There is a little known secret tucked away on the old Continental Divide. It isn’t an old ghost town nor is it a long-ago buried gold mine. It is invisible on printed maps.
Sure, there are thousands of secrets hiding in the Rocky Mountains. This, however, is a secret I found. This is a secret I have to share.
I wanted to be able to write about how to get there but it’s been impossible. The day we found this treasure I failed to write down the trails we explored. That is okay, really, because isn’t the search the most enticing part of any journey?
Brian and I started our quest at the Tomichi Trading Post just off of Highway 50, east of Gunnison Colorado. Our camper was at the Gunnison KOA and we had left the kids with Brian’s brother and his family. This type of post-children adventure was extremely rare for us. Because of this, I was out of riding practice and eager to spend some time on the Yamaha 125 Brian had given me for my 40th birthday.
Getting back on a dirt bike is a little harder than getting back on a bicycle and Brian clearly thought I’d have no problems. My trial would be by fire but I didn’t care. I wanted to find the treasure.
We started out on a dirt road heading south and as I moved into fourth gear, dust flying and the wind against me, I found myself wondering if a street bike might be something I could embrace. We exited after several miles, riding over a cattle guard and through a field, until we reached the trail head.
Brian had ridden this path a few days earlier with three buddies from Kansas City. They had stumbled across the treasure and once I heard the details I was hooked. He was fairly certain he could find it again.
My husband is an avid outdoorsman, confident and strong. I am a determined woman, often cautious but unwilling to show fear. These contrasting personality traits sometimes lead me into situations that aren’t exactly wise but build strong character. At least I like to think so.
He sped up the trail, leading the way, and as I rounded the first corner I realized this wasn’t going to be a smooth ride by any stretch of the imagination. The path was a washed out gulch with deep gashes formed by either running water or muddy tracks. Within moments, panicking at the high narrow sides which were the only way to avoid getting the front tire inside the jagged ruts, I had dropped my bike.
Brian returned to help me get started again but I was shaken. We had many hours ahead of us and if the entire trail was going to be like this I knew I wouldn’t make it. My upper body isn’t that strong and the early portion of this trail would later leave my muscles screaming. At the time, however, I simply wanted to hang on so we could get to the next stretch. I also found myself experiencing de ja vu….flashbacks of those early dating years when I launched myself into water skiing and trail mountain bike riding in order to impress the love of my life.
This old determination was rewarded, though, because we eventually reached a lengthy section of dirt and rocks that were easy to maneuver, leaving me an opportunity to check out the beauty of Gunnison Nation Forest.
We rode for over an hour and then the trail began to get steep and narrow. The rocks became larger as well. As we stopped to rest and hydrate, Brian explained that the next patch had been nicknamed “skulls” by one of his buddies. I found myself briefly imagining that this entire hill would look like a pile of sand to a giant because there were thousands of skull sized stones. Although crass, it was an apt description of the size of rocks we would be facing on the lower part of the quarter mile or so incline ahead of us. The left side of the trail rose sharply along the incline of the mountain, meaning riding along the side to avoid the piles of rocks wasn’t an option. The right side also presented a problem; there was a steep mountain drop off that would certainly result in a minimum of several broken bones if not worse if I were to crash.
Adding to the mix was the approximately 15-20% grade of the hill itself. Brian suggested I hug the left side and take my time but it became clear as soon as we began that I was in way over my head. His bike is a powerful Yamaha 250; he is strong and comfortable on it, able to handle the speed and dexterity required to make it to the top. My tires were smaller and the speed and skill required to tackle this monster of a hill was simply above my dirt bike pay grade.
After dropping the bike multiple times, struggling to get it back up on the uneven and mini-boulder filled trail, I decided to wait for Brian to realize I was no longer behind him. He eventually came back down and decided the best plan would be for him to ride his bike to the top and then walk down and ride mine up while I walked the grade.
By now, we had probably reached an altitude of 900 to 10,000 feet. I would have much rather ridden my bike up the hill but truth be told the physical and mental stress of trying to get the cycle up that steep trail had taken a toll and I used the hike to try and regroup by reminding myself of the “holy grail” we were seeking. I comforted myself in the knowledge that I had made it up more than half of the hill before admitting defeat.
Once we reached the top we ran into another issue. It had begun to rain and as it came down harder and harder I was struggling with goggles that kept fogging and with rain that impeded my vision. To make matters worse, Brian was second guessing our route, wondering if he had made a mistake somewhere along the way. In addition, one of the negative aspects of not riding often is that I don’t own riding gear like Brian. My boots were fine but my jeans were soaked to the skin. Brian had an extra rain jacket, which helped greatly.
As the skies eventually cleared and the sun reappeared, we stopped in an open clearing to rest and figure out where we were. Brian went on ahead to check out the route and to see if he recognized any landmarks from his ride two days earlier. I took this time to dry out and stretch my legs while drinking in the beauty of the mountains surrounding me.
The Rockies are stunningly and strikingly beautiful. I am simply mystified by the violence underneath the earth’s surface that created these jagged and awesome peaks millions of years ago and there is no greater way to witness nature’s power and majesty then to lay eyes upon this mountain range.
By the time Brian returned from his scouting expedition, I was ready to continue this journey and eager to reach the goal. After another lengthy ride along a wide and relaxing dirt path, we rounded a corner and there, on our left, was an old wooden board painted with the words “Sargent’s Pass”. I squeezed the throttle.
Eventually, a large clearing opened up, seemingly within the eye of a storm. Surrounded by trees and mountains I took note of the granite monument protected by a crude rock wall.
Silent and alone, under Heaven’s gaze and the view of fallen warriors, was the treasure we had ridden so hard to find. After an initial inspection, Brian decided to ride ahead. He had seen this a few days before and understood me enough to know that I would appreciate the opportunity to spend some time alone surrounded by the solitude of the mountains.
Inside three short walls of rock was a Vietnam War memorial, placed there by unknown men at an unknown time. Brian and his friends had simply stumbled upon it while riding. They had asked a few locals at the Tomichi Creek Trading Post where it had come from and were told that the Park Rangers don’t know who is responsible for it. They leave the site unmarked on any maps. Some people think it was an officer who served during Vietnam, maybe using a helicopter to bring the heavy stone up to The Divide.
That's it, all the information available from the locals. I’ve searched online and found only a few items mentioning the site and absolutely no information on where it came from, leaving me even more intrigued.
I walked around and lying nearly flush with the mountain surface, outside of the rock wall, were rectangular stones haphazardly placed. At first glance, they appeared to be tombstones. Upon closer inspection, they contained sayings in various languages and fonts.
The stones were in sort of a circle...but not. I found myself wondering if there was some form of unwritten symbolism, sacred to the benefactor.
The etched words, in the varying languages I mentioned, were also from various years. Words like Eardstapa, which is some form of a word for warrior and which, most likely, was taken from the poem “The Wanderer”.
Some lines are from words one can find in Arlington Cemetery, such as: “Like the fallen leaves of autumn in unregimented ranks ….if by weeping I could change the course of events”.
There is an actual Bible verse and reference to the appointed time.
I expected a monument to American Vietnam Veterans. What I found instead was a tribute to all of the men who have fought; a reminder that Laos, Cambodia, France, Vietnam and the United States all left sons on the fields of battle. A testament that in the quiet stillness of God’s faithful watch, surrounded by untainted and un-bloodied beauty, a fellow wounded warrior remembers those sons…..those brothers…..those sacrifices.
I touched the stones, closing my eyes. I imagined other visitors and their stories. Tributes had been left on the large obelisk in the middle; pennies from different states and live ammunition rounds tucked into the grooves separating the squares that made up the largest piece. I wondered why they had visited…whether or not they had simply stumbled upon this site, like Brian and his fellow riders, or whether they went searching, like I had.
It had been a long and challenging ride and we still had several hours to get back down. The journey back would be equally difficult, resulting in my own hidden tears and bruised legs upon "skulls", but I would never regret this journey and the trials I went through in order to pay my respects. The struggles, frankly, seemed an appropriate toll.
Brian gently told me it was time to leave, but I wanted one more moment to remember this quiet hidden tribute. I paused a moment before putting on my helmet.
I closed my eyes and listened to the wind and the trees. I breathed in the mountain air, holding in the smells, and in those moments I swore I heard the whisper “remember us”.