ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED august 2011
If you’ve read Forrest’s “Thrill of the Chase” you probably remember the story about him agreeing to put the ashes of his friend and neighbor Olga on Taos Mountain in return for being granted her property at its appraised value. You might also remember that at the last minute Forrest decided while flying over the mountain with her ashes that the mountaintop was too barren and that Olga’s ashes would be much more comfortable down on the side where there are trees and squirrels and chipmunks.
That story left a mark with me as I read it in late 2010 and I decided that one of the places I needed to look for his chest was on the side of Taos mountain. But there were two problems associated with the side of Taos mountain.
First, and most important, there is no Taos Mountain. This I found particularly annoying. There are the Taos Mountain(s)…A range that includes several high peaks, but no Taos Peak or singular such named mountain on any of my maps. Upon further investigation I read that there once was a mountain peak labeled as Taos. It was the highest peak in the Taos Mountains. But it was renamed about 60 years ago. Its now officially named Wheeler Peak.
How sad for Taos Mountain. Once bearer of a proud regional moniker linked to a spectacular native culture and dominant alpine geography…now relegated to promoting a fair-thee-well, minor military botanist who’s exploits can only be recited by those who have climbed to the 13,161 foot summit of Wheeler Peak and read the memorial plaque or those who have looked him up in Wikipedia.
I decided that Forrest and many other locals often referred to Wheeler Peak as Taos Mountain even though all the maps I found used the new appelation rather than the older, more appropriate and dignified, Taos Mountain. I like to think that the mountain appreciated the informal protest against willy-nilly name changing. It was probably orchestrated by a national department of official place namers in Washington, DC who had never been out here but had a mandate from some blow-hard congressman to name something important after Wheeler.
Second, there is no way the clues in the poem, as I understand them, can get me to the side of Wheeler Peak. To begin, there is no canyon which you can follow down to get to Wheeler Peak. Since its the highest peak around it isn’t “down” from anything..except sky.
None-the-less I felt compelled to go to the side of Wheeler Peak and find where the squirrels and chipmunks play and look for Forrest’s chest. Problem was, I only had five days off. and it takes 24hrs of pushing the gas pedal to get there. 24 hours back again. I cannot drive for 24 hours straight. But I can drive for 12 hours straight, take a nap and then drive the other 12.
By my calculations I could drive on days 1&2, hike on days 2&3 and drive back on days 4&5. Maybe end up with about 44lbs of treasure in the back of my truck. Never mind that this could not be the place. Some devious power had taken control of my mind and prevented me from thinking logically about this whole location.
The thing about this that made it sound easy was that I could drive all the way up to 9,000 feet on a Forest Service road and then have to hike up only about 3,000 feet to the side of the mountain over about 7 or 8 miles. There was a particular trail I was interested in that follows a stream up most of the way and then I could cut over to two lakes stocked with trout that I wanted to admire. Stay the night near one of the lakes and then come back down.
As if this idea wasn’t goofy enough I also had to ignore the question of whether Forrest, at 79, would have hiked up this trail with something like a 45lb rock in his backpack. Earlier in my research I had decided to see what a load like Forrest’s chest felt like. I found a pretty good sized rectangular boulder that weighed less…about 40lbs. It was huge and didn’t fit in my pack so l trussed it all up with some rope and wore it like a pack. 40lbs is a lot of weight and something shaped like a treasure chest does not sit against your back very well. Its fairly tortuous for us modern hikers. In the good old days those lean and extra fit explorers would have thought nothing of carrying two 50lb rocks, or a boat or a horse up that trail. I, on the other hand, am not one of those tough, grizzled mountain men of the past. That 40lb rock was really uncomfortable. I was not about to carry it uphill for 7-8 miles and I didn’t think Forrest would either.
In spite of all the reasons why it was senseless to look on the side of Wheeler Peak, I went.
Once again, I saw beautiful country completely unlike the wet rainforestesque woodlands of my home state. Also unlike the oxygen rich air that I am used too at near sea level. At 12,000 feet the O2 level in the air is considerably less. It affects your ability to work. It makes you breathe harder. It makes you tired quicker. I think it also made me dumber.
And did I mention the temperature swing? The temperature when I started was about 60F. It warmed up to nearly 78F. Pretty nice walking weather. As I ambled next to my stream the spruce and pine forest heated up and smelled sweet like fresh sawn wood as the resin warmend under the bark of tens of thousands of trees. I love that smell.
I brought plenty of water and a jacket. I did not think that I would need a sleeping bag. Instead, in the name of “lightweight” I brought a nylon thermal blanket and a sheet of plastic. Dumb! By 11pm it was 40F and it continued dropping until 4am when my GPS told me it was 31F.
Shivering keeps me awake. Too dark to explore. So I watched the night sky, and what a sky it was. There are no lights to stiffle the view of stars out there. No glare to reduce your eyeful of the heavens. I have never seen so many night objects in the starry, starry sky as I saw that night next to Wheeler Peak. I saw hundreds of falling stars whiz toward earth. I saw constellations I didn’t remember the names of and old friends like Cassiopea and both dippers. I made up a few constellations of my own, like Elephant Jumping Hurdles and Monkey Wearing a Dress. I even watched a satellite cut lazily across the sky. It was simply beautiful…and humbling…and fun.
As soon as light began to flood over the mountain I started exploring again. I was somewhat tired and slow from the constant teeth chattering and lack of sleep. By Noon I was through exploring and headed back down the trail. Of course I found nothing…At 6pm I was back in the truck and headed home. At 7PM I was close to dead so I pulled over for a nap. When I woke-up it was 2am and I still had 23hrs of driving to get home.
I promised myself on the drive back that next time my search areas would have to fit the directions in the poem…at least a little bit….
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