Cheyenne to Casper was a nice bus ride.
Only 14 people on board the giant bus. No crying kids. No loud talkers. No people playing music. We got into town and I walked down to 1st St. and took a right onto the road to Shoshoni, over 100 miles away. Walked out the Platte River Parkway as the sun was setting, wondering how far I was going for the night.
It was supposed to rain and/or snow the next day, so should I push big miles while it was clear? Or do I sleep while I don’t have to find a place to set up my tarp? Three to four miles an hour, ten hours, I should make it to Powder River by morning. Just in case, I brought a second liter of water.
There was no way I was hitchhiking in the dark. As it was, cops drove by me every ten minutes or so and the road out of town was way busier than I’d expected, lined with gas stations and industrial warehouses. None of the cops slowed down for a closer look or stopped me until I was out by the airport. He slowed down, threw on his flashing lights and swung back around to stop me on the side of the road. I took my hands out of my pockets and tried to show him my face without blinding myself in his headlights.
“Where are you headed?”
“And you just thought you’d walk there?”
I kind of laugh at how stupid that makes me sound and that kind of puts him at ease.
“Planning on doing any hitchhiking?”
“Maybe tomorrow,” I tell him, “but not tonight. Way too dark for that.”
“Wyoming state law requires you to walk facing oncoming traffic,” he informs me. “I couldn’t see you until I was right up on you.”
It’s true, I was dressed all in black. Black backpack, rain jacket and shorts. Even my baseball cap was dark blue. And I’d been carrying my neon reflective piece of a vest that I usually clip onto my pack for road walks, but it had been in my hand for the last five miles.
I was too excited by the adventure of hiking off into the unknown to stop and pin it to my back.
So I switched sides of the road, determined to at least make the next five miles to where the officer said it becomes more desolate. By the time 11pm rolls around I was looking for a place to sleep. Cover was hard to come by, so I settled on three low tumbleweed bushes ten feet off the edge of the road and maybe 15 miles outside of Casper. And because I’d been watching the lightning in the sky directly ahead of me I was concerned about rain overnight. Even though I’d been sprinkled on twice, the clouds had seemed to part and dissipate as I walked.
Reluctantly I took out my tarp and placed it over me. If it rained, and that never went well set up like this, at least I could sit up under the tarp and pack. But it didn’t rain. In fact, the skies cleared and the bright moon made me feel like I was on display. By 5:30am it was getting light out. Not much, but enough. And because of the tarp, I had condensation issues. My bivy was wet at the top, probably from my breath, but also at the foot. I pulled the sleeping bag out of the bivy and packed that in its stuff sack, then put the wet bivy at the bottom of the pack and resumed walking by 6am.
By 7am it was light enough that I started hitchhiking. Maybe 20 cars went by, mostly single guys in empty pickup trucks. I started wondering if anyone believed in God or Jesus in these parts, and wondering if they’d let me be stranded out in the rain.
There was a truck that slowed, turned around to hit me with their lights, real slow, then sped off to turn around and resume their trip. Were they looking to see if I was anyone they knew?
At 8am Benjamin picked me up. On his way to church but he doesn’t mention that at first. “Not a good day to be out here,” he said. “Storms coming.”
And it looked like it from the horizon.
“How far are you going?”
He was headed to Riverton so he’d drop me off. He mentions the free hot springs in Thermopolis and tells me that he’s a retired professor now doing piano tuning. He always wanted to do a long-distance bicycle ride, and the way he said made it seem like it was an impossible dream. I asked about Boysen Lake to distract him from his reverie, and he mentions fishing. Keeping the Forrest Fenn poem in mind I mention brown trout, to which he replied, “Rainbow trout mostly,” then he names off a bunch of other species and something about a fishery, but inside I’m devastated.
Am I wrong? Is this really a Quixotic adventure? Have I really left myself stranded in northern Wyoming with no money? With no cell phone to even call for help?
But I smile and talk for the long ride. No need for Benjamin to know about my problem. About my failure. Not that it is that, not yet, hopefully not at all, but my monkey mind grasped onto that idea to tell me how stupid I had been, and I had to marginalize or sideline that voice to carry on the conversation.
“Snowpack is at 200%,” Benjamin tells me. “People are worried about flooding when it melts.”
I’m worried about the river crossing to get to the treasure, which may or may not be there.
By the time Benjamin dropped me off in Shoshoni, it was raining with a mix of snow.
“I feel really guilty leaving you here like this,” he said. But he has been away working and promised his wife that he would meet her at church, besides which he is supposed to play guitar today at the service.
“I got myself into this,” I told him. “I’d planned on being wet, and maybe even cold.”
I get my pack out of his back seat and he motions towards the front door. One more goodbye? I already said it when I got out, even said God Bless while I was getting my pack. But instead, he hands me a folded bill, cash, which is crisp and new and says $100.
“Take care,” he said.
“Uh… thank you, Benjamin.”
I’ve never taken money from someone like that. Especially not so much. I needed it, and I wanted to give it back, but I didn’t. I walked into the gas station kind of dazed.
Half an hour later and it was still raining, but it had mostly turned to snow.
“I’ve always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail,” the blue-haired girl who worked at the gas station tells me as she swept the floor. She’d only lived in Shoshoni for three months, but she hoped to hike the trail in ten years. With her boyfriend, she adds, so as not to lead me on.
Ramblin Man had been playing overhead when I walked into the gas station. When it really started snowing, Don’t Fear the Reaper came on the gas station radio. “Seasons don’t fear the reaper, nor do the wind and the sun and the rain…”
Three hours later it was still snowing and supposed to last for a couple more hours. Slightly less in Thermopolis, so the idea was to start walking there once the snow started to slow down. But the snow just kept accumulating and I didn’t feel like I could stay in the gas station forever. Besides, for the only thing in town, the gas station was quite busy. But cold wet feet and a night of 27 F temperatures didn’t sound too appealing either. There was a library around the corner, but being Sunday it was closed. It turned out that there was one hotel in town, .3 miles away from the gas station. A couple of blocks.
I had that $100 in my possession for only a couple of hours and here I was going to spend it.
“I’ll just go check the price,” I told myself. But the wet, windy and cold walk there made me realize otherwise.
There was a moment of panic on the cold walk from the gas station to the hotel when I realized that I’d never looked at the bill. What if it was one of those religious leaflets made to look like money so that people would pick them up, tricking them into reading about Jesus?
That would have been funny.
It took me hours to figure out the heat. But to be fair, I took a four to five-hour nap as soon as I checked in. When I woke up everything was charged again and even my phone number transfer had gone through to the new phone. The hotel room had cost me more than I’d wanted to spend, but the upside was that I still had more money in my pocket than I did that morning.
Plus, I didn’t die out in the snow.
And the weather looked great for at least the next week.
In the morning I walked to Thermopolis, 32 miles from Shoshoni, because it was going to be a nice day. It only took about eight hours. The views were amazing, and because it would be hard to figure out exactly where to be dropped off if I was hitching or to have a plausible excuse for being dropped off in the middle of the Wind River Canyon, I never once stuck out my thumb.
As it was I was within 100 yards of my goal. I didn’t want to believe it, the view was different than I’d imagined. Then I realized that Google Street View probably distorted distance beyond the road and its immediate surroundings. It was so daunting that I didn’t want it to be the place. But as I kept walking it became apparent that it was.
The first problem was the river, which on Google Maps and Street View appeared to be crossable. In real life, it was anything but. And if I couldn’t cross the river then I had to come in from the other side. The railroad tracks seemed impossible simply because there was too much traffic and I’d be too visible. Besides which, I’d seen several track crews on the tracks and one train go by. That only left dropping in from above.
Boysen Peak Road Google Maps said. But looking at it when I walked into town it appeared to be gated off farther down the road from Route 20, so…
But it was getting late, I had to find a place to sleep for the night and fill my water. If I could just cross the river this would be so easy. Or if I had money I wouldn’t have to stealth camp somewhere to try and hike up to the peak the next day.
The night before, at the hotel, I had a dream that Forrest Fenn was telling me about false or negative clues, and at the time I was relieved that I didn’t know the actual location. If I did the thoughts could leak out of my head. Then refilling my water, I thought a random old guy was Forrest Fenn.
I was thinking about this way too much.
Something that also worried me was that there were no water pipes on the railroad tracks coming out of Shoshoni. But I hadn’t passed the reservoir by then, so maybe… But there was none on the north side either. Which might sound like a weird detail, but considering the ‘Water High’ remarks in the poem, that had been my solution.
Was I wrong? Was all of this for nothing?
I hiked out of Thermopolis at 7pm and by 8pm I was tucked into a cave across from Wedding of the Waters, just south of town. Tucked in is maybe stretching it. I was at its entrance, semi exposed to traffic. To push deeper into the cave required a squeeze and even though it looked like it opened up enough inside to lay down it also kept going. How far I’d never know.
The soft dirt inside and in front of the cave showed no tracks of any kind so I was fairly certain that there was nothing in there. By 9pm I’d unpacked my sleeping bag and was dozing off. At 4am a train went by on the tracks across the river. “So, two trains a day?” I wondered.
By morning, 5:30am, the full moon had set enough that I was exposed to its full glare, it’s light no longer blocked by the hill or the cave walls, I was on display again for all the passing vehicles who cared to look up. But if I kept laying flat they couldn’t really see me, right?
Before it got too light out I hiked out to Boysen Peak Rd., following Google’s directions to the top. The first gate was open, a second closed. But I followed another turn with no gate which turned out to be wrong. So I backtracked and stared at the gate. No lock, just a simple chain and slot thing to keep animals in or out. It looked like there were cows grazing further down the road. And oddly enough there was a large rabbit there that didn’t run from me. As if he wasn’t sure what I was.
“I’m not here to bother you,” I told him. I wanted to go through the gate and up the mountain but the warning signs on the previous gate about fines for trespassing kept me in place. If the gate had been open I would have walked in. I certainly wasn’t hunting, fishing or trapping. Just a quick in and out up the road. After all that had to have been how Forrest went. Then downhill in two trips to drop the treasure and the chest.
I was beginning to curse Forrest Fenn more and more the more difficult this was becoming.
So I walked back into town. Library maybe, hot springs maybe, an inner tube and some trash bags to float across the river maybe. A life vest would be easy.
But the library was closed, it was supposed to be open but there was a librarian meeting. No time listed to open. So I walked up to the Bath House, the public and free hot spring soaking pool. 20 minutes max, the signs say. I signed in and soaked my feet and legs. The worker was eyeing my pack repeatedly but didn’t say anything about the fact that he thought I was a dirty, homeless drifter. When I left though he invited me to come back in a few hours to soak again.
By noon the library still wasn’t open, but by sitting outside and using their wifi I learned a few things about the area and the river. None of which made me happy. But maybe there was a bus out of Thermopolis at the Shell gas station. There had to be one, right? Only the gas station was an Exxon, not a Shell, and Greyhound didn’t list it as a stop. None of which sounded very promising.
I was starting to feel paranoid that I’d been in one place for too long. That the police were taking notice of the new homeless guy in town. Then I thought about it. I’d only been in Thermopolis for 24 hours.
I sat in the McDonald’s sipping soda until 8pm. Some of the morning staff had worked late but at least they’d gone home at 7pm. It felt weird having them know that I was in there for a few hours in the morning, and now a few hours at night.
I walked out of town and a couple of high school kids who’d seen me in McDonald’s circled their diesel pickup around to cruise by me in the opposite direction. They got close to the white line as they passed and opened up the throttle on the truck. Luckily that was all they did.
I double checked at the gas station about the bus. “Not anymore,” the tired woman working the register tells me. “Bus service was suspended in 2015. Casper or Buffalo are your only options.”
123 or 132 miles, either direction.
Pat Benatar, Invincible, was playing on the overhead speakers. So I walked out, nervous, having to pee way too much from all that McDonald’s soda. One way or the other I was going to have to find out if I was right or wrong about the location of Forrest Fenn’s treasure.
The Baptist Church sign on the way out of town read:
God creates opportunities, It is up to you to grab them.
You can download the entire book of Quest in the West in PDF format here!