of seven books, most recently Century's Son (Picador, 2003). His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories and other magazines. He shares the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston with his wife, novelist Antonya Nelson.

David Schweidel, who grew up in El Paso on the Mexican border, remembers feeling like an anthropologist long before he knew what an anthropologist was. His first novel, Confidence of the Heart, won the 1995 Milkweed National Fiction Prize. He lives in Berkeley with his wife Linda and works at the University of California.

Colorized Photograph of Victorio Peak in New Mexico

Awards and Accomodations

Spur Award Finalist, Best Western Nonfiction Contemporary, 2009

7 reviews for What Men Call Treasure

  1. San Antonio Current
    How do I begin reviewing a book professing no real beginning and no logical end? A book that eschews chronology? A book that exercises authorial interruption? I decided, in anticipated homage to the promise of a postmodern historic tale of gold in What Men Call Treasure, to search for information on Victorio Peak (where else but Wikipedia?). I decided to try to ruin any anticipation in hopes that the book’s array of peaks and basins, its ability to tell a story despite plot (I was murdering the plot, after all, by discovering its ending), and its claustrophobic yearning to uncover itself would bury me. In other words, I would start nowhere and hope for the best. I was not disappointed. Go ahead, look up Victorio Peak on Wikipedia: You won’t find it until you search for Doc Noss, the discoverer of the treasure, because the article is “orphaned,” like lost gold, which adds another sublime, limestone layer over the treasure of Victorio Peak.

    The book, nonfiction, relies heavily on fictional techniques for its success. The authors (David Schweidel and Robert Boswell, both fiction writers) understand that they have left their own footprints in the dust of Victorio Peak, tying them forever to the very history they’re trying to unravel. Knowing that makes them participants in, not just observers of, the search, they write themselves into the book as characters. They embrace Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle (which they use as an epithet to chapter 18: “One cannot know with certainty how the process of observation alters what is being observed”). This leads to their use of the most striking fictional technique in the book: historian (author) as omniscient narrator. The characters come alive, not just through what we are told about them, but through their thoughts and particular colorings of the world. Terry Delonas, the book’s main character (besides the authors) and treasure hunter, comes alive first through a scene in a therapist’s office: “The prospect of pursuing the treasure thrilled and daunted him. Outside the window of the therapist’s office, the city’s flickering lights had grown brighter as the neighborhood darkened, a trick of perspective.” This is clearly not a straightforward (hi)story about the search for evanescent gold in Victorio Peak; this is a book about characters, about family histories, about the act of writing as creation and discovery.

    It is also a mess. But, as Schweidel writes, the “story of the mess compelled me. It seemed as fabulous and elusive as the treasure itself.” Each of the characters in the book has his or her own belief, his or her own story, that swirls around the vortex of a common legend materialized by Doc Noss (who crawled into the caves at Victorio Peak) and his wife, Babe Noss (even the names are fantastic, and just out of range of everyday possibility). There are excellent chapters about the conquistadors and the Apaches of the Southwest (the peak was named after one of these Apache chiefs, who made his last successful stand against the Confederate Army there), about the tales of Doc and his (un)timely demise, about the frustrating interference of the U.S. Army (the peak is part of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico) and, largely, about the characters that surrounded the most recent push into the mountain (including a dowser), and each adds to the blissful farrago of the treasure hunt.

    The book, too, is a meta-narrative about storytelling. Mainstream America has misplaced its appreciation for stories — if they involve gold, stories are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. That is, stories about gold must lead to tactile riches; anything less is a lie. This book’s truth is, however, not about gold, but a tale (history, fiction, philosophy, and authorial intervention). That is why the book’s incomplete title (“What men call treasure … the gods call dross”) is so poignant: It is the story, in all its complications, winding paths, claustrophobia, and sometimes frustrating dead ends, that is the true wealth.

  2. ForeWord Magazine
    In What Men Call Treasure, authors David Schweidel and Robert Boswell, spin a yarn about the treasure hunt that began in 1937 when Ernest “Doc” Moss, an ersatz podiatrist, and his first wife Babe, claimed to have discovered the fortune. A careless mining explosion re-buried the treasure, and frustrating attempts to re-unearth the wealth carried on through the 1970s. Terry Delonas, Babe’s grandson who grew up on tales of the treasure, decided to rekindle the search for the fortune.

    Delonas’s hunt makes for a sometimes quirky, always entertaining tale, full of strange characters, government intervention, and no small number of mistakes. Public libraries in which travel and adventure accounts are popular will want to buy this one.

  3. Midwest Book Review
    What Men Call Treasure: The Search for Gold at Victorio Peak is the in-depth true story of one family’s legendary brush with riches. In 1937, con man and chiropodist Doc Noss ventured inside a New Mexico mountain named after the Apache chief Victorio. He discovered a cavern of incredible riches – statues of saints, swords, a crown, a chest of jewelry, twenty-seven skeletons, and roughly 16,000 gold bars of varying types. When the Doc and his wife tried to gain better access to the cavern, one of their dynamite blasts destroyed the narrow passage, and the U.S. government claimed the land for missile testing shortly after.

    A saga of discovery, lost treasure, and phenomenally questionable acts of the U.S. Government, What Men Call Treasure is a fascinating true story of lost mysteries, doubly remarkable in today’s modern era when most corners of the earth have been thoroughly explored.

  4. San Antonio Express-News
    Victorio Peak has its place in American treasure lore and legend. This wide-ranging book zigzags through time to tell the story of one man’s fanatical belief in buried gold.

    The modern version begins in November 1937 when an unlicensed foot doctor and con man named Milton Ernest “Doc” Noss found his way into Victorio Peak. There, Noss claimed to have found jewelry, swords, statues, 27 skeletons and thousands of gold bars in various stages of refinement. Victorio Peak is actually a 500-foot hill in New Mexico’s badlands area called Jornado del Muerto, the journey of death. It is named for an Apache chief who roamed the area and fought the U.S. Cavalry. Victorio may have hidden much of the treasure, acquired in his raids, the legend goes.

    Noss and his wife, Babe, tried to keep the find secret, though Noss brought out some of his alleged discoveries. In 1937 it was illegal for Americans to own gold. In 1939, Noss attempted to widen his tunnel with dynamite, but the blast sealed the entrance. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the military took the land for a missile-testing range and claimed it permanently in 1955. That has led to persistent stories that the Army looted the treasure itself. One story is that the gold wound up in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s hands.

    At the center of the modern story is Terry Delonas, Babe’s grandson, who grew up with her stories about the treasure over the years. (Doc was shot to death in 1949 by a Texan who said he had been defrauded by gold claims.)

    Determined to claim the family treasure, Delonas embarks on a years-long effort that involves battles with the military, a special act of Congress, assorted volunteers and investors, drilling rigs, a giant vacuum machine, a dowser, national press and television coverage, F. Lee Bailey, Delonas’ battle with AIDS and a large supply of conspiracy theories.

    Schweidel and Boswell insert themselves into the story from time to time, telling of their research, interviews and doubts. They range back to tell of the conquistadors and their search for cities of gold and the toll taken by Jornada del Muerto. Chief Victorio’s role is detailed.

    “What Men Call Treasure” is highly readable and puts treasure hunting at a personal level, including numerous period photographs. It was years in the writing and ends in 1995 with Delonas’ ultimate failure to find the treasure.

  5. El Paso Times
    Tales of buried treasure never fail to fascinate.

    The story of a massive gold cache hidden in New Mexico’s Victorio Peak has floated for almost seven decades.

    As the legend goes, Milton “Doc” Noss, a Hot Springs, N.M., foot doctor, prospector and occasional con man, said he stumbled upon a fabulous treasure inside a cavern in the San Andres mountains of New Mexico in 1937. It was enough wealth, he told his wife, Ova “Babe” Noss, to make the Rockefellers seem like tramps.

    A partner killed Doc in 1949, allegedly in a dispute over gold.

    The Victorio Peak story has been embellished over the years. Repeated efforts by Noss’ descendants have so far failed to unearth the treasure.

    Now, David Schweidel and Robert Boswell, writers familiar with the Southwest, have written “What Men Call Treasure” (Cinco Puntos Press, $25.95), another look at the search for the Victorio Peak gold — this time from the perspective of Terry Delonas, a Noss grandson who formed the Ova Noss Family Partnership to try to find the gold.

    Schweidel, a former El Pasoan now teaching writing in Berkeley, and Robert Boswell, a former English professor at New Mexico State University, were invited by one of the treasure hunters to explore the story during a limited expedition sanctioned by the federal government.

    Victorio Peak, a small knob of rocks, is situated on what is now the Army’s restricted White Sands Missile Range.

    Schweidel pointed out in a recent telephone interview that he and Boswell became intrigued with the search for gold and with characters like Delonas, who recently said that various former federal officials told him in the past that the treasure hunt was worth pursuing.

    “It was obvious from the beginning that it was a very rich and complex story,” Schweidel said. “We felt Terry was really solid, and the peak is an interesting place.”

    The story of buried treasure in the San Andres mountains surfaced in the Watergate hearings. Various accounts have said the Army conducted a top-secret search for the gold in the early 1960s. And the story has fascinated national media outlets such as CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

    This newest book is a bit different. The authors inject themselves into the story.

    “We try to show that the objective voice comes out of a person who is subjective and whose own take is influenced by hundreds of factors,” Schweidel said.

    Schweidel remains open to the possibility that a treasure exists.

    “There’s so many loose ends that I felt like you can’t close the door on it,” he said.

    Delonas liked the book but had a “conflicted” response to it, as Schweidel likes to put it.

    “The book is a great human drama that painfully overshadows the important history in which it is set,” Delonas said in a short e-mail interview from southern California. “This book might inspire some people to personally investigate the important history of this little mountain.”

    Delonas doubts that he will be permitted to dig again for the elusive Victorio Peak treasure.

    Solving the mystery, he said, might embarrass too many highly placed officials.

  6. Chamber Four
    We all know the traditional arc of a story: beginning, middle, end; goal, obstacles in pursuit of goal, attainment of goal; boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.

    Same goes for any good treasure story. Boy discovers treasure map, boy seeks treasure, boy finds treasure.

    The problem that Robert Boswell and David Schweidel had to wrestle with during the fourteen years it took to write What Men Call Treasure was this: how do you successfully tell a true story about buried treasure that doesn’t end with boy finding treasure?

    Boswell and Schweidel are both fiction writers, so their answer is no real surprise: they would write a “postmodern treasure story,” a metafictional nonfiction book complete with an omniscient narrator, authorial intervention, very little sense of chronology, and a story with no ending that, in its final chapter, gives us five different endings, culminating in a paragraph that opens, “The story ends when we forget it—or the story goes on.”

    What Men Call Treasure is like a treasure hunt in its own right, a maze of underground shafts leading to various caverns, each containing a segment of the storyline: the Watergate hearings, Apaches on the warpath, the Iran-Contra affair, Conquistadors and Aztecs, Unsolved Mysteries, Lyndon B. Johnson, and, at its center, a boy who grew up listening to his grandmother’s wild tales of gold.

    Terry Delonas, a gay Jehovah’s Witness with AIDS, is the grandson of Ova “Babe” Noss. Babe’s first husband, Milton “Doc” Noss, claims to have found the treasure at Victorio Peak. In 1937, Doc supposedly found a shaft leading to a cavern filled with jewelry, Spanish armor, piles of human bones, and an estimated 16,000 gold bars. He took Babe to the mountain, so the story goes, and together they tried to widen the shaft by exploding dynamite. The shaft collapsed instead.

    Separated from his treasure, Doc spent the rest of his life trying to find another way in, but was shot dead by a Texas oilman before he ever got back inside Victorio Peak.
    Sounds like fiction, doesn’t it? Robert Boswell agrees.

    Boswell and Schweidel each attach their name to certain chapters in the book, chapters in which they detail their involvement in the story—how the two of them met, how they got together with Terry Delonas, their own visits to the Peak. It becomes quite obvious that their opinions differ as to the existence of Doc’s treasure.

    The mystery … will linger. The path of critical thought led me to the edge of reasonable doubt, but not beyond. I clung to the grain-of-truth theory. Boz (Boswell) was more skeptical. He believed that Victorio Peak never held any treasure.

    … Terry was doomed to fail. The mountain of his imagination has at its base a cunning con man’s fable, and no amount of work or faith or money can make it true.

    Most of the book follows Terry Delonas’ battles for permission to access the peak, as well as his subsequent expeditions to find Doc’s shaft, but we know from the start that he never succeeds. Boy does not find treasure—instead, boy is kicked off mountain by U.S. Army and sent to bed without supper. As Boswell writes, “The ultimate postmodern treasure story has no treasure, of course; only advertisements for itself.” Those who can’t survive without their closure should not expect to be satisfied with What Men Call Treasure.

    Really, this is a nonfiction book for fiction lovers. I picked it up mostly because I am an unabashed Robert Boswell fan, and I didn’t like the thought of there being a Boswell title that I had not read. I didn’t expect to really get into the story—in fact, the Victorio Peak saga never did capture my imagination—but the methods Boswell and Schweidel use to relate Terry Delonas’ tale had me on the edge of my seat. You don’t have to be a treasure hunter to enjoy this book. You just have to appreciate fresh narrative technique and two fiction writers daring enough to tackle a true story that has no beginning and no end.

    Further reading: Robert Boswell has written five novels (including Crooked Hearts and Mystery Ride), two nonfiction books (the other being The Half-Known World, an entertaining book about writing), and two story collections, including Living to Be 100, probably the finest on my shelves. Check back soon for a review of his new release, The Heydey of the Insensitive Bastards.
    David Schweidel is responsible for the novel Confidence of the Heart, winner of the Milkweed Nation Fiction Prize for 1995.

    Also check out this public TV vignette about the making of the book, including interviews with Boswell, Schweidel, and Terry Delonas.

  7. El Paso Scene
    Starting with a nod to “Treasure Island,” and winding down with a nod to Odysseus, this book is filled with enough pitfalls and promises to make any would-be treasure-seeking throw down their shovel and give up the hunt.
    – Lisa Kay Tate

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