Archive for July, 2012

It was a dark and rainy night and I was wide-awake thinking about a problem in which I was to figure out one of those natural history things that can be oh, so frustrating, yet oh, so much fun: why did a shrubby live-oak chaparral species grow in profusion in some places and not in others just a foot or two away?

The next morning, I sat at my desk sucking on an acorn as I pondered the same question, when an ecology professor I knew stopped in and asked what was wrong. I explained the problem, told him that I had tried everything and had come up with exactly nothing but a bag full of acorns. He stared at his corral dusted boots for a while and then asked if I had another acorn—I did. He popped it into his mouth and began staring at the ceiling formulating his response.

Now, being a more or less observant itinerate, I have learned that teachers, mentors, and sages come in all kinds, shapes, sizes and ages and the cowboy standing there beside my desk was about to become one of them.

He didn’t say, “Try it this way,” or “Try it that way,” or “Try it all again.” What he did say was, “Take a break.” “ Just go up there alone for a couple of days. Ride the back roads, look at stuff, and the only objective for the whole trip should be to have an ice cream cone in Sedona.” (This was when Sedona had maybe five houses, a church and a rustic restaurant hanging out over the river that had the only freezer within 50 miles—I loved that place).

So, to quote Kit Carson and to shorten the story: “I done so.”

And lo and behold, things clicked, eyes opened, the world smelled nice and ice cream never tasted better.

I tell this story because after spending more time than I should trying to fathom Forrest Fenn’s memory as well as his tea drinking habits and finding that “red, green and black” led to a promising search area of more or less 15,000,000 acres north and west of Santa Fe, I remained stumped and thought of an old sage with dirty jeans and cowboy boots who sucked acorns. And then I began to secretly plan a trip to Yellowstone just to look at stuff; and, the sooner the better, because New Mexico was burning.

Southern end of the Las Conchas Fire of June 2011. New Mexico’s second largest in history at 156,593 acres. (Photo: Saunier)

Of course, this does not mean that preparation and homework would not be required so I went once again to REI and bought their only book on the national parks of Wyoming and Montana and then ventured once again into the mind of Forrest Fenn via his Memoir. I finished the books in a couple of hours and began looking for more references on western national parks on the internet machine. What I found were a few hundred articles on geysers and waterfalls, several geology references and a bunch of articles on fishing. Noting the quantity of space dedicated to fish and fishing in the Memoir I then Googled specifically, “Fishing in Yellowstone” and got back a large package of interesting information like the fact that, although introduced into the waters of the Yellowstone, the brown trout was one of the most sought after of the several species of fish that now occur there. Then I Googled “brown trout Yellowstone” and got back—wait for it—a map of brown trout distribution in Yellowstone National Park.

Of course, brown trout have been introduced into nearly all of the coolish waters of the Western Hemisphere, including the Rio Grande, but that fact didn’t slow me down. I went back to the Memoir and was stopped by the photograph of Forrest’s “Secret Fishing Hole” on page 124. What stopped me was that there was something vaguely familiar about it.

Forrest Fenn’s “Secret Fishing Hole.” (The Thrill of the Chase/Forrest Fenn)

My mind went back nearly fifty­­ years to a small lake in Puyehue National Park in Southern Chile. Rumor had it that this lake was full of brown trout put there by early 20th century German immigrants. I say “rumor” because friends and I had tried several times to catch said trout and we were not only always “skunked” but we were also eaten alive by the fierce Chilean tábano, a horsefly the size of an actual horse that has a bite that will take large chunks out of exposed and unexposed parts alike. But then one Fall day after the first frost and the tábanos had all gone to wherever tábanos go for the winter, we were walking along the stream that fed into the lake when I looked down and there it was—Forrest Fenn’s secret fishing hole!

Of course, it really wasn’t his secret fishing hole. His secret fishing hole is like 43˚N, 110˚W while this one was 46˚S, 72˚W, a difference of over 6000 miles. Nevertheless, the phenomena were the same; it was spawning time at the secret fishing hole and, I am told, his secret fishing hole resembles in surprising detail the hottest singles bar in Cody, Wyoming.

I also noted the two pages of photos of Forrest’s family holding up the fruits of what must have been several days of really, really good fishing, with identifying captions of where it all happened. Taking special note of the photo of a young Forrest standing in front of a water spigot captioned “Water Hole,” I recognized the exact spot from earlier forays into web-world and made a “memo to self” to visit that spot and everything around it on my trip up north.

Best wishes,


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The chapter “Tea with Olga” in Forrest Fenn’s Memoir has been responsible for any number of fruitless Taos Mountain snipe hunts by those who search for his hidden treasure.  Those who hiked the Taos Mountains did so because they had read the Memoir and knew that he had cast the ashes of his neighbor and friend, Olga, over the Taos Mountains and that fact is thought to be a major clue as to where we were to search.

Maybe so, but I confess that I didn’t go there. What I did do was spend a whole lot of time trying to decipher something else in that chapter; something that I just knew had to be a major clue. It had nothing to do with Olga and the Taos mountains; it was all about the tea.

I understand, of course, that even now, Forrest’s IQ sits far above his age but what about his memory? I’m not much younger than he was when he wrote that chapter and I can’t remember anything without my wife standing along side to give me hints. So how could Forrest remember, maybe years after the events, that Olga gave him red tea on one visit, and black tea on another visit, and then, after he had finished his task, that she would soon be drinking green tea with her  father? And why was it important that the colors be mentioned anyway? It all made me think that Forrest was making things up for this part of the story. I mean, who ever heard of somebody from Texas drinking tea anyway? Texans drink “blackstrap” coffee or boiling hot cactus juice with the thorns still in it. There was something about “red,” “black” and “green” that I really wanted to know.

So I did what I always do when something “thinky” is bothering me. I sat in front of my computer, counted the icons on my desktop, checked my e-mail, trashed a half dozen of the ones from the lottery supervisor in London, and dreamed about what I could do with the $28,000,000 I would get for helping the widow of some deposed Nigerian despot. And then, I thought of Google. I put in “red,” “black” and “green” and immediately got back 482,000,000 results. I began to wade through them thinking that this was probably going to take all night when, on number 58, up jumped a Pendleton site that said the company had a series of national park blankets and that the one for Yellowstone followed the traditional color scheme for the classic quilts of its early hotels: “red, black and green!”

Yellowstone National Park Blanket by Pendleton

Yellowstone National Park Blanket by Pendleton

I went through more of the results though I should have stopped at fifty-eight because somewhere in the 70’s, there was another Pendleton site that now had the Yellowstone blanket with the added color yellow and they were on a beige background. I doubted that the English or anyone else would voluntarily drink “yellow” tea and this caused me to begin rethinking my idea that the clue indicated only Yellowstone as the place to be; especially since the new Pendleton Glacier National Park colors were red, black, green and yellow on a white background and the one for Yosemite National Park had red, black and green on a blue background.

Feeling somewhat dejected, I began paging through Teepee Smoke, the beautifully done biography of Joseph Henry Sharp by none other than Forrest Fenn. The book is illustrated with nearly 300 color plates of Sharp’s paintings and a number of old photographs taken by Sharp himself.  I went through it once for the photos, and then again for the text, and once more for the paintings. And there it was; Sharp’s near overwhelming use of the colors red, black, and green: vibrant portraits and scenes of everyday life of the Crow Indians and their neighbors the Blackfeet, Sioux, Cheyenne and Gros Ventre, painted while he lived among them.

Chief Flat Iron/Joseph Henry Sharp. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Interestingly, all of these are tribes of the northern plains and mountains of Wyoming and Montana.  Their territories were the Big Horn Mountains just east of Yellowstone and the foothills and valleys of the Absaroka, Beartooth, Gallatin, and Madison ranges to the north and west of Yellowstone. Sharp spent eight years living on the Crow reservation and often returned there after moving south with an ailing wife. He, like Forrest, loved that part of the world; its history and landscapes shaped their lives and, importantly, their work.  And also like Forrest Fenn, for J.H. Sharp, “south” meant New Mexico (Santa Fe for Forrest and Taos for Sharp) where he spent years painting the Pueblo Indians of Northern New Mexico. So, once again we are back where we started; but I still believe that the three teas of Olga make a clue the significance of which revolves around the colors of red, black and green.  The correct interpretation is still out there and I refuse to believe that Forrest wrote of the colors in “Tea with Olga” only because he was preoccupied with a kitchen rewiring project and that he was just trying to remember which of the wires (red, black or green) was the one he shouldn’t touch.

Keep looking,


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