Marc Sciance was out in a construction field under a sun-filled sky for four hours when he found part of his son's college fund in the muddy earth.
The father of two got a few hits on his metal detector that day just outside Fredericksburg, Va., and unearthed some Civil War relics — interesting to a newcomer, maybe, but nothing he hadn't seen before.
Then he got a signal that was "very deep."
"I dug it and it turned out to be the first coin ever minted by the United States," Sciance, 44, said.
The coin Sciance unearthed in October 2006 turned out to be a 1792 silver half-disme, worth 5 cents when it was minted as part of the United States' inaugural launch of national coinage. He later sold it at auction through Stack's Rare Coins in New York City for $11,500 — enough to pay for a full year's tuition at Christopher Newport University, where his son is a sophomore.
Sciance is one of thousands of treasure seekers in this country. They are men and women, grandparents and children who, with metal detectors and digging tools firmly in hand, comb the country's parks, fields, schoolyards and beaches looking for anything from coins and jewelry to relics and gold.
There are organized groups in 49 states devoted to the hobby. And while some haul away valuable items, others find just enough change to jangle in their pockets as they walk back to the car.
Duane Biller is the president of the Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs Inc. A metal detectorist for about 20 years, the 57-year-old from McClellandtown, Pa., said there really isn't a typical treasure seeker.
There are nearly as many women as men in the clubs' memberships, he said, and they also see a lot of elderly hunters and families.
"A lot of people get into it because of the extra money," he said. "It's hard to believe there's so much money in the ground."
Dreaming of Diamonds
Russell Gish, a 72-year-old retired Navy man, is a "coinshooter," one of those guys with jangling pockets.
At least twice a week, Gish drives from his home in El Cajon, Calif., a suburb east of San Diego, to the public beaches on the Pacific Coast. Armed with his Minelab detector, the same brand Sciance uses, Gish waves his coil back and forth across the sand until he gets a hit.
"It's a hobby. It's a form of exercise," he said. "Normally it's not a profit-making venture unless you find something unusual."
Gish, a metal detectorist for about 35 years, is also the president of the Coinshooters of San Diego, a club that boasts about 90 hunters.
Everyone, he said, has that dream of pulling up a diamond or hoard of cash.
Sometimes the money doesn't even come from the sand. Gish remembered that he once received a reward of a couple hundred dollars after returning a lost diamond ring.
Summer is the most lucrative time at the beaches, Gish said, noting that between sweat, sunscreen and the cold water, jewelry often slips off right at the water's edge.
But mostly he finds coins currently in circulation, about $4 to $7 per week.
"A lot of people think they'll get rich on these things and they don't," he said.
Instead, Gish throws his beach-earned money into a jar.
"When the jar gets full I go and cash it in and buy myself a nice steak dinner or something," he said.
Gold by the 'Mother Load'
Mark Belda can boast a much better return. He has traveled to places such as Australia, the Caribbean and Mexico, the trips often funded by what he's dug out of the earth.
The difference between Belda and Gish? Belda mainly hunts gold. The 55-year-old also owns Belda's Detector Sales and Gold Prospecting Equipment in Bend, Ore., with his wife and son.
The skyrocketing price of gold has been a boon for both equipment sales and his personal hobby. While many detectors will hit on gold, serious gold hunting requires specialized detectors with higher frequencies.
The price of gold hit a high above $1,000 per ounce in March. The market has faltered some in the past few weeks, but the price still hovers around $900.
"It's generating a lot of newcomers," Belda said.
He has gotten so much interest from customers, Belda plans to start field trips to take customers hunting for gold nuggets.
"A lot of people buy these detectors and they have no clue how to use them," he said.
Belda estimated he earned about $400,000 in detector sales last year and that sales have increased by about 20 to 30 percent in the past three years.
Southern and eastern Oregon are home to a "major gold belt," which extends south into California and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Belda described the latter as containing the "mother load" of gold.
Belda said he has kept a collection of several kilos of gold.
"But with the price the way it's going up, I sell some on my Web site every now and then," he said.
Hoarding valuable finds is not uncommon among detectorists.
Sciance, who lives in Stafford, Va., has insured his findings, which include about 20,000 coins and 100 silver or gold rings. He estimates his collection to be worth between $60,000 and $70,000.
"It's sort of a nest egg," he said. "I hope not to have to sell it. I hope to pass it down to my children."
In March, Sciance found a rare Civil War-era bronze piece that used to adorn horses' bridles. It hasn't been formally appraised, but Sciance said he has been told he could get about $1,000 for it. But he's quick to point out that he doesn't do this for the cash. He does it for the thrill of the hunt and to do his part to preserve history.
Today, he said, the site where he found the half dime is a parking lot and if he hadn't dug there that day it may never have been found.
When Detecting Doesn't Pay
Even though the whole idea behind metal detecting is making money or collecting valuables, it can be a costly hobby. Detectors range about $80 to more than $1,000. Some detectorists, including Gish, use two machines that offer different specialties.
And the rising gas prices have begun to put a serious crimp on the hunters' outings. Gish said that with gas prices at about $3.75 per gallon in his area, he has cut back the number of trips he makes each week.
The national federation canceled its annual spring hunt because of the rising gas prices and shaky economy.
A letter to the membership on the federation's Web site written by Biller explains, "I'm sorry that this had to be done, but I feel that with the economy going south, all our clubs will be feeling the effects."
Instead, the club is planning its sole hunt in late October or early November, likely in the area of Wildwood, N.J.
But gas prices and wallet fatigue aren't going to stamp out a tradition.
"Every time that thing goes 'beep, beep, beep,'" Gish said, "you say 'Is that my ring or another darn penny?'"