Five things I learned on a $3million treasure hunt
It’s like something out of Indiana Jones.
In 2010, an octogenarian art dealer named Forrest Fenn hid a vast collection of gold coins and valuable artefacts somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The total value of the treasure is estimated to be around $3million.
Fenn got the idea after he was diagnosed with cancer more than two decades before. Having survived the scare, he went on to hide his bounty and write a poem containing nine clues as to its whereabouts.
- Art dealer Forrest Fenn was formerly a pilot in the USAF, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross in the Vietnam War
- Fenn has repeatedly warned not to look for the treasure during wintertime
- There are nine clues as to the treasure’s whereabouts hidden in his 24-line poem (below)
Forrest Fenn’s Poem
Find the nine clues, find the treasure. Simple!
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.
The clues in Fenn’s poem are mostly oblique references to geographical landmarks, including a place ‘where warm waters halt’, a canyon, some ‘heavy loads and waters high’, and a wood. They’re cryptic in the extreme, yet tangible enough to have captured the attention of the world’s press and lured thousands of treasure hunters from across the globe to scour the Wild West.
I am one of those treasure hunters. In 2015, I embarked on a 3,000 mile round trip from Cornwall to New Mexico to spend two weeks in search of hidden treasure, like an idiot might.
Rather than finding my figurative weight in gold I instead stumbled across some metaphorical treasures, like the great outdoors, cheap motel rooms and, on one occasion, fresh bear poo – all of which, it turns out, has no remunerable value.
However, I did learn five valuable lessons…
1. I’m not cut out for adventure
I met Forrest Fenn in the Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe. We sat at a small table where he’d been signing copies of his latest autobiography, and I sipped on a peppermint tea that was, in my humble opinion, roughly 10 degrees above safe consumption temperature.
For a man in his 80s, Fenn is in good shape. He dressed in a blue shirt and denim jeans, brought together by a large, unmistakably Western silver belt buckle. With white-grey hair and an almost-literal twinkle in his eye he came across as half cowboy and half Saint Nick.
He told me about his time as a fighter pilot in Vietnam; about how he got shot down twice during his tour, once on what was supposed to be his last mission.
“What goes through your mind when that happens?” I asked.
“The only thing that goes through your mind is ‘what do I have to do next?’” he replied in a calm Texan drawl. “You can panic afterwards.”
“How did you feel about getting in a plane again?” I slurped on my peppermint tea, burning my mouth, but was brave enough not to show it.
“I was fine with it. I begged for the mission. You don’t want to get shot down on your last mission, so I didn’t have a problem with it.”
It was at this point during the conversation, remembering the Valium I’d thrown back about ten minutes into my flight from Heathrow, that I noticed a fundamental difference between the two of us. Then I blew on my tea. Purposefully. Like a fighter pilot might.
2. I might not be cut out for adventure, but plenty of people are
Before I flew out to the United States I did some research. This is normally what I call looking at Wikipedia before writing an article, but in this case it involved talking to another human being.
The man I spoke to was Shaun Whitehead, someone who’s spent a great deal of time searching for treasure and has dedicated a part of his website to those looking for Fenn’s loot.
Shaun has years of treasure hunting experience. Things he has found include a gold chest, a life-sized solid silver eagle, a silver toad, a golden apple, and a silver plaque of Scotland.
Having set treasure hunts himself, Shaun gave me one great piece of advice before I flew out to New Mexico: “Remember, no one has solved a hunt set by Forrest Fenn,” he said. “You may have a solution you think is brilliant, but that doesn’t mean his clues are.”
3. Strange stories attract strange people
One thing I didn’t expect when trading my desk for adventure was to be involved in an alien, soul-snatching plot. Which, in retrospect, was foolish of me.
Early into my trip I started receiving emails from someone calling themselves ‘White Rock’. White Rock had previously posted a YouTube video suggesting that Forrest Fenn’s hunt was actually a nefarious plot to steal someone’s soul so he could live forever – which seems conceptually quite complicated, but ultimately worthwhile.
White Rock warned that I should only meet Fenn in a public place. He also informed me that the treasure was hidden in a cave that was actually an alien womb, and that if I were to pursue my cause I would, “cross the place where time stops, where the past, present and future lines intersect” and where I would, “start where I have finished but be forever altered.”
You have no idea how hard it is to check if your travel insurance covers this kind of thing.
I mentioned this alien theory to Fenn during our meeting. In fact, I sort of ended up shouting it at him. Not because I was angry at all, but because he was a bit hard of hearing. His response was a thoughtful pause followed by: “Well, I guess now all you need to do is find an alien womb”.
Last I checked White Rock is claiming the treasure is hidden in New Mexico’s breath-taking Ra Paulette caves.
4. Nature is everywhere – and it’s dangerous
It turns out that the Rocky Mountains are full to the brim with nature, and loads of it wants to kill your face off.
From rattlesnakes to mountain lions, I was pretty aware of everything around me that could take my life. That was until I followed a clue to a natural hot spring nestled in the Jemez Mountain range. It was beautiful, and I was not in the least bit put off when I learned that the water could give me meningitis. By this point, I’d given up caring.
My biggest fear, however, was being attacked by a bear – something I’d only previously thought of in the context of stealing picnic baskets. This all changed when, one night over a couple of drinks, a Santa Fe local told me about his friend’s encounter with a bear.
“It just started charging him,” he said, solemnly, capturing the attention of the table.
“So he put two rounds into it with his shotgun. But the bear didn’t stop.”
I blew on my tea.
“It came up on him and my friend knew it was over, so he dropped to his knees and starting praying: ‘Dear God, please make this bear a Christian.’ And then this amazing thing happened. This dazed, gormless look came over the bear, and it dropped to its knees, put its massive paws together and said, ‘Dear God, thank you for this meal I am about to receive.’”
I am yet to verify this story.
5. Your treasure hunt might be a wild goose chase
What’s the worst thing that can happen to you on a treasure hunt? To turn up and find that somebody else has already found the loot. Arguably, that’s worse than getting eaten by a bear or having your soul stolen in an alien cave.
The thing is, several people have claimed to have found Fenn’s bounty, although none have proven so. Some, in the spirit of enterprise, are even selling their solutions online, which is presumably an easier way of earning money than going to fetch it themselves.
As a rule I’d suggest you only head out to find Fenn’s treasure if you’re happy with the prize of exploration. The Jemez Mountains, Bandelier National Monument, The Rio Grande and a host of other locations make New Mexico a great place to visit. Just don’t get lost!