My writer friend Phaedra says we have to go out and look for Forrest Fenn’s treasure, or how can I write about it? “No waaaay,” I say.
The truth is I’m quite good at getting lost, and treasure hunting would only exacerbate my basic condition. I don’t admit to her that just the day before I’d hiked twenty-plus miles, most of it lost, and came out in the dark. On past excursions, posses have gathered in my name, which is just so ridiculous because I always made it out on my own. A map may have been helpful.
Stories, like maps, also help us to chart our course, and in the case of the $3 million treasure chest Fenn has hidden, the intrigue involves perspectives that are both literal and literary. The small Roman brass chest itself is nearly 1000 years old itself, and the trove is incredible, containing assorted riches, mostly gold, with gold dust, nuggets the size of hen’s eggs, sapphires, rubies, and a heaping of other riches including a bracelet Fenn loved wearing that he would like to buy back. It has historical and sentimental significance, not the least of which is he won it in a poker game.
Fenn has published maps of its location but the de facto map in his second memoir Too Far Too Walk doesn’t exactly mark the spot, and the map includes a lot of mountains, like great swaths of the Rockies (the treasure lies at over 5,000 feet). The original nine clues which appear in a poem in his earlier book The Thrill of the Chase constitute a more literary type of map, requiring seekers to decode language. Though other clues have emerged and other hints might be found between the lines of his stories, here’s a sample stanza:
Begin it where warm waters halt
And take it in the canyons down.
Not far, but too far to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.
Many people (some 35,000 at Fenn’s estimate) are up for the game, while others are armchair travelers, mere hangers-on. Like me. To my way of thinking, Fenn’s life stories are treasure enough, so I would be inclined to just tell lies (another form of story) about the treasure’s whereabouts over drinks, preferably a “Thrill of the Chase” cocktail (rum, vermouth, Amaretto and gold flakes) at Santa Fe’s Loretto Inn.
The hunt has turned into a cottage industry. And why shouldn’t it? Hiders and seekers have long been part of New Mexico history. Think of the Spanish Entrada, a desire for gold fueled by the Cities of Gold saga. Think of hippies and seekers and Sikhs. Think of our very own Los Alamos (aka the Secret City), or the Navajo Code Talkers, whose codes were never broken. Even if you’re not sure what your hungry heart is missing, the mountains of northern New Mexico remain a great place to look. And where I think it’s at.
A reasonable place to start out is with the terrain of language itself. Take Forrest Fenn for example. There’s Forrest as in forest, and Fenn as in fen, meaning a moor or meadow. Look it up. Fenn loves looking stuff up, and then messing it up. Who would use a word like “articulancy,” a word that clarificates even as it obfuscates.
One of Fenn’s friends, Douglas Preston, has written a novel based on the treasure called The Codex. He is one of the few people who has actually seen the 42-pound treasure chest, pre-hiding, and when he saw it Fenn says he stood back and laughed. Like the performance artist that I take Fenn for, the entire thing seems designed to make the reader think, the viewer gasp, and the seeker to desire and search for an amazing body of art, and to construct their own experience around it. The treasure might soon be found or…not. Fenn has reason to believe people have been within 500 feet of it. I imagine a faraway future in which some lost soul trips over the box (by then covered with pine needles) swears, and wonders what the heck it is.
Some of us don’t lack for imagination. Most folks are intrigued by the “what” of the story, followed by the “where,” but not me. It’s always about the “why.”
Why would someone presumably decide to give away some of their dearest (and most expensive) possessions? I need more clues.
I go in search of Forrest Fenn.
I find him, first, on the internet and in his books, then at home in Santa Fe. It is unsurprising that a man who admits to having “lived a charmed life” is surrounded by a beautiful family and astonishing art and artifacts, which speak of a former art dealer. But it is the possession of the kinds of books—and stories—Fenn has that constitute the greatest surprise, a kind of testament to a life writ large.
The kid Forrest Fenn loved adventure stories; now his life reads like one. He also loved collecting stuff. Fenn explains that his father took him out hunting for arrowheads. “Grab every banana,” was his father’s philosophy, which translates loosely into, “Don’t let life go by.” His luck and pluck may have prepared him for his career as a fighter pilot. In the Vietnam War, he did 328 runs in 348 days and was shot down (twice). His wife was informed that no parachute was seen.
But he dodged that bullet and was rescued. He and Peggy, his wife of 60 years, moved from Texas to Santa Fe and ran an art gallery for 17 years. Besides various objets d’art and Native American artifacts, they garnered clients and friends along the way, the likes of Jackie Kennedy and fashion designer Ralph Lauren—and more stories, of course. One was about Ralph Lauren, which started the whole treasure thing. The famous designer was intent on buying a particular Sioux bonnet that Fenn didn’t want to sell. As legend has it, when Lauren said, “Well, you can’t take it with you,” Fenn famously replied, “Then I’m not going.”
What Lauren did not know was that Fenn had just been handed a death sentence: his odds of surviving cancer were one in twenty. Fenn decided, as his father essentially had, to plan his own exit strategy. He began scheming about filling a very old Roman chest with a trove to dazzle whoever found it, one that might mirror the richness in his own life. He could hide it somewhere very beautiful—a good place to die. No last scene from a hospital bed. He could imagine himself draped over that chest at last gasp.
They sold the gallery, but the plot was foiled, says he, because he didn’t die. Another bullet dodged.
He still planned to hide the treasure, but with no rush, it took awhile—until he was about 80. In those last three years, the Forest Service has taken to issuing warnings about people who are dumb enough to go out alone, without proper footwear or maps (who would do that?). Nobody’s dead yet, least of all the Mighty Fenn. One seeker tried to dig under a descanso, another got lost, and one got scuba gear and walked along a lake bottom. One Chicago family has come out to look for it 14 times.
Mostly, though, Fenn says that seekers express their gratitude for the metaphorical treasures they’ve found—adventures and newly reconnected relationships—on the way to finding no material treasure whatsoever.
The canny Fenn holds his clues close to his chest, though he has made some clarifications and slipped a few hints in between the lines of the everyday and over-the-top stories that constitute his memoirs. Like the anachronistic (and even anarchist) nature writer Ed Abbey, he has figured out how to get people off their, um, couches and into the wild. In true Abbey-esque fashion, he says, “Why shouldn’t I make my own rules?”
The rules of the game are often cryptic, but for the treasure’s myriad seekers, it’s still about the chase. I was surprised to find out that my 23-year-old son Tobin had read The Thrill and said, “Maybe we should go look.” Why should I be surprised? As a kid, we always had to pull off the road in search of some geocache.
I sagely pointed out that we’d never find it. He said “that’s not the point,” but I think he’s a true believer. Anyway, he’s fun to pack with, and if he finds it, I expect him to share it with me. I began to fantasize about summer trips and cool mountain passes, long lonely canyons, and places where “warm waters halt.” I wonder who or what the “house of Brown” means. For my son it probably means “brown ale.”
The mystery deepens. Nothing to do but keep on searching.
Michele Potter PhD has lived in Taos for 17 years and teaches at Taos Ski Valley in the winter.
This article appeared on page 14 in HighCountry 2014.