The shelves in this man's garage are lined with what he calls his wore-out work boots. Down below the boots is a fixer-upper Jeep that he bought as a junky husk so he could look for parts. He has a gas-powered drill rigged with four long probes to poke in the ground for what might be hiding from sight. And he has a guitar with a butane tank that shoots fire.
Tim Hix is 56. He's a handyman by hobby and disposition. He works with aluminum to make money when he must.
He considers himself a hunter of treasure. He talks of pots of gold and sunken ships and subs and drums of silver dollars and chests on banks of rivers and thousand-pound stashes on old Indian lands.
Right now, though, he's focused on one bit of booty in particular, a pile of silver coins or bars, no more than 5 feet deep, right down the road from his house, in an area called Rocky Bluff, next to Interstate 75, under the Manatee River overpass and kitty-corner from the busy Ellenton outlet mall.
One morning in May, Hix traveled to Polk County, to Bartow, to meet with the regional boss of the Florida Department of Transportation, to ask to let him dig.
He grew up in Ohio catching bugs, crabs, turtles and snakes. When his family moved near Bradenton, he ran through forests of thick palmettos, flipping this rock, that rock. He dove around piers searching for fishermen's misplaced trinkets. He's the middle brother. He never said no to a dare. He met his wife at a bowling alley in 1973 when he was 17 and she was 15 and they were students at Manatee High. He went to Manatee Junior College and then went into the Army and trained for jungle warfare by jumping from airplanes in the Panamanian nowhere. His wife says she fell in love with him because he makes life an adventure. They have no kids. They raise giant old English mastiffs. He says he's somewhat psychic.
"He's just one of a kind," older brother Dean Hix said.
"He's not crazy," younger brother Randy Hix said. "He's just … exceptional."
He dug once in 1987 for a chest at a site in Englewood. He got permission because it was private property. The backhoe found no treasure but did wreck a restaurant's septic system. He had to borrow money from his parents to fix it. His practical dad didn't talk to him for almost a year.
Earlier this spring, on a message board on TreasureNet.com, where he posts as Bigdogdad, he told the story of the treasure by the overpass. Twenty-five years ago an old man from North Carolina who used a dowsing pendulum told him "the ground was full of silver." Since then, two other groups, people whom he won't identify, confirmed the existence of metal at the location using some high-tech equipment.
"I am willing to take the risks of being wrong and perhaps looking like a fool …" he posted on the message board. "Taking a risk is how a lot of people have made incredible things happen."
He thinks he should get points for applying for a permit. "I'm trying to be honest here," he said one day this spring sitting in a gazebo he built in his yard. "I'm not sneaking around."
He thinks the fact it's state property shouldn't hurt him. It should help him. "Who owns the public lands of Florida?" he said. "Taxpayers. We own this."
In Bartow, at his meeting at the transportation offices, Hix told the regional boss he wanted to dig only in one specific spot with just his drill, a pick and a shovel. He suggested a 50-50 split with the state even though he wants to retain video rights to the dig. He showed them his military records. He showed them pictures of his dogs and his metallic blue hot rod fashioned from the chassis of a '57 Chevy and his flame-shooting guitar. He gave them a list of all the local officials he had called.
Two support him.
"The exposure to Manatee County would definitely be a benefit," county commissioner Joe McClash said. "I think at this point I would volunteer to help fill the hole back in."
"I would much rather see him do it under a permit," clerk of the circuit court R.B. "Chips" Shore said, "rather than have other people just go over and dig it up."
The Bartow meeting lasted 25 minutes.
• • •
"There's a lot of stuff underneath our feet," said Matt Woodside, the director of exhibitions and collections at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton. "We're walking on stuff all the time. But you can't just go digging."
"He's called," said Jeff Moates, a regional director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.
"He's called twice," said Daniel McClarnon, an archaeologist in Tallahassee who works on DOT projects. "We don't really have any treasure permits. There's not such a thing."
Also, he said, "there's not any indication there's buried silver there. It's been fully surveyed. I can't imagine the massive project of putting in this interstate didn't find what he thinks is down there."
On the phone, Billy Hattaway, the DOT regional boss, said in 23 years with the agency he has never had a request quite like this. He called Hix "passionate" and "intelligent" and "very driven to achieve this goal."
But still: Digging near the bridge could damage the foundations. It could disturb a nearby Indian burial ground. It could disturb other archaeological and historical artifacts. It could encourage others to do the same — with or without permission.
"We just didn't see a compelling reason why we should allow him," Hattaway said. "And he can't have whatever he digs up. The state takes possession of it. He doesn't seem to be willing to recognize this."
• • •
Hix drove his blue Dodge Ram pickup with the HIX RACING vanity plate toward the treasure site.
"They don't want me to do anything," he said. "They want me to go away.
"I look at this life as a big adventure, and as a test," he said. "It's a test of my belief in an old man, and in myself, and my ability to figure out reality and fantasy."
He drove past Rocky Bluff Library, past a mobile home park called Palm Grove, past a McDonald's.
"We love pirates. They're fun guys!" he said. "As long as they're not raping and pillaging and plundering and cutting your head off with their sword. Pirates are Johnny Depp. They're cool. They're fun. Go to Disney World. The kids can buy swords. All that's great. But they don't want me to dig up a real pirate treasure?"
He turned onto old U.S. 301 and drove past an Applebee's, past a biker bar called Woody's River Roo, past a Sleep Inn, until finally he pulled to the side and parked the truck. Tall grass. Light rain. Quiet in the cab.
"Picture these guys," he said. "They're crooks. They find a boat going along and they rob it and they take all their goodies and they bring it back. The biggest pirate with the biggest sword gets the biggest share. But what are they going to do with it? What are they going to do with the stuff they stole? They had to hide it. Where? In the hole in the side of a tree? No! In the ground!"
Rain on the roof of the cab. The whoosh of wheels on the road above.
"A million people drive by at 80 miles per hour," he said. "They have no idea."
• • •
June turned to July. Surely, Hix thought, there is somebody he can talk to who could give him the permit. Tell him yes. Go. Dig.
Since he first posted about this, he had been told to go for other treasures, to wait until the economy hit bottom, to just do it in the dark of the night. He worried somebody else might.
"I now find myself driving by the location multiple times a day," he wrote. "My phone woke me up in the middle of the night and it was a random meaningless text. I started to convince myself that it was a sign for me to go to the site as someone was trying to STEAL the silver. I am hoping this is not the case. Things cannot keep going like this."
Then somebody posted that he and another guy had gone and dug. And that there was no treasure. No bars. No coins. No silver. Just some copper wire.
Hix went to look. It looked like someone had dug. He sounded shaken on the phone.
"Should I just assume everything they're saying is true?" he said.
"Are they trying to play a trick on me?" he asked.
"I just don't know who to trust," he said.
He said he was giving up.
A couple of weeks later, though, he sounded upbeat. Maybe there's treasure under the overpass. Maybe there isn't. But belief itself can be sustenance. He wrote a post about his experiences as a boy: "The secret to the crab catching is to always walk upstream against the current so as not to muddy the waters upon which you search. Find the biggest rocks and slowly flip them over. Wait for it to clear. … You cannot be afraid of getting pinched."
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 957-0383. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.