We left for the desert at dawn, our gear in order. One large pickax for any digging (check); one ground-penetrating-radar system complete with SIR-3000 controller and roving 400-megahertz antenna, capable of scanning under cemetery dirt (check) and through tombstones (check); and a wad of cash big enough to bribe every clerk, cop, and gravedigger in Sierra Mojada, an old mining town in northern Mexico and the alleged resting place of Ambrose Bierce, giant of American letters and subject of one of literature’s greatest mysteries.
Since he vanished in the winter of 1913 after crossing into Mexico to experience the revolution then raging, journalists and historians have searched for the corpse of Bierce across the deserts of Mexico and beyond. It is an epic pursuit, one that has snared countless Bierce hunters over the decades and always ends in the same danger zone: obsession, wrong turns, and empty leads.
Alta Live presents “What Really Happened to Ambrose Bierce?” with Alta Journal contributor Geoffrey Gray and historian William Deverell on Wednesday, July 28 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.
I was different, or so I thought. I had the edge, the secret weapons, and they were now sleeping in the back seat of my rental car. Arturo Martínez was the radar engineer with the curly hair and blue eyes. He’d be handling the SIR-3000 controller, monitoring the readings to determine whether there were bones or bullets under the dirt. Manrique Vanegas, the radar engineer with tattoos and a bedouin-style scarf, was the antenna man. He’d be gliding the orange box over the alleged burial site in Sierra Mojada and guiding us—fingers and toes crossed—to the bones of Bierce himself.
It was a long shot. When Bierce went missing, he didn’t leave many clues. In fact, he left arguably only one—and it was maddeningly vague. In his last known letter, postmarked in Chihuahua City, Bierce wrote to an old friend that he was heading off “for an unknown destination.”
Where was that? Back north and east to the U.S. border? Or farther and deeper south into the mining territory and deserts of Mexico where Pancho Villa and his rebel army were advancing more than a hundred years ago, and where we were now driving?
The desert here is blinding and endless, a flat land of cactus and mesquite that spans thousands of miles, from the border crossing at El Paso to the cattle ranches of Torreón to the south. The region where Bierce went missing is so desolate and remote that it’s famously known as the Zone of Silence, a Mexican twist on the Bermuda Triangle.
How could anyone find anything out here?
Luckily, Martínez and Vanegas, our engineers, had experience using their ground-penetrating radar to find old and decaying bones in the desert. As I learned from Francisco Ortega, their boss at Tecnoterra, a radar company in Guadalajara, the narco wars between drug-trafficking cartels throughout the north have been so severe and consistent that underground-radar experts are sometimes called by law enforcement and others to find missing bodies in the desert, a common dumping place.
The underground-radar device is not invasive, and it’s far cheaper and quicker than hiring a band of laborers to bring their shovels and dig up random spots. The radar device is also used by cemetery owners, who have been known to reuse plots. Martínez and Vanegas are sometimes asked to locate caskets, bones, and tomb walls so that owners can sell a recycled plot to those grieving for their dearly departed.
So, as we got closer to Sierra Mojada, I became convinced that my plan of dragging a pair of underground-radar experts into the Chihuahuan desert to search for the remains of a missing American author was actually a pretty nifty idea. Where others had come up short in their hunts for Bierce, we could use the underground radar to prove or disprove theories. Besides, we weren’t combing the entire desert. We were searching one, potential grave site, a space about the size of a small kitchen. How could we miss?
Half an hour from town, we stopped for gorditas, or pita-style tacos. As we huddled over earthenware bowls of poblanos and crema and about a dozen other fillings, I asked Flor Luna, the stand’s proprietor, if she’d ever heard of Ambrose Bierce.
“The Old Gringo, of course,” she said in Spanish, using the term that local residents have for Bierce. He is well-known here.
“It’s not a legend. It’s true,” she went on, explaining that the story of Bierce’s execution is part of Sierra Mojada lore and is passed down among the generations. She and others I spoke to seemed proud that Bierce had honored the sleepy town with his death.
In Sierra Mojada, we found our way to the mayor at his office in city hall, and he introduced us to Carmelito Torres, the town historian, who promised to show us the alleged Bierce grave site. As we drove down the lone street to the cemetery, no more than a half mile or so, Torres said he, too, had grown up with the belief that the Old Gringo had been executed here, by federal officers who thought he was a spy.
The main source for this version of Bierce’s murder, the one relied on by Torres and others here, was Father James Lienert an American missionary who became a Bierce hunter after serving as the pastor of a local parish from 1967 to 2000. During his time in Sierra Mojada, he spoke with the town’s older residents, hoping to find a witness to Bierce’s alleged execution.
An old man known as Don Chuy shared his story with Leinert. He was only a boy at the time, he told the priest. He watched an old gringo get escorted by federal soldiers down to the cemetery and stood up against the adobe wall. According to Don Chuy, the man was shot and buried in the same place. Don Chuy remembered the location of the grave, he told the priest, because it was directly in front of the spot where several revolutionaries were also executed.
Walking on crutches, Don Chuy showed the missionary Bierce’s alleged grave site in 1989. Five years later, Leinert had a headstone made and placed there.
Now, nearly two decades years later, 16 to be exact, on a hot April afternoon, we all stood around the headstone, sweating, hoping, wondering in the desert heat whether Don Chuy had been right all along or whether we were chasing his and a priest’s delusions.
Martínez grabbed the SIR-3000 controller. Vanegas plugged in the antenna. Three hours later, the engineers had scanned the site. About a month later, I would receive their analysis; the results of our mission would be in.
The underground radar works a bit like a radio. Its antenna beams electromagnetic waves into the dirt, at such high frequency that trained engineers and analysts can identify the presence of objects in the ground based on the lengths of the waves as they bounce off the objects.
Looking at the Bierce grave site, the Tecnoterra team offered a tantalizing conclusion.
“We believe these are the remains of bones,” Juan Pablo Espinosa, an analyst at Tecnoterra, told me, scrolling through the completed report and pointing to the blob-like shapes in front of a neighboring tomb. The blobs were folded over on one another, in a curled-up formation. Like reading wisps of clouds, it was easy to imagine a fallen body here.
Notable in the report: what the analysts did not find. In the grave site, the antenna’s waves detected no evidence of a coffin, suggesting that the body had been buried without one, as was the case with political prisoners killed by firing squad.
I’d been hoping the report would show bullets—perhaps an indication of execution or murder. But a single bullet, or a handful of bullets sprinkled deep below the surface, Espinosa said, would be difficult for the radar to detect.
Sigh. In conclusion, our findings were conclusively inconclusive. The radar at Don Chuy’s location did confirm that something was under there, but we did not have the tools to extract DNA from the alleged remains—the necessary next step to confirm anything substantive.
As I went through the report, looking for a spark, it all sank in. Planning the radar caper for months and traveling thousands of miles through the Mexican desert, I had followed Bierce’s ghost and landed in the same booby trap as other Bierce hunters decades before.
A decent idea. A new technique. And a bunch of nada.
“So, we basically found bones in a graveyard?” I asked Espinosa.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he said.•