A Death on the Frontier




The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom. Men are freest when they are unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was.

— D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

¤

I. 

THE ROAD BLINKS IN ahead of Eric Ashby. He’s nodding out, but he recognizes this. He can’t help it. This is the place where he deposits his dreams. It’s where he goes to find hope when everything else is gone. To get there, it’s straight highway from Colorado Springs to Cañon City, a road that leads away from the military bases down to the prisons. Beyond that, it’s a short trek into half-wild desert. Jimi Booker glances back from the front seat and wonders whether Ashby’s okay. He still looks drowsy. On the ride down, he fell asleep, but now he hears the music. He feels the full car bumping, people jostling around him. They’re so close.

The car rumbles as it rolls off the asphalt onto the rough dirt road. It rumbles past sagebrush and thistles, past campground, past barbed-wire fences, horses, and signs reading: “No Trespassing. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” They come to a fork in the road and maneuver right. The new road passes a fire warning, a metal cactus, and sagging trees that look dry and sharp, as if they’ve been menacing passersby for millennia. Some of the signs, like so many in Colorado, are punctured by bullet holes. It’s exactly the sort of place where you’d think to hide a treasure.

The landscape falls away in front of them and they have their first unobstructed view of the Rockies, rushing off into the distance. Their beat-up old Jaguar, painted and repainted until somebody settled on green, sputters at the sight. Somehow, it manages to make its way down the low-traction slope ahead, pushing a spray of pebbles aside as it struggles to get a grip. When it reaches level ground, it rolls past a couple of houses and parks next to a red gate.

Booker looks back to check on his friend. Ashby is wide awake.

¤

The sun had risen, earlier on June 28, 2017, by the time Ashby crawled out of his burgundy hatchback Cougar and walked up to Booker’s apartment building. He came in saying he’d slept out there. Booker didn’t understand why. Why hadn’t his friend hit him up the night before? More than a year later, he reaches for reasons. “He knows he’s good to come in and pass out on the couch,” he says. He throws out explanations. “I’d seen him a little bit high a lot of times, but that was the first time I’d ever seen him noticeably zombed.” He didn’t think too much of it at the time.

Booker, his girlfriend Becca Nies, and a pair of friends visiting from Florida were already up by then, jumpy with sleepless excitement. Booker and Nies had known Ashby for almost a year. In that time, he’d told them the story again and again: an old man, a former art dealer and native artifact hustler, hid a chest full of gold, about 40 pounds, at least a million dollars worth, somewhere in the Rockies. He published a poem embroidered with a series of clues to the treasure’s location. In 2016, they say, the first man died looking for Forrest Fenn’s treasure. Randy Bilyeu’s body was found along the Rio Grande, without a single broken bone. A year later, the same year Ashby and Booker went out treasure hunting, at least two more were lost. The first of the year was Jeff Murphy. He took a 500-foot fall in Yellowstone. The second, Paris Wallace, a churchman, went out two weeks before the Ashby expedition. We don’t really know what happened to him, but Ashby had heard everything there was to hear and he told it all.

“He told me this,” a Colorado Springs friend says. “If he was going to die, he’d die looking for what he came here to look for. He wanted to be a treasure hunter.” Ashby, Booker, and those who’d lost their lives looking for Fenn’s treasure were the descendants, spiritually and sometimes literally, of wandering people: explorers, gold miners, cattle rustlers, mostly forgotten millions. The first had come here, the story goes, at the start of the 19th century, when the United States sent explorers west. Soon, new states started popping up, new bits of land were claimed, gold was discovered, herds of cows, trainloads of beef, were raised on the prairies. The mass of west-bound migrants dreamed of the property, gold, oil, gravel, and uranium they could extract from the earth. But perhaps above all, they dreamed of the stories they’d leave behind. Then, suddenly, they were told the West was won: all the land had been claimed. The goldminers gave up. The gunslingers fled south. The cowboys went on strike. The bosses started telling the sorts of stories that would make them respectable, and the workers buried their dreams.

Ashby seemed small, standing next to all that history. But, at just over five feet seven inches, he had the advantage, at least, of knowing what type of story he was living. Fenn has always explicitly linked his motivations for hiding the treasure to moments of recession, when the American Dream seemed to be on the wane. He thought about it for the first time in 1988. The main reason he cited then was the cancer, the sudden mortal threat, but he also connected it to a major stock market crash. When he found out he was in remission, and that the recession had receded, he put his treasure chest away and wondered what to do with it. He wondered for decades.

Then 2008 hit. Russia invaded Georgia, China hosted the Summer Olympics, the global economy crashed, and Forrest Fenn began thinking about the treasure hunt again. Shortly after, circa 2010, he squirrelled the treasure away and became a mountain Gatsby. There weren’t any flappers at his aspirational party, just thousands of searchers in the wilderness, each of them dancing a Rocky Mountain foxtrot alone.

¤

Ashby gets out of the green Jaguar, parked in front of the red gate, at the end of the long road. He can hear the rush of the rapids, feel the heat. There’s hardly a hint of shade. Booker and the rest get the supplies out of the car. There are four of them. Five, counting Ashby. Most are in their 20s — all except Ashby, who’s 31. They stick everything they don’t immediately need in plastic bags. Carefully, they hike down the narrow, pebble-covered slope. Ashby can see the Royal Gorge Bridge, white against the orange-brown rocks. That’s how he knows he’s in the right place. There’s a gondola under the bridge. Where it now runs, a tram once ran. Fenn’s poem mentions a blaze. The tram stopped running after a catastrophic fire. [1]

At the bottom of the slope they find the Arkansas River, raging with class-five rapids. The treasure, they think, is somewhere on the other side. They watch the tourists pass by on their huge rafts, with their professional guides, and they start blowing up their $30 two-person raft. It looks ridiculous. Something resembling legalese is scribbled on lined notebook paper: 51 percent of the treasure to Ashby, and the rest split among the rest. James F. Booker signs the contract with a slightly cramped but tidy “Booker,” above a “James” written with the flourishes of a founding father. At the top of the margin, Eric Ashby signs “Ashby” in a dynamic script, with subtle, kinetic angles, and “Eric” in a huge squiggle that starts as a solid “E” but ends up looking like a heart monitor.

Then they’re out on the water, and, somehow, Ashby drowns.

The way Booker tells it, Ashby hopped into the two-person raft alone. “He hopped in with one paddle and he’s kind of going in circles, because that’s what happens in a raft with one paddle. We tried so many times to tell him it wasn’t a good idea. I was like, just let me tie the rope around the boat, so that we can pull you back in if necessary. He was like, no, tie the rope around me. I was like, alright. He gets in the river. I’m right there with the rope. He’s spinning around, jumps out of the boat, starts swimming, turns around, tells me to let go of the rope. I’m like, no dude, it’s at the end of the rope, this is as far as you go, this is where I pull you back. Because you’re not to the other side yet, I’m going to pull you back. Maybe you can jump in and try again. But he wasn’t trying to hear anything any of us were saying. He turned around and screamed at me, let it go. I let it go.”

He says Ashby started swimming across the river, making it pretty close to the other side when the current hit him. “He reached for a rock and slipped, and it took him away.” Booker hadn’t quite panicked until then. “I’m running down the river, I’m like, Eric stay with me. I’m running down the river, trying to get him to stay up with me and hear my voice. But after a certain point, I saw him go under and I couldn’t — literally, I’m not strong enough to go swimming and do some superhero shit. Usually, that’s the kind of person I am, but at this point, this was my life.”

Booker didn’t know the Arkansas River particularly well. Ashby had some sense of the currents. He’d tried to swim across alone before and almost died. But it had been February, and this was the end of June. The water had been colder then, calmer. It had never been this high. When Booker and Ashby came out here the previous week with a slightly different crew, they’d managed to convince Ashby to come back and try another time. This time, Booker couldn’t tell where the river carried his friend’s body.

A photographer, working for the tourist raft company, had been there more times than he could remember, and he saw it all. In a recorded phone call, his boss told one of Ashby’s friends, a searcher who went out looking for the body, what the photographer saw. He told him with a scientific clarity. He’s got a protocol for these situations. As a cop will later tell Ashby’s father, he was one of a bunch of individuals to drown in the river that year. So the cop has to be prepared. He tells his employees to put the camera down when they see an accident. “There’s a point where you stop,” he tells them. “You’re witnessing something that shouldn’t be recorded.” He didn’t quite know what to tell them, though, when they wondered how to feel after seeing a man drown.

The story, as he understood it, started when the raft flipped. “It sounded like Mr. Ashby was disoriented and swam to what we call river left, which is the far side of the river,” he says. “The river at that point is about 75 feet wide. And he chose to swim, tried to, across the river. At that point the current started sweeping him down. This was just above sunshine rapid, right below the caretaker’s house. The current was picking up and it started pushing him downstream. He was clutching onto rocks along the river right side now. The photographer was watching this, thinking, man you gotta get to shore, you gotta get to shore. At this point, he was in the water for a few hundred yards. The water is cold. We’re still at high water. Not a high-water advisory, but it’s June 28th and, down there, we’re still at 1,500, which is unheard of for this time of year. So very high water, very cold water, and depending on your ability — I have no idea what Mr. Ashby’s abilities as a swimmer were — but even Michael Phelps is going to be challenged in a class-five rapid. And, it’s cold.”

“The photographer witnessed Mr. Ashby floating down, struggling to get to shore,” the boss says to the friend. “Never did. He went over a fairly steep little drop, just above where the photographer captured the images. He didn’t see him surface again, until probably 50 yards downstream. That’s where he saw Mr. Ashby no longer fighting. Now, floating with his back up and face down in the water.”

They lost track of him after that.

II. 

When Eric was growing up, his father told him adventure stories. He told him how, when he was a kid himself, he’d run away from home again and again. “Not because I was running away from anything,” he’d say. “I was running to something.” He told him how he’d gone from a juvenile home at 15 to Alaska with the military, to Florida with shrimp smugglers, to prison with the Hermann Hesse–obsessed Glass Bead Gang; how the Glass Bead Gang went on a very heavy search. “We were all trying to find the answer to life,” he explains, “and none of us found anything.”

He told his son how he got out of prison and got a good paying job, working with factory hydraulics and pneumatics. And how, one day, despite his best intentions, something snapped. “After I got off parole,” he tells the story, “I did a Forrest Gump. I just went out to the interstate and stuck my thumb out and took off across the United States. This was out of a minimal backpack, necessity only. Goodbye, see you people later, I’m out of here.” He got as far as Sedona, Arizona. Then he did a loop around the country and ended up back in Florida. He breathed the salt air of the Tampa Bay and said, “Yeah, that was a nice walk.”

He laughs, a big hearty laugh, sounding like Santa Claus trying to make a point. By then, he’d been gone 11 months. “There was a lot of walking,” he’d say. “You hit Texas and you drop your thumb out, and it could be a bad day.” Somehow, it was usually pretty okay. He found he loved walking through the high desert. “I’d just get off the interstate and take off,” he says. “I only had a quart canteen, that was it.”

“I got out to Arizona and experienced some great spiritual awakening,” he says. “It was mushrooms and peyote, and occasionally a hit of blotter. Peyote, you can just walk down the pathway and pick it up. I found out really quick that it’s not a toy. It’s not like doing 250 micro- microdot or whatever. It was uncontrolled mics. You didn’t know how long you were gonna go or who you were gonna see.” Did Eric hear these stories when he was a kid? “Oh,” Paul Ashby says, “he knew all about it.” The father had told the son that experience lay out there. He hadn’t had a traditional sort of success. He didn’t have a lot of money. Maybe he would’ve done better had he stuck around the factories. Maybe not. What he gave his son, instead, was a wild sort of freedom, a commitment to the unexpected and unknowable which had been so necessary for surviving the American 20th century.

But he couldn’t quite tell him why they couldn’t live with his mother. Eric was born in 1985, the first child of a complicated marriage. He entered the world in Florida, but his earliest memories were probably of the Tennessee woods. When he was about a year and a half old, his parents moved the family to the foothills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to run a campground. They lived in a school bus. His dad had all but four of the seats ripped out. He installed bunk beds for his stepchildren, a hide-a-bed for himself and his wife, and a crib for Eric. The child ran around the camp in a diaper, greeting customers. He felt like he was surrounded by family.

After a couple years in the woods, they moved back to Florida. For a while it seemed like things might be okay, but soon the marriage fell apart. The way Eric’s father describes it is, “Marcia kind of didn’t want to be married at that point. Not that she wasn’t in love with me, she just wanted the freedom.” It was decided that the father would take the son back to the woods, and the mother would no longer have to feel isolated, no longer have to live in the Tennessee woods, away from everyone she’d ever known. “I agreed to leave Eric with his father,” she says. “I thought he would grow up with a nice, normal country life. I just — I know how it is down here in Florida. I thought he’d be happy.”

Suddenly, the father and the son were driving back to Tennessee, back to the Smoky Mountains. They found themselves about a third of a mile up a mountainside, looking out on Blount County. So they set up in the middle of the forest, on a spot with 3,000 uninhabited acres on one side and, for about four miles on the other, only about five buildings, they say. The elder Ashby looked into food stamps but found the moralizing Bible Belt bureaucracy nearly impossible to navigate as a single father. He worked maintenance and security jobs and they did the best they could. They found their place, father and son, among the oaks, hickories, mimosas, sycamores, and pines. Twice a year, they set off fireworks to the delight of valley dwellers: once on New Year’s, once on the Fourth of July.

The son grew up dreaming generations of American dreams.

¤

By the time Eric hit 30, he was exactly the sort of person Fenn said he wanted to find the treasure. He was someone who really needed it, someone who would fit right into the oldest American story. The deepest roots of that American Dream narrative lie in unyielding pre-Revolutionary soil, but the moment when it metastasized into a country-wide obsession — when it stopped being the dream of a single man, of conquering a substantial but limited wilderness, and became the ethos of a nation, became the dream of unlimited conquering — that moment is clearer. By the late 19th century, there was no going back. Everyone had been touched by the national ideology. It didn’t matter that there was no more inherent opportunity here than anywhere else. It didn’t matter that the story was no longer necessarily true. Everybody heard it, and that made it more believable: rags to riches was the American way.

Forrest Fenn tells his own version of the story. We don’t really need to get into it. You’ve heard it before. Just a few details: His rise is set in the Santa Fe art world. He enters the history books as an amateur archaeologist, digging for native artifacts. In 1992, he uncovers a pair of gypsum masks that crumble in his hands. Their importance, at least in Fenn’s story, proves unparalleled. For a while, they’re said to be the oldest extant evidence of the Kachina phenomenon, a theoretical religious craze that was thought to have shifted the entire ancestral Puebloan world out of the mountains they’d inhabited for millennia. That connection with deep history made Fenn a big deal in town. But the Kachina theory fades from prominence. Fenn refuses to. He starts a treasure hunt and shores up his legacy. He refuses to do anything that might affect that legacy. (He refused to talk to this reporter, for instance.) But his story’s been told over and over, ad nauseam, by Horatio Alger, Orson Welles, and their imitators. So Forrest Fenn will be, as much as possible, posthaste, without ceremony, pushed out of this story.

Eric’s story isn’t just another echo of that tale a self-serving power elite tells a desperate populace. He’d heard that story. Even his father had lived a version of the American Dream. But his life failed to adhere to its neat arc. When he got to high school, father and son started clashing. There was something about who each of them were in that moment that didn’t line up with who the other was. Eric, the son, followed the nearest flickers of obsession. He didn’t care what anyone thought. He loved anime, loved Lord of the Rings, loved UFC. First day of junior year at Heritage High, he showed up in martial arts whites. He stood in his gi, smiling and making friends, looking like a kid Royce Gracie, a natural prince. Paul, the father, had something more elemental about him. “His dad is like that old-school tough guy,” says Mike Russell, one of Eric’s Blount County friends. “He was probably working construction at 13. He wasn’t so much hippie, but mountain. Like a lot of the mountain people.”

“I think maybe Paul had some of those expectations for Eric,” Russell says, while “Eric was kind of just wanting to be young.” At one point, Eric was even sent off further into the woods. “It was a camp for at-risk boys,” says Paul Ashby, “but they hadn’t committed a criminal act.” It was on the plateau in Tennessee. The kids lived in tents arranged like the spokes of a wagon wheel around a main hall. “You figure whenever it snowed they had to walk through the snow to eat, whenever it poured rain they had to walk through the rain,” the father says. “They did all their own laundry. They went to school there. The whole nine yards. It was a wakeup call for him: this is how you learn to survive.”

He was there for 16 months. Why?

“I couldn’t communicate with him,” Paul says. “I lost his respect. I mean, he wasn’t skipping school or anything like that. He was respectful to everybody except me. I think he was upset with me that he couldn’t be with his brothers and sisters. He was the only kid here. I think he wasn’t able to understand how bad it would have been if Marcia and I had stayed together. But he was really good at camp. He’d come home on weekends. It was okay.”

It didn’t stomp the kid out of Eric. Russell remembers how they egged a cop car and how Eric accidentally sling-shot a side window out of his truck. He remembers that graduation came as a bit of a shock. “There was a lot of anxiety for what we were going to do next,” he says, “but we were vampires. We were creatures of the night. We would stay up all night and sleep till noon.” Eric spent his 20s bumping around the Southeast, working as a cook in second- and third-rate kitchens in Tennessee and Florida.

The opioids happened unintentionally. Around 2011, he got hit by a van while riding a motorcycle. In the collision, he was slashed just below the kneecap. “He didn’t have the money to go to the hospital and never told me about it,” the father says. “It went gangrene. He went to the hospital. They put him on Oxycontin, which was like shooting a rabbit with an elephant gun.” His prescription ran out and, his father recalls, “He just started hitting the pill mills.” Eventually he hit a cop. He dealt with it. He turned himself in. Even after accepting the consequences, Eric felt uneasy. He got the sense that they were planning on busting him for Gabapentin, a non-narcotic painkiller, as a violation of his probation. So he decided to leave. He couldn’t tell his father his plans. He got down to Knoxville, left the father alone on the mountain, and bought a ticket for a two-day Greyhound ride.

Like all those generations before him, he lit out for the territories.

¤

When Eric got to Colorado in the spring of 2016, he took up residence above the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. He’d raised stakes and crossed country before figuring out a living situation. “I roughed it in the woods,” he recalled about a year later, beaming into his phone’s camera while balancing on a cliff’s edge. Maybe he’d heard the lions roar in the night, but those weren’t the animals he worried about. “Usually I left my sleeping bag. Looks like a squirrel got it,” he said, as he panned his camera down onto the ragged sleeping bag, half-hidden, fluttering slightly in the wind, under a rock on the mountaintop.

There was a real urgency to the move. There was the probation violation, but there were the pills, too. “I’ve got several friends that have moved to a place where cannabis is legal to get off opioids,” Russell says. For Eric, the West meant a shot at freedom, a chance at survival. It was a new and unfamiliar world. The Rockies were far from the Smoky Mountains of his youth. You wouldn’t hear the echoes of a dog howling from a far-off mountain here. These were great, silent mountains. They were examples of an American majesty that ridiculed Appalachian notions of awe. They were sublime. They were real.

Eric wasn’t alone in this bewildering landscape for long. He met Jamie Longworth, a Savannah, Georgia, transplant, at a 4/20 rally. They didn’t have cars then, so they wandered Colorado Springs on foot. They met people and talked about their dreams. Longworth had moved to Colorado so her Crohn’s disease–afflicted daughter would have the widest range of treatment possibilities. Eric was brilliant with her daughter. “I wish that I could talk to her the way he talked to her,” Longworth says. “It was like a dad would talk to his kid, a really good dad. He really thought through what he was going to say.”

They moved in together and Eric went looking for more steady work. After 72 hours spent learning a smattering of German, he landed a waiting gig at a kitsch-addled spot called Edelweiss. The food was stereotypical and the decor cartoonish. The drinks came in mugs. The music swung from conservative renditions of German traditional songs to truly outlandish techno takes on the same material. It was a refugee from Epcot, sheltered in a dingy part of south Colorado Springs, the sort of place where an old man in golf gear can loudly declare at a weekday lunch, “I’m a geezer,” and no one worries about him. But the pay was good and Eric was trying to be happy.

He came clean to Longworth in the spring of 2017. He told her he was running on probation, told her that he’d been an addict, that something at Edelweiss had triggered his old impulses. He’d relapsed. He told her his friends back home were overdosing, told her he was having a hard time, told her he was working on it. He lost the job. He was having trouble finding another one. He was working odd jobs, construction, picking up hours at a steakhouse.

One day, not long after, they were standing at a crosswalk waiting for a construction crew to let them cross. Longworth just crumpled. Eric rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital. By the end of the visit, they knew. Longworth had stage-three colon cancer. They sold all their stuff. Eric moved into his car; Longworth and her daughter, into a hotel. “Everything was changing, everything was crazy. My life was changing. His life was changing,” she says. “We were making extreme decisions. We were in a strange place, a Twilight Zone situation. Survival mode.”

There were moments of normalcy, still, moments of beauty. Eric had torn out the seats from the back of his car and replaced them with a plank, a queen bed, and a comforter set. Sometimes, he’d sleep on friends’ couches, but on clear, rainless nights, he’d drive around the mountains looking for arresting sites. He liked to stop by the waterfalls, where he’d pop the hatch and sleep under the stars. In the mornings, he’d get a text from Longworth asking if he wanted some coffee. He’d rush down to the hotel. It was hard, but better than losing everything and everyone at once. “He was scrambling to keep me,” Longworth says. “I was telling him that I was sick and I needed to make major changes.”

As their brief moment of stability fell away, Eric clung more and more to the treasure hunt. It was a quick ramp up from maybe only ever having heard about it briefly, maybe never having heard of it at all, to spending all his time in chat rooms, filling up notebooks, and trying to crack the riddle. Soon, he’d tell his friends he was going out to get the treasure. Not look for it. He didn’t have to look. He knew where it was.

This was an old-fashioned certainty, the certainty of a prospector. Some had thought it would never be seen again. In 1893, more than a century before Eric Ashby set out and less than a century after Lewis and Clark’s journey, a little man, Frederick Jackson Turner, then still young, with engaging blue eyes and light blond hair, declared an end to western expansion. Turner didn’t actually go so far as to make the announcement of the end of the uncharted West. He simply pointed out that the US census had done so in 1890, and he proposed to tease out a few consequences of that bureaucratic notation. One of the consequences, he argued, was that frontier life had profoundly shaped the American character, and now that it was gone, the lack would reshape that character. This was taken to mean that the old types would have to be shelved. The prospector, for instance, could be struck from the catalog of reality. He’d be forced to find his place among American legends. The armchair theorizers imagined that he’d disappear into the mythological taxonomy. They didn’t understand the American prospector.

Over the next century, scholars would take issue with Turner’s theory. Some pointed out that his characterization of the frontier ignored the ugly aspects of western expansion, ignored the people who’d been on the land he called “the frontier” long before any of the colonizers had thought about what was over that horizon. Richard Hofstadter noted that most of the land the government handed out ended up in the hands of railroad companies and other large corporations. “Out of every six or seven acres that the government had given up by 1900,” he wrote, “only one had gone to homesteaders.” He further pointed out that not just anybody could start farming on the frontier. Even if you got your hands on that relative sliver of free land, setting up a farm on undeveloped land cost about $1,000 in the money of the day.

Even with those trenchant criticisms, those necessary elucidations, these scholars missed the point. Or, at least, they weren’t interested in this one. Literary critics, such as Richard Slotkin, got closer. What the carefree re-categorizers fundamentally failed to understand about the prospector-made-good was that he could never have moved from reality to mythology. Because he’d never been real, had always been a useful legend. Sure, there were a couple who, in the years after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, got rich. Even that hardly ever lasted. Even the supplies dealers went bust. Even Sutter ended up a pauper. The rich men had been born rich, and the rag-covered prospectors would keep their rags. Over the decades and the century that followed, they became the property of national memory, emblems of a national story, told by a monied class that needed something palatable to explain how they’d gotten hold of their funds, a story believed by young men venturing into the mountains.

“Maybe it was a distraction,” Longworth says of the treasure hunt. “Or maybe he was trying to do something bigger. He had the real willpower to do better things.” About a week before he died, Eric went out with the other group. One look convinced them. No one was swimming across. The next week, he went out again, down the long, rough road, filled with that prospector’s confidence, convinced that he knew what he was doing.

Like so many before him, he died chasing a mirage. 

III.

The day before Ashby went to the river, Jamie Longworth moved out of her hotel. She drove down to Gardner, Colorado, where she thought she’d die on a converted school bus. The bus had been one of her split-second, cancer-panicked decisions. At first, she thought she’d take it around the West with her daughter, be a poor, sick mom on the road trying to find a cure. But Ashby had found her a sponsor, a cannabis provider who was willing to let her live on one of his 32 acres southwest of Colorado Springs. It was beautiful, she thought. She parked her bus on a cliffside and settled down to make a final effort to get better.

She had no idea that he’d gone treasure hunting that day. When she heard about his drowning, she didn’t believe it. Her mind shot off in all directions. She thought he’d found the treasure and had left her to die. She thought that Becca Nies, the messenger, had waited eight days to tell her so he’d have time to get away. Maybe, she thought, he’d gone to Santa Fe to see Fenn. Then she had a dream that he was in New York. She couldn’t be sure. He could have gone anywhere. She had no idea.

It took a long time to accept that he was dead. She’d put the bus together with his help, and it stood as continuing evidence of his existence. Maybe the sight, Longworth’s little daughter wandering up and down a converted school bus, had taken Ashby back to when he had been a kid running around the family bus on the smoky mountain campground, surrounded by people he loved. He never mentioned it. She was left to live with other echoes, for however long she had left.

One day, the bus rolled over Longworth’s foot. It went off the cliff with her dog in it. Luckily neither she nor her daughter were on it. To take care of the foot, she rushed to the hospital. There, almost by accident, she found out she was in remission. Had it been the surgery, the chemo, the cannabis? She wasn’t sure. But she was alive and happy. She’d live to raise her daughter. She was the one who had survived.

They headed back east and waited for life to get back to normal, waited for the sadness to fall away. Longworth’s daughter still remembered Ashby a year and a half later. Warm in their Maryland home, she looks at the picture of him next to her mom’s bed. “‘Cute little Eric’ is what she calls him,” her mom says. “She still says, ‘Mom, I miss cute little Eric.’ She used to look at Eric and say, ‘Eric, I love your cute little face.’”

“He hated it so much,” she adds, laughing and crying.

¤

Jimi Booker never had any of Longworth’s doubts. He’d seen his friend disappear below the water. That was an overwhelming reality. There’d been no opportunity to imagine that this was just another adventure story, no chance to think up a happy ending. He couldn’t even think about the surrounding circumstances, didn’t know whether Longworth was dead or alive. He tried to live as if it never happened, but he couldn’t get that day out of his head. He’d been thinking about it since the drive back from the red gate, down the long, rough road. The drive there had been so happy, full of music and excitement. The drive back slid by in absolute silence. The adrenaline was still there, but the world had soured around them. “We just left,” Booker says, “we had to.”

For the first year, Booker tried not to talk about it. Ashby’s friends and family started reaching out to him and the others who’d gone to the river. Their grief came mixed with anger. They asked why the group didn’t alert the authorities. One of Booker’s Florida friends, Anthony Mahoney, responded to one old friend of Ashby’s who asked that question on Facebook: “It was one of those situations where you don’t know what to do, so you do nothing.” The friend, the receiver, was left with the distinct impression that she was being told a story.

The raft company alerted the authorities immediately and search parties went out. A body was found four weeks later, but it wasn’t identified as Ashby until January of the next year. Oddly, soon after Ashby’s death, the other treasure hunters dispersed, most of them drifting toward where Ashby was born. The Florida friends went home. Booker broke up with his girlfriend. She moved to Florida, too. By the middle of the year after their ill-fated adventure, Booker was the only one who’d stayed out West.

Ashby’s empty car sat outside Booker’s apartment building for weeks. The searchers had gone through it. They’d found clothes and a backpack, found his phone. But they don’t tend to mention finding a small Ziploc container. Booker does, though. “Needles and spoons in a little case,” he says. That seems to trigger something. His mind sometimes tangentially flips back to the day Ashby died. “It seemed, when he was actually approaching the river, that he was fine. But I feel like it’s just because he’d grown a tolerance to it. He seemed fine,” he says. “It’s just like, I can never really pinpoint if there was anything in particular that made it go the way it did.”

“But, honestly,” Booker says, looking up for eye contact, “I would rather him have gone out looking for this treasure, than for him to have gone out overdosing.”

¤

When he heard how the river swallowed his son, Ashby’s father raged on the mountain. His heart broke: figuratively, literally, any way you looked at it. His doctors noted the cardiac problem picking up. His boss worried about his stability, wondered whether he could be left alone. Paul Ashby, himself, was almost intolerably aware of how wrong everything had gone. In an instant, all the futures he’d ever imagined had disappeared. He’d never be a grandfather. His son would never hit 32. They’d never see each other again. “I was heartbroken beyond concept,” he says.

He was haunted by memories of the life they’d lived together. He remembered how, when his son was 15, maybe 16, he’d said, “I don’t believe in God, dad.” They’d been Episcopalians, gone to church every Sunday at 8:00 in the morning. This wasn’t a simple break. “You don’t have to believe in God,” he remembered telling his son, “but you have to believe in something.” He repeats, “You have to believe in something.” So the son started searching for something to believe in. “He was doing exactly what I did when I was his age,” the father says.

He tells the whole story again. He doesn’t know how many times he’s told it. He tells how his son grew up, how his son ran into trouble, how his son went West. Up to that point, it’s as much the father’s story as the son’s. Then he tells how the father lost the son. “We had different ideals growing up,” he explains, “different values.” He makes it sound like they grew up together. Not like the one raised the other. As if they raised each other. “He was on the search. He just…” The elder Ashby falters. For the first time, he doesn’t quite know what to say. His son is gone.

It takes time to remember the line.

¤

“He could not be contained,” the father says, and the mountains howl around him.

¤

Andrew Fedorov is a writer often found in New York and sometimes found walking across countries. Follow him on Twitter @andrewfed.

¤

[1] Jimi Booker recalled this reasoning in an interview for this article. The chronology of the theory seems off, however. Fenn’s poem was published in 2010 and the bridge fire happened in 2013.

 

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