on food’s place in the process of searching 

By Joshua Johnson

Photo by Valerie Stilina.

I have found that great meals usually require a little excitement to spur them on. Often, that edge comes from being in some remote canyon, alone and far from any roads. The open sky, the sounds of hawk screams and creaking ponderosas, and the hunger from hiking can all elevate my meal from being simple sustenance to becoming a small, momentary treasure.

My childhood was spent looking for things. It’s a tradition in my family. I often stared at the spine of the old book on my grandparents’ shelf titled Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver, which captured my imagination with lore that only a few tight-lipped treasure hunters ever dared recount, of lost mines and gold-rich placer creeks, scalp hunters and ghosts. My grandfather was always a Jeep man. As his legs were weakened by the polio he had contracted during World War II, he had fashioned a hand-operated brake lever, which he attached to the pedal of his Wagoneer so he could drive, and he walked with canes. Weekends were often spent idling like a desert tortoise over the West Mesa, looking out the window for evidence of rock dumps and artifacts while we drove. When we spotted something that looked intriguing, we’d get out and poke around. He’d flip rocks and rusted pieces of metal over with the tip of his cane; if one looked interesting, he’d ask me to pick it up for him.

We’d jeep up and down the Rio Puerco valley from Los Lunas to Cabezon, the smell of muffler-singed chamisa bound to the dust. For our lunch breaks, it was almost always chicken salad, stored for the drive in an old sardine can, spread on white bread. The memory of it is so strong I can almost reach out and touch that nose-turner now. It was a truly great meal, and all that treasure seemed like it was also right there, just around the next corner—just after lunch.

Left and top right: Hiking the Chama river valley. Bottom right: Joshua Johnson with with his father and grandfather.

Twenty-five years later, my radar for treasure hunting blipped again when I caught wind of the infamous chest of riches stashed somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe by local art collector Forrest Fenn. Over the duration of a few years I logged hundreds of miles off trail, memorizing landforms, discovering cowboy graveyards, picking through vestiges of homesteads. Every time I went out, I followed one of Fenn’s suggestions to a T: “Bring a sandwich.” Part good luck charm and part sustenance, I began to hold myself to a self-imposed superstition that each iteration should be a little different than the last one. This time I’ll put half as much lettuce on it as last time. This time I’m traveling cheap and there’s no shame in PB and J, nor is there in sardine-can chicken. Perhaps if I can crack the code of sandwich lottery, the chest will be revealed! So, with my dog, water, small pack, and sandwich I’d embark each time on a journey anew. And many times we’d perch atop a cliff overlooking a river and take in everything—the view, the sounds and smells, and the good-luck sandwich.

Over time, my treasure hunts became more a practice of being still in the woods with my sandwich at that pivotal moment between going out and coming back. I would sit and eat and wonder how long it had been since another human had been in the same spot.

For me these sojourns gradually became about getting close to something I had once shared with my grandfather. I would eat my sandwich in that transcendent moment and feel a mysterious closeness shared again, like it was all just waiting for me—the treasure, my grandfather, just around the next corner, just after lunch.   

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Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.