Travel Features


Unraveling the clues to finding Forrest Fenn’s hidden stash.


The way Forrest Fenn puts it, the treasure chest includes: 265 gold coins; nuggets; a Spanish 17th-century gold ring with a large emerald; necklaces; and a Navajo bracelet that Richard Wetherill, the controversial cowboy, explorer and trader credited with discovering Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace, sold to hotel legend Fred Harvey in 1901.

“I won it playing pool with Byron Harvey,” Fenn says.

Inside his memoir, you will find a 24-line poem that includes nine clues, which, Fenn writes, “if followed precisely, will lead to the end of my rainbow and the treasure....” Other clues can be found in the memoir’s text, he says.

Thus began the latest chapter of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Fenn, 82, has received roughly 6,000 e-mails from treasure hunters and wannabe treasure hunters. He has attracted media attention from across the world. He has ticked off at least one neighbor and plenty of treasure hunters who have complained that the treasure is too hard to find.

“I never said it was easy,” Fenn says.

Fenn’s neighbor called him recently. “It was not a social call,” says the Santa Fe, New Mexico, collector, author and entrepreneur whom Newsweek calls a “real-life Indiana Jones.” Seems some guys were digging up her front yard looking for Fenn’s treasure. “Tell them,” Fenn told his neighbor, “that the treasure is not in your front yard.”

And people have complained that Fenn never gives any clues to where it might be? Well, you can now strike out his neighbor’s front yard.

Besides, Fenn has said that the treasure is in the mountains somewhere north of Santa Fe. He has also said it’s more than 300 miles west of Toledo, Ohio. And, pssst, when I interviewed him at his home in December, he gave me another clue. “It’s not in Nevada.”

In 2010, Fenn published a memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, available exclusively through Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the memoir, he wrote that he had filled a cast-bronze chest (probably a Romanesque lockbox from around 1150 A.D.) with treasure. “Everything’s a treasure to me,” says Fenn, who collects goods that range from rare books to Western and Indian artifacts to “weird-looking rocks.”

“I keep things I love,” says Fenn, but he decided to part with some things, to provide adventure seekers with the thrill of a chase.

Nor has he put a price tag on the treasure, but various reports have estimated its value at $1 million, $2 million or $3 million.

“When it gets to $10 million,” Fenn says, “I’m going to go back and get it.”

The odds of finding that treasure might be slim, but Fenn knows all about defying odds.

He grew up in Texas, but spent many summers with his school-principal father in Yellowstone National Park until he considered himself “a 19-year-old lank without discipline, focus or cause.” He joined the Air Force when the Korean War broke out, became a pilot and found himself in Germany flying in a F-100C “with an atomic bomb under my wing.” By the time Vietnam came along, he was a major and a fighter pilot. While he was in Vietnam, he was shot down twice. After leaving the Air Force, he moved his family to Santa Fe and started an art gallery.

At age 58, Fenn was diagnosed with cancer. A one-hour surgery turned into five hours, and afterward he was given a 20 percent chance of living three years. “That’s a pretty eye-opening diagnosis,” he says.

He survived that scare, too. Some 20 years later, Fenn decided to hide a box filled with assorted treasures, to give other people the thrill of the chase.

“My family’s taken care of; I’ve had so much fun collecting this junk, and I always loved the outdoors,” he says. “I wanted to get some people off the couch and out in the woods. The greatest thrill to me is to be walking in the woods and come across something absolutely wonderful—like two porcupines playing with each other in Yellowstone.”

So who’s looking for his treasure?

“My audience is every redneck with a pickup truck,” Fenn says. “Maybe he’s lost his job, has six kids to feed, has a sleeping bag and likes adventure.”

Actually, some treasure hunters are a far cry from that description, with one exception: They love...

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