In 2010, cancer-stricken millionaire Forrest Fenn buried a chest containing three million dollars worth of treasure somewhere in the mountains north of Santa Fe. Clues to the chest’s whereabouts, the 79-year-old states, are hidden in the text of a memoir and poem he published that same year. Thousands have searched, to no avail. “The treasure is still out there,” Fenn insists.
“There’s something about the sight of massive amounts of gold that really gets to you,” renowned thriller writer Douglas Preston mused over the phone. A long-time friend of Fenn’s, Preston saw the treasure before it was hidden. “When you open the lid... it was all thrown in willy-nilly, just these huge heaps of massive gold coins, gold nuggets the size of hens eggs, jewels, gold bracelets, gold ornaments from South America, and everything glittering in the light.”
I called Fenn at his home in New Mexico to request an interview. I imagined him with the warm, expansive voice that accompanies a nod and a firm handshake. Instead his molasses Texas drawl came out surly. I could hear the tightness of his jaw. I could hear him squinting. He sounded hounded. It was obvious that his plan had taken on a life of its own and begun to oppress him. He agreed to the interview and hung up. The next day he wrote to cancel. He claimed he was “worn out,” but that I could ask him questions via email. He also sent me the contact information for some of his friends.
At the top of Fenn’s list was Dal Neitzel. Dal is the curator of a popular blog about the Fenn treasure and a master of what he likes to call “maritime salvage and exploration.” I gave Dal a call at his home in Washington. We spoke first of his other expeditions: recovering ships from the 1400s through the 1900s all over the world.
“When you’re diving down there,” he explained. “You’re coming across real folks. You would run across a skeleton and there would be a sabre still attached to what would be the waist by a leather belt. The coins that were in this sailor’s pocket were laying down there in the sand right where his pocket would have been.”
“How do those experiences compare to looking for Forrest’s treasure?” I asked.
“There is a great deal of caution and officiality about search and salvage operations, but searching for Forrest’s treasure is just plain fun. Everybody in the whole universe has got an opinion about it. Sit down for a beer with other searchers and you’ll be there for hours.”
“What’s the best interpretation of the poem you’ve heard so far?”
“There are people on the blog that look at the poem in ways it never would have occurred to me was possible. For instance, there are people that deal in numerology, and so they attach numbers to everything. And, you say to yourself, ‘That numerology stuff is crazy!’ and then you look at the results they come up with, and you say, ‘My goodness! There must be something in it!’ There are other people who turn everything into anagrams. The poem at its base is so general, there are thousands of places in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe that can fit it. But, once you dig into the poem, you see how deep the poem can be, and how cryptic the poem really is.”
“I heard you’re searching in Wyoming now. Have you given up on New Mexico?”
“I think it’s too soon to say Dal’s given up on anything. If the clues led me to the moon, I’d have a look at it!”
With a healthy dose of Dal’s optimism working its way through my brain and a new metal detector folded up in my carry-on, I boarded a flight to Santa Fe.
New Mexico’s capital was brimming with like-minded folks. “At least 1/6 of the people you see in this city are here for the treasure,” Joel LeCuyer explained. Joel manned the counter at Collected Works Bookstore, the sole distributer of Forrest Fenn’s memoir The Thrill of the Chase.
“Could this whole treasure thing just be a ruse to sell more books?” I asked.
“It’s possible,” he admitted. “But, I can tell you that Forrest isn’t getting any money from it. The way it’s set up, as the printers, we take most of the profit and the rest is donated to people who can’t afford cancer treatment.”
“So, what kind of people buy this thing?” I asked.
“Mostly crazy people,” Joel confided. “I mean, the dude has stalkers. He has a police escort with him. People have been parking outside his house and following him to the grocery store. Someone even dug up his parents’ graves.”
We talked a while longer, and Joel passed along some tips about where to look for the treasure. He sent me off the same way that nearly all the people who assisted me would: “If you find it, just remember who helped you.”
That night, I pulled out The Thrill of the Chase, a thin, hardcover volume filled with black and white photographs of the author’s life. I began reading about Fenn’s Tom Sawyer childhood, hunting and fishing—his courtship of the beautiful Peggy Jean Proctor, his future wife - his experiences as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, having been shot down twice. After the war, Fenn writes briefly about starting the art dealership that would make him a multi-millionaire. Conspicuously absent from the book was his time as a maverick archeologist, and the massive case the FBI has open against him for grave robbing. Eventually, Forrest introduces the treasure poem I’ve read so many times, I have it memorized:
As I have gone alone in there
And with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where,
And hint of riches new and old.
Begin it where warm waters halt
And take it in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk,
Put in below the home of Brown.
From there it’s no place for the meek,
The end is ever drawing nigh;
There’ll be no paddle up your creek,
Just heavy loads and water high.
If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,
Look quickly down, your quest to cease,
But tarry scant with marvel gaze,
Just take the chest and go in peace.
So why is it that I must go
And leave my trove for all to seek?
The answers I already know,
I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.
So hear me all and listen good,
Your effort will be worth the cold.
If you are brave and in the wood
I give you title to the gold.
The next morning, I ate pancakes at a diner in Taos with a childhood friend of mine who had driven in from San Diego. I had written to him about my plans and he had responded in his usual deadpan:
I could offer my services in wilderness survival for a cut of the gold. I'll bring a rifle and enough ammo to protect us from being devoured by the many bears that I assume there will be. We'll also need a compass, so keep that in mind. (Cost of the compass comes from your portion of the gold.)
Your potential treasure hunting partner and eventual betrayer,
The table disappeared under our maps and notebooks as we strategized. For the first day out, we settled on a location up near the Colorado border. A discussion with treasure hunters J.D. Noble and Michelle LaBounty made us think that line “worth the cold” could mean the chest was behind a waterfall we would have to plunge into. We settled on Placer Creek Falls after discovering that “Placer” translates into “Gold is here.” The warm water halting could be explained by the merging of a warm water and a cold water river upstream. The united river travels through a canyon before becoming a shallow creek as it nears the falls. There would be no paddle up a scrawny creek like that. We decided that “Home of Brown” could refer to Brown Trout, as the area was considered good fishing for that particular species. As an added bonus, the place was strewn with abandoned mining equipment, which was our “hint of riches new and old.”
We spent a glorious day following the creek, scrambling over barbed wire, climbing rocks, dodging snakes, even waging a snowball fight with the contents of a die-hard snow drift. We stormed the falls like heroes. At the summit stood a strange, jagged rock formation, covered in orange lichen—enough of a blaze to get our hearts pounding. We combed that area on our hands and knees for hours and came up with nothing. “Well, if it’s not here, it damn well should be!” we exclaimed to console ourselves. Every day was a variation of that theme—a series of rambling adventures that occurred only because a man we had never met got cancer and began to contemplate his mortality.
The Thrill of the Chase is filled with end-of-life meditations on oblivion.
“Sooner or later each of us will be nothing but the leftovers of history or an asterisk in a book that was never written.”
“Is it fair that no one recalls where those brave French soldiers fell and are now interred in that remote jungle clearing, hidden from life for a million sunsets?”
“They all really said the same thing: ‘Look at me, I’m somebody; please don’t forget.’ So of course we forgot.”
In the chest that we didn’t find is a copy of Fenn’s autobiography, so the future will know of him. He talks repeatedly about his treasure hunt lasting for a thousand or even 10,000 years, carrying the memory of him with it, long after his death. “What about a million years?” I wanted to ask, “What about a billion?” It was an inquiry not just about his death – but about my death too, and the death of all of us. Still, it seemed a harsh interrogation for a man of his age. Instead, I wrote to him simply, “Can anything last forever?”
His response was immediate: “If you can define ‘forever’ for me, I will answer the question.”
Roc’s new book, And, was released last year. You can find more information on his website.
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