POSTED IN APRIL 2014
Last fall I received a registered snail mail envelope from a fellow with an unusual name, Harley Dodge Dart. Harley lives up in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. The Bitterroot is about a hundred miles long and most of it is due south of Missoula, Montana. Harley wrote to tell me he knew exactly where the treasure was hidden and needed some help to get it out.
I’m shy to partner-up with people when it comes to hunting for the treasure for a couple of reasons. The most logical being that partnerships tend to go sour and once they do…well… accusations, slander and really hard feelings are likely to follow. I’m not a “businessman” and I can’t just shrug those things away. It’s easier for me to simply go searching on my own.
But Harley’s note was a bit different. First of all he didn’t want help “finding” the treasure. According to his letter he already knew where it was. Apparently I was the only person he trusted to help him free it from it’s resting place. I would later discover that I was probably the only person who would help him do anything. Harley’s neighbors give him a wide margin. Most don’t talk to him at all. Maybe it’s his tree-hugging politics. Maybe it’s the lawsuits he has pending against many of them and the State of Montana in general. Harley leans a bit toward ornery…a bit further toward peculiar…and a whole lot toward stubborn. But I didn’t know all this about him when I got the letter. I might have been suspicious though. The envelope had a lot of scuff marks and fingerprints from greasy hands on it. The letter itself was hand
written printed scrawled in blue pencil by a guy who probably did not take handwriting in third grade from Sister Mary Linus. It was grammatically correct as far as I could tell and his spelling was better than mine would have been without the luxury of a spell checker but the clincher was that, in addition to the letter, he enclosed a single $5, 1953, silver certificate. He said it would pay for my gas to Montana. It took me a few minutes to see that it was a silver certificate so I was wondering how I would get to Montana on $5 in gas. When I looked that certificate up it was valued at about $65. So it might not get me all the way to Montana but it was a fair start.
You’d have to read Harley’s letter to get a true sense of how unlikely it seemed that Forrest’s chest could possibly be hidden in the spot he’d decided it must be. But Harley was convinced it was “the spot”, and for whatever reason, he decided I would be the one to help him secure it. Harley didn’t want me to put his letter up where everyone could read it. His verbatim remarks follow – “To much good information. To many solid facts. Whole freakin valley’ll look like a Jones family reunion if you show my letter up on your blog..and I wouldn’t want to have to shoot ya to keep ya from showin it round. Are ya with me?”
Harley’s letter didn’t demand any correspondence from me. He told me where to meet him, date and time, in Missoula. He’d know me by my truck he said and told me he’d be driving a ’68 Ford pick-up, “mostly baby blue under the mud with some miles on it. A good Warn winch mounted on the front”. If I wasn’t there, he’d know I stole his money and wasn’t coming.
I can only think of one other treasure hunter since this chase began that has made me laugh as much as Harley. He doesn’t try to be funny. He is as serious as a bible in a Baptist pulpit. Humor comes from unintended consequences. His manner is direct and serious, but something about him is just off enough to be funny without being threatening.
Couple things you should know about Harley. Since he wouldn’t let me take his picture I think it might help you form a better image of him. He’s a Korean War, combat Marine vet. He was at the Inchon landing, helped liberate Seoul and fought his way out of the Frozen Chosin against seven Chinese infantry divisions. Harley almost met his maker at the Chosin Reservoir. He suffered severe frostbite and ended up losing all ten toes, a couple of fingers and some nose. He walks a little funny but when you think about the damage his feet endured and take into consideration that Harley is a year older than Forrest, there is no doubt that he has had a lot of practice overcoming adversity. Skinny as a rusty nail. Tall as his truck cab. Wild, thick, colorless hair that goes about equally in all directions from under his hat like Lee Marvin’s in Cat Ballou. Pale, squinty eyes with deep crows feet from the summer sun. His nose is unnaturally crooked and there’s some scarring on the tissue under his eyes. Most of his face was hidden behind a few days worth of four-o’clock shadow. In spite of the rugged cowboy look there is also a sense of mischief and humor in his face. You’d like him immediately. I think it’s not til you get to know him that you get suspicious of him. Harley’s a loner. Never married. No relatives. Refers to himself as “end of the line Harley”.
He’s not a whiner. I had to pump him full of bourbon to get some history out of him. He drinks whatever is standing around. He doesn’t sip it either. He knocks one and a half ounce shots back with a handful of salted peanuts for a chaser. He had either twelve or thirteen shots in a two hour session at an empty, dark saloon that smelled like sawdust three miles down the highway from the two track jeep road leading to his place. The shots were $9.50 each. The bottle didn’t have a label but I don’t think it was Pappy Van Winkle. The peanuts were free. The music was mostly Grand Ol’e Opry tunes…Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Bill Monroe, the Carter Family…Might have been a Willie Nelson song in there somewhere. At 10am we were the only folks in the place.
We sat on old backless stools at the bar. After about an hour of watching Harley dispose of whisky like it was tap water he asked if he could buy me lunch. I said “Sure, what do they have?” Harley didn’t say anything he just pushed a big, uncovered jar of peeled, pickled eggs down the sticky bar toward me. The jar was covered in greasy fingerprints. It smelled like bad breath and there were little round black things floating on the top. A handwritten label on the bottle said they were “seventy-five cents each, three for two dollars, use tongs”. There weren’t any tongs. I don’t have a death wish. I passed.
About an hour later Harley let me pick-up the tab while he hit the restroom. I admired the well-worn table shuffleboard for a few minutes before I walked out into the sweet scented spring-like air. At Harley’s suggestion I left my truck in front of the saloon for the ride up the jeep trail in Harley’s Ford to where he called home and the start of his solution to the poem.
The ride up was remarkably rough. If we’d been grocery shopping I have no idea where we could possibly have put a dozen eggs to keep them safe. Harley says the County won’t take care of the road because it only goes to his place so he’s “suing their britches off.”
Mr. Dart is honest Montana stock. Born’n raised around Missoula. Only other places he’s been are Camp Pendleton and Korea. He cowboyed plenty on ranches up and down the Bitterroot and around Chouteau. He’s lived on the place he has now for over 55 years. He maintains his ranch is “about the most worthless land in the whole Bitterroot…maybe all of Montana.” It’s so bad, he claims, he’s leaving the place when he dies, to his worst enemy. I doubt this is true. I suspect it’s just advertising, because he also told me he was suing the county assessor.
I had to ask him about his name. He said it’s all an accident. There were no Dodge Darts when he was born and there might of been Harleys but he was named after his grandfather, Harley Berwyn Dart from Butte and Wales. Dodge was his mother’s maiden name. He said he never owned or even drove a Dodge Dart. “I wouldn’t know a Dart if one ran me over twice.”, he muttered as we bolted up the
Harley’s final spot was in an abandoned vertical mine shaft on Fo
rrest Service land not far up the side of the valley. Lord help me. I was not looking forward to exploring that hole. I had no faith in his solution or his spot but in spite of everything, I genuinely like Harley. He’s a character worth knowing in a world where change is the enemy and neutral is everyone’s favorite color.
But it gets better. His starting place was one of the best I’d seen…maybe not heard…but certainly seen. We stopped there first.
Harley lives in a 700sq foot cabin he built himself from pines he cut by hand himself and crosscut into boards by hand himself. Everything in his cabin and on his property he hauled up that jeep trail. There are no power lines on Harley’s property. “I hate the power company”, he adds. “They take all your money to give you something you don’t need but can’t live without. Anyway they want a fortune to bring a line up here and I’ve been living just fine for the past 50 years without their help. Sons-o-guns wanted to put up a series of those big electrical towers across my property back in the 60’s and pay me $150 a year for the privilege. I told em to go to hell in a handcart. That’s when all the trouble started.” According to Harley, the County along with the power company and an organization called Power for People in the Bitterroot, almost had his land condemned so they could get the towers across his ranch. It apparently nearly turned to trenched warfare and started all the trouble between Mr. Dart and his rancher neighbors who thought the towers were a good idea. “I’m not a guy who necessarily listens to reason.” Harley told me. “Sometimes you just gotta fight for what you believe, and I believe those towers are one of the most hideous examples of human progress ever plunked upon the countryside. Ya know, if I had wanted to live under one of those things I would have moved to Paris and built my cabin under the Eiffel Tower.”
Harley heard about Forrest’s hidden treasure on a trip to Missoula to meet with “old friends”. What got his attention was not so much the story of the treasure, but the person who hid it, Forrest. Harley claims he knew Forrest’s dad and that Harley’s dad and Forrest’s dad fished on the Madison and the South Fork together. “I was thinking about this old sink I got next to the cabin. I got that sink from my dad, who in turn, got it from Forrest’s dad. It came out of one of the Fenn Haven Motor Court cabins in the 60s when they were remodeling. I was thinking that Forrest probably knows that old sink is up here. This is where warm water halts. And no wonder no one could figure out where to start. I mean who else knows about this sink? So don’t you tell anyone where exactly it’s at cuz I don’t want a herd of treasure hunters up here messin around on my property.”
From the old enameled metal sink Harley pointed to the creek about twenty feet away that goes down the canyon to the Bitterroot River and then on down the Bitterroot several miles to the home of Brown. Now his Brown is a connection between the painter C.M. Russell and the Bitterroot and a painting of Charley’s that is hung in the CM Russell Museum in Grand Falls. Harley explains, “A pretty special painting that came to that Museum in the 80s and I am not positive but I think it came from Peggy and Forrest. You can mention it but don’t name it. That would be a dead give-away.” At this point on the river there was a significant battle between the Blackfeet and a group of explorers that Harley feels is Forrest’s connection to “no place for the meek”. This place is also the confluence of the Bitterroot and another creek that has changed names a few times throughout history. It is a fast moving, cascade laden stream where you certainly could not paddle. Above it a ways is an old mining claim that Harley feels is also connected by name to the poem. “Just to many things line up.” he told me, with a mischievous grin and raised eyebrows.
About three o’clock in the afternoon we arrived at Harley’s old hole. A vertical mining shaft that went down about thirty feet through hard rock to a relatively flat floor below. As I lay on my belly shining a flashlight into the shaft I could see timbers scattered on the floor below and what appeared to be a single horizontal shaft heading off to the east. But what got my attention was a wooden box about two feet square sitting just off center of the hole. Why was it there and what was in it? “In the wood”, was all that Harley said. The hole was about twelve feet across and at one time had a wooden platform and a tipple over it. Miners probably descended into the shaft the same way their diggings came out, via a large bucket attached to a steel cable and winch. All that was gone now. But Harley brought along the makings of a tripod, two hundred feet of strong poly rope an old pulley and a climbers harness. One of us was going down into that hole to see what was in that wooden crate.
We assembled the tripod and dragged it over the shaft with the pulley attached and rope thru. We positioned it so that the rope went straight down the wall opposite the tunnel shaft at the bottom. The other end of the poly was attached to the wire rope on Harley’s winch on the front of his Ford. The Ford was as close as we could get it, about a hundred feet away from the hole. After the rig was assembled Harley handed me the harness and a radio and simply said “You’re younger than me”, and walked away toward the truck. “The radio is set to channel 3. I’ll be at the truck. Just let me know when you’re ready to go.” I kept thinking about all those shots Harley had swilled not more than a few hours earlier.
I didn’t really like this one little bit, but complaining is not my style and it seemed sane enough. The hole was in solid rock. Nothing could really fall on me unless the tripod failed but it was pretty solid. The rope was new. The Warn was old but not likely to fail. I stepped into the harness. Tied myself in. Stepped over near the hole gave everything a tug. Nothing fell apart. My heart was beating hard but steady. I turned on the radio. It said “channel three” back at me as it powered up. I pressed the “talk” button and asked Harley if he could hear me. “Loud and clear buddy”, is all he said. I heard the truck start up. I stepped to the edge. Turned and faced the truck. Gave everything one more tug. No reason to chicken out. Hit the talk button again and told Harley to take up about two feet of slack. The rope slowly reeled back toward the truck about two feet. I still had nearly half a foot of slack but I figured that would do. I felt for the flashlight on a d-clip on my left hip. It was there. I lowered my body till the rope was relatively tight. Grabbed it between the winch and my head with my left hand and leaned fully backward with the radio in my right hand until all the weight was off my legs. I was completely dependent on Harley now. I spread my legs apart, held the radio to my mouth and said “down slow”.
Down I went. Nice and slow. I had no problem walking the smooth vertical wall as Harley lowered me to the floor. At the bottom I just stepped off the wall and onto the littered floor between a mess of fallen timbers and planks and bolts and steel plates. My foot landed near the skeleton of a rat or packrat that had probably fallen in one night when he wasn’t paying attention. Everything looked like it had been there for at least dozens of years. Nothing looked like it had been placed here in 2009 or 2010. A couple of seconds later the winch stopped. Harley must have figured out about how much line it would take to get to the bottom. I hit the talk key and said. “Good”. I took the flashlight from my hip, switched it on and turned around to look east down the horizontal tunnel to see if there were any monsters coming after me. I didn’t see any. Cold air rushed at me and up the shaft. I relaxed a little and turned my attention to the wooden box. It had some printing on one side but I couldn’t tell what the letters spelled. I was confident they did not spell “DuPont” and that made me a little more comfortable.
A few seconds later Harley was peering down at me. “What’s in the box” he yelled.
I don’t know yet”, I yelled back.
“Well what the hell are ya doin down there? This ain’t no Hawaii vacation.” he said.
“What kind of mine was this?” I yelled up at him.
“Probably silver was what they were looking for. Probably rock was all they got.
“Maybe the box is full of silver nuggets.”, I said, hopefully.
“Silver don’t form nuggets around here.”, Harley responded.
I thought I heard something in the tunnel. I pointed the light at it again and peered carefully into the nothingness.
“I thought I heard something.”
“Might be bats. Shining that light at em might rile em up. Can you open that box?”
There was a rusted steel latch on the front and two rusted strap hinges on the back. The box was very light. I could move it pretty easily. It certainly didn’t have a 42lb treasure inside it.
“I think it’s empty”, I said.
“Open it!” yelled Harley.
So I grabbed the latch and lifted it up and used it to pry the lid open on it’s stubborn hinges. It wasn’t empty.
“What’s that?” yelled Harley.
Down at the bottom of the box were crumpled up newspapers. They were torn and mushed into balls like someone had used them to act as padding around something fragile. But whatever the fragile item might have been, it was gone. I pushed the rotted newspapers aside, to see if there was anything at the bottom. Just more newspaper and something slick and flat. I pulled at it. An old oilcloth. Like the kind my kindergarten teacher would have made me use when I played with clay. Under it was a magazine. I carefully took it out from the bottom. It seemed intact. To my surprise it was in very good shape.
“What is it?” yelled Harley.
“A magazine. The Saturday Evening Post.”
“Nope. I’ll bring it up.”
“Okay, I guess I’m headed back to the winch. Let me know when to start reeling you up.”
I unbuttoned my jacket and put the magazine inside, flat against my chest. Put the flashlight back on it’s clip. Pulled the radio out of my pocket. Grabbed the rope with my left hand. Walked over the jumbled debris on the floor to the wall. Hit the “talk” button and said “up, slow”.
It felt good to be headed away from that dark, cold tunnel and the noises it was making. Getting out was a little harder than getting in but not by much.
We reeled in all the winch cable. Coiled the poly and opened a couple of Cokes that Harley brought along. I took the harness off and the magazine out from my jacket. We studied it like it was a million dollar treasure. We had worked hard for it.
It was in amazing condition.
“June 29th, 1929”, I said.
“What? Let me look at that. Where’s the date?”, said Harley.
I pointed at the date, nearly obscured by the cover art.
Harley stared at it with a look of confusion on his face. He didn’t say anything. He reached behind to his back pocket and yanked out his wallet. Flipped it open so his driver’s license was displayed and said, “What’s my birthdate?”
I pulled his wallet closer to my face and read his birthdate out loud.
“What are the chances of that?” asked Harley.