Okay, I admit it, for a few years I’d been going round in circles. Although, come to think of it, they were definitely more like rectangles with corners that elbowed into some of the Rocky Mountains’ most intriguing landscapes.
There was the isolated splendor around Bog Lake, where we gained the much-coveted accolade of getting stuck in the snow at the highest elevation the local tow-truck team had ever attempted a recovery.
Then I’d shared a bath with a moose amid the majestic Tetons, and danced with a bear on a hillside near the Custer Gallatin National Forest .
And if that were not enough, there were encounters of a spooky kind where mysterious geometric patterns embellished the bluffs near Big Piney.
But in the summer of 2018 things changed. Blindly groping my way through a miasma of numbers (oh yes, I’ve long been a digit-diva [divo???]) and grasping at phantoms that put in fleeting appearances before my mind’s eye, I was gradually drawn back to a trajectory that I’d all but abandoned in favor of tangents and mental chasms a couple of years before. Here was a line that stretched far into unknown territory, but one that cried out for a closer look. And within sight of my flight path was the oddest place I’d encountered so far. There within a few hundred feet lay my heaven and hell. One spot seemed suffused with peace, and the other filled me with abject terror. To either side a supporting cast of characters kept watch. The horseman urged his steed up the slope while Frosty tilted an icy top hat northwards. A youthful sentry gazed up toward the Google satellite, and a patriarchal signature was etched into the hilltop. And all bore witness to J C Penney’s bold seal, stamped in high relief among the rocks.
I think most searchers have been affected to a greater or lesser degree by pareidolia, but this was beyond anything I’d experienced before. And as it all wormed its way into my subconscious, it rekindled the paranoia that had afflicted me so brutally earlier that year, especially in relation to one very specific spot. I won’t dwell on the effects, suffice to say that they were severe and unpleasant, but as I had already developed some coping strategies I was able to gradually claw my way back to a reasonable equilibrium – although I was to notice that by now the world around me had shifted in some subtle and indefinable way.
By now I was certain that I’d found a place that was very special. But compared to previous occasions when coordinates had led directly to curious finds, here it was like building a house in a field of Jell-O. I tried combinations within the core of the hillside and I looked beyond, but I couldn’t quite nail anything definitive. In spite of this I felt it was important to at least try to visit this unique place, if at all possible. Early in the summer of 2019 the opportunity arose. I was able to book tickets via Denver to Oregon, where we have family, with the added bonus of being able to visit the Da Vinci exhibition as well as take in some new sights.
By this time, after more than five years and around a score of BOTG searches, many from my current home in the UK, I had become as much invested in the spiritual side of the Chase as the treasure hunt itself, noting the strange congruity between deep thought and physical or mental discoveries and manifestations. And although my desire to successfully conclude the search was still strong (despite deep and understandable reservations among family members), the metaphysical strand was becoming ever more intriguing. That said, I wasn’t beyond using this to my advantage when it suited, and it was becoming increasingly necessary to provide “valid” reasons to my beloved for yet another Fenn folly – and this wasn’t to be the last time I had to make the BS edible in 2019!
As ever, the virtual didn’t quite tally with the real. A quick inspection of the area showed it to be unremarkable up close, and it was more difficult to navigate than Google had promised, even to the extent that I couldn’t even definitively locate the spot that had caused me such angst. Still, it rooted out a few demons, and I spent a pleasant and peaceful half-hour sitting and gazing out over the creek, swollen with snow-melt, that had required me to don makeshift waders made from garbage bags to help with the thigh-deep flow
With a mixture of mild deflation and inevitability I hiked back to meet my wife, who was en route to the pickup point, choosing to walk a few miles extra to enjoy the warmth of the afternoon and imbibe a sense of the locality. Little did I suspect that I was also walking towards a future encounter that was to prove far more significant.But right then we headed out for a magical few days exploring Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and sun-drenched canyons where echoes of the past could still be heard.
Here, if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to digress for a moment. I’ve titled this piece “Understanding” for a number of reasons, and the following story is completely unrelated except for how it has impacted my thoughts on where the Chase might be leading us in a metaphorical sense.
A couple of years ago I recall that someone put out a video of a guy dancing on top of a mountain in high heels, and I thought it was very funny and quite sweet. It had something to do with the “lead searcher,” although the details have slipped my mind now. Maybe you remember it. Well, back in the early “noughties,” before I moved to the US, I got to know a couple of kids who had been adopted. They were siblings who had been born to a prostitute in Guatemala, later abandoned, and brought up in an orphanage there. The American couple who wanted to adopt them visited them in Guatemala so that they would know who were to be their step-parents. The trouble was that the adoption process took two years to complete. By the time the kids arrived in the States they had been living in limbo, unsure of their future and with little idea of how their new home would impact them.
At the same time, the man of the house was becoming increasingly unsure that he wanted to be a surrogate father.The children were introduced to their new way of life, already on the cusp of becoming teens, with little knowledge of English and with a background that was one of almost total insecurity. Within the first couple of years in the US the stepdad had moved out, leaving the children to the care of their new stepmom who is fortunately one of the most loving and selfless people I know. The stepdaughter struggled in school and while the stepson did better, he seemed uncomfortable in his own skin.
By the time the boy turned eighteen he had made up his mind that he didn’t want to remain male. Meanwhile, his older sister seemed attracted to men who were themselves outcasts, usually on the wrong side of the law. She ended up having an intermittent relationship with a guy who was in and out of jail and gave birth to two children as a consequence. Needless to say, he disappeared.
I was stunned when the stepson decided to journey to Thailand for a gender-change operation shortly after his eighteenth birthday. I worried that someone so young could end up regretting such a decision for the rest of their life. But fast-forward the best part of two decades and she (formerly he) is now a successful professional and has weathered the storms of learning how to cope with a new identity and the sometimes aggressive reaction of those with whom she has sought a closer bond. The sister is also doing fairly well although it has been a long and uphill struggle for her and her kids.
What is interesting is how prejudice and a lack of understanding can color one’s perception of people who have had to struggle all their lives and who have chosen a different path from one’s own. The rush to judgment rarely involves stepping back to consider the colossal hurdles that have had to be overcome, and the need to seek either the company of those who are also “different” or the irresistible urge to remake oneself and begin again. And it can take tremendous courage. I have also known a youngster who decided to make the change from female to male. I couldn’t begin to fathom the reasons for it beyond knowing that here there was also childhood trauma, but I have been amazed at this person’s courageous decision to leave home before turning twenty and journey to one of the most macho states as a fledgling “male” with little experience of either the outside world or of relationships.
So what am I trying to say? I suppose it could be summed up as acceptance, tolerance, and respect -as well as a little support – for another’s choices and situation. And I must say that I can’t recall Forrest condemning anyone for their lifestyle in his Scrapbooks (and there have been a few “interesting ” characters parading through them), but more to the point it was a lesson that I needed to take to heart too, as I was soon to discover.
Back in Wales I was left feeling that, although I’d discovered an important place, I’d not been able to link it definitively. I kept trying to squeeze the final drops out of the poem to pinpoint a precise spot. At the same time I became a little too caught up in the cascade of cryptic messages issuing forth from a website that was now featuring a bare-assed leprechaun. I found myself in danger of reverting to paranoia.
Having had many strange and unexplained experiences in the last few years, I’d become both hyper-aware of, and susceptible to, perceived messages – after all, aren’t we supposed to listen good? But separating the wheat from the chaff was not always straightforward. And however selfish the notion of continuing to search was, I couldn’t let go of the idea that the place I’d discovered had not yet done with me. I had yet another spot to check, and I was also ruminating on the possibility of some kind of tunnel or underground repository.
A domestic pact was negotiated. Based on the notion and importance of a spiritual quest, a return to the States would be tolerated – just. For my part, I promised not to break the family finances. So in late September 2019 I packed my well-worn rucksack for the umpteenth time and boarded another Denver-bound flight.
But one thing I hadn’t paid enough attention to was attitude. For some reason I just couldn’t summon up genuine positivity. Almost as soon as the plane touched down I began to question why I was still doing this. Twenty-four hours of travel and a seven-hour time difference didn’t help. Neither did running into a massive tailback on the freeway well before 6:00 am on a Saturday morning. I have to confess to little empathy for the drivers whose fender-bender had only added to the roadwork chaos. I’ve still a long way to go with tolerance!
Things didn’t improve by the end of the day. After saying “howdy” to my canyon and its denizens I stood and stared at the long “blade of stone” I’d studied so minutely on Google. It was actually a gigantic mudbank! I thought about the next eleven days I had to fill, and the cost, but determined to make the best of it. As for the poem I was out of ideas. The situation wasn’t helped by two small incidents the next day. First, I saw that Dal had published Scrapbook 206 – all about failure. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound! And Michael Houle’s video where he balanced enjoyment against some of the more negative aspects of the Chase really spoke to me. I was also intrigued by the final segment which featured a hypothetical approach to finding the hidey spot in relation to the blaze, based on distance. It was something I’d been thinking about quite a bit over the preceding months.
Second, as I considered what to do with myself, I joined the Sunday tourists at a well-known recreational area and drove around rather aimlessly until a canyon overlook caught my attention.
I dug out my camera, which had seen so much Chase action, and started to take snaps of the impressive scenery. It was something to do on a lovely, bright afternoon at the beginning of autumn. Half-an-hour later I was back in the car and driving away when I realized something wasn’t quite right. The speedometer was blurred and the rest of the world seemed slightly fuzzy. I stopped the car and put my hand to my face. My glasses were no longer there. Somehow they’d disappeared and I hadn’t even noticed, not even while I was taking photos! I retraced my steps and scoured the area, as well as the car, multiple times. Other kind souls joined the hunt, but it was a fruitless endeavor. Fortunately, I’d been particularly careful to pack an old backup pair, and so I drove back carefully to the hotel, grateful for the sunshine, and dug out the spare. They were almost useless for reading but would suffice for driving. This was not going to be a 20/20 trip!
Monday morning dawned with a decision. I’d never seen Santa Fe and thought that the home city of the author of this wild enterprise had to be worth a visit. I set off happy to have a destination and a purpose.
The Colorado mountains are breathtaking. The disappointment of the past couple of days was replaced by a sense of wonder. The contrast with much of Wyoming, a region I’m so much more familiar with, is marked, and each of the four search states definitely has its own identity. I should have stopped to take some snaps of rust-red peaks and craggy gorges, but I tend to be relentless when I have a destination in mind, and push on until I’m too tired to continue. But I did at least pause to pick up a hitchhiker.
Back at some small town gas station, while I was on my way over to the search area from Denver, I’d been approached at the pump by a guy asking politely whether I could spare some change. He seemed clean and neatly turned out and he’d caught me unawares, so I’d given him the brush-off. This wasn’t the first time that I’d “passed by on the other side” and it had played on my mind. A little while later I’d been struck by something. This was America. I’d spent many hours mediating contractual disputes at the courthouse where I lived in Oregon for a decade. A recurring theme was financial hardship and misery resulting from medical expenses which were being chased by debt collection agencies. Bankruptcy or near- crippling repayment regimes were frequent outcomes. Living for the past three years in the UK where, despite the system creaking and groaning under the burden, healthcare is paid for through taxation and is provided free at the point of delivery, it was too easy for me to forget that a regular guy might be forced into seeking handouts through bad luck. I don’t know if that was this man’s circumstances, but I wished I could go back in time and act more compassionately, but I couldn’t, so I thought at least I could help out a guy who needed a ride. He turned out to be an international long-distance runner who trained near his home at an elevation around 10,000 feet. I was in awe and could hardly imagine the stamina and fitness required for that!
Over the years I’ve found that although I occasionally have insights during searches, I need time to process them. This normally happens when I’m back home and can no longer test the theories. It’s endlessly frustrating! Sometimes though, a solo lengthy drive (providing there are not too many heart-in-mouth moments!) can induce a similar semi-meditative state. Having dropped my hitchhiker near his destination and as the miles sped away I returned to contemplation and mulled something that had bothered me for a while. The way I had got to my spot was long and convoluted. I could look back and, with the benefit of hindsight, refashion it into a simple trajectory, and yet it always seemed like there was something missing, something that would unequivocally confirm the place. But now, as I drove, I was reminded of words that the pipe-smoking, shamrock-toting little fellow had pointed to. Going from memory, it suggested that although someone had not been wise they’d found the blaze and the effort still counted. A thought occurred to me and I wanted to check it out online.
At Pagosa Springs I checked into a rather shabby motel, trying to save a few bucks in a touristy town. Munching on some snacks leftover from the journey, I squinted at my little netbook screen through inadequate lenses and pulled up a few websites and, of course, Google Maps (I think, collectively, we searchers must have brought their servers to near breaking-point!). I also emailed Forrest to let him know I would soon be in his area and asked if I could buy him coffee or lunch.
The next morning, following overnight rain, the whole region was shrouded in fog. It was not pleasant driving, but it was an apt metaphor for my search. But eventually the clouds lifted, revealing the sunlit beauty of the San Juans. After a brief detour around the base of Sierra Negra and another to a pueblo, I soon found myself in Santa Fe. I’d received no response to my email, and none would be forthcoming, so I only spent a short while in the city, not least because it was overloaded with tourists and uncomfortably hot in direct sunlight. Apart from a brief visit to Collected Works and the cathedral, I just took a few photos of the quaint old downtown and satisfied my curiosity as to the whereabouts of Mr. Fenn’s modest mansion before heading back to my casino hotel to pore over maps again.
That “measure distance” function in Google is so useful. Using my new ideas I even managed to draw a sort of “X” although it kind of resembled one of those old-fashioned egg timers. But my crude artwork was not what made me do a double-take. Peering through the weak bifocals, I could see that the center of my hourglass was, believe it or not, right back where I’d been just a few days ago. But it had shifted the focus to the other side of the canyon. And there wasn’t a coordinate involved in finding this place. The setbacks of the last few days were forgotten as I prepared to point the trusty little Nissan Kicks that Enterprise had bestowed on me back up the highway so recently traversed.
Two days later I stood below the point marking the middle of my “X.” As I stood and stared at an object I’d literally said “hello” to a few days before, something gradually came into focus in my mind and … well … I laughed. This wasn’t what I expected at all! It seemed to be telling me that this was all one huge joke – a very clever one, but nonetheless a joke. I’d stood on practically the same spot a few times previously and never made the connection. But beyond this rather rueful mirth, it prompted me to confront something uncomfortable. I began to sense that Forrest was not just yanking our chain, but holding up our addiction and letting us look it full in the face. It was like, “What didn’t you understand about the word ‘contentment’?”
Forgive me for not elucidating further on what it was that I’d seen, but as that was not the end of the story, I’d rather leave it unidentified. I can’t remember whether it was then or a little later that the phrase “Look quickly down” took on new meaning. I had always interpreted that phrase in a specific directional sense, but as it floated into my consciousness I simply looked down at my feet and thought about what was there. The ground. My feet standing on the ground. Under. Stand. The instruction appeared to be to understand something. And I thought I knew what it was. Where was all this chasing leading? It was a journey back to where we started, but with a new understanding of the place that contentment needed to occupy in our hearts.
Not quite prepared to relinquish the hunt completely, I took bearings on a number of local points and over the next twenty-four hours tried half-heartedly to make them fit, sending Forrest a few rather grudging updates along the way. I even found a “coffin in the wood” that was just large enough to crawl into, yet remained partially open to the elements. But in the end I just sat on a rock and contemplated love, stupidity, addiction and responsibility. I had received some worrying news from home and knew I should be there rather than indulging myself out in the Rockies. I felt stranded, lonely and selfish, and just wanted to be back with my wife, but the flight was still a few days hence and I had a ticket without the option to make changes.
Then, as I prepared to head back to Denver, Forrest popped up with a new scrapbook. One paragraph caught my eye in particular: ‘My friends complained that the story had consumed me. Maybe so, because a note written to myself at the time, reads “I am drawn to Mr. Sharp like smell is drawn to a daffodil.” (that unfortunate comment is the by-product of too much wine, and working too late at night).’
Was Forrest implying that we shouldn’t worry too much about things that consume us? And what about the “too much wine” for a guy who says he doesn’t drink? As for “by-product,” I imagined it with an extra “e.” But the word that struck me most forcibly was “daffodil.” It was not the first time that Forrest has used that word, and I had already thought about its oblique connection to narcissism.
Searching for answers I came across this:
And one answer seemed to leap off the virtual page at me:
Ramon Verhoeven, repaired codependent, learning to live with a narcissistic abused adult/child
Answered Feb 5, 2019 · Author has 1.3k answers and 550.6k answer views
I think about that in this way:
A narcissist is born with true selves. During childhood , enduring abuse, the fake EGO takes over and pretends to be the true selves. The true selves are still around , but without the narcissist able to get in touch with them. Somehow that is leading to a permanent combat of the two. I read once a psychologist say: the two I’s in a narcissist hate each other, being one I the true selves and the other I the fake one. Must be hell living this way. And in hell you try to find relief: addiction.
Another thing I noticed is that people, who have a narcissistic partner, can easily become addicted. Living in the constant pressure of the partner, they also look for a way out.
Some of you may remember a few months back a university professor seeking searchers prepared to answer a psychological profile questionnaire. Like many, I took part and was a little taken aback by both the extent of the survey and some of the questions, particularly those investigating possible childhood abuse. Ramon Verhoeven’s Quora submission seems to speak directly to that same issue, and having had a “difficult” childhood I recognized the profile he described. It struck a chord in relation to the internal struggle the past few years of searching had required. So, returning to the theme of this piece, I would argue that the Chase asks us not just to try to understand the needs of others, but also to understand our own inner selves. Of course we’re all different, with a great variety of life experiences, but a big part of my personal Chase has been the concept of repairing – or at least bridging – the divide: recognizing the two divorced parts within me and attempting to cross the void between them. I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to use the allegory of Apollo 11 journeying across the cosmic vacuum to the moon. It’s a long, painful and arduous mission but one that some of us need to take before we can be content in and with ourselves. And even though this “marriage” can be tough on our loved ones, maybe in the end it will be “worth the cold” – more on that later.
I was halfway to Denver when something occurred to me, but, as ever, it would require a Google search. For twenty minutes I fought the urge to turn around, but the idea proved too strong and I swung through 180 degrees, heading back to the last major town I’d passed so I could find a motel room. While my less-than-fragrant clothes jumbled and tumbled in the motel’s laundry, I fired up my netbook. By making a small adjustment to one of the legs of my “X” the center point shifted a short distance north. Then, through the magic of the internet, I was able to spot a potential alcove – a significant find that dovetailed with the latest scrapbook. However, although this was encouraging, I wasn’t taking into account my mental state, which wasn’t conducive to making logical leaps.
Concentration was lacking and my thoughts were divided between home and the search. I collected my clean clothes and consumed a rather lackluster meal in a local restaurant.
Later that evening, tucked away in my modest room, I was musing about Fenn’s description of how, “As I was closing the chest for the last time, I felt part of me slip inside and become part of the treasure, or at least I thought I did.” I wondered how literally that statement was intended to be taken as I flipped idly through the motel’s satellite TV channels. I put the remote down as one of the Harry Potter movies flashed on the screen. Initially happy to have a little innocuous and diversionary entertainment, within seconds I was shaking my head in disbelief. I had entered the film at the precise moment the characters were discussing how a soul can be made to inhabit a physical object, allowing a person who has killed another human being to save their soul from destruction. To use a British colloquialism, I was gobsmacked! This was yet another of the hundred and one strange “coincidences” and unexplained events that had occurred in my hunt. Another was shortly to follow. But before I turned in for the night I pondered the long-term effect on Fenn of having to kill so many people in Vietnam. There was a reason he called his treasure chest “Indulgence.”
Following my usual pattern when searching, I awoke very early the next morning and switched on the computer to check emails and try to come to a decision as to whether to return one last time to my spot. The old Acer netbook still runs Windows XP, which usually means it’s reliable but wouldn’t be much of a loss if I dropped it off a mountain or left it behind in the rental car. It has never had a problem booting up, yet today was different. As I watched the little boot-up progress window it suddenly froze, leaving just one little square block at the very end of the progress bar. I didn’t know what to make of it other than to think that I had one final task to perform. I needed to check the “alcove.”
Now before you think I’m completely crazy paying attention to a minor computer anomaly, this was only one of a number of such odd instances. There was, for example, the time the BBC site morphed into a succession of graphic analog clocks all displaying 4 o’clock. And later an online company logo would drop part of the name leaving “OR” prominently displayed. But whether insanity was at work here, or something more mystical, combined with the previous evening’s experience it was a double-whammy that left me feeling disturbed. What was in the “alcove?” What might happen if I went there? Like Shrödinger’s cat, there was no way of knowing without going. Forrest Fenn’s kitty was simultaneously both alive and dead up until the moment the box was opened.
To cut a long story short the journey was a washout, and I just didn’t have the mental stamina left to try to rectify the situation. In a kind of blind frenzy I dashed about, ruining a new pair of shoes in the mud and nearly getting caught going where I shouldn’t. It was as I was hurrying back to the car that a thought catapulted to mind. “Worth the cold – a word that is key – cold turkey.” Become addicted and then suffer the consequence as you try to extricate yourself from the obsession. That’s what this seemed to be about. Miserable and dejected, I started up the Nissan Kicks and cruised back towards the big city. “Kicks:” I thought about that name. Kick the habit, do it just for kicks, plus a couple other derivations that suited the situation. With less than 100 miles to go, I broke down and howled, an uncontrollable, deep throated baying that erupted from the depths of my being.
Fortunately traffic was light. By the time I’d recovered composure I was hoarse and emotionally spent. Six years of being in the Chase had taken its toll.
At the Econolodge near Denver airport I was booked for two nights and wondered what to do to kill the time. Eating fast food is not really a time spinner, although sitting in a traffic jam for half-an-hour as you try to weave your way past yet another accident to reach a Chinese take-out establishment helps. What is it with Denver drivers? That night I was restless. At 3:00 am I awoke and felt the need to look out of the window. Across the parking lot I could see two large trucks sporting two large logos. The nearest declared “Xtra” in bold letters, and the further one responded with “Serta.” My mind immediately started to analyze the names. It didn’t take long: “X-art” and “Se-art.” With the Chase chock-full of art references it made sense to me. Maybe I needed to go look at some art.
Maybe that would put the mystery to bed at last – preferably on a brand new Serta mattress!
Not wanting to get stuck in downtown traffic or pay exorbitant parking fees I grabbed a spot more than 20 blocks from the middle of the city and walked into town. The early October morning was cool and there was a hint of winter on the way, but setting a brisk pace soon had my circulation going. I reached the art museum a good half-hour before opening time and looked for a spot to sit down and rest a back that complains mightily if actually asked to do the job it applied for.
In front of the library there were some concrete benches, but the area was also clearly a gathering place for the homeless and other mavericks. Trying to keep myself to myself didn’t work; a guy started talking to me in a rapid-fire verbal torrent. I responded as politely as I could, although my hearing’s so bad these days that I find it difficult to interpret unfamiliar speech patterns. At first, my inclination was to find my own space to wait, secure in my familiar small bubble of solitude. But then the bubble burst. I suddenly felt it was ridiculous to avoid another human being simply because they were down on their luck, with their “difference” prompting me to feel anxious, or suspicious, or protective. I asked the man, probably in his forties with damaged teeth and a rather gaunt expression, whether he’d mind my sharing his bench. Avoiding a small pool of water, I sat down and started chatting with the guy, although he did most of the talking and I just listened to his story.
Hearing how he had to share the streets and shelters with drug addicts, survive on food bank handouts that sometimes made everyone sick, and yet manage to remain positive and optimistic left me feeling very small. I asked him what his secret was, and he told me that it was faith. He spoke of how we all have to undergo trials, and this was his. When I left him I felt that he’d given me something very valuable. The art museum itself was interesting but a little bit of an anticlimax, if I’m honest.
Back home, I tried to avoid the Chase blogs and suffer the cold turkey. I set myself the target of one month of abstinence. What I hadn’t reckoned with was my ever-active mind. At night, especially, the cogs would grind, and early in the morning of my wife’s birthday another piece of the puzzle slotted into place. I managed to hold out a couple more weeks before giving in and checking Dal’s. I hadn’t quite made the full month, but I figured there were extenuating circumstances! I was amazed at the plethora of Scrapbooks. The promise to myself of cold turkey was soon forgotten as I devoured Forrest’s offerings, and gradually a chink became a chasm, and the turkey morphed into cheese with an attitude! Was understanding at last beginning to dawn?