I got to the railroad bridge and dropped under, to pee and wonder why I didn’t sleep there. It was tempting. But I had to push on, I had to know. Not knowing would be worse than dying. I’d always want to come back.
So I walked the railroad tracks out across the bridge, which sounds easy, but every hint of headlights I’d drop to the ground and freeze. Laying off to the side of the tracks for cover and to prevent me from being silhouetted. Occasionally laying among the bones of roadkill or putting my hands in cow patties.
Once past the bridge I still remained low and quiet as possible. Making sure not to kick the rocks that made up the railroad bed or knock them against the rails. I tried to muffle the crunch under my footsteps as much as possible even though I was alone and had the sound of the river to cover me.
I hopped the fence from railroad property to get on Boysen Peak Road. The telephone poles that run along it were my indicator that it ran close, even in the dark. Though it was a full moon it had been rising later and later each night and now the sky had a cover of clouds to help diffuse the light when it decided to show itself.
Even on the road, I continued to drop when lights came over the hill from town. It was ridiculous maybe, but even at that distance, my shadow was visible on the ground. I hiked up the road, sweating heavily and panting. The farther from the lights I got, the higher up the hill, the more confident I felt.
Then one of the dark trees looked like it had two trunks, which was odd. Even odder was that it moo’d and ran away with two smaller bushes following it.
“Crap, cows,” I said out loud. I’d had a bad experience hiking with cows in southern California and didn’t want to repeat that little incident. Especially when I couldn’t see them clearly.
Then there were more cows. Watching me in the dark, walking up the road. I had considered that they let them free range up there but that hadn’t really meant much until then. Maybe there was a barb wire fence running along the side of the road? I took out my pocket flashlight, and with my hand over much of the beam, tried to inspect the roadside. That there was no fence was apparent when several more startled cows ran from one side to the other. I immediately drew my umbrella from my backpack. My only weapon against the herd. And as I looked up the last part of the climb to the flat area it was apparent that I’d only just started to walk into the herd.
That slowed my walking. That and the aggressive mooing of what sounded like a large male ready to protect the herd. And he wasn’t running to get away from me.
Cows. Anything but cows, I thought. Just to be safe I backtracked down the hill, looking behind me for sneaky, quiet cows, and listening to the threatening sounds of a male protecting his herd. Further down I pulled out my phone, having lowered the brightness before I left town, and checked my GPS. Two-thirds of the way to the top of Johnson’s Draw. I’d come so far…
But I walked all the way back down the hill until I could see the train cars parked on the siding that had been there for days. Well, for as long as I’d been in town. I hopped that fence and walked down to the tracks. I wanted to see just how bright the lights were from the cars before I decided to try and run the two and a half miles south on the railroad tracks. And if they were bright on the road, down here they were blinding.
But what else was I going to do?
I took off my pack for a little bit to try and dry off some. I was sweating and stinking way too much.
Nothing to it but to do it.
So I threw on my pack and did my involuntary check, wallet, phone, EDC, water bottle… my elbow tap which tells me that the water bottle is in place came up empty. I can’t go spend how many days in Johnson’s Draw without a water bottle, even if I did have my filter.
So I took out my flashlight again, and covering it with my hand I discreetly checked the area behind the train where I’d been hiding. Nothing. Thinking back to when I put my umbrella back in I did remember it being a loose fit. My umbrella and water bottle share the same side pouch. That meant that it had already been missing. Of course, when I hopped the fence from the road to get down to the tracks.
Luckily it was easy enough to spot in the darkness.
No sooner than I started down the tracks I heard the train horn. It was just after 10pm, the night before there wasn’t a train until 4am. If I’d started without my water bottle I would have been caught in front of the train with nowhere to go.
I laid down between two small hills to let the train pass. The parked cars on the side track probably would have been enough to keep me hidden, but I wanted to make sure. If that train had come through when I was on the tracks there would have been nowhere to hide. And if a work crew was following behind it?
But with the one train having gone by and it being a single track out past the dam I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t see another one for a while. Long enough to run the two and a half miles while hiding from the lights of every car and truck that went by?
Waiting was the wrong option, there was nothing to wait for. So I did my involuntary check and ran. I ran until I was out of breath and sweating even more. Then I walked. My head was on a swivel. Any glow in either direction and I dropped down beside the tracks, away from the road. If it was behind me I’d try to ascertain if it was on the tracks or on the road and look for some kind of alternative hiding place.
Then I’d get up, do a gear check, and run. Or more like hustling at that point. Trying to put in as much distance as I could before the next car or truck came down the canyon. I’d drop to hide and check to be certain that I wasn’t laying on my new phone zipped inside my jacket pocket so it couldn’t be jostled out and lost.
Then at one point, I looked across the river from where I was hiding and there were tractor-trailers parked there for the night. And me just standing there across the river from them. No lights came on, there was no movement, so I continued to hustle along as quietly as possible until they were out of sight. I’d never even thought about that as a problem with running down the tracks.
It seemed to take forever but I finally made it to Johnson Draw. Checking my phone though it was no more than 30-40 minutes since I’d started down the tracks. I went up to the grassy side of the draw, and checking for cars first, turned on my flashlight. Just over the hill was an old iron box that’d been pried open. Inside was empty. I hoped that wasn’t what I came for. I quickly made camp behind a boulder and stripped out of my sweaty clothes. My only hope was that it wouldn’t rain.
Originally I’d thought the area would be more desolate. Even the railroad bridge I’d thought would be taller and made from timbers like something from the 1800s. I’d thought that it would have been there in some forgotten nook. But there was no water main like I’d hoped, in fact, there was a water treatment plant on the south side of town. And also while in town I’d read that there’d been a train derailment here in 2010, so the bridge itself wouldn’t have been a great hiding spot. Then again, there was that pried open rusted box behind the hill. That didn’t stop me from checking the bridge first thing in the morning after being woken up by an overhead airplane.
Spotter planes? That was another thing I hadn’t thought of, so I moved my cowboy camp back farther up the draw to camp under some trees.
Heading up the draw to search, it was hard not to want to look under every rock outcropping and in every sort of naturally made hiding spot. But I kept repeating to myself, “If you’ve been wise and found the blaze.” That was the clue. The “heavy loads” had been the railroad tracks and with no piped water that meant I was also still looking for “water high.”
Way back in the draw I saw it. A kind of multi-story indentation in the cliff. The kind you could picture Indians and outlaws hiding out under. If I was going to hide a treasure it would be somewhere epic like that. So I climbed and pushed through the brush to work my way towards it. All the while scanning for the blaze. “If you’ve been wise,” like an owl I always thought.
There was an old homemade ladder knocked down that went to a cave up high. A pile of droppings underneath drew my attention. Mouse bones in poop. Owl droppings. And sure enough, there was an owl in the cave, sitting still, watching me. Was it even real I wondered?
I knew I should have read the poem again that morning before I left so that it would be fresh in my memory. Despite having read it dozens of times that had all been back when I’d originally figured out this location. It was, “look quickly down, your quest to cease,” if I remembered right. But down? There’s nothing down here, that is, even if the owl is the blaze. Maybe it’s fake. Again, not what I pictured.
But if I looked all the way down there was the pool that collected from the “water high.” It wasn’t very big, but it was ice cold. Why was it that when I’d first read the poem I’d thought the treasure was hidden underwater? Something about, “it will be worth the cold.” Is it in that pool, I wondered.
I climbed down, stripped, and the whole time the owl never moved. I did find a tick on me, which made me a little paranoid. I’d already had Lyme Disease once. I didn’t need it again. Not to mention that I couldn’t afford medication unless I found the damn treasure.
The water was so cold that it hurt, which made staying in for more than a minute almost impossible. Melted snow falling from above and pooling in a shaded canyon wasn’t going to warm up any time soon.
I felt around the edges as much as I could. I peered at it from every angle hoping for a glimpse of something promising. The deepest part was surprisingly up to my waist, reaching in just didn’t seem to go deep enough. Besides, I was still wearing my sleeping base layer which is always supposed to stay dry. Now it was soaking wet.
So I hiked back to the hideout as I was beginning to think of my campsite. I could search all week, weather depending, with one exception. Water might be an issue unless I hike back up to that pool and filter from that.
A quick lunch of peanut butter by the spoonful and a trial sized 3 Musketeers candy bar. A short nap in the sun after I’d dried out my clothes and picked all the burr like seeds off my socks and base layer bottoms.
I reread the poem a few times, but after my nap I found myself drawn to climbing up from my hideout to look at the rusted metal box again. I wish I knew the exact dimensions of the metal box I was looking for, I knew they were available online, but there’s no signal out here to check on short notice. I didn’t even have a tape measure to gauge this one’s dimensions accurately enough.
But if it is the box I’m looking for, why leave it way out here by the railroad tracks? Had the treasure already been found, by reservation people who don’t want more tourists heading back to look for it? Is it there as a warning? No need to come any further, look, it’s empty.
Then again, it could just be an old railroad toolbox. Checking the area closer there was a storage box built into the side of the draw with old railroad ties and a heavy metal door. The box looked like it could have once been stored there.
The box Forrest used is said to weigh 20 pounds by itself. After it gets dark I thought, I’d have to go over and try to pick it up and gauge its weight.
Only I slept in because there didn’t seem to be any hurry. My morning pee told me that I was pretty badly dehydrated and I’d have to get some water in me soon.
I rolled up camp so that it would be less visible, and took my pack with me. I had a feeling that the treasure was up in the owl cave, all I had to do was lift that ladder up there and climb in. I just hoped the owl was gone for the day. Just in case, I had my umbrella, which has not only protected me from herds of angry cows but rattlesnakes and crows as well. A murder of crows that were dive bombing at my head on the Pacific Crest Trail. I often joke that if I slipped off an icy trail up in the mountains I would use my umbrella like Mary Poppins and float to safety.
Part of the reason I believed that the treasure was there is that in rereading the poem I also read the rest of what was on the page. How I found out about the treasure was an article in Outside Magazine right after I’d become homeless. I thought then, for whatever reason, that the treasure was mine. So I ripped out the page with the poem, my only clue, and had been carrying that in my pack for almost two years.
It was never about the money, for me it was about the solution. And maybe destiny. But in rereading the rest of the page I came to a part that I remember laughing at because of the sheer implausibility. The people searching for the treasure are about to drop over the edge of a 50-foot cliff with a rope tied around their waist. But, buried in there is an interesting tidbit.
“…Fenn made his money selling native artifacts from the Southwest. Where did Southwestern cultures hide valuables? On cliffs.”
But no rappelling here, just a ladder. A ladder that would have been easy to knock over once the deed was done. Once the treasure was hidden.
“If you’ve been wise and found the blaze…”
Well, if I’d been wise like the owl I’d be up there.
So I hiked back to the cavern where the owl was and tried to circle around to get a better vantage point for looking into the cave. But in doing so I became dizzy. I was too dehydrated for the exertion. And I had meant to filter water first thing when I got there.
It was funny how the water was more important than the treasure. Realistically, even if I found the treasure I wouldn’t have any “money.” I’d still be broke, only then I’d have a lot more weight in my pack to hitchhike with.
Anyway, I let the dizziness pass and climbed out to the opposite side of the arc around the interior of the cavern. It was a great sleeping area, easily defended, but still no better view of the interior of the owl cave. But also no sign of the owl, so that was good.
The trick would be getting the knocked over ladder uphill and into place. It was easily 20 feet long, if not more, and it was made of heavy tar soaked planks nailed together to form the length, with natural branches nailed onto that to form the steps.
It wasn’t light.
After an hour of moving it into position and failing once, I still hadn’t been able to raise it. With the bottom end jammed in the only solid ground available, I picked the top end up over my shoulders, above my head, and slowly walked down the ladder towards its base. The whole time the top getting higher and higher. Occasionally scraping the rock wall, I’d have to step out farther, away from the wall, down the slope.
And then the weight was too much. I tried to hold it, catch my breath, push a little more, but it sagged down, on top of my head. “Just get a little run at it and push,” I said, trying to encourage myself to make it happen. But that was it, a 45-degree angle was all I could muster. I couldn’t get under it anymore. And so I dropped it, and in doing so dislodged the rock that I’d used as a support base.
If the blaze was in there, and the treasure just below it in a crevice or crack, I’d never know it. There was no way I was going to get this ladder upright.
Not by myself.
I sat there contemplating my predicament for what seemed like forever. In the end, I dragged the ladder over closer to the edge and heaved it over a best I could. There was no covering my tracks or hiding the fact that I’d been slipping in the mud and owl shit. My hands were full of splinters and the skin torn in places and scratched in others.
I went down to the pool and filtered water, hoping that my filter worked. Who knew how much owl shit had fertilized this water. I thought again about the treasure being below, look quickly down, and of braving the cold, and I wondered about an 80-year-old man trying to climb that ladder with 40 pounds, or even 20 if he did it twice.
I circled the pool a couple of times, seeing nothing again, but also aware of the illusion that it was shallow. Seeing nothing and having no desire to jump in again I took out two hematite magnets that I kept as a fidget tool and a Pillow X stuff sack that I’d been carrying for a hiker who lost it on the Appalachian Trail. When I finally did catch up to him a week later I’d forgotten all about it. I clipped this to the end of my bear rope and went magnet fishing. Hoping that the small magnets would find and attach themselves to a metal case.
That was if the chest was even ferrous metal, which didn’t seem to be the greatest choice for a box to hide underwater for years at a time. You’d want it somewhere higher where it would stay drier. Somewhere like the cave above my head.
Even though it was never about the money, with most of it going to charity after I got my teeth fixed, it was still hard to walk away from the area. I couldn’t even really call this a solution without seeing the treasure. But if I couldn’t get up there to look then I had nothing else. This was the end of the line.
I couldn’t help but think of one of the last lines in the poem, “If you are brave and in the wood.” I’d come to suspect that maybe the treasure was for the Native Americans, for this reservation. I’d decided long ago to give them a large chunk, but now, maybe, it was all theirs. Maybe I’d ask Forrest, or maybe I’d just send an anonymous letter.
For the moment, I was back to being broke and homeless without options, other than pulling all those splinters out of my hands and hiking into town after dark.
You can download the entire book of Quest in the West in PDF format here!