SUBMITTED july 2016
Honestly, I needed a break after Fennboree and the recent media projects. I was worn out both physically and mentally. I swore I was going to take a month off from anything Fenn treasure related….no researching, no BOTG searches, no media, limited blog time. Then I received an email from a guy in North Carolina…said he’d just heard of Fenn and his hidden treasure chest a week prior… did a little research, figured out where the chest is located, and then found my email address. He wondered if I’d be his guide to retrieve the treasure chest… my payment was half the treasure. I smiled as I read his words… not because of his assumed new wealth, but because he was totally new to this and so confident.
Chris explained he is a math teacher who lives and teaches in Spain but was ending a 3-month visit with his aging parents in North Carolina. He only had 10 days before he had to head back to Spain, so if I agreed, it’d have to be soon. My calendar was empty, and I had to admit I was intrigued…I liked the idea of searching with a math teacher…probably had a very straightforward, logical approach to solving the poem. Plus he was a new guy to everything…no scrapbooks or blogs to taint his thinking. He sent me a picture of him rock climbing in Spain…I decided if he was fit enough for that sport, he wouldn’t die on me up on some mountain top. I replied, ok and asked what he had in mind. Within minutes, he sent me his flight itinerary…my God, he was arriving in Albuquerque late the next day.
The following morning we met early at the rendezvous point in Bernalillo where he showed me on a map the location where he was sure the trove resided…Burned Mountain just a tad southeast of Hopewell Lake which is along Hwy 64 in the Carson National Forest 20 miles west of Tres Piedras.
I was ecstatic…I had driven across this high mountain scenic byway prior but had never searched this area. So basically, I was about to set out on an adventure, to me at least, which involved seeing new places and driving on new-to-me dirt roads. I was thrilled…
He had no lodging plans so I suggested the first stop should be the Chili Line Depot in Tres Piedras where he could check-out the place for supplies, groceries, maybe lodging…There was nothing else in that triangulated area between Ojo Caliente, Taos, or Chama / Abiquiu.
I could tell he was antsy…after all, he knew where that chest lay in wait and he wanted to head west to get it. But I had one request before we left the Chili Line Depot parking lot…a quick picture of him and his rental car license plate which I would text to my family and friends because they all said… “What the hell is wrong with you? Going out into the wilderness for 4 days with a stranger!” I know… I got the picture…Ted Bundy’s face flashed through my mind. He also was good-looking, charming, and smart…and a serial killer!
I shot the photo, texted it to my family, and off we went to retrieve Fenn’s chest, Chris in his rental, Molly and me in the pickup. Chris followed me through the campground at Hopewell Lake to scout out a potential site to spend the night, and then I let him take the lead. He parked at a spot off FR91B, right on the curve that he felt was the closest spot to his GPS co-ordinates high up Burned Mountain. We both grabbed our packs, and off we went, him in the lead using his iPad to navigate, then Molly and me bushwhacking through the tall grass and weeds not far behind.
There was no trail anywhere leading up the slope to the summit of Burned Mountain…in my mind, I knew this was a good thing…you know, “no human trail in very close proximity”…I didn’t let on. This was Chris’ solve…
I had decided from the get-go I was not going to interfere or make suggestions…I was the guide, of sorts, not the Fenn-treasure-hunting expert I believe I am. LOL! (Every reader should be laughing out loud or at least smiling now at my mention of my skills, or lack there of.)
We saw a lot of trees that looked like this…Chris asked me what made the scratch marks? I didn’t know…maybe animals with antlers, or bears with large claws, pissed off aliens, Fenn searchers making false blazes trying to mislead…I stayed silent because I really didn’t know.
We arrived at the exact GPS location where the chest should have been hidden…It was in a portion of forest that looked like everything else surrounding us. Nothing special, not even anything “different”. At least we were “in the wood”, but that was little consolation to Chris…I understood that look of disappointment…I’d experienced it, and I’d seen it on others’ faces. I asked if we could still climb to the summit, since we were near…the map said Burned Mt is at 10,192 (maybe that’s why Fenn picked 10200 ft as the upper limit…hmmm.) The top was covered in large rocks that looked like an old landslide, but that wasn’t possible since we were on the top. It made no difference, but there sure were a lot of hidey spots there.
Chris went exploring while Molly and I took a water break and ate a snack. He found a “pit” that was 12 feet across and 20 feet deep. All I could think of was the pit in the Silence of the Lambs where the girl was held captive. Geeze, maybe I watch too many movies.
When he returned, he suggested we go find the meadow that showed up like a large triangle on GE. It was just below and east of his “spot”. It was beautiful…lush with vegetation, a few summer wildflowers, and surrounded by aspen groves. I told him that was my treasure for the day…this is what searching for Fenn’s treasure is all about. I doubt that he agreed, at least not that early on in his 6-day trip to New Mexico.
I asked him more questions about his solutions to the poem…he said he thinks Fenn started at his home and the poem goes north from Santa Fe. The first place he saw where warm waters halt is Ojo Caliente, not the actual spa but the river itself…where the Ojo Caliente enters or “halts” at the Chama River north of Espanola. And even though the poem says “and take it in the canyon down”, the journey continues northward. We agreed on one thing…Fenn may have found his “special place” when he was fly-fishing decades ago. The Rio Vallecitos is near; Placer Creek flows into Hopewell Lake and out below the dam. The area is beautiful, not that far from Santa Fe, and not so heavily used.
We made our way back to our vehicles…Molly led, dragging me behind her, and then Chris followed. It was mid-afternoon…I had to leave to take Molly home. Chris and I made plans to meet in Espanola the next morning, and ride together from there.
He ended up going to Hopewell Lake then hiking down Placer Creek to Long Canyon, then up the Continental Divide Trail, roughly northwest, stopping where it doglegs around back to the road. The next morning, he excitedly told me he saw an amazing meadow and a fox…Ok, I thought to myself, now he is starting to get “it”…
Day two began bright and early…as I drove, he navigated, and talked…a lot. I asked him again about the poem. To understand his thinking and solutions I first had to understand him. He explained he loves scavenger hunts, and spent weeks creating scavenger hunts for others…I mean, really detailed hunts that were difficult but solvable. He felt Fenn’s poem had to be created along the same line of thinking…straightforward, not obtuse. The whole idea is for it to be solved…so Fenn wasn’t going to throw in red herrings or use words that you have to decode, decipher, or unscramble. Each word means what it means, only there are multiple meanings for words, hence the puzzle. He felt he understood Fenn’s spirit of engagement and that you must read the poem and think of it from his perspective. The poem is a journey, and the whole poem is awesome, starting from Santa Fe. The headwaters for the Ojo Caliente and Chama Rivers yield canyons and valleys and some of the most spectacular fishing in northern New Mexico, and his home of Brown was a specific fishing hole known by local fishermen as THE place to catch the Browns. OK, now I understood…
He directed me off Hwy 285 onto SR111, where we continued north through La Madera (which translates to “the wood”), through the tiny wooded hamlet of Vallecitos, and onto forest road 274 bearing northwest just beyond Cańon Plaza. I was ecstatic because I was now driving on a new dirt road through a beautiful narrow valley along the Rio Vallecitos. I thought it was spectacular…we parked at a small turnoff immediately after crossing a bridge over the creek, then made our way to the water. The plan was to walk upstream, along the bank, looking for a fishing hole that could be considered the home of Brown. His idea of contacting a local fly-fisherman who would already know this location was a good idea but too late for our use. We had to find the hoB ourselves. It’s debatable whether or not the “trail” we followed along the bank was human or not. It wasn’t much of a trail but we guessed a few fishermen had probably trampled that same path.
When we ran out of bank to walk on, Chris decided to wade further upstream to see what was around the next bend. I gave him one of my trekking poles, and off he went…
As I sat waiting patiently on a giant boulder, my legs dangling out over the stream, I soaked in the beauty of the day… the blue sky, the green trees, the entire area, the circumstances… I mean, my God, I’ve been searching for Fenn’s treasure for 3 and a half years, and I’m still enthralled with new places to see. I hoped that by the time Chris left New Mexico and the search, he’d know and understand The Thrill of the Chase…
Chris returned without finding the home of Brown so back to the car we went. I suggested taking FR44 from Vallecitos south to the village of El Rito, and hiking back to Potrero Falls on the way. I had searched this particular area a couple years ago and wanted to show him a few of my solutions. Near the top of the ridge sat Valle Grande Peak with its seeping spring, the water trickling down into the Rincon de Tio Francisquito Basin. Not far but too far to walk from there was the turn back to the trail leading to Potrero Falls, my heavy loads and water high.
It was a short 10-minute walk through the shady woods to the falls. No cascades of water this day, only a small fall at the bottom. Nevertheless it was a nice respite from sitting in the car and a chance to stretch our legs.
I explained that when I searched this area a couple years ago, I had scrambled up the boulders along the cascading water falls to the top, where I
discovered a lush meadow filled with wild flowers. It reminded me of Forrest’s Vietnam waterfall story, where he “paid my debt to the waterfall and the magic clearing to which I felt so obligated.”
After leaving the falls, we stopped at the El Rito District Ranger Station to ask questions and try to get any information that could be helpful in identifying THE home of Brown. Both rangers behind the desk were amiable and talkative. Before entering, I had warned Chris not to mention Fenn or the treasure. (Last month I had stopped at the Camino Real District Station in Penasco to pick up a map…the lady behind the desk was friendly until she asked what brought me to her neck of the woods, and I replied Fenn’s treasure. She rolled her eyes and walked away…well, screw her, I thought at the time.) I asked these rangers what was the source for Potrero Falls? It couldn’t be snowmelt or rainwater entirely as the early summer rains were minimal. I wondered if it was a spring…they didn’t know. Chris asked about fishing, especially for Browns. It was suggested we try the Rio El Rito all the way up the canyon on FR110, as long as we stayed off the private land. She also mentioned Fifteen Springs, way up in a high alpine meadow northeast of Canjilon Lakes, north of our current location. (Not for fishing but to see the springs.) She warned the 3-mile drive back to the springs was undriveable in an automobile but we might be able to drive it in the FJ Cruiser. (I swear much of this 4-day adventure should have been an advertisement for Toyota.)
Off we went again…along the El Rito, driving through the forest canopy, stopping, and wading once to check it out. I think we both agreed this stream just didn’t seem “right”.
When we got to the tee in the road we headed west toward Canjilon to visit the Rio Canjilon, and it seemed even smaller. We didn’t even get out. But the drive across the ridges and higher alpine meadows was pretty with cooler temperatures…it was green, there were cows to gaze at, and it was 73º versus the high 90ºs in Santa Fe and Espanola.
The day ended with me giving Chris my extra copy of Forrest’s Memoirs TTOTC…he had never read the book, and I thought it might help him. He read it in his hotel room that night…
The third morning started with breakfast at the Abiquiu Inn where we met Desertphile. I had emailed him the day before to see if he would be available, and to my amazement, he was. He brought maps to give us, pointed to the hot springs at the edge of the Chama River where a potential hoB might be, and talked freely to both of us about his solutions to the poem, as well as sharing data he had collected regarding water temperatures, and such. Before we realized it, they were nudging us out the front door…my God it was noon!
David went his way, and we went ours. Chris talked about how after reading TTOTC, it seemed more likely Fenn would have hidden the chest in the YNP area. I agreed that the book makes a compelling argument to head that direction.
We drove north to Chama, found the Rita Chamita creek, shook our heads no, and headed back south. The day was sort of shot by now but we still wanted to explore.
We headed back the rutted road to Fifteen Springs…not to find Fenn’s treasure but to find mine. You know…some place new…a place painted green, with cooler temperatures…it was all of those things. We were over 10,200 ft and it was 71º.
Chris and I walked around and through the swamp cabbage looking for the 15 springs… they were mostly dried up. He saw a deer run from the edge into the aspen grove…he hollered to me and pointed.
We made our way through the ruts back to the forest road…I could see trees, I could see mountains, I could see animals. Then we headed to the Chama River…
Once again, this was not actually the spot to look for the treasure chest…it was more of a recon for Chris in case he wanted to come back here the next day or two and search the spot Desertphile pointed out that morning.
Chris thought about swimming across the river and hanging from a ledge for a photo…
I cautioned against it.
The next morning was my last…He talked a lot about structure…how logically the poem’s solution would begin where warm waters halt where they enter a cold stream. That’s the canyon you “and take it in the canyon down,”; from there you have to drive “Not far, but too far to walk.” That’s where you find the confluence of a side creek and “put in below the home of Brown”, a place that’s noted for it’s Brown trout. Then you go up this side canyon, you know, “there’ll be no paddle up your creek”, etc etc. He handed me the sheet of paper with his drawing of this structured journey he spoke of. It looked identical to something I’d drawn 3 years ago when I seriously started this chase… me and hundreds of others…
He agreed to let me take the lead this final morning and show him one of my structured solves…I posted it on Dal’s site a couple years ago, under the name The Slide Trail.
We started the journey hiking down to Manby Hot Springs, north of Taos. In the short time it took to descend to the hot springs, it appeared there were already folks soaking there. They may have been un-clothed…we maintained our distance. From there, we drove all the way back down along the Rio Grande canyon to the Orilla Verde area where we made our way to the Slide Trail and confluence of the Rio de Pueblo and parked. From there we made a short hike part way up the trail until we got to the slide. Just on the north side of it was a small box canyon off to the right, filled with shade trees and boulders. I suggested we go back there and take a look…it was only 200 feet to the end of the box, and I couldn’t remember how thoroughly I’d checked it prior. Chris thought it didn’t look “special” enough to be Forrest’s special place. I agreed but emphatically replied none of us know what is special to Forrest…In my opinion, if you are in an area with any possibility, you search it before you leave it! My tone was harsh, and I felt guilty afterwards…oops, I was supposed to only be his guide, not throw my opinions in his face. Sorry, Chris!
Fenn’s treasure chest was not found…we quietly returned to the car, then made our final drive together to his car in Espanola. We hugged good-bye…
As I made the 2-hr drive home, I contemplated our journey together. I had driven over 200 miles each day…I saw places I’d never have seen otherwise…I enjoyed listening to his ideas about solving Fenn’s poem…I learned a lot about rock-climbing…I learned David’s secrets…but most importantly, I had fun. I worried whether or not Chris felt the same. I felt responsible for him…I had been his guide.
Chris emailed me from the airport Saturday morning as he waited to board. Along with sending thanks, he talked about his last day in New Mexico and his long hike up to Wheeler Peak via the Middle Fork Lake and Lost Lake Trails. He said, “it was awesome, but I was destroyed afterwards.” Is that like saying, “I’ve done it tired and now I’m weak?” Absolutely…
Standing on top Wheeler Peak (picture from my archives 2015)
If anyone wants to see more pictures of Chris and his search journey, go to this link: