“No one knows where that treasure chest is but me. If I die tomorrow, the knowledge of that location goes in the coffin with me.” —Forrest Fenn
Somewhere in the 100,000 square miles between Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Canadian border to the North, there is a hidden chest containing over a million dollars-worth of priceless artifacts and gold.
The man responsible for this modern-day mystery is Forrest Fenn, a one-time Air Force pilot who retired in middle-age, only to become one of the most notorious collectors (some would say thief) of rare and interesting historical artifacts in the world.
The Thrill of the Chase
There’s no denying that Fenn’s life is almost outrageously interesting.
At his homestead in Santa Fe, he’s developed a museum-like collection he claims has attracted celebrities like Steve Martin, Gerald Ford, and Jackie Kennedy, all of whom came to see the wonders he had on display. The process of building that collection has been his life’s work, which has often involved (in his own admission) skirting the boundaries of the law, as well as the conventions of more mild-mannered archaeologists. He’s been trapped in caves and dropped from helicopters, fought off rattle-snakes and hid from the law, all in the pursuit of earthly treasures.
So it was perhaps no surprise when, in the autumn of 2010, Fenn published a memoir detailing his adventures. He called it The Thrill of the Chase. It received a limited print run of just 1,000 copies, which could only be purchased at a single indie bookstore in Santa Fe.
And hardly anyone paid attention.
Why should they? Although Fenn was famous in the world of archaeology and art collection, and a very rich man, he was hardly a household name. Just another oddity in a world full of them.
There was, however, one aspect of the book that shocked those first readers: Fenn’s claim that he had hidden a box of treasures somewhere in the wilderness.
Fenn claimed the idea first took hold of him in 1988, after he was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer. Doctors gave him a short time to live. Lawyers asked him to put his affairs in order. Fenn decided it was time to shore up his legacy. He put together what he believed to be a sufficiently valuable and alluring prize, and began to plan a trip to his intended hiding spot with a morbid goal in mind—to die beside his treasure. Fate, though, intervened. Fenn recovered from his supposedly terminal diagnosis, and for decades he left his plan unrealized…
But then, Fenn claimed, he finally did it. On his 80th birthday, he supposedly loaded up his trove of gold and trinkets and made the trip deep into the Rocky Mountains to deposit it…somewhere. At the end of the book, Fenn published a 24-line poem that held the only clues to the treasure’s location. The chest, he said, would be the property of whoever found it.
Before long, the legend of Fenn’s treasure grew. In 2013, the Today show aired a special on Fenn and his strange, mysterious treasure, and before long the book was a national sensation. Today, there are buyers all across the world, from Ecuador to Italy. To a certain degree, the hunt went viral–there are several websites dedicated to deciphering Fenn’s clues, and to planning exploration trips in the Rocky Mountain wilderness.
Too Good to Be True?
At this point it’s probably worth asking: what if there’s no treasure at all?
It’s a valid question. After all, Forrest Fenn has never been a man who was afraid to bend the truth. There have always been those who claimed Fenn’s achievements were exaggerated at best—or even outright lies. One of those people is Fenn himself. Indeed, in The Thrill of the Chase, Fenn admitted to his own complicated relationship to the truth. “One of my natural instincts is to embellish just a little,” he wrote. He also claimed it was that very ability to distort and spin that helped him to build a reputation as a dealer of rare works.
It’s a dubious claim. And there’s no doubt that Fenn’s reputation as a blow-hard has earned him a fair few detractors along the way.
Firstly there are other archaeologists who’ve made a habit of labeling Forrest a “plunderer.” Fenn often denies this label, despite his frequent boasts about operating outside the normal bounds of decency and good taste. Secondly, there are state and federal authorities, who more than once have accused Fenn of digging in protected areas, or, more disturbingly, of grave robbing.
One example of the controversy that Fenn stirs up is the San Lazaro Pueblo, one of the most significant archaeological sites in all of New Mexico, which Fenn purchased. He’s spent thousands of hours digging around his little slice of paradise, turning up priceless treasures like arrow-heads, Spanish bells, and one of the oldest Native-American dance masks that’s ever been recovered. Fenn refers to the pueblo as a “retreat” where he is free to indulge his life’s obsession. The state of New Mexico, though, says he is making a profit by stealing from the graves that litter the ground around his property.
Legally and morally, it’s a grey area–just like much of Fenn’s life. But the continued accusations, from public and private citizens alike, is just enough to make one wonder if Forrest Fenn is the type of man who’d lie about something this big. Until the treasure is found, there’s simply no way to know.
Dreams Become Nightmares
Of course, the question of legitimacy is not the only controversy around Fenn’s treasure.
Remember: The area where Fenn’s treasure might be hidden is absolutely massive (almost 100,00 square miles). For almost a decade now, obsessive treasure hunters have made it their goal to comb every inch of that land, but all have come up empty. Every time someone fails, the community that has grown around the ongoing hunt gets a little more rabid, a little more obsessive—and a little more careless. To date, there have been at least 4 confirmed deaths related to the hunt for the gold.
In early 2016, a middle-aged man from Colorado went missing with a raft near Cochiti Lake in New Mexico. His body turned up 6 months later. It was the first fatality for a Searcher, but it was quickly followed by three more in rapid succession: a 53-year-old man from Illinois who fell down a mountain, a Colorado pastor who drowned in the Rio Grande, and a 31-year-old man who moved across the country to look for the treasure before drowning in the Arkansas River.
Fenn’s reaction to these deaths has been curious. On the one hand, he’s responded with frequent warnings to potential hunters about safety. In one post on social media he wrote: “The treasure chest is not under water, nor is it near the Rio Grande River. It is not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice. Please remember that I was about 80 when I made two trips from my vehicle to where I hid the treasure.”
Then again, when pressed by journalists from Wired magazine about the long-term fate of his treasure hunt, Fenn insisted it was worth it, saying: “If I called off the search, what would I say to the 350,000 people who have had wonderful experiences hiking in the mountains with no ill effects except but a few mosquito bites? An average of 12 people die each year at the Grand Canyon. There is a risk in nearly everything we do.”
To this day, Forrest Fenn maintains that his treasure is real. And in recent years, he’s raised the stakes: if it’s not found by the day he dies, Fenn says he’s asked a close friend to deposit his bones in the chest—adding his own remains to the treasure.
So the question for now is: do you believe that Fenn’s treasure is real? And if so… where is it?
I’ll leave you with the poem Fenn published in The Thrill of the Chase–the only clue in existence for a real-life pirate’s treasure:
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.