In 1939, when Forrest Fenn was nine years old, he found his first treasure. It was a small arrowhead
2010, Santa Fe, New Mexico: The quest begins
A tall and sprightly elderly man carries something into his car. He adjusts his cowboy hat and drives away from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The car heads north, into the Rocky Mountains. The world doesn’t know it yet, but this is the start of one of history’s greatest treasure hunts.
Eventually, the man arrives at his destination, deep in the wilds of the Rockies. He carefully removes his precious cargo from his car. It’s a Romanesque (dating to Roman times) bronze chest, with beautiful carvings decorating the outside. The chest itself is a square foot in size and is worth about $25,000.
He hikes to a certain spot, leaves the chest in his chosen hiding place, and returns home.
Sometime later, he comes back to the place where he hid the chest. This time he is carrying millions of dollars’ worth of ancient treasures. Among the hoard are precious gems like rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds. There is also gold. Lots of gold. Hundreds of golden nuggets and gold artifacts dating to before the time of Columbus. There are also several Chinese jade figurines. All in all, the treasure weighs about 42 pounds (19kg).
The man is an eccentric character named Forrest Fenn, and despite what you might think, he knows exactly what he’s doing. In fact, this strange trip is years in the making. Forrest Fenn places the valuables in the chest and leaves it there for anyone in the world to find.
Who is Forrest Fenn?
In 1939, when Forrest Fenn was nine years old, he found his first treasure. It was a small arrowhead. He didn’t even have to look for it. It was just lying there in a plowed field in Little Elm Creek, Texas. According to Fenn, that arrowhead is the most precious artifact in his entire collection. It was that arrowhead that sparked a lifetime of searching for ancient artifacts.
Luckily for Forrest, his father, Marvin Fenn, loved the great outdoors. Come summer, he would pack up his family and take them camping for months on end. He taught Forrest everything there was to know about living in nature. By age 13, Forrest was working as a fly-fishing guide in Yellowstone National Park.
In 1950, 20-year-old Forrest joined the US Air Force and became a fighter pilot. During the Vietnam War, he flew 328 combat missions within 348 days! He also managed to get his fighter plane shot down by the enemy — twice. The first time, he succeeded in landing his plane on a much-too-short runway. The second time, he was forced to eject himself from his burning aircraft. He was rescued by helicopter the next day.
After his tour of duty, Fenn taught pilot training. He was offered a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, but by then Forrest Fenn had had enough of fighting. In September 1970, after having served his country for 20 years, Fenn retired from the Air Force with the rank of Major.
After his grueling years in the Air Force, Forrest decided that his life needed to seriously slow down. He, his wife Peggy, and their two daughters moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1972, where they opened a gallery, called Old Santa Fe Trading Co. They dealt mainly in old Western paintings by famous 19th century American artists. But his main passion was for objects like his first arrowhead — things that told a story of bygone days.
Fenn’s gallery quickly made a name for itself among serious art collectors. He was known for his collections of very rare antique objects, especially for Native American relics. (One of his most valuable artifacts, worth more than $1 million, is the smoking pipe belonging to Sitting Bull, an important Native American chief who famously led the Sioux tribe in resistance against the US government in the 1800s.) Celebrity clients, like Jackie Kennedy Onassis (JFK’s wife), Ralph Lauren, Gerald Ford, Donna Karen, and Steven Spielberg flocked to Santa Fe to fill their own art collections. Many clients came for the art, but many others came for the fantastic stories that Fenn wove about the old artifacts he was selling. He readily admitted that he embellished the stories; it’s how he sold his pieces. It is said that the Old Santa Fe Trading Co. made $6 million profit a year.
Some have labelled Fenn as being fairly eccentric. He even went so far as to purchase San Lazaro Pueblo, a Native American archeological site in New Mexico dating to the 16th century. According to Fenn, it was in foreclosure and he rescued it from an archeologist who wanted to go in with a bulldozer. Once it was his, he went about carefully excavating the site, digging up hundreds of artifacts that tell the story of the people who lived at San Lazaro hundreds of years ago. Fenn still takes his friends to the site to dig. To Fenn, history isn’t something that should be locked up behind glass cases in museums. He wants people to actually touch and feel history. During his time at his gallery, he frequently encouraged visiting schoolchildren to touch expensive works of art. And visitors to his home are just as likely to be offered a seat on some valuable Indian drum as on a sofa.
The Thrill of the Chase
In 1988, Fenn was diagnosed with cancer and was given a short time to live. He was 58 years old. Fenn spent his time at home, surrounded by more than 5,000 of his beloved artifacts, while his friends and loved ones came to visit him.
Apparently, it was none other than Ralph Lauren himself who gave Forrest the idea. It was 1996, and Ralph Lauren was sitting in Fenn’s living room, eyeing an Indian hat that was decorated with ermine skins and antelope horns. He made an offer to Fenn, who flatly refused to sell it. Ralph Lauren pointed out that Fenn anyway wouldn’t be able to take it with him when he died, to which Fenn jokingly replied, “Well, then I’m not going.”
But this got Fenn thinking. (He has a daily habit of thinking for an hour before he gets out of bed in the morning, a practice he strongly recommends). Although he had long retired from his gallery, he still remembered how much fun it was to chase down those elusive artifacts. And then he thought about how much he loved spending time outdoors. And that’s when he decided to fill a treasure chest with ancient valuables, go out into the wilderness of his beloved Rockies and leave it there for someone to find.
He sat down to write the story of his life, a book he called The Thrill of the Chase. Right at the end of the book, he included a poem that had all the clues anyone would need to find his treasure.
His original plan was to actually die out there next to his treasure. He was a very sick man, after all. But then it turned out that he wasn’t quite dead yet. Miraculously, Forest Fenn beat the cancer and was (still is) very much alive.
The Hunt Is On!
And so, with Fenn going about his daily business as usual, and all thoughts of death pushed firmly to the back of his mind, the treasure chest remained mostly forgotten. Fenn never did get around to hiding the chest.
But in 2008, the recession hit Americans really bad. Tens of thousands of people lost their livelihoods and homes. With money tight, people were in very low spirits. A couple of years into the recession with no relief in sight, Fenn decided that the time was ripe to release his treasure into the wild. He figured that knowing that a fortune was out there for the taking would give people some hope.
Without telling his wife, he rented a car and drove into the Rockies, hid the chest and then published his book, The Thrill of the Chase. The great treasure hunt was finally on!
Forrest Fenn estimates that to date about 350,000 people from around the world have gone out to search for the treasure. People have been swept up in the gold rush with many searchers going way overboard in their hunts. Trekking through the Rocky Mountains for days on end can be quite expensive. There’s all the hiking gear to think about, like appropriate clothing, camping equipment (or hotel fees), safety equipment, and so on. Driving around the wilderness requires gas. And that’s besides for all the money people spend before they even begin their search, on things like books, maps, and plane rides. Some people have gone as far as selling or mortgaging their homes to pay for their treasure hunts. One woman even moved from Hawaii to New Mexico to be closer to the Rocky Mountains. These people are convinced that a few thousand dollars is a worthwhile investment — after all, there’s a few million dollars waiting for them.
The Forrest Fenn treasure hunt has a huge following of loyal fans who regularly share their take on what different clues mean. Fenn has stated that his poem contains nine clues, and by now, each of those clues has taken on countless meanings as everyone adds their own opinion. Many searchers admit to spending hours every day poring over maps and analyzing Fenn’s clues. At least six people have died in the Rockies while searching for Fenn’s treasure. Some were swimming in strong river currents, others were scaling high mountain peaks, and one was even hiking during the winter. Park officials and some of the victims’ relatives have begged Fenn to stop the hunt. But while Fenn deeply regrets those lost lives (he offered to pay for the helicopter in the search for one hunter who died), he insists that there is no need for people to put their lives in danger.
He often reminds people that he was around 80 years old when he hid the treasure. And he was lugging 42 pounds around. According to Fenn, the treasure is someplace anyone, of any hiking skill, can reach. The treasure hunt is even appropriate for families with children.
And really, that is the whole point of the treasure hunt, Fenn says. He put the chest in the Rockies so that people will go out and spend time in nature. He wanted it to bring friends and families together. And it has, in the most wonderful way. Countless father-son teams have reported spending months putting their heads together, charting their search route before heading off in the summer to explore the Rockies. Teachers have taken their students on camping trips to search. And families have spent weekends together camping and searching.
So far, none of the hundreds of thousands of searchers have found what they were looking for. The treasure is still out there. But in the meantime, hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise never have visited the Rocky Mountains have seen things they’d never seen before. Hikers regularly come across wildlife including elk, bison, deer, moose, eagles, and ospreys. And of course, there are the many rivers, canyons, gorges, and hot springs.
Many searchers report that after spending several hours on the treasure hunt, surrounded by the wonders of creation, the very purpose of their trip is almost forgotten. The beauty of the landscape is simply too distracting to focus on trivialities like treasure.
In fact, some people have said that the treasure is nothing but a hoax. All Forrest Fenn really wanted to accomplish was to get people off their phones and couches.
But Fenn’s close friend, Doug Preston (who is also a bestselling author; he wrote a novel based on Fenn’s treasure hunt) insists that the treasure is very real. He claims he has seen it in Fenn’s home and has even held it. (Don’t forget that the treasure was lying around for more than a decade before being hidden.)
Other people close to Fenn also say that knowing their friend, the treasure is very real. It seems just the crazy kind of thing he would do.
Now excuse me — I’ve got a treasure to find.
(from The Thrill of the Chase, by Forrest Fenn)
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.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 781)
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