F Marks the Spot… or Not…

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 2012

After the blue fly experience at the Manby hacienda I headed north from Taos toward the Rio Hondo and then turned west on a dirt road that leads down into the gorge, the John Dunn Bridge, and Black Rock Hot Springs. My plan was pretty simple. Find the treasure chest somewhere down near the union of the Hondo and the Grande and go home. I try not to make things too complicated.

John Dunn’s Bridge at the confluence of the Rio Hondo and the Rio Grande.

It was a sweltering day to be in the gorge. Miserable for the likes of me. But probably a pleasant day for New Mexicans. I’m a wuss when it comes to heat. Eighty degrees is unusually hot where I come from. Ninety is life-threatening.

On the floor of the canyon one slow moving fisherman wearing a wide brimmed hat is busy stalking Browns. A couple of indignant ravens are perched on the iron portal of the old truss bridge like sentinels at the gates of hell. They watch my approach  just ahead of my own dustball. I park in a wide spot in front of the bridge and keep the door closed until the fine brown powder swirls past and settles on the wooden deck. As I open the door the disgusted ravens yell at me and fly off down the river. I tell myself that next time I buy a truck I’ll go for the air conditioning.

Blooming cactus on the floor of the gorge.

I grab my camera and ice axe and walk behind the van to a trail hanging along the steep east side of the river. I know that the bridge’s namesake, John Dunn built a hotel down here somewhere and I figure maybe Forrest hid that chest around the foundation of Dunn’s old structure. However, I am going to have to scrounge around to find any hotel remains. I can’t readily detect where the old hotel might have stood. No part of it seems to leap into view. I know the County took over the road in the 50’s moved it over from where Dunn’s was located and the old wooden bridge was replaced around the same time. That hotel could have been knocked down in the 40’s or 50’s. The space available for building a hotel…even a small one …is pretty limited down in this tight gorge. By my eyes there were only a couple of spots where it could have been.

Over on the other side of the gorge I can make out the remains of a dark brown rock retaining wall that John Dunn’s crew must have erected when they were building the road over there.

Tough buggers those old guys. Dunn and his buddies had nothing but picks and shovels to carve that road out of the steep, hard, side of a solid rock canyon. Before Dunn, Manby had a road there too but it was little more than a very primitive trail that had been used by the Indians and Spaniards. Dunn made it into an actual road where he could drive wagons and later, his car.

After a couple of hours of searching all the spots big enough for a structure and finding no gleaming chest of gold and gems I decide to move on. South and west of the bridge is Black Rock Hot Spring. There is a trail that heads over there. It’s not far. A quarter mile perhaps from the bridge. That seems like the next logical place to look.

The cave along the trail to Manby Hot Springs.

Its an easy trail to walk. I spot several bright red and yellow cactus blooms among the dust and rocks. About halfway down the trail there is a pretty good sized cave. Its not terribly deep but I can see how folks would have crawled into it to get out of the hot sun and rain ever since man started coming out to the hot spring.

There are both contemporary names and ancient petroglyphs carved into the rocks all along the trail. It made me realize that I was walking the very same trail ancient humans had walked to get to this prehistoric hot spring. How many trails are left that have not changed since early humans started treading them? How many centuries since the first person might have walked down here? 5…10?..a hundred?…I have no idea.

Contemporary names and ancient figures are etched into rocks along the short trail to Manby Hot Spring.

I decided to climb into the cave and have a look around. Its not a scary, dark cave. Its open with lots of light. This made it easy to look for a blaze. I can count hundreds of names and initials carved into the soft rock around the cave. Then I see it. Off by itself. Near the cave entrance. A big, clear “F”. Holy cow! My heart skips a couple of beats. I don’t feel the heat anymore. I stare at it. It could be Forrest’s. I look directly down from the “F” to the floor of the cave.

I tap the area with my ice axe. It’s solid rock. No holes. No secret hidey spots. I survey the immediate area looking for some sort of place Forrest could stash his chest. I poke around behind and under some boulders. I walk the few dozen feet down to the river and carefully look around. Nothing. It’s clearly someone else’s “F”. I wish they wouldn’t do that!

A beacon-like “F” carved into the rock at the cave.

Once I’m certain no chest is hidden around the “F” I head over to the spring. The closer I get to the languid clear pools of heated water the more carvings there are in the rocks. At the spring itself the rocks are so carved up it’s hard to read the names and dates. Names on top of names. Names chipped off by weather. There are several from the 1920’s. I wonder if Manby or Dunn left their mark here somewhere. It would be cool to find one or both. After a half hour of searching I find neither and no additional “F” either.

I walk around the last rock and before me is the spring. It’s made up of two pools. The pool most inland from the river is clear and blue. It’s about two feet deep and has lots of rocks for sitting. They don’t look like sculpted rocks…like they are going to be comfortable or anything…just rocks. One would think that after all these centuries someone would have carved a nice plushy comfortable rock to sit on…

The clear, bluish, inland pool.

The pool is no bigger than a kiddie pool from Wallmart. I test the water with my right hand. It’s hotter than I need. I could see using it on a cool day but its already 90 plus. I’m not that interested in being hotter. The second pool is right on the river’s edge. The spring water is mixed with chilling river water so it’s less hot and less blue.

Hot springs are supposed to have all kinds of therapeutic value. I could use some therapeutic value so I look around for others. No one in sight. I strip quickly and step in. Its comfortable enough. Warmer than that icy, river water and cooler than the upper pool. It’s quite comfortable as long as I don’t get too near where the river leaks into the pool. It too is shallow. If I sit on the bottom the water comes up to my chest. I refrain from dunking my head since I don’t know what kind of critters live in the water. I contemplate the world and my place in it. That takes about twenty seconds. Then I start thinking about the treasure again. I stare at the far side of the canyon. A couple of vultures are playing on the air currents. They are doing lazy circles several hundred feet over my head. It looks like fun. The only sound is the splash of the river as it rushes by like its late for a dinner date.

The least hot, riverside pool.

After about fifteen minutes of therapeutic soaking I start getting antsy about someone showing up so I step out of the pool, air dry quickly in the New Mexico arid outdoors and get dressed.

I spend another 15 minutes checking out the area for signs of Forrest. I find none and head back to the truck feeling cleaner, tanner, healthier and unstressed by the weight of a chest full of treasure. I watch the hatted fisher angle for a bit, hoping to learn something, then  point the truck toward Yellowstone and head up the canyon wall singing something by the Doobie Brothers and mentally checking one more place off my “to look” list.

dal…

Losing Your Head in Taos…

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 2012

At 60 years of age Arthur Manby had solidified his reputation as the most disliked man in Taos. Ten years later, July of 1929, his decapitated body was found swollen and stinking and riddled with blue flies and maggots on a cot in his beautiful Spanish Colonial hacienda near the Taos plaza.

Manby was a talented con man. Advanced by an easy smile and comfortable manner he quickly roped in one sucker after another. Everyone in Taos knew him. Most hated him. A few tolerated him. Many feared him. He spent most of his adult life conning, thieving and accumulating a fortune on the backs of everyone who had anything in northern New Mexico, and beyond. Real estate was his primary game. He also dabbled in mining schemes and even art cons.

Until things began to unravel, and while Manby was still thought to be legitimate, he ruled that part of New Mexico like a bad emperor. He took money for land he had no right to sell. He summarily evicted those who may have had a legitimate claim to the land. He sold stock in worthless mines. He had no conscience. He trampled the poor and conned the rich and he did it with the protection and encouragement of the corrupt government in Santa Fe. He had friends in high places and thugs in low places. But by the time he was 60 his luck and thugs were running low. He was in trouble financially. His schemes and the law were beginning to catch up with him.

By 1929 Manby was laying low, dodging lawsuits and victims of his schemes. He was beginning to look a tad frayed around the edges. His thinning white hair stuck out from his floppy hat in all directions. Signs of his syphilis were beginning to show. What goes around comes around!

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The garden gate to the Manby hacienda in Taos

On a warm, late spring afternoon I stopped in at the old Manby hacienda out of  plain, morbid curiosity in the place. It’s now an art center where artists and tourists accumulate. They also have a coffee bar there and a fridge full of bottles of lemonade. A young man, 14 going on 20 and of dubious alertness was running the espresso machine. I asked him if he knew which room Manby’s body was found in. He looked up at me utterly confused.

“What body?”, he nearly yelled.

“Arthur Manby’s.” I said. “The guy who built this place and whose headless body was found here in 1929.”

“Jeez!” The kid replied. “I don’t know anything about Manby or a body.”

Once again it seems incomprehensible to me that a person would work in a place and not know all the juicy details about it. Where is this kid’s sense of curiosity and enthusiasm in macabre history?

My own fascination in the place stems from my interest in the location of Forrest’s hidden chest. Let me explain-

One of my first search locations was in a place on the Rio Grande known as “the box”. This is a deep gorge (canyon) with the Rio Grande at the bottom that starts where the river enters New Mexico and extends all the way past Taos. Up until this point the Rio is a warm running stream but once inside the box it gets fed by cold springs and it’s volume increases significantly. There are two very nice streams with Brown trout  that enter the Rio in the box. Each could be considered not far, but too far to walk from the start of the gorge. One is the Red and the other is the Hondo.

My first expedition to New Mexico was to search the confluence of the Red and Rio Grande rivers. This area matched up so well to the clues in the poem that I could not believe it wasn’t there…maybe I just missed it…

The one flaw in this area is access. The steepness and depth of the gorge gang up to make this a hike that’s a level of difficulty which doesn’t sound like Forrest’s game. The only access at that point is by foot and it’s at least a mile in and a thousand feet down…Would Forrest have carried 40lbs of treasure down into that hole…in retrospect, I doubt it.

So in June I wanted to check out the other confluence…the Rios Hondo and Grande. This area of the box is also steep and deep but the mitigating factor is the road that dives in and out with a bridge at the bottom. The John Dunn Bridge. The Hondo is apparently a great Brown trout fishery. The box is the canyon and all the other clues could be twisted to point here as well. “If it isn’t at the Red it must be at the Hondo”, I told myself.

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The John Dunn Bridge across the Rio Grande is a spot once coveted by Arthur Manby

Now, what all this has to do with Manby is that at one time Manby  owned this area down at the confluence of the Hondo and the Grande. He built two bridges down there and later, when he needed some money, sold them to a tall, skinny fellow from Taos named John Dunn. John had a streak of bad luck when according to legend both of Manby’s bridges were washed away in a flood soon after he bought them. So John rebuilt one of the bridges and constructed a hotel down on the river. Served fresh trout for dinner every evening, improved the road on both sides of the river and charged a toll for people using his bridge. This was a pretty lucrative business because if you didn’t use John Dunn’s bridge you could add an extra hundred or so miles onto your trip to or from the railroad at Tres Piedras.

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Black Rock Hot Springs next to the Rio Grande

But bridges were not the only calling card to that spot. Manby also tried to improve a natural hot spring a few miles further down stream from the Dunn Bridge. It had been used by Indians and Spaniards and everyone else going back hundreds…maybe thousands of years. By “improve” I mean put a building around the spring and charge people to use it. What he ended up building was dark and frightening, so few people went there. Years later the building was torn down. The open-air spring is still there. It’s called Manby Hot Springs and is just down river from Black Rock Springs which is near the John Dunn Bridge.  Anyone can go down there and relax in either Manby or Black Rock…or just watch the river. They are both free and when I was there only one other person came by Black Rock.  An easy trail takes you past a cave and over to the pools of hot water at Black Rock. It was at one of these springs that I knew Forrest had hidden his treasure. It was here that I was intent on searching.

Being a fan of the “form follows function” adage I wanted to see Manby’s hacienda and conjure up some of his destiny before I started searching. I wanted to sit in the room where his headless torso was discovered and drink a lemonade and soak up the atmosphere… minus the blue flies and maggots. Karma to karma. Maybe Manby would tell me where, exactly to look.

So now I am in Taos, in Arthur Manby’s hacienda cum-art center cum-lemonade stand. I brought along an old map of the building showing where his body was found and where the dismembered head was ultimately discovered back in 1929. I was hoping the kid would allow me to explore the rooms. But that doesn’t look like it’s going to work out. He seems a bit upset by the whole notion of a headless body in his establishment. He keeps an eye on me like he’s ready to dial 911 if I should pull out a knife or start speaking in tongues. I can see the windows and a door across the garden that lead to the room I want to be in. I look around. Its right after school and three high schoolers are hanging out but that’s about it. They look like they are readying up to leave. I wait. They leave.

I place a couple bucks under my lemonade glass, pick up my camera and walk over to the door across the garden. There is no sign reading “keep out”, or “employees only”. I twist the knob. It opens. I walk in and close the door behind me. The room is narrow and long. Windows along the garden side let in soft light. Cafe tables and chairs mean this room is now used as an eating space. I wonder if the folks who dine here sense it’s ghoulish past.

I find a chair in a spot I identify as the most likely location of the infamous cot. I sit. I think Manby thoughts. I try to conjure him up. Nothing! I try harder. I close my eyes.  I focus.

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The room – looking out toward the garden

Something happens. I hear a noise around my head. What is it? Flies! One is trying to crawl into my mouth.They are all over me. Something smells putrid. This is disgusting. I force my eyes open. My heart is pounding against my rib cage. The flies are gone. The air in the room smells like air in a room. What just happened? Did I actually slip back to 1929? I don’t want to do that again. I am a little freaked. I take a couple of pictures in the room and quickly leave the way I came in. I figure the whole episode up to an over achieving imagination. I find my truck over near the cemetery, hop in and drive away from Taos and stinking blue flies a little faster than the law allows.

dal…