OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — Scores of random people have asked Steve Dayton the exact same question for years: What are you looking for?
That’s when they see Dayton scan the ground with his metal detector.
Like the inevitable question, Dayton’s answer is always the same, too.
“Gold,” he tells them, stating what he thinks is obvious. “What else do you think I’m looking for?”
His dream is to find a fat, gold chain with an enormous gold ring hanging off it.
But in a decade of scanning dilapidated Maine homestead sites, shallow lake waters, athletic fields and miles of sandy beaches, Dayton has yet to score anything valuable enough to fund his retirement. Instead, he’s had a ball, enjoying the thrill of the chase and the glory of discovering fascinating, old stuff.
A few of Dayton’s more interesting finds include a sword, vintage art deco earrings, coins minted more than a century ago, dozens of wedding rings and a single heart-shaped, silver locket he’s pretty sure contains human ashes.
“I really don’t think it was something that somebody just threw out to the sea,” he said. “It has a little door on top that you screw off. It’s got ashes inside. It’s a hollow heart.”
Engraved with the phrase “always in my heart,” Dayton found the locket three years ago under the Old Orchard Beach pier. He’s still searching for its owner with periodic social media postings about it.
Old Orchard Beach is a special place for Dayton, who hails from Auburn. As a child, his family vacationed for a week there every year around the Fourth of July. Now that all his own children are grown up, Dayton spends almost all his sunny vacation and weekend days on the beach there.
“This summer, I was down here at least 15 days,” Dayton said Monday, as he roamed the beach while the tide went out.
With long dark hair, a suntan and wraparound shades, Dayton, whose friends call him Slash, resembles an aging 1980s rock star with a metal detector strapped to his right arm.
He said the best place to find treasure on the beach is beneath the wet sand at low tide.
“See all those people out there,” Dayton said, pointing to sunset swimmers frolicking in the ebbing surf, “Their fingers are getting all cold and wrinkly and their rings are falling off. They’re losing bracelets and earrings, too.”
Dayton was also waiting for low tide on Aug. 29, 2020, when he found the heart-shaped locket. At its lowest, he searched under the far end of the beach’s famous pier. Dayton’s metal detector works underwater. While sloshing through two feet of sea water that day, the device sent a series of audible blips to Dayton’s ears via a set of headphones.
Then, using a scoop on the end of a pole he carries in his other hand, Dayton dug into the submerged sand and came up with the locket.
Along with it, attached to the same chain, was a kind of metal charm, shaped like a puzzle piece, with the words “Dad’s champ” engraved on it. Dayton then stashed them both in a pouch around his waist.
It wasn’t until later, sitting in his car, that Dayton realized the locket opened. Pouring ashes into his hand, he feared he may have made a mistake.
“I thought, oh man, maybe I should go throw it back,” Dayton said.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he did what he always does when finding something he thinks is meaningful, like a wedding or class ring with identifiable marks or engravings. He posted about it on Facebook and on his YouTube channel. It’s a method that’s helped him reunite folks with their valuables in the past.
But nobody has been able to find the locket’s owner yet, even though Dayton keeps periodically posting about it.
“Please share, I am sure somebody is heartbroken for losing this,” Dayton wrote in one Facebook post with almost 600 shares.
The same summer he found the locket, he found a pink-stoned class ring with a first name, a school name and the word “honors” engraved on the band. After posting about it, Dayton’s social media followers leapt into action. A few days later, their internet sleuthing found the owner.
“I’m glad people on the internet found you because I would love to return it,” he wrote to the owner when she contacted him. “I find hundreds of rings.”
Dayton plans to keep searching for the locket’s owner as well as his own big-time gold score.
“It keeps me busy. It keeps me outdoors,” he said, “And it’s a lot better than sitting around the house.”