Monday, March 24, 2014

The Last Prospector

March 17, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Time often becomes suspended between fantasy and reality in the minds of those who search for gold in the rugged mountains east of Apache Junction. This myriad of canyons and towering spires has captured the imagination of men and women for more than a century.

Years ago, two men read the June 14, 1964, issue of Life magazine and saw an article about the Dutchman’s Lost Mine and the Peralta Stone Maps. A photograph in this article showed a man looking over the edge of a rock with the brim of his hat pulled down to cover his face. According to the article, the man had discovered the last few clues needed to locate the infamous lost mine. It was this article that would send these two men on a search for the rest of their lives. One man would become a notorious promoter of a lost mine, and the other would become an unknown hermit.

Hikers, prospectors, horsemen and outfitters often passed an old man hiking in and out of the Superstitions between 1965-1993. This man avoided contact and stayed by himself, only speaking when spoken to. Some of the outfitters, well known to the area, called him "Spook" because of his peculiar habit of avoiding people.

Spook’s name was Edwin Buckwitz. He was born on July 6, 1924, on a South Dakota wheat farm near McLaughlin. He was the middle child in a family of seven. He was very shy and a true introvert. Most of Edwin’s life was spent avoiding contact with people. He preferred to be alone.

After graduation from high school he joined the Army Air Corps. Edwin served in the 15th Army Air Corps stationed in Italy during World War II. He was a waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator and flew many missions over Germany.

Edwin once told his brother, Sam Buckwitz, about the time he took off his flight jacket on a low-level mission over Germany and hung it next to the waist gun aperture. When the flight was over he found the jacket filled with bullet holes. The one story Edwin told his brother I am sure played a dramatic role in shaping Edwin’s life after the war.

Edwin told the following tragic story which involved the loss of his crew and aircraft. Edwin was grounded one day and as he watched his fellow crew-members take off in an overloaded bomber. He saw the plane stall, then crash. The entire crew, including his friends and his buddies. died in a split second.

After Edwin’s short, but dangerous military career, he attended school to become an electrical engineer. Upon graduation, he worked for McDonnell-Douglas in the mid-1950’s. He did drafting work on the A-3D bomber and the F-5D fighter escort planes. He worked for almost two decades on the West Coast.

At the age of 45, Edwin Buckwitz fulfilled his life’s dream. He wanted to get away from people and traffic congestion. Working in the Los Angeles area would make anyone want to run away to the hills.

Edwin resigned his job, and traveled to Arizona. He had read about the Superstitions in 1964 Life magazine article and decided that was the place for him. When he arrived here, he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to searching for the Peralta Mines. This he did.

Many years ago, Edwin told me about the anxiety he felt the day he stood at First Water Trailhead in 1965 and planned his first solo trip into the Superstition Mountains. He didn’t know whether he could find water or not. He had never lived in the outdoors before. He wasn’t even familiar with the wildlife of the Sonoran Desert.

He wondered how he would survive in these rugged mountains with little protection from the weather and the animals. He was convinced most animals were harmless, but at the time he feared rattlesnakes, not knowing anything about them. He finally made up his mind not to worry about broken bones, rattlesnakes, lions or the desert heat. He sincerely believed anything was better than the traffic congestion of Southern California.

He finally made up his mind he was here to find the gold of Superstition Mountain and to seek the peace and solitude of this magnificent mountain range.

Edwin lived in East Boulder and Needle Canyons for twenty years. He searched the area with total dedication believing he would find his gold. Edwin had an unshakable faith in the existence of the Peralta Mines. The last time I talked with him, he revealed no traces of the young man who had gone to war, had once studied electrical engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit and at Northrop University in Inglewood, California.

His skin was coarse and tanned like leather from years of exposure to the hot desert sun. His body was slender from decades of walking in the Superstitions and his hair was gray with age. I must admit I watched Edwin grow old and he loved every minute of his isolation in the mountains.

Edwin Buckwitz, seated at left with Tom Kollenborn, was a tall slender man who hiked along the Apache Trail and First Water Road between 1965-1993. He had a backpack with a cardboard box on it and he always wore a cap. Many long-time residents of Apache Junction may remember him.
Edwin lived almost 28 years in the outdoors and survived with the minimum of conveniences. His amenities included a plastic tarp, an old bedroll, a backpack, a cardboard box, a pot, a pan, a canteen, and the Bible.

He carried all he owned on his back for almost three decades. I passed Edwin Buckwitz on the trail many times between 1966-1986 before I actually met him.

Edwin hiked from his camp in Needle Canyon to Apache Junction twice a month, a distance of fifteen miles one way for more than twenty-five years. The only treasure he found was the peace and solitude of the mountains, not its gold.

Life in the Superstition Mountains for Edwin had not been easy. His paradise had become his master. I was in awe of his interaction with wildlife when I visited his camp. He would be reading the Bible and birds would land on his shoulder and other animals would wander through his camp. He certainly was at peace with his God and the environment.

Actually Edwin paid an exacting price for his privacy and isolation from his fellow human beings. It is ironic that such man who shunned society died near a busy intersection along the Apache Trail in March of 1993. He accepted no social pensions of any kind. He arrived in Apache Junction with almost hundred thousand dollars in 1965 and when he died he willed almost a quarter of million dollars to religious radio evangelist in Kentucky.

Staff Sgt. Edwin Bluckwitz was buried with full military honors in the Phoenix Veterans Cemetery at 2:30 p.m. on March 26, 1993.

Taps were finally sounded for this man who lived through hell high over Germany during World War II, but found his ultimate peace on earth in the Superstition Mountains.