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!”
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.
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.