Photograph by Matthew Suárez
The Ugly Old Goat had planned and paid for the whole event using ten Bitcoins. He thought it was apropos, seeing as his initial investment in Bitcoin had been to purchase ten coins.
“I don’t think we should mention that we were at a Bitcoin conference,” whispers Trey as the Border Patrol agents search my car. I shrug, because I don’t think it matters. Bitcoiners are so paranoid. But I am a people pleaser, so when the agent asks why I was in Mexico, I say, “For vacation.” It’s not a lie. I came to sit by the pool and take a cultural dive into the Bitcoin subculture. When asked the same question, Trey says he was a speaker at a convention. His wife and daughter tagged along to relax.
Trey is wearing a burnt orange t-shirt and gray sweatpants that hit mid-calf. He is bearded and bed-headed. He has the vibe of a guy who smokes good weed. His wife Jill bounces their two-year-old daughter Daisy soothingly on one hip, but that’s not stopping Daisy from screaming her head off. I watch as Border Patrol agents examine the contents of a cooler in my trunk. Trey leans over and casually asks, “How thoroughly do you think they will search your car?”
Goat photograph by Matthew Suárez / Background photograph by Alexandre Bringer from Pexels
My mind starts to reel. I think back to a few days ago, sitting at the Torre Lucerna’s swanky pool with Trey’s wife.
“How did you and Trey meet?” I was curious how an average-looking guy scored a smoke show like Jill. She has shampoo commercial hair and legs for days. Meanwhile, the only swagger Trey possesses is his intellect and a swoon-worthy British accent.
“At an ayahuasca retreat,” she answered causally.
I could not help but laugh. “Seriously?”
“Yeah,” she shrugged.
Now I am wondering, Are there drugs in my car? Can you even buy ayahuasca in Mexico? Do they have some tucked away in one of their suitcases?
We have been pulled over to a secondary checkpoint on this Sunday afternoon because of our passports: one from the US, one from the UK, and two from Canada. “You can’t just leisurely enter the United States during a pandemic,” said the pint-sized agent upon seeing them. “Drive up. He is going to have to deal with this.” We were guided into a large, covered parking lot crawling with border agents and detection dogs, then told to pop the hood and the trunk and exit the vehicle. A swarm of agents descended upon my dusty SUV.
I am going to kill my husband for this. I did not want to come on this trip. When I reluctantly agreed, my only stipulation was that someone drive back across the border with me, because he was planning to stay for an additional three weeks to go diving and exploring along the coast of Baja. A couple of days ago, I happily agreed to drive back with Trey and his family. I did not know until our drive that they were Covid-doubting conspiracy theorists.
During a break between panels, a man with owlish spectacles says, “When you think about the greatest human inventions, we have fire and Bitcoin, and hopefully one day, teleportation.”
By way of explaining his concern over the Border Agents searching my car, Trey adds, “We have Ivermectin and…” I interrupt him before he can say more. I know from our conversation on the way here that another Bitcoiner made them fake vaccine cards. They bought fake masks. I didn’t even know that was a thing. “They sell them in Canada too, but I found a Mexican company that makes a better one. They have tiny holes all throughout that are invisible to the naked eye,” Trey had explained that the reason they were driving into the US was to take a flight from San Diego to Washington. If they drove across the border back into Canada, they could avoid covid testing.
“What’s the big deal?” I asked, “It’s just a swab.”
“It’s a violation,” Trey spit through clenched teeth.
Now, I try to reassure him, even as I overhear an agent ask a colleague, “Do they seem shady to you?” I turn my head away, too anxious to hear his response. “It’s fine,” I say to Trey as we watch agents rummage through my glove box — though I do not know if it is in fact fine. “They don’t care about that. I think they just want to make sure we are not smuggling in people or cocaine.” Inwardly, I am scripting the angry phone call I will make to my husband and his dad when this is all over. Come to Mexico for a Bitcoin conference, they begged me. It’ll be fun! My husband hounded me to attend for over a year. It was his dad’s conference.
In the Bitcoin world, his dad goes by the handle The Ugly Old Goat. He had planned and paid for the whole event using ten Bitcoins. He thought it was apropos, seeing as his initial investment in Bitcoin had been to purchase ten coins. The Goat had done something similar two years ago and titled it “The Workingman’s Bitcoin Cruise.” The headliners at that first conference had not been nearly as impressive, and he had lost quite a bit of money on the endeavor. This time around, the price for admission was steeper, the hotels were swankier, and Bitcoin celebrities were hosting the panels.
The entire package included a two-night stay at a 5-star resort winery in the overly instagrammed Valle de Guadalupe, a three-night stay at Torre Lucerno hotel with an ocean view in Ensenada, and lastly, two days at the Horsepower Ranch for an off-road adventure. The price tag was $13,995 for the 7-day VIP package. A 10 percent discount was offered to anyone paying in Bitcoin.
Trey had spent the car ride back to the border explaining Bitcoin to me in simple terms. He covered everything from Elon Musk’s obsession with “Shitcoins,” to why the only cryptocurrency worth a damn is Bitcoin, to the concept of Bitcoin as a living, breathing entity. I learned more in that two-hour car ride than I did at conference, but maybe that was just me.
I attempt some Spanish. He chuckles at the attempt, and says, “You are in Mexico!” before opening the gate. Our villa overlooks a pond. In the distance, hot air balloons dot the sky.
While the border agents search, I note that the sky is unusually overcast for this time of year. I prattle on about June gloom and May gray and how the summer months in San Diego are really from August through October. I am convinced that calmness while solve our current predicament. I don’t want to turn around and drive Trey and Jill back into Mexico. The rest of the Bitcoiners are in San Felipe by now. It’s a long drive there, and I would have to turn around and drive back to the border alone. The only Spanish I speak, I learned in high school from an Illinois-raised instructor who never set foot in a Latin American country. I maintain the Zen-like belief that my staying cool and collected will lead the agents to open the large metal gate and allow all four of us into the United States. I just want to go home.
Finally, they open the gate. As we cross in the the US, Trey says, “Now I need to move to the States. Clearly, America does not want me. She’s like a girl playing hard to get, and I have to have her.” His wife giggles from the back seat. All I can think is that Bitcoiners are fucking nuts.
My husband Eric’s obsession with Bitcoin began in 2010. He fell down an internet rabbit hole and never came out. He consumed books, watched YouTube videos, and read countless articles on Bitcoin. During those early years, which I like to refer to as the Dark Days, Eric spoke about cryptocurrency incessantly. He began to spread the good news of Bitcoin at every social event we attended. Satoshi Nakamoto was his economic Jesus. He cornered people at parties, believing it was his civic duty to inform the masses on the subject. Listeners’ eyes glazed over, and it got to the point where, when we invited friends over for dinner, they would ask, “Can this be a Bitcoin-free evening?” Our friends were simply not interested. To this day, only one of them has ever invested in Bitcoin. A close friend installed a ceiling fan in our home. In exchange, Eric gifted him a percentage of Bitcoin — $100 worth, I believe. This friend called a few months back in a panic, because he saw how much value it had gained and wanted to get to it, but couldn’t figure out how. “Whatever you do, don’t sell!” Eric shrieked into the phone, “It’ll only go up!”
But while our friends politely edged away, Eric did find a receptive ear: his father. It happened late one Christmas Eve. We had attended church, eaten dinner, and opened presents. Eric and his dad had consumed copious amounts of tequila. Eric was prattling on about cryptocurrency. They were yelling, but not because they were angry. It’s just how they communicate. Instead of waiting for each other to finish speaking, they yell over one another. It has taken me years to get used to this.
“Bitcoin is right up your alley,” Eric told his dad.
The entire package included a two-night stay at a 5-star resort winery in the overly instagrammed Valle de Guadalupe, a three-night stay at Torre Lucerno hotel with an ocean view in Ensenada, and lastly, two days at the Horsepower Ranch for an off-road adventure. The price tag was $13,995 for the 7-day VIP package.
The Goat nodded. He reached into his pocket for a lighter. He held it over his shot of tequila and lit it on fire. “Watch this,” he said, gleefully turning toward where I was sitting on the sofa reading a book, desperately trying to tune them out. He motioned to his flaming drink. He tilted his head back and gulped it down. He laughed with childlike delight. His belly shook. His blue eyes sparkled with excitement. “I’ll do it again!” he shouted, “This time, record me!” I did, and promptly sent the footage to a group chat I have with my girlfriends. I captioned it, “Just another average Christmas!”
That Christmas Eve discussion had quite an impact on The Goat. His father had been a banker. When The Goat was 15, his dad had introduced him to the Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises at the Hyatt Fremont in Kansas City. The Goat said it was a pivotal life moment. In the ‘80s, The Goat had started a company called The Gold Standard. He minted gold coins with famous economists’ faces on them. Rich people bought them. I don’t know very much about that company, other than that it was extremely lucrative and that it went down in a blaze. The Goat served an 11-year prison stint for money laundering. The first time I met him was in the visitors room at Texarkana Correctional Facility when I was pregnant with his grandson.
The two-story office building that housed The Gold Standard had once been a bank, and there was a fancy old-timey vault in the basement. As a child, Eric and his brothers had played down there, mesmerized by the sleek round contraption and the metal bars encapsulating the room inside. While visiting Kansas City last winter, Eric drove past the building to see what had become of it. He was both surprised and amused to find it was now a Scientology headquarters. “My dad is really going to get a kick out of this,” he laughed, and snapped a photo. We parked our rental car and went in. Eric explained to the woman behind the front desk that this had once been his dad’s office. She loaded us up with scientology pamphlets and let us look at the vault downstairs. We posed for a photo.
“I bet Tom Cruise’s money is socked away in there,” I whispered.
“If he was smart, he’d have Bitcoin,” Eric whispered back.
The Goat took to Bitcoin wholeheartedly. In 2013, he spent all he had, and then some, $1000, to buy 10 Bitcoin. He over-drafted his bank account with the purchase. Before long, he started trading in Bitcoin. He turned a quick profit. By 2017, he was a millionaire, and listed among the top Bitcoin traders in Mexico. At the time, he lived in a small village outside of Ensenada called El Zorrillo, which means The Skunk. The village was run down. Many of the homes had been built by hand. Most were dilapidated. When The Goat started making money, his wife Maria wanted to remain in that village. She loved it there. Her family lived there. Previously, she and The Goat and her three young children had lived in a beachside community near Tijuana. Maria hated that spot: too many rich gringos. So they built a compound in El Zorrillo on the top of the hill. The view was stunning and surrounded by mountains. The house was a showy cement mansion surrounded by poverty. They had a fenced in dirt lot attached to the property where they kept a rotation of menacing dogs chained up to look after their collection of overpriced trucks and desert toys.
We visited a few times. Maria’s mom always made handmade tamales outside over a rustic fire. Once, I brought my kid’s hand-me-downs. Maria handed them out to the neighbor kids as if she were Mother Teresa. These visits made me feel uncomfortable. I felt like a stereotypical pampered American, visiting a massive house surrounded by devastating poverty. I wondered how to say, “I did not vote for Trump,” in Spanish.
The Goat and Maria have since moved. They now own five properties, or rather, Maria owns five properties, because Americans are not allowed to own real estate in Mexico. Two of those properties are used solely for Bitcoin purposes. One, which The Goat refers to as “The Bitcoin house,” boasts two state-of-the-art recording studios filled with fancy equipment where he broadcasts YouTube videos to a meager following. For the broadcasts, he uses his handle The Ugly Old Goat, and even wears a goat mask in many episodes. His wife often joins him in the recordings. They call her The Goat Lady. He posts his videos on Facebook. His average viewership is around 15-20. His YouTube channel sees more traffic — around 300 views. A couple are at 600. The Bitcoin house has four bedrooms upstairs and a master suite downstairs. It is set up in dormitory style, women’s rooms on one side, men’s on the other. He hosts Bitcoin authors, bloggers, and YouTubers, plus Clubhouse and Twitter users with hefty followings. Some of them stay for months at time, mooching off his hospitality. Many of the guests appear in his YouTube videos.
A second of The Goat’s homes is walking distance to the beach in Ensenada. It is called The Bitcoin Institute. He trademarked the title.
“Is it a Bitcoin school?” I ask him as the conference draws near.
The Goat lets out an annoyed sigh. “I don’t know,” he shouts, throwing up his arms up in frustration. His mood is always frantic. “You explain Bitcoin to me, and I’ll explain the Institute. Just come down and see it for yourself!” He is exasperated.
“Are you going to teach classes?” I press.
“Probably,” he mutters.
“But you don’t speak Spanish,” I tease.
“It doesn’t matter!” He bristles, “A lot of people [going to my conference] are thinking about moving to Mexico. I figured I can start this little Bitcoin Institute. We can start having classes. There are six bedrooms in the house. I don’t have the answers to this thing!” He raises his voice again, annoyed at my questions. “I’m offering an opportunity. It’s beyond my expertise. Maybe it won’t happen. It’s okay if it doesn’t. I’m not in it to make a fortune.”
I overhear a man at the table behind me whisper, “Oh, my God, that is Knut Svanholm. He wrote, “Bitcoin: Sovereignty through Mathematics.” Just as excitedly, he adds, “There is Tone Vays! I follow him on Twitter.”
It is just weeks until the conference, and the Old Goat is more frantic than usual. He is tying up loose ends and panicking over low ticket sales. He records commercials for the event on his YouTube channel, then posts them on Facebook and Twitter. They look quasi-professional. He is wearing a puka shell necklace, a poncho, and a camouflage hat bearing the Bitcoin logo. His energy is over the top as he describes the lodging and namedrops his guest speakers. Because I love my father-in-law, I agree to attend his conference. More than anything, I am curious about the subculture into which he has so fully immersed himself.
When Eric and I arrive at the first hotel of our stay, I am blown away. The drive is nearly two hours past the border, down gravel, pothole-laden roads. I am certain that we will bust a tire. The security guard working the front gate speaks to us in Spanish and laughs when we answer in English. He speaks more slowly. I attempt some Spanish. He chuckles at the attempt, and says, “You are in Mexico!” before opening the gate. Our villa overlooks a pond. In the distance, hot air balloons dot the sky. I take a video of the oversized living room, dining room, kitchen, master suite, and bathroom with hot tub. I send it to my sister. She responds, “Looks like a video from Robin Leach, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
The first two days are quiet. There are not many attendees. Two workshops are taught, one by Giacomo Zucco, titled Running a Bitcoin. The cost of admittance is $1000. The other, by Jimmy Song, is called Programming Bitcoin. The price tag on that class is $4000. Mr. Song’s class is hosted in our suite’s dining room. There are only five students. The Goat has secured a spot for Eric, and my husband is pumped! Another student is a 16-year-old girl who has flown in from Houston. She is dressed all in black, and reminds me of a mini Steve Jobs. The only exception to her monochromatic look is a sleek pair of slim-fitting white Nike high tops. Another student is a young man in his mid-twenties; he wears a leather fanny back around his waist and the same dark brown cargo pants and beige button down shirt on both days. He mentions that his company, Cash App, paid for him to attend. He is excited to meet Jimmy Song. He has read all of his books. “It’s crazy to me that there are not more people here taking this class,” he says after the first lesson. “It is such a great opportunity.”
I sit in the other room on a sofa. I am pretending to read A Moveable Feast, but I am listening to Jimmy. Maybe I can absorb some of what he is saying. I feel like I should feel more grateful than I do to be in the presence of someone whom everyone else finds impressive, but I am bored. Once Song mentions transaction parsing, I am lost. I Google it to gain understanding, but it is all gibberish to me. I go back to my book. Over the next seven days, I will finish four novels. I went into the week with every intention of learning more about cryptocurrency, or at the very least of having deep conversations with Bitcoiners. Instead, I feel like a visitor to some kind of experimental commune: confused and a little alarmed.
On Tuesday, the Conference moves to a skyrise hotel in Ensenada. The interior is decorated old Hollywood-style: lots of glass and gold. All sorts of characters show up for that. There are people who have traveled from all over the world: Sweden, Brazil, Scotland, Germany, Italy, and on and on. The Old Goat organizes a dinner outside on the patio, facing the pool, to welcome guests. It is set up like a wedding reception: white tablecloths and delicate gold chairs. The Goat Lady is wearing a gown. She spins in a circle and the fabric dances around her. The conference participants are buzzing with excitement. I overhear a man at the table behind me whisper, “Oh, my god, that is Knut Svanholm. He wrote, Bitcoin: Sovereignty through Mathematics. Just as excitedly, he adds, “There is Tone Vays! I follow him on Twitter.” As I look around, I note that the tables are mostly filled with men. Out of around 40 people, I count 5 women.
The next morning, the panels start in a large conference room adjacent to the pool. Subjects include: Will Bitcoin become the World Reserve Currency?, What is Competition in Currencies?, Covid Orange Pill, Thank God for Bitcoin, Beyond Bitcoin, and The Future of Self: Sovereignty in the Digital Age. This is not a conference for Bitcoin newbies. I bring a notebook to jot down interesting ideas, but instead, I find myself writing down some of the more outlandish quotes I hear uttered. During a break between panels, a man with owlish spectacles says, “When you think about the greatest human inventions, we have fire and Bitcoin, and hopefully one day, teleportation.” Another guy says, “Asking someone to explain Bitcoin is like asking, ‘What is gravity?’ I mean, I can give you a basic definition, but it’s so much deeper, so much more complex!”
In the end, I find myself skipping out on most of the panels. It is largely over my head. Besides, I have heard these ideas and arguments countless times in my own living room, exchanged and hashed out between father and son.
I don’t think I was alone in my boredom. During the first day of the conference, The Goat, who was moderating a panel, fell asleep onstage — head down, chin resting upon his chest and droplets of drool falling from his mouth. Hours before that, he had addressed the room from the brightly lit stage after he and Maria had walked down a red carpet reminiscent of the Oscars. Maria was wearing a beautiful gown. Behind them, projected on a large screen, was a photo of the two of them sitting on a leather sofa on what appears to be an imitation of a late night TV show studio, complete with cityscape background. In it, they were holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes.
Maria’s long blond extensions reached below her waist. She wore a summery floral dress and The Goat wore jeans and a white button-down with a bandana around his neck. It felt like a Saturday Night Live skit. “This is my beautiful wife,” he said to the small crowd of around 30 people. I got the sense that he wanted her to be eye candy. While it is true that she is beautiful, it still felt gross. She is the same age as me, nearly 30 years younger than he is. It did not help that the VIP lanyard I was given to wear at the conference all week read “Mrs. Eric Jones” instead of my name. When I pointed it out to the woman working the swag table, she said, “Maybe The Ugly Old Goat did not know your name?”
Over breakfast the next day, Knut, a panelist from Sweden, asks how I am faring. “It’s not exactly a conference for lay people,” I answer. “I tried to absorb what was being said, but my grasp of economics is minimal.” He nods. “At the very least,” he says, “you would need to understand the basics of the Austrian School of Economics to follow.” With that I focus on my huevos rancheros. Knut gets started talking about Carl Menger. Eric, who is sitting next to me, nods happily. He is loving every second of the conference. Alone in our hotel room, I Google “Austrian School of Economics” so that I don’t appear to be a complete idiot the next time I talk to Knut. But it’s no use.
The rest of the week feels much like summer camp. Bitcoiners gather each morning in the hotel restaurant for the buffet-style breakfast. They pull up chairs to sit next to one another. They have deep conversations and inside jokes. Connections are strong and bonds are forming. Eric is in heaven. I feel like an interloper. By the time the conference is moved to its final destination at the Horsepower Ranch, I have moved on to my fourth book. I find a spot outside on a wooden bench in the shade. Mountains loom in the distance. Jimmy Song’s tribe of children can be seen chasing after the ranch’s cattle dogs. I start to feel like a piece of furniture, as if I am melding into the scenery at the ranch. I become a fixture in every room I occupy, one of the leather chairs, the wallpaper, a crack in the wall. I feel insignificant. While I am sitting near the pool late in the afternoon, Jimmy Song approaches and comments on my book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer “That’s a great one,” he says.
“You’ve read it?” I respond, looking up from my book, desperate to talk about something other than Bitcoin. He has already walked away.
From my reading bench, I often hear Eric inside the lodge, laughing that machine-gun laugh of his. Since the conference started five days ago, we have barely had a conversation. In the evening, he attends the parties his dad throws. I attend those same parties for a few minutes, and then go back to my room, usually to Google things like “the blockchain” or “shitcoins,” so I have something to talk about with these people.
On Friday, two nights before the conference wraps up, The Goat hires a cover band to perform classic rock songs. During a set break, the Bitcoiners take over their instruments. An Italian Bitcoiner acts as lead singer, the Bitcoin Mechanic takes over on bass, another guy sits at the drums, someone else takes keyboard, and Knut plays guitar. He moves around like an ‘80s rocker. The crowd goes crazy, and a bystander proudly shouts, “There is nothing Bitcoiners cannot do!” Surprisingly, they are better than the hired band. They stop performing only out of courtesy to the other musicians. When the band covers The Beatles, The Old Goat skips around the dance floor, swaying his body and flailing his arms. A guy leans over and asks Eric, “Is your dad on acid?” The machine gun laugh fires in response. Mid dance, The Goat begins convulsing and falls to the ground. The Bitcoiners circle him in a panic, whereupon he leaps to his feet and laughs, “I got you guys, I‘m not that old. I just pulled a James Brown on your asses!”
When the band leaves, A karaoke machine is rolled out. The Bitcoiners begin belting out Linkin Park songs; someone drunkenly sings “Gin and Juice.” I take that as my long-overdue cue to head to my room. Eric does not make it back until around 1 am. “They are playing poker, and I can’t keep up with those high rollers,” he says before rolling over and falling blissfully asleep.
By the time Sunday rolls around and it is time to head back home, I have come to a fuller understanding of my complicated relationship with Bitcoin. It took my journey to Mexico and a full week with these fanatics to reach it. Here is the thing: I don’t trust it. I see it as play money. I view it as gambling, and Vegas is my least favorite place on earth to visit. Everything is too flashy, the people are sad, and it stinks of cigarettes. I come from a blue collar family. I am not impressed by wealth unless it comes from hard work.
I don’t think Bitcoin will replace traditional banking. I don’t see the public conforming to cryptocurrency anytime soon. But in my family, saying that out loud is blasphemy. If I hint at it, I can expect an hour-long lecture. On top of this, while I am so proud of my father-in-law and the life he has managed to carve out for himself, I am certain that Bitcoin will bankrupt my father-in-law. He spends money like water, and he is too generous. He has been known to give Bitcoin away at will to friends, family, acquaintances, and even his wife’s plastic surgeon, as a tip for a job well done. Because of this, it is hard for me to take Bitcoin seriously.
Returning, then, to that car ride back to the border with Trey, Jill, and Daisy. To Trey, doing his best both to explain Bitcoin and convert me to its cause. I am charmed by his poetic and whimsical descriptions of an otherwise mundane subject, but I don’t waiver in my fundamental indifference.
Finally, he asks with a sigh, “Do you have Bitcoin?”
“Just one,” I say.
He lifts an eyebrow in surprise, “One…as in a full Bitcoin?”
“It was a gift,” I shrug.
He lets out another sigh, heavier than the first. “In a couple of years, you will be a millionaire. Do you get that?!”
I shrug, because I don’t believe it.
He shakes his head in disgust, conveying the judgment that I will be the least deserving millionaire in the world.
He is right.