Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains – in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, or New Mexico – a treasure chest sits, eternally waiting to be stumbled across and opened.
The chest, a Romanesque box about the size of a Happy Meal, has been up in the mountains for years.
Hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe have tried to find it – following a cryptic poem, they’ve hiked deep into the wilderness. They’ve flown, drove and sailed for hundreds of miles in search of the chest – but none have ever found it.
What are they looking for? Why are they willing to risk it all? Why have at least two men died looking for this enchanting case? Because it contains some of the finest treasure the world has ever seen.
Pre-Columbian jewelry, gold nuggets the size of chicken eggs, ancient jade carvings, emeralds, diamonds, and a copy of a mysterious old man’s autobiography. In total, the chest (which is worth around $25k on its own) contains over $1 million worth of artefacts and if you find it, it’s all yours.
And the autobiography? That belongs to an enigmatic character by the name of Forrest Fenn.
Forrest came like Zarathustra to the dusty city of Santa Fe, New Mexico in the early ’70s. He had served as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War and came to Santa Fe looking to set up an art gallery.
He quickly became a local legend, known for amassing a gargantuan collection of rare artefacts including Sitting Bull’s original peace pipe.
After just a matter of years Forrest’s annual income was $6 million from selling beautiful rarities to clients, including presidents and Stephen Spielberg.
However, in 1988 Forrest Fenn was diagnosed with progressive cancer. He was ‘facing an uphill battle’, the doctors told him.
Despite all his money, treasures and stories, Forrest knew he was not eternal, and began to think about his own mortality.
With his death creeping ever closer to him, Forrest came up with a solution to the misery that encompasses the fact we are all soon forgotten after death.
He would have somebody write and publish his biography. The tales of how he was shot down over Laos, how he foraged through deserted canyons for long forgotten artefacts, how he made his fortune, and of course it would include the crytic poem, which is said to include nine clues to where the treasure is.
And Forrest would fill up a chest with millions of dollars worth of treasure, trek out into the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains, to his favourite spot, and take an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving the wild to reclaim his body into the soil – and the treasure to become the focus of a search for anyone who wanted to.
But it wasn’t to be. Forrest miraculously beat his cancer against all the odds.
He went ahead and wrote his memoir and went on living his life in Santa Fe, but couldn’t shake the idea of hiding the treasure and setting a puzzle for the world to solve.
So sometime around 2010, Forrest left his home and hid the treasure in the Rockies without telling a soul.
He self published his book, The Thrill of the Chase, donating most copies to a local bookstore so that he couldn’t be accused of lying in order to sell it.
As they say, the rest is history. The search ensued and nobody has found the chest as of yet.
And the poem? Well, the full version is in the image above, but here’s a sample:
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.
Now the clock of life is running out for Forrest. He’s an old man, in his late ’80s. After a few email exchanges, Forrest agreed to speak to UNILAD.
My motive was to get families off the couch and out into the sunshine. I wanted to give hope to so many who had lost their jobs when the recession was going on seven years ago.
To date I think about 350,000 people have travelled from all over the world to the Rocky Mountains to search for the treasure. Estranged family members have been reunited to join the search. Two brothers who had not spoken to each other for 17 years decided to join up again and go looking.
But are they simply looking for the treasure out of a lust for profit? Maybe, but to me it felt like a lot of the searchers were looking for something else.
In a world that can so often feel meaningless, the Fenn Treasure gives us meaning. Where there are no answers, no explanations, no reasons to our own existence, that Happy Meal box of gold hidden away in the mountains grants those willing to hunt a small dollop of meaning.
To make sure I wasn’t just seeking an answer out of nothingness, I got in touch with Dal Neitzel – one of, if not the most prolific hunter of the Fenn Treasure out there.
Dal, who is a close friend of Forrest’s, runs an incredibly active blog about the treasure, also called The Thrill of the Chase.
Speaking to UNILAD, he said:
I think what motivates me greatest is the fun of the search itself. Sometimes I start out confident that I know exactly where it is hidden…excited that I will soon be nervously opening a bronze chest chock full of gold coins… so spectacularly heavy that I can barely carry it back to my truck.
Other times I feel less confident but excited, because I am going somewhere new surrounded by mountains with the possibility that I might be right.
But what about when you come home empty handed?
Every time I have come back empty handed, but not empty spirited. I have absolutely wonderful treks that are crammed with little adventures. I have walked marvelous American landscapes.
I have slept on the high desert mesa and in river canyons under juniper and pinyon. I have hiked incredible stretches of crystal clear trout streams guarded by tall pine and spruce.
I have been within a few dozen yards of antelope, big horn sheep, elk, mule deer, and bear. I have visited pueblos, plazas, canyons, hilltops, and forests.
I have smelled the desert sage and tasted frito pie. I have been in some of the loveliest country a person can picture. It’s been a wonderful experience and I am grateful that Forrest tempted me…dared me… to go out and find his treasure…The Thrill of the Chase.
I have been out over 70 times now and have no plans to quit.
The thrill of the chase seems to appeal to all of us. However, though the pursuit of the Fenn Treasure will provide some escapism from life, the landscape of the Rockies is murderous.
So far two people have died looking for the treasure, and just last week it emerged another man, Eric Ashby, was presumed dead after his raft flipped while trying to cross the Arkansas River looking for the treasure.
Though Fenn has expressed his sorrow over the deaths, he did argue that ‘Accidents can happen anywhere’.
Personally I like to think that at some point I’ll head out into the Rockies in search of the treasure. I’ll probably come home empty handed, but as Dal says – it’s all in the thrill of the chase.
Joseph Loftus is a Gold Standard NCTJ journalist with four years experience working for international and regional press.
As well as working for UNILAD and LADbible, Joseph has worked as Liverpool Correspondent for Unsigned & Independent Magazine, as well as stints with the Liverpool Echo and Warrington Guardian.