I land in Santa Fe at dusk. The sun is falling behind the Jemez Mountains, casting a glow of cotton candy pink and blood-red orange on the scrubby hills with their adobe houses and cottonwood trees. The Navajo Nation and Jicarilla Apache land are to the northwest, and somewhere in that direction, past the Rio Grande and into the Rockies, lies the jackpot: Forrest Fenn’s treasure chest.
It’s a small box. Less than a foot long and a foot wide. Cast in bronze in a Romanesque style, the hidden chest contains an estimated $2 million in gold coins; placer nuggets; a pair of golden frogs; a dragon bracelet with ruby eyes and many diamonds; 254 rubies, six emeralds, two Ceylon sapphires, and more diamonds; numerous other artifacts; and, perhaps most curiously, a 28,000-word manuscript detailing the life and times of Fenn, a wealthy art and antiques dealer, typed by the man himself.
Since he hid these valuables almost a decade ago and wrote a folksy and maddeningly vague poem holding clues about their location, Fenn has vaulted into the national spotlight. Though the true figure is impossible to track, newspapers and other outlets claim that 350,000 Searchers have gone after the trove, trying to solve the puzzle by deciphering the poem as if it were a pirate’s treasure map or a Bible verse pointing to King Solomon’s mines. The difference is that Fenn’s treasure is real, and unlike Blackbeard and other ghosts who took the whereabouts of their fortunes with them, Fenn is now 89, and it’s quite possible that he wants to see his treasure found while he’s still alive.
Fenn’s chest also has the aura of a curse around it. At least four Searchers have died while pursuing it, unfortunates who might have thought they’d cracked the poem, only to slip from a cliff or succumb to the Rio Grande. Meanwhile, Fenn himself has been feted as a cult hero by those seeking his treasure. I plan to embed myself among the most devoted Searchers who have flocked here for their sixth annual gathering—the Fennboree. (The website notes: “This is an opportunity for people actively seeking Mr. Fenn’s treasure to discuss their past hunts, offer advice to new hunters…and boast about how much cleverer they are than everyone else there.”)
But first I have an appointment with Fenn, who’s notorious for tossing out decoys to confuse Searchers about the treasure’s location and keeping tight-lipped about its whereabouts. My ambition is to shake a new clue loose from him. It’s probably a foolish hope, but given his age and frailty, I’m hoping Fenn will slip up. Maybe he wants to, even.
…I HAVE GONE ALONE IN THERE
The morning is hot and bone-dry. I follow the directions Fenn has given me to his home, driving past the town’s quaint Spanish plaza where shops hawk feathered headdresses, Indian blankets, and turquoise trinkets. Outside the main square, I turn left on Old Santa Fe Trail, passing the quirky art and antiques gallery that Fenn once owned and that he expanded over the years to generate his fortune. The large adobe was a compound of sorts, with three guesthouses he used to host clients like Jackie Onassis, Robert Redford, and Cher.
In Santa Fe, Fenn has the reputation of a showman, an eccentric Barnum who migrated here with his family in the early 1970s to seek his own treasure. “Santa Fe was the only place I knew where I could wear Hush Puppies and blue jeans and make a living,” he told a reporter four years ago.
Back then, he didn’t know anything about art. “I never studied art, didn’t own a painting and didn’t know anybody who did,” he explained in a 1986 People magazine article. He didn’t much like the paintings he sold. “I’m not particularly into art,” he admitted. “Art is a business, and what I love is the business.”
Around town, other dealers sneered at his hucksterism, chiding him for openly selling fakes, namely the work of the master forger Elmyr de Hory. To Fenn, authenticity was subjective, and the secret to success in his world was perception. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” he liked to say. “It only matters who they think you are.”
…WHERE WARM WATERS HALT
I buzz the gate, and a pair of white doors swing open. I follow a pebble path toward the house—and a recent crime scene. The ongoing quest for the loot has turned Fenn, his family, and his home into targets. Several months before my visit, officers from the Santa Fe Police Department arrived here to arrest Robert Miller, a treasure hunter from Pennsylvania, for shattering a back gate with an ax and breaking in.
“I thought the poem directed me into here,” Miller told the officers, who recorded the encounter.
“Poem?” one cop asked. “You came onto the property because of a poem?”
“I thought I had it figured out,” Miller said.
“Are you serious,” the cop exclaimed, “that’s burglary, dude,” and whisked him away in a patrol car.
On this day, Fenn’s outline fills the doorframe, and he beckons me inside. A large turquoise belt buckle holds up his dark-blue jeans, and wisps of feathery white hair fall from underneath a tall and floppy cowboy hat. Santa Fe’s John Wayne.
Inside the house, his wife and high school sweetheart, Peggy, is in the kitchen, and his daughters are prepping lunch. I follow Fenn as he shuffles into his studio, a lair that could double as a wing of the Smithsonian. The ceilings are high, and dramatic light hits walls festooned with Indian hatchets and moccasins and dolls and cow skulls and books. In total, he has more than 2,000 artifacts. “I’m nostalgic,” he says. “I love history. I like the past. I like to relive some of the things that were…” He trails off and points toward the far bookshelf. “You see that football over there on the bottom shelf?”
My eyes follow his finger.
“With that very football, I made a wonderful dash for one yard across the scrimmage line and made a touchdown,” he says, lighting up at the memory and almost expecting applause. Considering all the priceless artifacts in the room—Sitting Bull’s peace pipe is around here somewhere—the old football is an unusual object for him to single out.
Alone in his inner sanctum, Fenn becomes introspective and expansive. “I’ve always enjoyed feeling sorry for myself,” he says. “I try to avoid those who distract me from my self-esteem, and I try to remember in the many football fields of my life what I did in those things.”
Fenn’s obsession with personal memory, to the point of almost living inside those mental postcards from his youth, strikes me as critical to my springing a clue from him. After all, Fenn never planned to create an international phenomenon by hiding the treasure and penning his poem. He was planning to commit suicide.
THE END IS EVER DRAWING NIGH
“I was going to die, and I started making plans,” Fenn tells me. He is referring to the discovery of cancer in his kidney in 1988, which led him to begin writing his poem. The illness was far enough along that a pair of doctors gave him a 20 percent survival rate.
“Not that good,” Fenn states.
Nor was the timing, he explains. Only two years before, William Marvin Fenn Sr., his father, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Talking about his dad triggers more memories for Fenn. “I remember we’d go to [West] Yellowstone every summer,” he says. “My father got three months off and had a cabin up there.” The Fenns lived in Temple, a Texas town between Austin and Dallas. Fenn’s father worked as the school principal, scraping together a living to support his family. “We weren’t poor; we just never had any money,” Fenn recalls.
His father’s job was problematic for Fenn, who was a terrible and mischievous student. The spankings he received from his father were constant, and he must have felt embarrassed over his poor grades and bad behavior. The summers in West Yellowstone with his father, though, were different—a relief from punishment and a chance for Fenn, then known in the family as Bubba, to earn his father’s affection by sharing a pastime with him: fly-fishing.
“I can’t tell you how many times I couldn’t wait to get out on the river,” he tells me. As a teen, he became so talented at tying flies and locating fish in the streams of Yellowstone that he earned pocket money as a guide during the summers. In photos, he and his father proudly display the trout they’ve caught, which the family would later cook for dinner. Father and son shared this passion well into their later years.
Then the elder Fenn killed himself. Instead of going to the hospital for treatment of his pancreatic cancer, he overdosed on sleeping pills and ended his life.
Fenn admired his father for going out his own way. When he learned of his kidney cancer, Fenn planned the same path—sort of. He chose a final resting place that was dear to him, and in a twist more fit for an Egyptian pharaoh, he gathered some of his most beloved artifacts, typed out a manuscript recounting his life, then put it all in a bronze chest. The cache would be buried with his bones. He also wrote a poem with nine clues that would reveal his tomb’s location.
Then something unexpected happened: He got better. He beat cancer. But he was so enamored with hiding the treasure and having people hunt for it that he decided to bury the booty anyway, in the location he’d chosen for his grave.
“If you find the treasure chest,” he says, “and you put it on your lap and raise that lid, one of two things is going to happen. You’re either going to start laughing or you’re just going to lean back and gulp. I mean, it’s very visual.”
“There are 265 gold coins in there,” he goes on. “Mostly Eagles and Double Eagles, some Middle Eastern coins dated in 1500 that are gold or gold washed, two little ancient Chinese carved faces that are the most wonderful things in the world. I gave a bunch of money for those two little things. Not only is the jade wonderful, but the carvings, too.”
• Estimated amount spent on the Chase: $50,000
• Estimated hours: Thousands
• Estimated years: 5.5
A former sales and marketing representative for newspapers and radio, 50-year-old Jamie “jdiggins” Jourdan has 20 BOTGBs under her belt. She moved with her husband to Edgewood, New Mexico, after a wildfire consumed their home in Mendocino County, California. Fenn himself put up a prize, and with the help of the Chase community and others, jdiggins and her husband raised $59,000 as a recovery fund. Her search area is Colorado—“because that’s where the treasure is!” she says. She’s especially drawn to the clues hidden in Fenn’s verse. “[It’s] an innate pirate gene I must have,” she explains. “But seriously, it’s the poem. Gotta solve that poem!”
…HEAVY LOADS AND WATER HIGH
The root of obsession in this hunt—the beginning of the spiral that sends Searchers into the mountains of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico—is the damn poem. The colloquial tone is somehow familiar and deceivingly simple. Surely, you think, after you read it for the dozenth time, I can figure this thing out. Then you realize that the words Fenn used are frustratingly vague: Tarry scant with marvel gaze?
“All you need is a good map and the poem to find the treasure,” Fenn has insisted.
At some point, you need to assume a level of trust in Fenn to believe that the necessary clues are in his poem, and another, deeper level of faith to believe that a retired huckster of fake art has actually hidden a $2 million treasure.
I ask him about the tragedies. Four deaths. Does he have any regrets?
“We’ve had a couple of losses,” he says. But looking at the whole picture, he sees a balance. “I’ve had nine people tell me they were minutes away from suicide and they heard about my treasure. Now they’re out looking. They’ve got hope.”
Not me. Not yet. Fenn agreed to speak with me for an hour, and we’ve gone well beyond that. I have to push him to reveal a clue. Fast, before our time runs out. Recently, Fenn gave an interview in which he claimed he was “umbilically” tied to the treasure’s location. Maybe hinting of a familial tie?
“What do you mean,” I ask him, “by umbilically?”
“It means so much to me,” he says. “Don’t you have a place that you really revere that you would like to go back to?”
Hmm. I ask him about his favorite fishing stream. If I were to fish in Yellowstone, I say, where would he guide me?
“Don’t do it,” he cautions. “You can’t learn to fly-fish out on the river. You’ll waste your time, and you’ll waste your money. But go out there anyway. Take a sandwich, a Coca-Cola, and a bag of Fritos and sit under the tree. I can tell you exactly where to go.”
“I can show you. I’ve got a map. Would you like to look at that on a map?”
“Let’s go in my kitchen,” he says. I follow him from the study to a wooden breakfast table. He unfurls the map. He spreads it out, licks his finger, and proceeds to slowly trace the route to a place dear to him—pinpointing its exact location. This is a path to hallowed grounds, and one he’s likely never shared before.
• Estimated amount spent on the Chase: $20,000
• Estimated hours: 87,600
• Estimated years: 8 years
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it just a little bit,” says 70-year-old Peter “Capt. Pappy” Pappas, a trained social worker and former judo and wrestling coach from Caldwell, Idaho. Since he learned about the treasure in 2011, Pappas and his poodle, Billybobs, have made 58 BOTGB trips. Find him in West Yellowstone looking for Fenn’s secret fishing holes. “It’s performance art at the highest level,” Capt. Pappy says. “I want to be part of the art.”
…TAKE THE CHEST AND GO IN PEACE
I walk out of the house. The Santa Fe sun is shimmering, and I can’t believe my luck. During our kitchen table session, Fenn offered me coordinates, pointed out their location on his map, even told me where to park my car. I’m giddy and shaking. Well, that was easy, I think. Guess the old fellow wants his treasure found after all. But then doubt sets in. Maybe the clue Fenn gave me was a ruse? A decoy? Or nothing at all.
I pull out of the driveway and head into the hills to Hyde Memorial State Park, the headquarters for this year’s Fennboree. I set up my tent and soon enough find the cars and RVs and pickups parked near the campsite pavilion. Their license plates are from all over: Washington, Florida, Virginia. At the picnic tables, the crowd is a mix of cowboy hats and sequined hats, camouflage pants and dangling smokes, and everyone is dizzy with Fenn fever.
“We don’t talk outside world; we talk Fenn,” says Jamie Jourdan, a.k.a. jdiggins. She helped resurrect the annual Golden Fenn shrine. (“Leave anything and everything that might please Golden Fenn, and perhaps induce Him to shower down upon you treasure-finding inspiration,” read the instructions.)
Among the faithful, Fenn is not an old art salesman. He is a living messiah who has injected a sense of belief and wonder into what is for some an otherwise drab and unfair existence. His likeness is printed on T-shirts, and his favorite drink (Grapette soda) and food (fried pineapple pie) are well-known. Fenn has succeeded (inadvertently) where so many other cult leaders have failed: building a robust community and keeping it going strong, uniting family members, sparking love affairs, and creating a meaningful and fun distraction from life’s humdrum.
“I guess you could say we’re like a religious cult,” explains Amy Whitledge, a biology researcher from Denver. Even though her doctors recommended she skip the gathering, she wouldn’t miss it for the world. “We have people that build a shrine to Forrest and think he’s our symbol of the Master Planner.” She exclaims, “Look at all these wonderful people, in search of something!”
Among the Searchers, there are codes and levels. There’s BOTGB, which means Boots on the Ground, Baby, a term for actual hunts. Whitledge is an Arm Chair, or a pondering Searcher who has yet to physically look for the treasure. I realize that I, too, am still only an Arm Chair. Compared with others who have spent tens of thousands of dollars and years out in the field, I feel a touch inadequate. But many are supportive and helpful. I’m enjoying myself, and after the 14th conversation about what Fenn may have meant by umbilically, I’m starting to fit right in.
…WHY IS IT THAT I MUST GO
It’s getting dark, and I need more allies, veterans of the Chase who can maybe support (or reject) the clue to the treasure’s location that Fenn may have given me back in his kitchen. But here’s the problem with the Fenn community: all are united in obsession with the Chase and divided in their personal quests to find the treasure. The conversations and relationships only go so deep. Sooner or later, one wants to know where the other is looking. “Well, I can’t talk about it” is how the exchange normally ends.
I find myself spending the most time with Dal Neitzel, Capt. Pappy, and Iron Will. Neitzel, from Washington, was a treasure hunter who specialized in digging up old shipwrecks. He’s been BOTGB more than 70 times and is convinced that the treasure’s location is rooted in Fenn’s past. “It’s all about family and memories,” Neitzel says.
“It’s performance art at the highest level,” says Capt. Pappy, who wears a blue sailor’s cap. A trained social worker and former judo coach, Capt. Pappy joined the Chase in the wake of a personal disaster. He sold his home after a messy divorce, rented an RV, and has racked up 58 BOTGB expeditions. Like Neitzel’s, Capt. Pappy’s approach involves tracing the fishing streams of Fenn’s youth.
“Think about it,” Capt. Pappy says. “He was no good in school, probably had a learning disability before they called them those back then. His father was his principal. You know there’s friction there. The only way Fenn, as a kid, could get the love of his father was fishing. He was a good fisherman. Those must have been his best memories.”
“I was there,” Iron Will tells me, claiming that his Solve led him to the one-bedroom house that Fenn’s father rented during those summers in West Yellowstone, the Montana town located opposite the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Iron Will believes that Fenn now owns the property. If true, it’s a legal technicality that would allow the finder to keep the treasure instead of surrendering it to the feds or a state agency.
Neitzel, Capt. Pappy, and Iron Will have something else in common. All three are searching near West Yellowstone, an area that also happens to include the place that Fenn revealed to me on his map: his old swimming hole.
THE ANSWERS I ALREADY KNOW
Later that night, after the fire at the pit has died down and the last margaritas are gone, I retire to my tent and go over the directions Fenn gave on his map. “You turn off on that road, but you don’t take the Baker’s Hole road,” he said, tracing the road on the map with his finger. “You keep going straight down, where we used to swim.”
He was specific: “Go there, park your car there. Then walk through the willows around to the right. There’s a big bend that goes back to Baker’s Hole. It’s just about an eighth of a mile away, and there’s water there. You’ll probably see moose across the river there eating the willows.”
I was listening carefully, scribbling in my notebook.
“Sit under a tree and eat your sandwich,” he said. “Sit there for an hour and watch the eagles and the ospreys and the fish rising for mosquitoes or mayflies or caddis.”
I don’t know why I asked Fenn if I should bring a swimming suit. But I did.
“Everybody took a suit, and the girls were going to the willows and would change suits,” he said. “But the water is cold. It’s good for about 10 minutes. Then you’re looking for a place in the sun.”
• Estimated amount spent on the Chase: $20,000
• Estimated hours: 2,000
• Estimated years: 5
An operator and supervisor at an army ammunition plant, 50-year-old Will “Iron Will” Carter, of Radford, Virginia, is confident and resourceful. Currently he is plowing through property and company records to connect Fenn with land he might own in Montana. Iron Will’s mother created scavenger hunts around the house for him while he was growing up, and he always found the Solve. “I was born for this,” he says.
…HEAR ME ALL AND LISTEN GOOD
After the Fennboree, I return home to piece together my first Solve. The route that Fenn gave me to his old swimming hole matches lines in the poem. Walking around those willows at Baker’s Hole could refer to “The end is ever drawing nigh”—“nigh” can mean to the left, where the Madison River would be. Even more interesting, the Madison is a river that flows upstream from Madison Junction, an area of Yellowstone National Park where the warmer Gibbon and Firehole Rivers meet, which would satisfy the phrase “where warm waters halt.”
Madison Junction would be—and has been for many—an ideal place to start a first BOTGB. If I were to follow the river from the Wyoming border toward West Yellowstone, it would take me through a canyon, setting up the next clue in Fenn’s poem: “take it in the canyon down.” From there, Fenn writes, the treasure is “not far, but too far to walk.” I check the map, and Baker’s Hole is 17.4 miles down the river canyon. Too far to walk, but an easy, scenic drive from Madison Junction.
I look at the map again. The Madison River runs along Route 191. Baker’s Hole is also off Route 191. Was it possible that when he hid the treasure, Fenn was literally driving down memory lane, following the road he and his father used to take from the national park back to their cabin in West Yellowstone? The same road that they would maybe veer off for a summer dip?
What’s more, the water at Baker’s Hole, Fenn told me, was cold, just like in his poem: “Your effort will be worth the cold.”
But I still need a solution for the next clue in the poem: “Put in below the home of Brown.” Where was the home of Brown? I call the public library in West Yellowstone, hoping it might have a phone book from the 1940s or ’50s, when the Fenn family was summering there. Surely some Browns would be listed.
“You looking for Fenn’s treasure?” the librarian asks.
“How’d you know?”
“You’re, like, the eighth person who’s called today,” she says.
Forget Brown, I tell myself. Fenn has already told me where to go. I’m tempted to check the swimming hole theory with an experienced Searcher. Dal Neitzel lit out for West Yellowstone after the Fennboree, planning to search there for the rest of the summer. Iron Will, too, told me he would be returning to West Yellowstone in the coming days. I get in touch with Capt. Pappy.
“You ever been Boots on the Ground yet?” he asks.
“Not yet,” I say.
“It changes everything,” he warns. “Once you get to Montana or wherever you go and start looking, you realize you’re in trouble. I mean, you’re out there in the woods with the grizzlies around, and it hits you: I have to cover all this ground looking for a 10-by-10 box!”
I want to share my Baker’s Hole tip with Capt. Pappy, but he’s about to head to West Yellowstone too, and he tells me where he’s looking. I check it out on the map: it’s less than a mile from where young Fenn went to swim in Baker’s Hole! Like so many of the Fenn faithful, I’ve become caught in a bear trap of wonder and obsession. I wish Capt. Pappy luck and realize that it did not take long. I had become one of them, and only a streak of luck—or faith—would steer me straight.
I GIVE YOU TITLE TO THE GOLD
The path was clear. I’d have to work alone, and I knew what to do. I’d follow the roads to Baker’s Hole, just like the Golden Fenn God had told me, and I’d trace the footsteps of his past and enter those football fields of his youth. I’d bring a Coke and a bag of Fritos and a sandwich, sit under a tree, and watch the ospreys dive. The treasure would be just around the bend to the right and on through the willows.
Boots on the Ground, Baby.
In 2010, Forrest Fenn completed a 24-line poem that he says contains nine clues that point to the location of his 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.
• Size: 10 x 10 x 5 in.
• Weight: 42 lb.
• Material: Bronze
• Crafted: 11th–12th century
• Contents: Gold coins, gold nuggets, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, carved jade, and a 28,000-word manuscript
• Estimated value: $2 million
Those seeking Fenn’s treasure have their own vocabulary. Some useful terms:
• Searcher: A fellow treasure hunter.
• The Chase: What Searchers call the hunt for Fenn’s treasure.
• Arm Chair: A Searcher who has not yet gone BOTGB.
• BOTGB: Boots on the Ground, Baby. Chase-talk for the physical act of looking for the treasure.
• PP: Poetry Purist. A Searcher who believes that the poem contains all the clues needed to find the treasure.
• A Solve: A Searcher’s theory about the meaning of a clue.
• WWWH: Acronym for the line in the poem “where warm waters halt.”
There’s an item Fenn regrets placing in the treasure chest: a silver bracelet made from 22 turquoise beads discovered in 1888 at the Colorado archaeological site Mesa Verde, and that Fenn claims to have won in a pool game. He has offered to buy it back from its finder.
Fenn also hid a number of waterproof glass containers.
• Each contains: Small brass bells, some of which are inscribed with the words “imagination is more important than knowlege [sic],” and a copy of Fenn’s autobiography.
• Location: Buried in the mountains and the desert.
• Purpose: “Some romantic historian will happen upon them in the year 12,016 and think Forrest Fenn was not just a passerby to life,” Fenn says.
At least four people have died while searching for Fenn’s treasure.
• Jeff Murphy: Fell from a 500-foot cliff in Yellowstone National Park, Montana, June 2017.
• Eric Ashby: Drowned in Arkansas River, Colorado, June 2017.
• Pastor Paris Wallace: Drowned in the Rio Grande, New Mexico, June 2017.
• Randy Bilyeu: Died, likely from hypothermia or dehydration, near Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico. Reported missing January 2016; body recovered July 2016.
• 42,000,000:1 of winning California SuperLotto Plus
• 5,000:1 of the treasure ever being found, according to Michael “the Wizard” Kipness