SUBMITTED MARCH 2016
Location, location, location – and on November 23rd 2015 I had it! I wanted to get in the car and drive right then, but Thanksgiving loomed large, and it was going to be a major family gathering. And of course, family comes first.
At the end of the month and into December, the snow began to fall in earnest. But as Christmas gave way to the New Year I wondered whether a quick dash might still be possible. Then the Randy Bilyeu tragedy took us all by surprise, and the notion of searching for treasure while others searched for a missing comrade seemed inappropriate to the point of callous.
A little of the gilt and sparkle was rubbed off the Chase by Randy’s disappearance, but the puzzle still remained to be solved. Gradually, we searchers gave ourselves permission to talk about the poem again, and I had to make a decision. If I were to head out, even while the snow was thick on the ground, I stood a chance of being able to make it to my spot over frozen ground, whereas if I waited until April or May I risked getting bogged down in snowmelt mud. So why not just sit it out until the summer? It wasn’t just a burning impatience that led me to make the decision to go (although that was certainly a factor), but the inconvenient truth that my wife and I will be emigrating around the end of May, and so our window of opportunity is tiny. That was why I decided to give it a shot in mid-March. It would turn out to be an expensive and foolhardy decision.
Val and I loaded up our trusty Subaru (veteran of previous searches over crazy terrain) and pointed the hood eastward. It’s a two-day drive from our home, and while the journey was uneventful, fresh snow in the passes and plummeting temperatures gave rise to a little anxiety. Val was tolerating my search obsession – just – but she worried, justifiably, about our physical condition and ability to deal with hazardous conditions.
The afternoon we arrived at our motel was sunny and crisp. So, after stocking up with provisions, I suggested we do a reconnaissance trip to locate the winding forest trail that would lead to our spot. All seemed to be going well. Where there was snow, it wasn’t too deep; and where there was mud, it was frozen near-solid for the most part. By using GPS and a carefully prepared set of waypoints, we found the turnoff that would take us to the chest. It seemed doable. Nearby, we spotted a road grader. Its significance eluded me at the time.
Up bright and early the following morning, we were greeted by a cloudless sky and a temperature only just above zero. I tried to chip off the previous day’s frozen mud that had collected in the Subaru’s wheel arches and was fouling the tires, but it had set like concrete. It took a half-hour of chipping and prying to clear sufficient space to apply the Autosocks that were to help us achieve grip on the final stretch. Chains were to be a last resort. We checked our supply of food and water, blankets, extra outerwear, tools, shovels, flashlights and cameras… and then we hit the trails.
Having scouted the day before, we knew we could get up to the turnoff, and so we did, with just a brief moment of indecision when we weren’t sure if we’d taken a wrong turn. We hadn’t. But for some reason I wasn’t feeling my usual nervous excitement at getting close to a search location – more a sense of emptiness. Perhaps I knew, deep down, that now was not the right time to be doing this.
At the turnoff, we fitted the Autosocks (a great invention – so much easier to use than chains) and headed into the woods. The first couple of hundred yards were fine, but then the tracks from other vehicles got deeper and the central hump of snow correspondingly higher, until we began to bounce from side to side of the ruts. A drop-off appeared on the driver’s side to aid concentration!
And then we were stuck. Worse, we were lodged at a steep cant.
It was a nail-biting moment, but after ten minutes of shoveling we were clear again. It was then that Val made a really sensible suggestion: “Why don’t we turn around now?” She spotted a small patch up ahead that was free of snow. It probably wasn’t quite wide enough to execute a turn, but I also wasn’t quite ready to quit, and to my shame and ultimate folly I ignored her, muttering some lame excuse or other, and plowed ahead – literally.
I could sense that the car was struggling now, and up ahead I noticed a split in the trail where there was sufficient room to maneuver. I could even park up and try to hike the remaining three miles on snow shoes, although I was leery of attempting that in such extreme conditions and with a slipped disc that sent shooting pains of indescribable ferocity down my right leg. And anyway, right now we had momentum and an uneasy sense that things might be okay if we could just keep moving forward.
We lurched around a hairpin, shuddered another fifty yards or so, and ground to a halt. Forward gear, reverse, forward again – none of it made the slightest difference, except I felt the back of the car sink another few inches.
After a few more rounds of this, we ended up with two wheels on opposing corners not even touching the surface. The car was resting on a platform of around twelve to eighteen inches of solidly packed snow, while the wheels spun uselessly in the ruts.
Outside the air was pure, the trees bore their burden of snow in perfect serenity, and everything felt pristine and as it should be – except for us. Here we were with our mud-splattered Subaru, tools, shovels and chains scattered around – noisy intruders with no place being here. A fox came to check us out. He stood, unafraid, with his orange-brown coat vibrant against the stark white backdrop.
Ten o’clock turned to eleven, and eleven to twelve. Val, to her undying credit never uttered those four little words: I told you so. Uncomplaining, she worked alongside me, shoveling snow and inserting improvised chocks. We jacked up the car, added chains, rocked the vehicle back and forth, and tried brute force, sending up a fountain of snow and grit. But by now the wheels were spinning inside the Autosocks, and my heart was pounding like a jackhammer, unused to the exertion at considerable altitude.
By nearly one in the afternoon I knew it had us beat. Even if we could have got the Subaru rolling back down the hill, we would not have been able to negotiate the hairpin in reverse without skidding into a wall of snow.
We needed outside help, something every guy hates to ask for. I reached for my phone. Every now and then, it would offer a couple of bars for a few tantalizing seconds before snatching them back, only to tease us again, but this time with a different carrier. Eventually, I managed to get through to our hotel, and had the surprised receptionist give us the number of a local tow company. It was Saturday afternoon. I crossed my fingers that someone would be on call, and that the signal would hold – not to mention the battery, which was showing a cute little heart over the relevant icon.
Of course, it crossed both of our minds that our own hearts might give out on this adventure. Val, who displayed such calm dignity throughout the ordeal, said later that she had been resigned to whatever happened, and I remember thinking fleetingly that I didn’t really want to die of hypothermia – it seems so acquiescent. But if that scenario had come into play, there would only have been one person to blame… As it was, we didn’t need to worry. A couple of calls later and we had arranged to walk the mile or so back to the trail junction to meet the tow truck driver, partly because I had serious doubts that he’d be able to get up the trail with a heavy rig. As I could only walk slowly and in spurts it took a while to cover the distance. My limping became more pronounced and painful, and I told Val to go on without me if the truck couldn’t get to us, since I would need to stop and rest my back every couple of hundred yards. Fresh prints in the snow told us that the bears were beginning to stir. My bear spray was at the ready.
We made it to the rendezvous point. I don’t think either of us has ever been so glad to see a guy with a truck! Differentials locked, and the two of us alongside the driver, the truck made it all of twenty yards up the trail. There was no way it’d be able to get to the Subaru. We abandoned our steed for the night, riding back to town in the truck – an hour’s journey over dirt roads that were turning to slippery mud in the afternoon sun. On the way, we chatted with the driver – a great guy and a vet who had served all over the world – and he told us that under normal circumstances we couldn’t have made it anywhere near our forest trail at this time of year. But because the snowpack was lower than normal and they’d continued to plow and grade the road, the easy conditions on the lower slopes had lulled us into a false sense of security.
Back in town, we handed over our car key to the service station owner, who arranged to send up a team with ATVs in the morning, and promised they would be able to bring our vehicle down.
Sunday morning dawned clear and noticeably warmer. We waited… and we waited. Around noon we received the call – yay! Our car was at the service station, and we were now infamous for having gotten our vehicle stuck in one of the highest places the mechanics had ever had to work! Any further and they wouldn’t have been able to get there, even with ATVs.
Apparently, to rescue the Subaru, they had to jack the car up high, attach cables slung around trees, and spin the car on its axis. Then, with an ATV fore and aft, they drove in fits and starts back down the trail, pausing every now and then to dig it out again or give it a helping tug with an ATV. It was a major job, and we were substantially poorer as a result. But, as we told them in a roundabout way, they were our guardian angels that day, and without them (and a signal on our cell) things could have ended very differently. We thanked them profusely.
The lessons are obvious, but on the plus side, we met some great people, saw some fabulous scenery, and enjoyed a real Western adventure. My wife has told me that we aren’t doing this again – and if our flight schedule out of the country has anything to do with it, we won’t be. But flights can always be rescheduled… no?