ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2012
Just about a year ago I was sitting in my not warm truck, parked just off a recently plowed road in a snow covered pullout at 7,500 feet in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico.The place seemed so perfect….
My notes and what remains of my memories make up the following post…
It’s about 25 degrees outside and maybe 40 inside. Steam from my hot cocoa is fogging up the windshield. I’m sipping slowly, delaying. Putting off grabbing my ice axe and leaving my truck for the cold, cheerless canyon in front of me. In summer kids gingerly hop along the sunlit, boulder strewn bottom checking out the pools for good swimming holes while their adults toss a line here and there hoping to convince one of the locals it’s time for dinner. But in winter this place is gray and deserted. No kids, no fishers, no fish. Water is low right now. Where did everything go?
On two sides I can see tall, green shale cliffs. The canyon is at it’s narrowist right here. The road runs about 20 feet from the wall I’m parked next too. On my left about 50 yards is the creek running alongside the other wall with a light colored igneous filled crack that stands out like a tutu at a wrestling match. My blaze. It pops out of the ground six inches wide. Like a bolt of quartz lightning it zigs and zags its way up to the top of a stone cold wall about 50 feet above the creek. From there it disappears on a ledge above. I think about the time when it was formed a hundred or so million years ago and it occurs to me that it would not have been a good time to be sitting here.
As I sip and shiver a red Chevy pick-up pulls into the same wide spot and stops dead behind me. There is no other traffic on the frozen road. I watch the driver open his door and get out in my side mirror. His warm breath condenses in the cold air. He’s got a set of Carharts on, bibs, jacket and flannel lined cap. They look broke-in, like he probably wears them a lot. He has black, wool, shooting mittens on both hands and he’s carrying something that looks like a space pistol from a 50’s sci-fi movie in his right hand. Although I’m pretty certain it isn’t, I can’t make out what it actually is. He slams the driver door and casually walks up to my side window. As he heads toward me I lean forward and crank down the glass. I don’t want to appear unfriendly.
“Everthin OK?” he shouts as he gets closer to my open window.
“Things are good!” I more or less yell back. Not sure what he means.
As he gets next to my door I can see that he’s about six feet in height and maybe 50 with a one day beard and a friendly face. His eyes are bright blue and kinda squinty with decorative crows feet on the sides…like a guy who works outside in the sun a lot. I can smell cigar smoke on his carharts.
He props his empty left paw on my roof and peers directly into my face.
“You ain’t stuck are ya?” he inquires.
“No, I’m fine.” I say and then figure he probably wonders why I’m here so I add, “Just admiring the scenery.”
He turns a bit so he can look at the same miserable, gray and white, bland, frigid landscape that I am looking at.
He just sort of peers at the canyon for awhile before he says “Yep.” Then stomps his boots on the ground in a little dance that usually means the conversation is over.
He turns his head back toward me. “Okay.” He says. Then he gives the inside of my truck a quick once-over glance, “Just wanted to make sure you was okay. It’s a lonesome spot to be stuck at. No cell up here and not much traffic to flag down.” He took a step back from my truck and pointed at my front wheel with his space gun. “Your wheels look free.”, he said.
“I think everything is fine.” I said. “But thanks a lot for checkin on me. You’re right. Crappy spot to be stuck for the night.”
“No problem.” he said as he turned and walked toward the creek.
I watched him move away and tried to figure out what his space pistol was all about as I took a sip from my now lukewarm cocoa. It was bigger than a gun. Bulbous. Like a power driver or electric drill….but not exactly. No cord. No bit. He carried it with him down next to the stream. I could see his boots now. Leather hunting boots. From Sears probably. And they were untied. Like maybe they were too tight for his feet. I’ve seen a few guys wear boots that way. I guess it makes them easier to slip on and off but if I did that my little feet would be stepping right out of them driving me crazy.
He stopped by the creek and appeared to be surveying the area. He lined himself up directly across the creek from my lightening blaze. Turned and faced the road and paced off about ten steps. He got down on one knee and pointed the space gun directly at the snow covered ground and fired. It made a small “burp” and then a “whir” sound. He then picked the muzzle up and moved it to a different spot a few inches away and fired again, into the iron-hard earth. Moved it again and fired again. He did this five times before he stopped and stood. Examining his work.
I watched him closely as he moved about a hundred feet further up the canyon and repeated the process. Five shots. “Burp..Whir…Burp…Whir”.The whole event was a mystery and who doesn’t love to know the answer to a decent mystery. So I put my now cold chocolate into the the cup holder below the truck radio, opened the door and stepped out into the frigid gloom. Welcome to northern New Mexico! …
I thought about grabbing my ice axe but that seemed like an awfully threatening tool to have in my hand as I walked over to a guy I really didn’t know in a gloomy and isolated canyon just to satisfy my curiosity. I turned toward his truck and took a quick look at his license plate. What plate? There wasn’t one on the front of his truck. That probably meant he was local. New Mexico doesn’t require a plate on the front. Of course neither does Arizona, Oklahoma or Kansas. So I didn’t really know much except that the truck was probably not from Colorado or Texas where two plates are required.
Crossing the two lane without looking was a safe bet. There hadn’t been a vehicle by here except his and mine since I stopped. In fact, I hadn’t seen any other moving vehicles since about twenty miles out of Taos over an hour ago. When I got across the road I turned back toward the trucks again. Mine was plain white and looked like a standard, unmarked utility truck from ‘any city’ USA. That’s one of it’s advantages. I can leave a truck like that parked just about anywhere for a few days and if anyone notices it at all they just figure I’m on a job somewhere nearby. His was a mid 90’s, Chevy 3/4 ton, red with four rectangular hay bales in the back. Signage on the door read, “Randall’s Ranch Supply” in white text and included a phone number that started with a 575 area code. “Not from Santa Fe”, I said to myself. Not that it made any difference where he was from as far as I could tell.
I could hear the final “burp…whir” as he finished up his third set of shooting things into the ground. As he got up he noticed I was walking over to him and he smiled at me. I waved casually, the way guys do when nothing much is going on and kept walking toward him. As I got closer I pointed at his gun and said, “Gotta ask…What in the heck are you doin?”.
“I’m settin up a game.” he said. “We bring these ten year olds out here in the spring with a bunch of metal detectors and set em loose. They’ll be looking for these.” He reached into his pocket and brought out a small handful of shiny pins in several different colors about an inch and a half long, maybe an eighth inch thick. They looked sort of like fat brads with one kinda sharp end and one kinda blunt end. “The gun shoots them into the ground about an inch below the surface. The object of the game is to see who can find all eight colors of these pins first. I scatter them around in groups of about five different colors in each spot. It’ll take em awhile to find all the colors. Winner gets a $50 award. Next one gets $25 and the third gets $15.”
“That sounds like a lot of fun. Why are you hiding the pins now…why not wait til it gets a little warmer?” I asked.
“These kids are pretty sharp and they know I’m the one that hid em so the first thing they do is look for ground disturbance. If I do this in the spring, say just before the event, they can see where I’ve been through here. I’m not kiddin ya. They’ll have their places all figured out before they even get the metal detectors warmed up. These kids are special. We train them to be the best search and rescue operators in the country and their training starts when they’re nine and won’t stop till they graduate high school for the ones that stick with it.”
“Holy cow.” I said
“Yea..their pretty good.” He said. “They spend nine years learning all kinds of skills. Tracking and all manner of outdoor trades from survival to luxury. From mountain cold to desert heat. They learn how to work stone into points and wood into shafts. They can make a fire out of nothing at all except what’s laying around. They become an expert with the Apache sling. They can make one in a half an hour and they can knock a bunny at 20 yards. They can trap and skin. By the time they’re 11 you could drop em off alone on top of Cathedral Peak in January, bare ass naked, and they’d have no problem warming up, building a shelter and finding their way out of there. Heck, they’d probably put on a little weight from eatin so well. They can live off the land year round if they need too. We teach em the skills that the indians and earliest pioneers had. But they know about technology too. They can use Google Earth like a GIS expert. They can set up a website and even pump enough juice from plant life into a dead phone to make an emergency call. They can turn all sorts of abandoned devices into practical tools. These kids can read topo maps as good as a ranger. They can climb technical and find water in the Mojave. They can dive and fly a plane before they can drive a car. They can handle an excavator as easy as a helicopter. We train them to think differently about the available resources and we train them to think like a person who is lost. By the time they’re twelve they’ll be able to track down a lost kid in the southwest as good as any sheriff posse. By the time they’re 16 they can do the same anywhere in the whole west. They take the same emergency medical training that a firefighter takes. They are certified in team leadership. They take the same disaster planning courses that a FEMA operative has to take.This is a very early commitment to be a world class tracker and survival expert before they reach 15. We have more boys than girls but I have to tell you the girls are good. I think in two years the sharpest kid we’ve ever had will be graduating and she’s a she…not a he.”
Then, without stopping he asked, “What about you? Have you found it yet?”
“Found what?” I asked, trying to sound like I wasn’t looking for anything.
“Fenn’s treasure chest.” He said.
“Oh…That.” I said. “Not yet but the day’s not over. How’d you know I was here for that?”
“Well” he said. “You got a truck over there with Washington plates and the last time I checked with the County Tourism folks this was not exactly a ‘destination location’ for anyone who doesn’t live here. Second you have a copy of his poem on your passenger seat. Third you have an ice axe between the seats and that makes you sound an awful lot like a guy that keeps a blog I read once in a while about hunting for the treasure. You want me to go on? Your name’s Dal…right?” He put out his hand. “Mines Randall.”
We chatted as I followed him around while he finished up shooting his colored brads into the frozen ground. I asked if he had looked for the treasure and he said he had been out a few times. Then I asked the question that was most on my mind since I learned about the kids he brings out here.
“Have your search kids looked out here for the treasure? I asked.
“Heck yeah.” Randall said. I would say that no less than 20 kids have spent a couple dozen hours each out here scouring the place.”
“And…” I said.
“Nothin!” Said Randall. “It’s certainly not within a mile of that igneous intrusion over there.” He pointed at my blaze.
“You mean that blaze-like zig-zag thing in the shale?” I said.
“Yep.” He said with a smile in his voice. “Kids have turned up every crack and crevice, every rotted log and hidden ledge out here. They found 5 arrowheads, an abandoned mining shaft and an old rusted revolver in the creek. And you can bet your last dollar that I would not have suggested they look around here until I looked first. I’m not a fool. This place is treasure free. I guarantee it.”
“Did you go up on that ledge above the blaze?” I asked.
“Yep. I was up there and so were the kids. There’s most of a deer skeleton up there. That’s all. The intrusion doesn’t go up any higher.”
We chatted a little more and then Randall said he had to get going and drop off that hay before noon. He got into his truck. We shook hands again and he pulled off onto the two lane. I watched him disappear around a curve about a mile up the canyon and then I went to my truck and got my ice axe and about twenty feet of hemp rope, checked my cocoa but it was frozen solid like a chocolate popsicle. I left it and then headed over to my blaze. Oh…and if you should run across this place you can drive right by because about 21 others, plus myself have already looked here. It’s treasure free….