ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED September 2011
You can ask me why I was looking for Forrest’s treasure in Coyote, New Mexico, but I won’t tell you.
I will say that I was there. Midsummer. Hot. Dry. Dusty.
The arid landscape smelled a little like sage and a lot like sand. The heat was oppressive. The sun was relentless. The vista was endless. Red sand hills with scattered outcroppings of collapsing gray and pink cliff rock. Sage everywhere. The twisting road had deteriorated into a two rut jeep trail and was working its way toward becoming a single rut up ahead. The engine was running strong but my truck was moving slow albeit a little faster than I wanted to go on this beat-up, washed out trail. If I stopped I’d be stuck. Keep moving forward was the only plan I had.
I had to duck my head to keep from smacking it on the roof. Tough on the ball joints. I was being cautious. I kept the speed up. In the past two minutes I had determined that this was not a likely road for Forrest to have driven when he hid his fortune. All I needed was a place wide enough to turn around so I could head back north, 10 miles to the town of Coyote. Grab a cold diet Pepsi and look somewhere else.
Up ahead I could make out one semi-standing building. Roof caved in. The remains of a ranch perhaps. Who would try ranching in this hard country? I remember thinking that I could probably turn around up there. That thought was interrupted when I felt my left rear wheel start to spin freely and the front swerve to the right out of the ruts. I was in a shallow, sandy wash. A little gas. Not too much. The truck was bogging down in the sand. One of those times I wished I had four wheel drive. But I don’t. I shouldn’t be here. But I was.
The truck slowed to its inevitable stop ignoring the fact that its wheels were spinning, It was now a no wheel drive vehicle. Stuck fast. Here I was. I could have turned around a mile back where there was a rusting, burned out hulk of a Dodge truck sitting in a wide spot in the road. But I had instead decided to go forward. I was, once again, nowhere. Buyers remorse. Good going!
I shut the truck down. Took my hands off the wheel and stared at the harsh, bright landscape. I could feel the intense sunlight pounding down on my left ear, left shoulder, left arm. A fly buzzed in the right window and exited the left. It was quiet. I was alone. I took a sip from my water bottle and slowly twisted the cap back onto the bottle while staring through the windshield at nothing really. Other than the dilapidated building about 200 meters ahead there was nothing to look at except undulating hills and multi-colored rock terraces.
Heat was building up in the unmoving air. Dust coated sweat covered my exposed skin. My jeans and t-shirt were soaked. It wasn’t cooling me down. Even my hands were sweating.
I took a deep breath and grabbed my hat and camera. I lifted the door handle, leaned against the door frame with my left shoulder and grabbed my ice axe from between the seats with my right hand. The door opened and I let the momentum carry me outside to the soft red wash. There was no breeze, only heat. I was in sand right up to the tops of my shoes.
Both rear wheels were trapped in the red stuff clear to the rims. Even the differential was down in the sand. The right front wheel was set against rock just high enough to halt the movement of my old truck. Only the left front was clear. It would take some work with a shovel and some rocks or boards to get the GMC moving again. 12 feet back and I’d be on the uneven hardpan. Not badly stuck. Just stuck. I reached inside and grabbed my water bottle, took a gulp, screwed the top back on and tossed the bottle onto the damp driver’s seat as I turned and headed up the hill toward the building.
As I approached I could see that the crumbling structure was built into the side of a hill. Probably for the extra insulation. My guess was that this baked landscape was hotter than today for much of the summer and just as cold as Moscow in winter. What a challenging place to make a living. The roof was mostly caved in. The adobe was falling away revealing the red bricks and rough wood framing. Solidly built. Darkened and fractured by exposure. At least 100 years old. Maybe much older. Newer additions and repairs. But it wasn’t a house or a barn. It was a store. It had wide multi-paned windows on each side of the center door.
Scattered around the front were boards. Possibly from a once inviting porch or wooden sidewalk. I poked at a couple of them with my axe and flipped them over to see what might be underneath. Nothing.
“Whatcha lookin for?” the voice behind me inquired.
“Jeese!” I nearly jumped out of my skin. The last thing I expected to hear was a voice. I turned quickly and found myself staring directly into the very weathered, very old face of an indian. He was wearing a red and brown striped, long sleeve shirt, quite faded from the sun. A red scarf was wrapped around his neck. His belt buckle was a large bear claw carved in turquoise and laid in a big silver oval. His black pants were a little baggy and he was wearing scuffed black motorcycle boots with large silver side buckles. Patchouli oil scented the air around him. His loose white hair spilled down to his shoulders. In spite of the heat he looked cool and unaffected.
“Its okay friend. I don’t mean ta give ya a heart attack.” he said as he grabbed my free left hand and shook it.
“Scared the bejeezus out of me.” I said.
“Old indian trick.” he said, “Sorry.”
I could tell that he was trying to keep from laughing.
“My name is David Yellow Hat” His voice was like a loud whisper.
“Your not wearing a hat” I said
“You white guys are damn quick” he said and then moved a little bit to the right so I wouldn’t have to squint into the sun while looking at him. His face was the color of old cordovan leather. He was a bit stooped but otherwise seemed fit. I could see no flab at all on his frame.
“Okay.” I said. “My name is Dal Neitzel.”
“What?” His voice was soft and airy…reassuring.
“Dal Neitzel” I repeated.
“What the heck kinda name is that?” He seemed surprised at my name. Was he expecting someone else? Black eyes searched my own looking for lord knows what.
“What’s it mean” he asked
“I don’t know” I said.
“You white guys!” he said. “So what are ya lookin for with your fancy walkin stick?”
“Snakes I said”
“Snakes? Aint no snakes over here. Then he pointed over my shoulder toward an outcropping about a hundred meters behind me. “Snakes over there where they got places ta hide.”
“This your place?” I asked, pointing with my axe at the old store.
“Sorta.” He said. “Used to be a trading post for the tribe that lived out here. It still belongs to the government I suppose. So I guess I own some of it.”
Yellow Hat turned toward the building and said, “Let me show you something. Come here.” and he carefully walked in through the open front door to the debris filled cavity that was once the interior of the trading post.
I followed him in. We went to the back of the room where two walls and an interior door still stood. As I followed I could see old coffee cans, powdered milk containers, some rotting remnants of flour sacks, a can of nails and other items it would be fun to dig around in. When I caught up to him he pointed at the door jam where there were some marks carved with names and dates.
“See this one down here?” he asked while pointing to a mark barely three feet up the jamb. “Thats Franklin Gower’s height from when he was 2 years old. That mark is from 1853. I knew this guy. He worked here when I was a kid. Pretty old then but I knew him when I was 7 in 1931. He was 80. He used to take his wagon in to Taos to get food for the indians out here in the middle of winter and let me tell ya that was no easy trip.”
“Did you work here?” I asked.
“No but my family lived bout 5 miles west and the kids used to come out here and hang around til old man Gower would give us a penny candy and tell us about our ancestors. He was okay.”
I bent down to examine the names written in red pencil on the frame. Next to the entry for “Frank” I could see it also said March 14, 1853.
“They did that for all the Gower kids right up til there weren’t no more.”
The last date I could see on the jamb was about my height and had the name Frank and 1938 next to it. I rubbed my fingers across the jamb to feel the notches in the wood.
“That one was the last Gower. Another Frank. He was killed landing on the beach at Guadalcanal in ’42. I remember him too.”
“Are you Navajo?” I asked
“You white guys!” he said. “Apache! This is all Apache country round here. Beautiful ain’t it? If you know how, you can live back here pretty good.”
He turned and walked back out the way we came. Bent down and picked up a rusted metal fork. looked it over, dropped it and continued out the door. When we were out he grabbed my left hand again and started pumping it. “Im headed toward town so I better get goin.” He pointed again toward the red rock outcropping. “Snakes over there. If ya see me on the road when yer headed back, gimme a lift will ya?”
“Sure.” I said. “Hey, you want to go over and look at snakes? Then you can ride back with me.”
“No. I seen them snakes before.” He said. “But you be careful. Gotta head out.” And then he turned up the rut and headed out in the direction of my truck.
“Take care David.”
I watched him for a bit. You can always tell a guy who spent life walking rather than driving or riding. Yellow Hat, at nearly 90, had a slow but comfortable pace. His balance was good. He looked fit with only a slight limp as he favored his left foot a bit. I guessed he didn’t even have a drivers license.
It took me about five minutes to walk up to the outcropping. I approached it carefully. Ever watchful for snakes. Although I wanted to see a couple I did not want to be surprised by any. I carefully walked among the broken stone that had peeled off the face of the outcropping. No snakes. I stopped and considered the heat. Probably too hot for them. Probably down in the cool cracks and small caves.
Then I saw them. About a hundred of them. Petroglyphs. Covering the entire flat front of the outcropping. Dozens were snakes but there were also horses and arrows and deer and things I couldn’t identify. Some were beautifully detailed. Many were simple as can be. There were a few dates. One was a drawing of a man in a cowboy hat. Next to it was etched “Frank, 1876”. There were a couple of women in dresses, covered wagons and something that looked like fire coming from the sky on a village. There were stories here. These things always fascinate me. I ran my finger through the deep lines of a warrior on his horse. How old? Some of the carvings had the same dark coloration as the uncarved rock face. Others were lighter…newer? Some could be conquistadors in armor. Some could be spacemen. They were all fantastical and exciting. This place clearly had been used for hundreds of years as some sort of gathering place. Meetings? Hunting? A village?
Then I heard it…or rather became conscience of it. My truck. I heard the engine race. I turned to look but the hills and outcroppings prevented me from seeing it in the wash. I grabbed my ice axe and ran toward the noise. The engine stopped and I heard a door slam shut just before I crested the hill by the trading post. A tad further and I could see it ahead. “That sneaky indian!” I said aloud to only myself. “Good thing it was stuck or I’d be the one walking to town”, I thought.
I couldn’t see anyone around the truck but it had changed positions. It was now facing the way it had come. Not the way I left it with the nose pointed toward the trading post. As I got closer I could see that it was out of the wash. It was back up on the hardpan pointed toward Coyote and ready to go.
I looked for signs of someone. I could see my own footprints in the rut up from the wash. No footprints headed down into it and no footprints around the van. No tire marks where someone might have made a 28 point turn to get the truck turned around. “How did he do that?” I walked around the van. No prints but the ones I had just made. I opened the door and looked inside. There was a stick of cellophane wrapped hard candy in my cup holder. I haven’t bought stick candy in twenty years. I did not put it there. My water bottle was still in the driver’s seat where I tossed it. Keys in the ignition where I left them. How was this possible? It would have been an hours worth of work to extricate the van from that wash. I was a tad unnerved. I stood up on the running board. I could see for about a quarter mile in every direction except for the outcropping. No one was around. No boards were laying around. No rocks. I tossed my axe inside, climbed in, put my camera on the floor between the seats and turned the key. Started right up. I pondered the whole thing one more time. No solution. Then I smelled it. Patchouli oil lightly scented the air in the van….but how…and while we’re at it…why?