ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED April 2012
I believe Forrest hid his treasure in one of two areas…albeit these are large areas, more like regions than pinpointed spots.
My first guess is a spot along a place I call Sabre Creek less than 200 miles from Santa Fe. Home of Brown is found there with no attachment to trout or hotels or bears. My second choice is a much bigger area in or around Yellowstone National Park…no surprise there. Half the known world believes that Forrest secreted that old bronze chest somewhere around this country’s first national park. After all, Forrest is on record as saying that the place he hid that chest is special to him and anyone that has read his book knows what fun he had around there. As a kid Forrest spent a lot of summers fishing, hunting, socializing and exploring in Yellowstone and nearby areas. “Where warm waters halt” could be a reference to the well known geysers that spew heated waters around the park and attract tourists by the millions each year….or not.
One thing we do know is that it’s in the mountains. Forest has said many times that its “in the mountains”….and therein rests my conundrum.
Round about March I get crazy about getting out and looking for that chest. I spend the winter months thinking about where it could be. Reading and rereading everything I can about Forrest. Dissecting his poem and hoping to come across some piece of trivial information I’ve overlooked til now. I get real antsy to apply my new ideas in the field. But there’s a big problem. His treasure is in the mountains.
My own home is not in the mountains. Instead it’s just above sea level on a small island in Washington’s Salish Sea. Our winters are very mild. Very little if any snow ever falls here even though I’m about a thousand miles north of Santa Fe. In January and February the mercury hovers at about 45 degrees. We have terrific gardens and a wide variety of plants because hard freezes are so rare. This is all well and good for exploring around Puget Sound but if one has decided to head into the mountains to look for Forrest’s chest, one had better be mindful of the fact that winter at 7,000 feet is much harder and lasts much longer than where I hang out. My decision to explore Yellowstone in April tested my ability to cope with a lingering winter in the Yellowstone region.
April is spring. Everyone knows that. Here in the lowlands, the daffodils are blooming, I’ve been cutting my fast growing lawn for a month and the spring salmon runs are in full-tilt boogie. Six hundred miles south and east, smack in the middle of the Rockies sprawls Yellowstone, where the low spots are at about 7,000 feet in altitude. I find it hard to believe that at home its 57 degrees and here, in West Yellowstone, its 17 degrees and the place has about a foot of snow on the ground. But that’s not the bad news. The bad news is that I have 24 hours to get my exploring done because the weather service warns that a winter storm is on the way and it will dump about two more feet of snow where I am parked. That gives me one day to get “exploring” out of my system before my winter wimp factor sets in and I head for the lowland coast like Speed Racer.
As I climb into my sleeping bag under a red and black Hudson Bay blanket for the night I am comforted by the fact that the difference between nighttime and daytime temps here will be about 35 degrees. It will get up to nearly 50 degrees tomorrow at 1pm. That’s a temperature I can function in. Good bicycle riding weather. That’s important because the only way I can get into the park tomorrow is on a bicycle. Well that’s not precisely true. I can make my choice between bicycling, walking, jogging, roller blades, or roller skis.The road is clear of snow up to Madison Junction but cars and motorcycles are not allowed in yet. Any foot or non-motorized vehicle is allowed on the plowed roads. I choose bicycle because walking would take too long and roller blades would probably kill me.
I am actually looking forward to it. It will be quiet…serene…no cars or trucks, no motorcycles to spoil the natural sounds. It’s the only time of year when this part of Yellowstone is free of motor noise. Bicycles can have the whole road. In the summer Yellowstone is an endless cacophonous parade of ponderous vacation vehicles and in winter the snowmobiles and snow busses take over. But in between, for about a month from mid-March to mid-April its bicycles only from the West entrance to Madison Junction and even beyond as the roads are cleared.
I’m kind of excited about what the park might be like, absent of motors. I wonder too if the wildlife notices or cares. Do they look forward to this brief period between winter motors and summer crowds?… A respite. I brought my field recorder and microphone along just in case. Maybe I can record Yellowstone in its serene state…as wild and noiseless as it’s likely to get…streams, geysers, bubbling mud, bison snorting, elk bellowing, wolves howling, sans the ubiquitous automobile.
I am not an expert on park distances. But I recollect from driving around here last summer that the ride from the west gate up to Madison Junction is about 10 miles. Twenty miles round-trip. Plus a few mile hike because the area I’m interested in is east of the junction but I’ll have to hoof it beyond Madison Junction because that’s as far as the road is cleared right now. I don’t remember any serious hills. I think I can do this comfortably…even in my “less than superb” physical condition.
Unfortunately, I made a slight miscalculation. Its actually more like 15 miles one way. But I don’t figure that out until the next day when I’ve peddled 10 miles and find myself only two thirds of way there. Bummer!
And another miscalculation. The hike in, once I peddle to Madison Junction, is all but impossible. That old trapper and story teller Jim Bridger could have made it, no sweat. But I am many generations and bags of red licorice and forced air heating removed from Jim or any of his ilk. My life is not physically demanding and I am nowhere near an experienced back country traveler. Once off the bike and in snow I am about as competent at making my way safely across the valley and to my destination as a door hinge. But I am stupid enough to try.
At the end of the plowed road I decide to head across the valley and onto the ridge. The snow is not deep but there is a lot of runoff and I can hear water gurgling and rushing under the snow. The whole area is a flooded river of icy water moving downhill under a thin layer of crusty snow and ice. My feet punch through the snow layer as I walk. They get soaked. In fact the further I march toward the slope the more soaked I become. Even once I start up hill its no different. Walking in this stuff is exhausting. It takes me nearly two hours to walk across the valley and up the slope to the ridge,
At one point I break through the snow and find myself up to my chest in a frigid, blue and white snow hole. I can feel ice cold water rushing up past my knees. The water wants to swallow me…pull me in under the snow. Its a struggle to extricate myself and in the process I am now completely drenched. My clothing is soaked through. I am also exhausted from the effort of postholing uphill. I have walked less than a mile. Its been nearly two hours since I left my bike at the junction. I am no where near my destination. I am cold and wet. I am not a happy camper. It’s now after 1pm and the temperature is plummeting. So is my body temperature. I pull my little bag of raisins from my soaked coat pocket and finish them off. Then I turn and head back to the junction. Cold, tired, soaked and defeated. I’m falling through the snow at about every fourth step. Just as I did on the way in. Only now its much harder to pull myself back on top of the snow. I am exhausted. My only consolation is that now I am headed downhill.
I come up with a bad plan. I decide I should try rolling on top of the snow. My little feet go right through but my body won’t. If I lay down on top of the snow and just start rolling I can probably make pretty good time back toward the junction. Less effort. No postholing. Maybe I’m delirious. I give it a try. I lay down on the snow with my belly facing the junction. I tuck my elbows into my chest and cross my ankles. I hurl my body downhill. Its a combination of rolling and sliding. Gravity wants to pull my fat head down hill first. I try fighting gravity and struggle to remain parallel to the slope. Its not working. My speed is picking up. I am on the verge of losing control…no, that’s wrong. I have lost control. I am now in a free fall slide and roll. I remember that there were trees at the bottom. I am not certain where I am or where the trees are. My eyes are closed to keep things from flying into them. I don’t dare open them. In addition to not being in control I am also beginning to panic about the trees. It seems like I have been rolling and sliding for a whole minute. Where am I? Fear has taken my mind off being cold.
I am trying to keep my head up. I spread my legs and try digging my toes into the snow to slow myself down. I am now bouncing up and down like a beach ball. Snow is filling up every cavity between my clothes and my skin but I can feel myself slowing down. Its working. I can feel that I am in control again. If my toes don’t rip off I should do okay. I decide to stop this foolishness before I kill myself. I dig my toes in hard and slide to a complete stop. My eyes are closed. My face is crusted with snow. My coat is packed with snow. My boots are stuffed with snow. My hands are rubbed raw and hurt like the devil. My chin is scraped. My toes are sore. My insides feel like I put them in a blender…but other than that I am fine. I open my eyes and see where I am at. I have come straight down the slope about 400 meters and have come to a halt no more than ten feet directly in front of a tree. I lay there for a second and say thanks to whoever is listening. I have slid about a quarter mile in just a couple of minutes. It took me 45 minutes to walk that same line just a while ago. I am achey and cold again but I didn’t slam into any trees. I am done with sliding. I pry myself upright. Its only a short limp back to my bike. My pack. My recorder. More raisins.
The ride back is torturous. I am frigid and shivering. By the time I get back to West Yellowstone I am nearly frozen solid.
In the end, I caved. I broke out the credit card and paid for a room with a thermostat. I cranked it up to about 212 degrees, took a long, hot shower, crawled into a soft clean bed and thought about how tough those early explorers must have been. Guys who traveled these mountains day in and day out winter and summer…with no raisins.