The interstate highway system was designed by Eisenhower, my middle-school son told me many years ago, to create a place to land airplanes should our cold war enemies succeed in blowing up our airports.
Hmm. I looked it up. Not too far from the truth. According to the National Archives (http://www.archives.gov/)
“… during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower was still thinking about good roads as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, where he oversaw the invasion of Western Europe and the defeat of the Nazi army, which was able to move quickly on the autobahns running throughout Germany.”
Just 60 years later, interstates offer me the chance to visit just about everywhere in the country pretty darn fast. With no ill-intent.
So July 30 I headed out from my sea level home near Washington D.C. and by August first I was in the hills of Missouri reading a sign marking Lewis and Clark’s journey to the Pacific. Not there yet, but well on my way.
Meriweather Lewis, William Clark and an enormous Newfoundland dog named Seaman, who left Illinois in spring, 1804, would get to the ocean a year and a half later. By 1919 the U.S. Army was able to cross the country in 62 days. (Thanks, ibid National Archives article)
I could do the trip in a couple days.
Now in 2016, Me, my son, who we know here as “Seth,” along with our dog, who we’ll call “Natalie,” headed out from Washington D.C. to celebrate our birthdays. Seth was born on my 31st birthday so in a few weeks, the day I would turn 50, he would turn 19.
It had been a tough decision to celebrate in this way.
I was born in the 50th state and my mother and stepfather had invited us to the land of Aloha, where they live, to celebrate. It seemed appropriate.
Instead, we were headed out to Montana, to seek the Forrest Fenn treasure. I had explained to my kids that Fenn, an elderly gentleman with a twinkle in his eye, claimed to have hidden a box of gold somewhere in a four-state region, a sort of legacy to his sense of adventure. Having spent a lifetime exploring the American West, his battle with cancer had prompted him to think about where he wanted his bones to rest. At some point, his cancer subsided enough for him to go to that place and hide a box of gold coins and historic artifacts worth upward of a couple million bucks. And he hid a bunch of clues on how to find it, in a poem.
I told the kids I felt there was 50 percent chance this actually went down. We don’t know the guy and he appears to be profiting from the sale of a book related to the treasure hunt.* But hey, he is trying to get kids outdoors. I’m up for that. And deciphering a poem? Hell yes.
So here’s the poem:
As I have gone alone in there
And with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where,
And hint of riches new and old.
Begin it where warm waters halt
And take it in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.
From there it’s no place for the meek,
The end is drawing ever nigh;
There’ll be no paddle up your creek,
Just heavy loads and water high.
If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,
Look quickly down, your quest to cease
But tarry scant with marvel gaze,
Just take the chest and go in peace.
So why is it that I must go
And leave my trove for all to seek?
The answers I already know
I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak
So hear me all and listen good,
Your effort will be worth the cold.
If you are brave and in the wood
I give you title to the gold.
I didn’t buy the book that Fenn is selling—a personal memoir—but I read a bunch of blog posts and read a lot of online articles. I learned anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 treasure-seekers are also looking for the treasure. It was hidden 5 or 6 years ago and a couple people have gone astray in the search.
(One sorry dude, ignoring the specific admonition by Fenn not to search south of Santa Fe or in the winter–set off in an inflatable raft in the dead of winter just south of Santa Fe. He was not seen alive again. Fortunately his dog was rescued. Fenn hired a helicopter to help in the search, which seemed like a nice thing to do. Still, the guy’s ex-wife is threatening to sue Fenn. Sheesh.)
People have sold their homes and committed their lives to The Hunt. And there’s a festival held every June by someone who seems to be good pals with Fenn himself. I subscribed to the listserves, I browsed the posts, I read the failure stories–most of which are actually wild successes as they pried people off their couches into the fresh air.
So together the barely-still-teenagers and I cooked up a theory. Well, it was mostly my theory. Fenn loved Yellowstone (and I love Montana) so let’s start there, I suggested.
Treasures bold. CLEARLY this means ‘naked’ so we’re talking about a swimming hole. Hmm. I chose one of my favorite places in Montana, found a hotspring nearby and suggested this might be where warm waters rising to the surface halt. We were off and running.
Seth and I packed my pickup, lured the dog into the back and headed West. Seth managed the cd player, I managed the gear shift.
In a couple days, having picked up Seth’s good friend, who we’ll call “Laura,” at Denver International Airport, we were descending the pass toward the Grand Tetons in northwest Wyoming.
The kids gasped as the peaks came into view.
We checked in at the park visitor center and learned one of the last campgrounds in the two parks to have openings was just to our south (The Tetons are just south of Yellowstone.) Sensing competition, I turned on a dirt road that appeared to be a short cut.
Soon I was squinting at clouds of dust – “Ever see bison?” I asked Laura.
Soon the two barely-kids were standing on the back seat, poking their heads and cellphone cameras through the sun roof. I drove at a walking pace amid the mammoth creatures. The road was strewn with mini-vans as gawkers gawked and we crept past them to snag one of the last campsites available.
We reread Fenn’s poem. Seth and Laura gave me a stuffed moose as a birthday present. We named it “Fenn” and parked it in the front seat to give me directions. Laura and Seth shared the back seat.
A day or two later we pulled off the main road near West Yellowstone, staring at a large body of water. If we had interpreted the poem correctly, our million-dollar prize, which would pay not only for both kids’ tuition to their very expensive schools, but might get me a new truck with more than a four cylinder engine (that might not have to drop to third gear to make it over these mountain passes) lay just across the body of water, through a meadow, somewhere in the wood. A locally famous fishing hole, home to an enormous Brown Trout, hid just over there, I pointed to a dark calm piece of water.
I knew I could swim it but Laura seemed pretty slight. It was late in the day. Seth asked about bears. Again.
I reconsidered the poem and came up with another solution. “Let’s try Plan B,” I said–the Lamar Valley in the northern part of the park. There was a ranger named “Brown” who lived over there a few decades back.
Soon we were walking up a creek bed, ever nigh, marveling at the cast-off antlers and beautiful river stones all around us. We clambered up a steep slope, we scratched our legs on bushes, we found trees with blazes carved by rutting elk, we watched a stream gurgle. I took pictures of the kids sitting by the creek. We marveled at the silence.
Almost immediately I felt that a box of gold treasure would be ludicrous here. It wouldn’t fit in, it would be a burden to haul out, it would ruin our priceless day.
I pointed out a familiar wildflower, a late bloomer this year. We found our bliss.
An hour or so later, back at the road, I tucked a broken jar that I’d found in the creek into the garbage bag in the back of the truck and we headed west again. The kids said they’d had enough treasure hunting, enough park traffic, enough tourists. “Let’s get out of here,” they said.
I asked Laura, whose cell service and internet skill exceed mine and Seth’s, to find a campground outside the park. A Forest Circus campground, I told her, those are the best.
“Why do you call it “Forest Circus?” she asked. It was because my sister used to work there and that’s what she called it. But I asked her why she called “Harris Teeter,” “Hairy Tit.” She got it.
We stopped for gas and I told the kids to go into the mini-mart that advertised “beer, pop, ice” and find something for breakfast. Laura, a Virginia native, came out with a carton of grits. We were good to go.
We climbed into the mountains and found a campsite where we picked berries and slept soundly despite our busybody camp host’s comment regarding bears (“We haven’t seen one since Friday.”)
We didn’t mention the Fenn treasure again. We’d found it.
* Fenn would later correct me on this point: “I gave all of (the book profits) to the Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe … I have never sold even one copy of my Thrill of the Chase book, and did not even get my publication costs back.”