Every once in awhile I get an email from someone out there who has complete confidence in their ability to find Forrest’s gold. Such was the case with a couple I’ll call Janice and Ray who contacted me last summer.
I had been out in New Mexico for several weeks eliminating a number of potential hiding places while following hints in the poem, same as everybody else who’s looking for the treasure I suppose. I generally make a list of places I want to check out before I leave home. I order the list by my excitement level. The places I’m crazy about are at the top of the list. By the time I get to the bottom I’m looking at places that have a lot of flaws. Places so unlikely that no one else would consider them. Places it’s pretty hard to be enthusiastic about but “due diligence” requires that I take a look since I’m in the neighborhood anyway.
While I was out I got an email from someone new to me who was interested in meeting up if I was going to be near Ojo Caliente, New Mexico in two days. Janice wrote me that she, and her boyfriend Ray, were coming in from Los Angeles, had been reading my blog and wondered if we could meet up at the hot springs for lunch. Janice wrote that they knew where the treasure was and were headed out to get it and take it home. Janice thought maybe I’d like to go out with them to write a final story in my blog about them finding the treasure. There was no hedging her bets or use of the words “possibly” or “maybe” in her mail. Just straight forward “We’re going to go get it.”
Wow! How could I pass that up?
My first thought was that they had a lot of hutzpah. I mean by Forrest’s guess there might be close to a thousand folks out looking for his chest and very few that I knew of had the audacity to not only state that they knew exactly where it was, but also invite a witness along to “record” their find.
My second thought was that I only had two days to figure out where they were going and beat them there.
Ojo Caliente is a small town and also a fancy resort in the small town. The resort and the town are built around a bubbling hot spring that has been a source of “healing waters” for Indians and the rest of us since before recorded history. The spring started out as a free and public place but is now under ownership of the spa/resort where you can go to get yourself pampered, soaked, pummeled and re-strung. The resort puts up a striking facade of lovely adobe, pine and stone. The gardens are well tended. The accommodations are for the most part reasonably priced and very nicely appointed. If you want to avoid the resort itself there is one or possibly two Bohemian places you can stay for a less regimented but none-the-less exotic experience on the other side of the road.
It didn’t seem like a likely place for Forrest to hide his chest. But what do I know? I started by looking at the springs itself and then spreading out. I walked those hills day and night for 48 hours trying to understand how on earth this place could match any verse in the poem beyond the first. Sure, warm water at the spring..but then what? No canyon…No creek…No places I needed to be brave to explore. Hardly anything that could be considered a “wood”. At the end of two days I was exhausted, frustrated and, of course, treasureless.
About an hour before the appointed lunch I paid for a shower at the Inn and put on my cleanest shirt and jeans. Then I went out in the parking lot and scanned the vehicles for California plates. You can tell a lot about people by the vehicle they drive. I saw it right away. A glistening, black, pimped out Humvee with white wall tires, spinner wheels and a few thousand dollars in hand painted flames growing along the sides. It was the only California plated vehicle in the lot. I tried hard to find another one. No luck! Bummer!
Everyone has a line in the sand they won’t cross. Mine is the Humvee. Possibly the most over priced, over rated and under performing vehicle turned out in this country since the Dodge Challanger. I understand the desire to associate with military vehicles. I still can’t get over my lust for a Willys MB. But that was a practical vehicle and the idea was to keep it practical not to make it look like a strumpet on steroids. Don’t get me started on the senseless, nincompoop, military wannabes who buy these things.
Okay..that’s out of my system now.
Anyway, in spite of my misgivings about Janice and Ray’s vehicle selection I decided to keep an open mind about their ability to find the treasure. They were apparently wealthy enough to buy a $90K vehicle and add $17K in accessories. They were also smart enough to be wealthy enough to afford the American Dream. Maybe I was the nincompoop. Besides, they were obviously going to be interesting characters and by now you must know that I value those who achieve uniqueness in a world that seems to go out of its way to eliminate individuality and creativity. So, in spite of my misgivings about their transportation choice I was keen on meeting them.
Just before the appointed hour I went into the old hotel and took a window booth where I could monitor the entire room. The place looked like it could hold about 60 diners and there were only about 20 of us in there. I told the Maitre’d that Janice and Ray would be looking for me, ordered a diet Pepsi, leaned back and absorbed the ambiance of the restored historic structure.
Two gulps after my Pepsi arrived I saw a couple walk inside from the desert sun. Their eyes urgently trying to adjust to the comparative darkness of the lounge. The petite woman was dressed in khaki shorts with cargo pockets and a forest green tee that had a small wren-like figure embroidered in white just below her left shoulder. Her thick dark hair was cut short and framed her attractive brown face in what might have been called a Page Boy years ago. I don’t know what it’s called today. She had a tan canvas bag slung over her shoulder. She was completely devoid of jewelry. A no-nonesense gal. The maitre’d pointed them at my table. Bright red flip-flops made a shuffling noise as Janice walked deliberately toward me across the plank floor. Ray was about ten feet behind Janice and his gaze was fixed on my table. He was a good foot and a half taller than his companion and the fashion difference between them was stark. Ray was wearing diamond stud earrings, a fat gold chain necklace with a 5 inch silver cross at his neck, a thick twist of what appeared to be gold and platinum around his left wrist and an understated Phillipe Dufour timepiece on his right. He was wearing a complete Lakers basketball home uniform (number 17) and a pair of bright red, unlaced Nike Air something-or-others that made his feet look huge and his shins look skinny. His dark hair was close cropped, more like a five o’clock shadow than a hairstyle. Perhaps his most striking fashion accessory was a series of Chinese characters boldly tattooed across his dark forehead in elegant black calligraphy. I was guessing that the Humvee was his and not hers.
Aside from the same colored footwear the two appeared to have nothing else in common. If I had to guess I would figure Janice for about 28 and Ray about 16….maybe 18. Neither of them was carrying an ice axe.
I slid out and stood up to greet them. Ray didn’t bother saying hi. He just slid into the booth and slumped into the corner. Janice shook my hand and said “Hi, glad to meet you. Really glad you could meet us.”
We both sat and Janice asked how to pronounce my name.
“Day’-el”. I said. “No ‘e’ but pronounced as if there was one.”
“Thats unusual”. She said. “Is that a family name?”
“No.” I said. “Its not even the name my family gave me. I just sort of slipped into it.”
“I had one of those too. Janice said. “My given name was Bitsy…not Betsy but Bitsy. It was fine until middle school. Then when all the girls are developing boobs and you’re not, any name that rhymes with “itsy” can make your life a nightmare.”
Girls do that too?” I asked.
I glanced at her chest. Given the conversation it seemed fitting. I thought everything looked size appropriate. But people are often their own worst critics.
“Probably more so.” She said. “Being smaller is more evident on girls than on boys.”
I smiled and turned to Ray. He was staring out the window. His long legs were stretched out in the booth so his feet could rest on the seat on my side. Those big red Nike’s looked like they were brand new. Not even the soles were dirty.
“Ray.” I said. “Interesting country isn’t it? Have you been out here before?”
Janice jumped right in. “He won’t answer you. He doesn’t talk to anyone. He can’t hear. He’s deaf since he was a toddler. Severe ear infection left him that way.”
I kept on looking at him. Trying to decide what I thought about that.
I turned toward Janice.
“Does he talk to you?” I asked.
“No. Ray writes me letters and cards and notes. He’s very communicative. He knows he doesn’t sound normal when he talks. Its embarrassing for him. So he just stays mute. We sign each other but he won’t do that in public either.”
I looked back at Ray.
“He doesn’t like to stand out.” She said.
“What?” she said.
“Well, if he doesn’t want to stand out around here he should get a pair of jeans and a cotton shirt with a collar…and cowboy boots would be a good choice.”
She laughed. “At home he blends in.”
“Where do you live..in Staples Center?” I asked.
“Young black men like to dress that way.” She said.
I could hear stress in her voice and knew I was crossing one of her lines. It probably wouldn’t be a good time for me to bring up their Humvee either. Anyway, what I know about the fashion interests of guys Ray’s age..black, white or any other color…verged on nothing. Finally, I really didn’t care what fashion trends people followed. At home Ray was probably just another guy. Around here he was unique and I was the guy preaching unique…Ray was preaching ‘blend-in’. I needed to change the subject.
The waiter saved me by dropping by to ask if Ray and Janice wanted anything to drink. Janice ordered iced tea and a Coke for Ray.
“So how did you get interested in Forrest’s treasure?” I asked.
“Emm. She said. “That’s Rays doing. He reads everything. He came across Forrest’s blog and the book. We ordered a copy and then he found your blog and he started spending all his time trying to figure out where it could be.”
“I do the same thing.” I said.
“Have you looked other places?” I asked
The waiter brought their drinks. Ray didn’t seem to notice his Coke. Janice squeezed the lemon into her tea. Took a long swig and then tapped Ray on the shoulder and pushed his Coke closer. Ray looked over at his glass and pulled it the rest of the way to his end of the table then returned to staring through the window.
“No, this is where Ray says it is. No reason to look anywhere else.”
The waiter came back and took our lunch order. Janice ordered Ray a burger. I ordered a Frito pie and Janice agreed to try a pie too. Although she did think the concept was pretty funny. “Why not just call them nachos?” She asked no one in particular.
We talked through lunch about the treasure mostly. Why Forrest hid it. How many people might be out looking for it. The different places people were looking. All speculation of course since neither of us knew anything.
Ray quietly eyed his burger like it might have hidden vegetables in it.
Janice, it turns out, runs a pet boutique in Malibu and her clients include some of LA’s wealthiest citizens.
“What’s a pet boutique?” I asked.
She looked at me like I was from a different planet.
“I live on a small island.” I said. “We don’t have any pet boutiques…that I’m aware of.”
“Its like a spa for pets. We style their hair, trim their nails, give them a shampoo, brush their teeth, make them smell pretty and care for them while their owners are gone.” She said.
“Brush their teeth?. I said.
“We fuss over them. Its probably not a business you’d be good at.” She said.
“The list of things I wouldn’t be good at is more or less infinite.” I said.
“It pays very good money. Ray is a dog walker. He gets along fine with the dogs. He can handle ten dogs at a time. They never fight.” She said this with a great deal of pride.
At some point the waiter cleared the table. Janice thought the Frito pie was okay and Ray wolfed down his burger in about three bites.
“So that’s your hand tooled Humvee out in the lot?” I asked.
“Mr. Nosey.” She responded. “Its Ray’s. Like I said, dog walking in Malibu pays good money.”
I decided to change the subject again.
“When are you going to go get the treasure?” I asked.
“Soon as we’re through here. Ray is excited about getting it.”
“Sounds good.” I said.
“We have to clear our bags out of the room and we’ll meet you out front in twenty minutes. Okay?”
“Perfect.” I said.
“Lunch is on us.” She said as she gathered up her bag. They paid the bill at the bar and then exited the way they came in. I watched them head toward one of the old cabins and thought quietly about their baffling life while I finished my diet Pepsi and set out a tip.
It was about Noon when I left the building. I headed to the truck and gathered up my camera, hat and ice axe. I wondered if I was going to need water. If we were driving or walking. I wasn’t going to ride in the Humvee. If we were driving I’d follow in my truck. I closed the van up and leaned against it while I waited for them to show.
About two minutes later I saw Janice headed my way. She was wearing the same outfit she had worn at lunch including the red flip flops… sans the bag. To my utter surprise Ray was dressed completely different. He had on a black plain ball cap and a black tee and a pair of black jeans. No cowboy boots but he did have on a pair of dark brown, leather work boots and the laces were tied. All the jewelry was gone. As he got closer he did a spin around and grinned at me. Janice laughed. I did too. Neither of them were carrying a shovel or ice axe.
“Looks good.” I said and gave Ray a thumbs up. I turned and looked down at Janice’s feet. I’m not sure you’ll want to walk around out here in those I said, pointing at the flip-flops. Not much protection for your feet and there are cactus, sharp rocks and even snakes around here.
“I’ll be fine.” She responded. “ohh…I forgot to tell you.” Janice said. “Ray is a lip reader.”
“Great.” I said. “Thanks for telling me that before I made a fool of myself'”
Janice laughed. “By the way. Ray says that if you ever come to Malibu you’d probably be arrested for vagrancy in that shirt and jeans.”
“Maybe I could stop in at your place and get my nails trimmed and a shampoo.” I said.
“We don’t do mutts.” Janice said.
I laughed. Janice laughed. Ray grinned.
Janice said that we were very close to the spot Ray had in mind. We didn’t need water or vehicles. With that, we started walking down the dusty drive toward the main road. At the street we turned right and walked a few hundred feet before crossing the highway toward the community cemetery.
I had a bad feeling as we walked through the gate into the burial ground. Ray walked directly over to one of the headstones as if he’d been here before and pointed at it. I walked over to take a look. The man buried there had the last name “Brown” as in “below the home of Brown”.
“Okay…what now?” I asked. I was hoping that what I was thinking was not what Ray intended. “Do you think its buried here in this mans grave?”
Ray nodded yes.
“Thats where it is.” Added Janice.
“Lets think about this for a second.” I said. “First, look around. Forrest hid the treasure less than two years ago. Old man Brown here has been dead since 1958. So the treasure could not have been buried with the body. Further, there is nothing in this cemetery that’s been disturbed in the past two years. No recent holes have been dug. Its all well cared for and its all uniform. Nobody buried anything in this cemetery recently. Second, I’ve met Forrest. I cannot believe there is any way he would dishonor anyone’s grave to hide his treasure. Not even possible.” I said. “Third, I don’t see how any of the hints in the poem could lead you to this spot. I’ve been thinking about it for two days now and this place…or any place in Ojo Caliente just is not possible. Finally, I don’t even think Forrest buried it. He never said he buried it. He said he ‘hid’ it…not buried it. Imagine if this was your relative’s grave. Would you want some yokels digging it up on a whim? I don’t think so. To dig here would be morally reprehensible as well as illegal.”
“So even though we know its here you are not going to dig it up?” Janice asked.
“No way.” I said. “And its not here.”
I stopped. I waited for an argument. None came.
Ray turned and calmly walked back out the gate.
“Okay, I win.” Said Janice.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
Ray said you’d dig up a grave. I said not.”
“What are you talking about?” I repeated.
“It was just a bet.” Janice said. “Ray figured you’d have no problem digging in a cemetery if that’s where the gold was. I said ‘no way’. I won. We’re through here. You pass the morality test. Ray loses a hundred bucks.”
She turned and walked away through the cemetery gate.
I watched her walk. Dumbfounded.
I ran after her. When I caught up I said. “You came all the way out here from LA just on a lousy hundred dollar bet?”
“Of course not.” She said. “Lied about coming from L.A. We were shopping in Santa Fe. Read the story about the treasure on the internet. Found your blog. Ray wanted to bet on what a guy like you would do if the treasure was in a grave. We contacted you. Dragged you out here…”
“I was not that far away…” I interrupted. Trying to prop up my pride.
“Listen.” She said. “Ray figured you’d dig up the grave because that’s what he would have done. Ray’s religion is about money. Not about death and dying.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “Ray walks dogs for a living.”
Janice stopped and turned toward me. She looked a tad venomous around the eyes.
“Do you know what he makes ‘walking dogs’ Dal? She asked. It was a rhetorical question. I did not answer. “He makes more than what is in that chest in a single year. Ray is not a dog walker Dal. Ray is THE dog walker.He can make a thousand bucks an hour all day long.” Then she turned and walked away down the highway.
I slowly walked back toward my truck. I felt like a sucker. I was pretty certain I had just been taken advantage of. But I wasn’t sure how. I got a free lunch. I didn’t lose any money. I didn’t lose anything really. Maybe a little self respect. I felt like a white rat being tested by egg-head researchers. I stopped and considered my position.
I saw the Humvee pull out of the drive, onto the hardtop and head toward me. I couldn’t tell if I was angry or not. I saluted them as they went by. I pointed my mouth at the windshield and said “Thanks for the lunch.” The Humvee’s tinted glass prevented me from seeing if they waved back.
“Interesting people.” I thought. “I should have ordered a more expensive lunch.”