How one man’s quest to find Forrest Fenn’s famed treasure took three years and cost him a bundle (but happily not his marriage)
“For me it was always the thrill of the chase.” –Forrest Fenn
As news broke that Forrest Fenn’s treasure chest had finally been found, a sense of bittersweet relief fell over me. This was because I was one of the people, or “searchers” in Fenn lingo, who scoured the Rocky Mountains for the past few years obsessed with solving one of the biggest mysteries of the 2010s. I tried to decipher the nine clues from a poem contained in Fenn’s 2010 memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase,” that would lead to a 13th-century Romanesque bronze treasure chest filled with over a million dollars worth of gold, jewels, and artifacts that sat there in the forest waiting to be discovered. But now that the search is over I can simply reflect on the three treasure hunting trips where I posed as a sort of dime-store Indiana Jones and survived to tell my tales of absurdity.
When I first heard about the “chase” from my mother-in-law who thought I might like it, I was instantly hooked. The combination of puzzles, history, and adventure hit a nerve I never knew I had. Mostly I stayed at home and liked to watch sports and play video games. I hated camping and I viewed travel as one of life’s big inconveniences. But this, the opportunity to go on a real-life treasure hunt, this is the stuff where your imagination goes wild and takes you to places you never thought possible. My comfort zone had no place here, it was time to get off the couch and go on an adventure.
The irony (or maybe it was stupidity) of it all was that I joined the search in 2017, seven years after the book was initially released. By this time, hundreds of thousands of people had already tried and failed to find the treasure. But I thought I maybe, just maybe, I was smart enough to pull this off. Perhaps the others had missed something or maybe I just had a particular way of looking at things that would lead me to the treasure.
June, 2017: Google it
Using the poem as a guide and Google as, well, Google, I scoured the web for clues and possible patterns that matched up with a location. This brought me to a story about a statue in Butte, Montana that correlated perfectly (at least in my imagination) with Fenn’s own personal story. The statue was conceived by Bob O’Bill in 1979 as a tribute to God following his wife’s recovery from cancer and Fenn decided to hide the treasure after his own miraculous recovery from cancer. So, without a doubt in my mind, I decided this had to be the spot. In hindsight, this couldn’t be looser of a coincidence, but when you’re looking for treasure, things make sense that never made sense before.
I got busted by the maintenance man who offered me some water and a glass of pity.
And with this, I convinced my supporting wife that it was worth hundreds of dollars for us to drop everything and go to Montana to visit the Our Lady of the Rockies statue which sat on a cliff high in the Rocky Mountains. The only way to get there was by tour bus (or by hiking which would simply take forever) and each tour visit was only 45 minutes long, so we took the tour twice. We came home without the treasure, but I was determined that it had to be there, so I flew back the very next day, by myself. OCD much? I hiked six miles by myself on the Continental Divide Trail so I could look around before the tour groups arrived. I climbed rocks where I could have easily broken my neck, I looked under benches and every nook and cranny around the statue before I got busted by the maintenance man who offered me some water and a glass of pity. Despite all that I still came up empty. How could this be? I was so certain, but as I hitched a ride back with a surprised tour group that rolled in while I was there, I knew things were just getting started.
This was when my wife explained to me how confirmation bias related to treasure hunting. The clues in Fenn’s poem are incredibly ambiguous and if you want it bad enough, you can manipulate them to fit whatever “solve” you want. If you read the treasure hunter forums—yes that’s a thing—you will see how many people have the utmost confidence in their solves. Some have even gone so far as to sue Fenn because they were so certain, but didn’t find it. Confirmation bias had me by the balls and wasn’t going to let go any time soon. And to prove it I decided to start thinking outside the box and stop listening to my wife.
July, 2017: Heavy Loads and Water High
My next adventure brought me to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana which featured prominently in Fenn’s book. Armed with the poem and a map I began to look at the street names and noticed they followed a pattern. Begin where warm waters halt equaled where Firehole Avenue ended, Take it in the canyon down meant to take a left on S. Canyon Street, Put in below the home of Brown suggested taking a right on Grizzly Avenue and this continued through the poem’s nine clues. This led me directly to the corner of Electric Street and Faithful Street because Heavy loads and water high all seemed to make sense to me. And so there I was, dressed in baggy green hiking pants, a dingy white thermal, and boots that had never seen the mud, as I turned over rock after rock in front of the Madison Valley Bank like any sane treasure hunting person would do. Mind you, I did this in broad daylight on a Tuesday morning, so why nobody came out and questioned me is anybody’s guess.
It was here that I learned that hunting for treasure can be deadly.
When that didn’t work out (because why would it?) I took my remaining hours in West Yellowstone and adjusted my solve to fit the elk statues outside of the Hibernation Station Cabins around the corner, because, you see, in Fenn’s book one of the drawings looks like two elks fighting, so this must be it, right? It was here that I learned that hunting for treasure can be deadly. While I dug the dirt out beneath the elk statues a truck pulled up and asked what I was doing. “Looking for Fenn’s treasure,” I said like an idiot. The guy got out of his truck and I thought I was in trouble. Instead, he told me he was a reserve for the sheriff’s department and had just helped fish the body of a Fenn searcher out of the river. Surprised, but undeterred, I looked him square in the eyes and smugly said, “There’s no water here, so I think I’ll be good.” He wished me well and was on his way while I put the treasure-less dirt back beneath the statues.
Now I’m not crazy, though you wouldn’t know it here, there’s just something about hunting for treasure that makes people do stupid things and I was just lucky that the places I went were fairly safe. But five searchers died in pursuit of Fenn’s treasure with rumors of even more. Despite all of this, I was sure that if anyone could figure this out, it was me, even if it meant multiple criminal trespassing charges.
August, 2018: Statuary States
Which brought me to the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming. A statue in the middle of the campus lined up perfectly with a different drawing in the book, or so I thought. This drawing featured a Russian hammer and sickle and hidden on the page was a nuclear mushroom cloud that could only be seen if you manipulated the image in Photoshop. How did this relate to the statue? Well, the statue is called the Nuclear Family and was sculpted by none other than Robert Russin. Russin…Russian…get it? Look, I’m not proud of any of this either, just try to keep up.
Since I had introduced technology into the game, I also discovered hidden blacklight messages on the base of the statue that could be seen through a campus webcam. The message was of an owl and an arrow pointing to a spot on the base of the statue. This matched up with the poem’s line If you’ve been wise and found the blaze. Because you know, owls are wise and arrows could be interpreted as a blaze, or marker in hiker lingo.
The statue’s base was made out of solid stone and wasn’t going anywhere.
Of course, the thing I chose to ignore was that Forrest Fenn hid the treasure at 79 years old. Did he really have the wherewithal to put a blacklight message on the base of a statue that would hold up for years? At the time I thought, “Hell yeah, he did,” but now I just want to know what I was smoking back then. Besides, the statue base was made out of solid stone and wasn’t going anywhere no matter how much I may or may not have tried. But hey, at least my neighbor saw me on the statue’s webcam, so I get to hear about it every time he gets drunk.
When that didn’t work out, I crawled under a fence and “visited” an abandoned manufacturing factory on the outskirts of Laramie where I saw two doves from high above in Google Maps. This also matched a dove drawing in the book. But instead of treasure, I found a large, and fortunately vacant, homeless encampment. I then ran as quickly as possible back to my car and drove three miles East to Soldier Spring where I found a rusted-out car and a large pile of tetanus-riddled equipment that I just had to look through. Luckily, I came out unscathed, but this obsession with the hunt had officially gotten ridiculous.
The End of the Road?
When I got home I began more rigorously researching Fenn himself. I needed to get into his head. I joined Ancestry.com and researched his family. I collected every quote he ever said about the treasure. It was here that I learned that in a 2013 interview Fenn said, “No need to dig up the old outhouses, the treasure is not associated with any structure.” Fuck me. Every “clever” trip I had made up to this point involved a structure, but I was the only one in the outhouse with my wife who had grown impatient with my spontaneous vacations.
Humbled by my own failures and a growing credit card debt, it was time to move on before I got myself killed, arrested, or divorced.
And with that my treasure hunting days ended. Humbled by my own failures and a growing credit card debt in the thousands, it was time to move on before I got myself killed, arrested, or divorced. Since then I still armchair treasure hunted and every so often I would find a place on the map that I would mark for the next time when I was in that neighborhood, just to be sure I hadn’t found it.
So when I saw the news that the chest was found I was a bag of mixed emotions. Part of me was just relieved because it’s one of those things that always sits in the back of your mind. Where was the damn thing and how close was I to finding it and changing my life forever? But another part of me was sad because this meant there would be no more trips to find the treasure chest filled with gold in the middle of the forest. The movie had reached the credits and I was just another name among the thousands who came up empty.
In the end though, I’m satisfied with being able to look in the mirror and ask myself, “Who does something like that? Who goes treasure hunting? I do, that’s who.” And in a true twist to the adventure Fenn still hasn’t disclosed the location of where the treasure was found, so I, like so many others, still have a glimmer of hope that maybe the chase will go on—just don’t tell my wife.