Archive for the ‘Wyoming’ Category

I remember the first course in ecology I ever took and I remember it because it was mind blowing in any number of ways. It made me want to go to the library and find every book and article they had on the subject. I sat in the front row. I stayed after class and pestered the professor until either he tired or the next class wandered in. It made me see things and processes I had never seen before. I wanted to know every little event that created any landscape that happened to be in front of me: its history of storms, fires and landslides, the burrowing and the bugs; who was winning and who was losing. I wanted to know about its washings and its dryings, what was permanent and what was passing, its temperature swings, who ate what or whom, and when and with what it all started. Ecology was challenging and oh so much fun.

Ecology is so much fun that I give an exam to all the Santa Fe visitors who are in good enough shape to walk the Rt 66-La Bajada-Camino Real circle with me. On the way back from that crazy incredible piece of Earth, I ask them to explain what they see as we break over the edge toward Santa Fe from the rutted Caja del Rio plateau. It is a glorious scene with the southern extremis of the Rocky Mountains in the distance, the Santa Fe River course below, and a strange grouping of trees in the near view. It is that grouping of trees that is of interest because of how it is laid out—exactly like an orchard but the trees in it are not trees one sees in an orchard. They are junipers—a small tree that is ubiquitous at this elevation and latitude and among its few uses are firewood for Forrest Fenn, subjects for artists to paint and a light wintertime snack for coyotes and scrub jays.


However, to plant junipers as an orchard would be a complete waste of time, money and contrary to common sense. It would be like planting goldenrod around a house in Maryland or Virginia. Out here, juniper is the plant that sheds pollen in the trillions and each little bitty pollenette with its mini-minute thistle-like spikes flies into your nose holes and then shuffles all the way up and through your sinuses; within days of the bloom, which seeming lasts from March through to October, the entire population of Santa Fe becomes a raspy-voiced chorus of crybabies.

But there that orchard is in front of you as if laid out by a band of teenage Future Farmers of America and if you can say just why it’s there, you may have a leg up on trying to find Forrest Fenn’s treasure. It means your powers of observation and logic are finely tuned and that your curiosity concerning things that just don’t fit is close to that of my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson who has now entered the “why” stage of his development.

This “fine tuniness” even helps when reading Forrest’s Memoir. For example, you need to be aware that his picture captions come in two different fonts—one manufactured by a geeky engineer in Palo Alto and the other in Forrest’s very own non-cursive hand writing. This became important a while back when my wife found a strange bit of graffiti on a rock, and when I compared the printing on the rock to the captions on pages 122 and 123 of the Memoir, they appeared to have been done by the same hand.  But, then, my wife announced that she wrote her alphabet the exact same way and proved it by showing me the New York Times crossword she was doing. Damn; so close and yet so far.

But sleuths don’t let that kind of thing bother them. I went back to the Memoir and became aware that chapter titles came with chapter subtitles, and there on page 126 I found a subtitle that said in really well hidden letters, “Somewhere north of Santa Fe.”

Now we were getting somewhere. I leafed through the Memoir looking for more subtitles and found one that said “Somewhere in Wyoming.” “Aha!” I announced to no one in particular but my grandson immediately wanted to know what “aha” meant and why I had said it.

I ignored him. I was on to something. I took out my map of Wyoming and found that if you go canyon down the Shoshone River east from Yellowstone, you hit the Buffalo Bill Reservoir (Home of Brown?) and just below that, you have the metropolis of Cody, Wyoming (See pages 65-67, Memoir).  And then I found that Forrest Fenn is not only a member in good standing of the “Buffalo Bill Historical Center” in Cody, Wyoming, he is also a board member of that fine institution.

It was all coming together and I searched for more subtitles thinking that they would give me even more information. I found the clincher on page 58. It said, “Somewhere in Montana.” My grandson shouted, “Aha!” but I knew that I was foiled once again.

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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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