“All of the stories that mingle among these pages are as true to history as one man can average out that truth, considering the fact that one of my natural instincts is to embellish just a little. Nevertheless, the story about my treasure chest is true, and if it doesn’t stir your spirit then I hope at least it brings a smile in one of your dreams.”
— Forrest Fenn, The Thrill of the Chase
The story of Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure began with words on a page in 2010 and a poem subject to interpretation. By its end a decade later, thousands—possibly hundreds of thousands—of people had searched for gold (metaphoric and otherwise) in the wilderness. Along the way, outlandish rumors grew, lives were lost and questions, not to mention litigation, mounted. Fenn took the answers to some of those questions with him when he died last September at the age of 90, just a few months after revealing someone had finally tracked down his secret trove.
Initially, Fenn didn’t want to pen The Thrill of the Chase himself, but he couldn’t interest any of his Santa Fe writer friends in the task. Reading JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye changed his mind, he told SFR in 2018. “I read that one and I thought ‘That is such a simple book,’ I said, ‘I can do that.’”
Journalist Daniel Barbarisi already planned to write a book about the treasure hunt when he sat down with Fenn for his own interview, but Barbarisi also wanted to experience the thrill of the chase. His own quest, starting in 2017, provides the narrative spine for his book, out this week: Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt.
One might think nothing remained to say about Fenn’s treasure hunt. One would be wrong. Barbarisi provides both new detail, depth and context to a story he says may not be quite over. “I think there are enough people scratching at it and digging at it who really want every bit of information still that this story is going to continue for a while,” Barbarisi tells SFR. “It’s mostly over, but it’s not 100% over yet.”
This week, SFR presents an excerpt from Chasing the Thrill, accompanied by an interview with Barbarisi, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and senior editor at The Athletic (Barbarisi’s first book, Dueling with Kings, looks at the inside world of the daily fantasy sports industry). The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
SFR: Did you have any idea how complicated and bizarre this story would end up being?
Daniel Barbarisi: No, I really did not. I think that from the very first note I heard about it in 2017, I was first of all shocked that it existed at all, and even more stunned that it had escaped my notice for seven years; the idea of a treasure hunt existing in the real world blew my mind. Once I knew that had happened and was happening, I said, ‘I have to get inside this thing. I have to be a part of this and tell the story of it,’ but I definitely did not understand what a complex and multilayered story it was and even in some ways continues to be.
You begin the book and continue throughout providing historical context for treasure hunting, all the way back to the start of civilization. What conclusions did you reach about its appeal to people? Is it something built in our DNA that we want to find hidden stuff, trace hidden stories?
I think that is a big part of it. We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Everyone wants the value of the treasure, of course, but I think a lot of treasure’s allure is a chance to be a part of history and part of a bigger story.
During your first interview with Forrest Fenn, you talked with him about that idea of legacy, and he seemed annoyed by that line of inquiry. But now that the hunt is over and he’s gone, what do you think his legacy is or will be?
He was very averse to the idea that this was about him in any way. He liked to say it was about getting people off their couch. I’m sure there was an element of that, absolutely, but I think it’s hard to say this treasure hunt was not also about him and the legacy he did want to leave, and the things he wanted people to think about and believe in. I think his legacy is certainly going to be as someone that created something that had value and it made people do a lot of things. It’s very hard to say it was a universal good or a universal evil. I don’t think it was either of those things. There were good things about it and there were things it made people do that were not so good. Those are all wrapped up in what he created and in his own legacy as well. I don’t think there’s any way at this point that you can divorce the two.
For many of the hunters, Fenn looms as this larger-than-life figure. What do you think their reverence of Fenn revealed?
He certainly set himself up as that godlike figure. And in so many ways, he was larger than life. The guy’s story was great: from fighter pilot to art dealer to all the people he hobnobbed with to this guy who decides he’s going to do what seems like this crazy lark. Fenn was so good at packaging himself. He’s so expert at telling his own story, and you tell your own story enough times it becomes the story, and then everyone wants to be part of that story and be close to the figure in it. Fenn’s hunt is so much about Fenn. You can’t solve it without knowing about Fenn and learning everything about him and making him into a part of your life. It’s not just about walking into the wilderness and finding a box.
You dig into Fenn’s excavation of the San Lazaro Pueblo, and his approach in general to artifacts, which has wrought a great deal of division in the archaeology community and beyond. Did you reach a conclusion on his methods?
I don’t know if I reached a conclusion of any certainty. I think a lot of people have a lot of opinions on it. Whether it’s a question of whether some things he did [that are not] acceptable now were acceptable then, and to what extent he did those things. Certainly, the things he was accused of when the [Bureau of Land Management] and the FBI raided his house [in 2009], I think, that was not there to the extent they thought it was. The question of what he was doing in the 1960s…even the early ’70s, those are absolutely areas worthy of exploration and I think there’s a lot of questions to be had about those things.
Did any of the folks searching for the treasure care about those issues?
Honestly, no. I don’t think most of them cared about that one bit. I think in a lot of ways that made him seem a little more roguish and more of a guy who explored and found and did what he wanted.
The internet plays a huge role in Fenn’s treasure hunt: the blogs, the videos. Is it safe to say the chase wouldn’t have evolved into such a phenomena without it? Did it serve it or hurt it?
I think there’s no question it would not have been as big without the internet. It allowed hunters to coalesce into a community…and that does take it to another level. The ability for people to look up things on Google maps, go down internet rabbit holes, explore random theories about figures from the 1870s and whether that might mean something to this line or that. It wasn’t that easy to do that before the internet. As with anything, it can have its down sides as well. There were certainly instances of that and a lot of negativity in the community and negativity on those [online] boards that, to some degree, continues to this day.
You delve into the details of the people who died searching and Fenn’s reaction at the time, which was defensive. Do you think it mattered more to him than he let on?
I think it mattered a great deal to him, but his treasure hunt also mattered a great deal to him, and he was in a position about having to care about multiple things at once. I think he believed this treasure hunt was a force for good and something that should continue, and yet that was in conflict with the idea that people were losing their lives on this treasure hunt. I think he absolutely cared a great deal, but I think he also understood in his own mind he had to be the one who stood up for his hunt or it might go away.
When you went searching yourself, did you have a journalistic approach or were you fully in it?
I think I got in it a little faster than I expected to. I was not intending to be fully detached from this, but I definitely fell deeper than I expected. When you’re back home and searching for stuff on Google, it’s easy to be kind of academic, but when you’re in the middle of Yellowstone or New Mexico or Colorado and you have a partner who is really sure that the treasure is over the next hill, you start to believe in it; those feelings are tough to shake.
How would you characterize the other Fenn treasure hunters?
These are certainly people who were searching for something, and I don’t mean a treasure chest. In a lot of cases, these are people who wanted to find something to dream on in their lives. A lot of them were people who had something to prove, to show they were good enough and smart enough and could solve this thing…and that would answer a lot of questions about them in their lives and prove a lot of people wrong. For the most part, I liked the people who were treasure hunters. These are good people. There’s a small fraction, unfortunately, that gets a lot of the attention for doing some of the wrong things…but most of the people who were searching were doing it for the right reasons: They wanted to believe in something. They wanted to be a part of something.
The searcher community has numerous conspiracies and, without giving anything away, you ended up figuring in one of them. Was that stressful? Was it inevitable?
I don’t know about inevitable. It was unpleasant, that’s for sure. That’s not something I envisioned when I was going into it. The level of conspiracy theories in the search itself was something that shocked me, absolutely. I’ve asked a lot of questions about that to myself: Is this intrinsic to this phenomenon or is this something that reflects something going on in the larger world outside? It did feel like the growth of conspiracy theories within the hunt were mirrored by their growth in the outside world but, at the same time, there were also conspiracy theories in this thing six, seven years ago before I was involved.
I somehow missed the entire ‘Me Too’ element of the treasure hunt and didn’t know women had accused Forrest Fenn of sexual misconduct. Did that make you feel differently about him and the hunt? And why do you think it didn’t get bigger play?
It’s a tough question; it’s a tough problem. It’s something I think people don’t want to talk about because it does color and inform one’s feelings on the treasure hunt. I think a lot of people want this hunt to be simple; they want it to be a kindly wise old man hid a treasure and it inspired people to dream big and search the wilderness. It’s not that. It’s much more complicated and human than that. And yes, that whole thing and the information I gained and the interviews I conducted—some of which are in the book and some of which, frankly, are not—definitely colored my feelings on the hunt and on Fenn himself. As for why larger media may not have touched that, [it’s] because it changes the impression of the hunt and I think that complicates what a lot of people would like to be an easy story.
Have you thought about what would have happened if Fenn had died before Jack Stuef found the treasure?
I definitely have thought about it. Assuming it had remained out there for a long period of time, I think there would have been a diminishment of interest in it. Fenn’s presence in the hunt is really what set this apart on so many levels—the fact that you could actually get access to him, you could, in so many ways, talk to God, made a huge difference in this treasure hunt. It wasn’t just, ‘I’m going to find the box,’ it was…'I’m going to find the box and tell Forrest Fenn.’ Certainly that was the case for Jack.
You were able to identify and interview Stuef and wrote about him at the end of 2020 for Outside magazine in “The Man Who Found Forrest Fenn’s Treasure.” Was your book not finished at that point?
There were lots of rewrites over the last year. That was all done on a schedule I think would make many publishers very wary. The reality was, I had finished a version of it, essentially right at the end of May 2020, because at that point there was no reason to think someone was going to find the treasure in the next week. And then, boom, that happened. At that point, it was like: ‘OK, we’ve got to push this thing back. And I have to figure this out because there’s no way what I had as the ending is going to be the ending.’ So, I basically lopped off the final chapters at that stage and set about chronicling what was happening as best I could and that was the case for the next six months. But the book release date was essentially the same throughout. So, it was just a matter of trying to figure out the story and figure out everything that was happening and cross fingers that it all sorted itself out by the absolute drop-dead date of getting anything in, which was around the beginning of 2021. The Outside article, revealing Jack’s identify, figuring out who he was—that all happened on an incredibly tight timeline.
You’re one of a few people who has seen the treasure. What was that experience like?
Even doing what I did, in theory chronicling the search, doesn’t mean I wasn’t emotionally invested. I very much was. I never thought I was going to find the treasure. I was a pretty terrible searcher, even if my partner was kind of pretty good. But the chest itself had taken on such a significance in my mind…[as]…a kind of MacGuffin. It is that, but it’s also something that really matters. It’s not about the monetary value of it; it’s about the importance it has and takes on in the minds of everyone involved. So, finally getting the chance to see it and touch it and lay hands on it, and not just confirm that it was real but to actually feel it and to handle those nuggets and touch the dragon bracelet and these things that had to this point been imaginary. It was honestly an incredible feeling. I had definitely never felt exactly like that before, because it really was like the figment of someone’s imagination suddenly brought to life on a table in front of me and placed in my hands. I felt very privileged to get to go through it, to touch it and feel it. And it brought me a real sense—I don’t want to say closure because that’s somewhat it but that’s not 100% it—of finally myself really being a part of this thing as well. I didn’t maybe realize that I wanted that...until I was there in that room and touching this thing and feeling like now I was a part of its story.
June 7, 2017
Do you hear that?”
My treasure-hunting partner, Beep, kept his eyes glued to the map. “Hear what?” he asked me without looking up.
“It sounded like thunder,” I said, glancing up at the sky, which minutes before had been clear and blue and pristine. Now it was blackening, suddenly ominous.
We were standing on the side of State Road 68 a few miles north of Pilar, New Mexico, several hundred feet up the highway from the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center. In front of us stood an impenetrable mass of rock and brush, right where the map said the trail leading to Agua Caliente Falls was supposed to be.
Except it wasn’t there. It didn’t exist.
A rumble echoed through the canyon, unmistakable this time. Before Beep or I could say another word, the skies opened up and the raindrops began to fall—not a polite, drizzly rain, either. These were big, heavy drops, a cascade of water coming out of the sky with no warning and shocking suddenness.
“Run for the car!” I shouted, and we tore off toward the parking lot, a quarter mile up the road. Eighteen-wheelers rumbled by as we scampered along the shoulder of the highway back to our rented Ford Explorer. Yanking open the doors, we tumbled inside, out of breath, wet, and already defeated. We hadn’t even gotten to our search area yet.
“How did we not think to check the weather?” I asked, mostly rhetorically.
“It’s the desert. I thought the weather was always the same here,” Beep said, looking perplexed. A pasty Canadian, he was shivering in the passenger seat in a gray fantasy sports T-shirt and black gym shorts, fully unprepared for the deluge. At least he was wearing a boonie hat he’d purchased because it seemed like good hunting gear, its floppy brim partially hiding his people-pleaser eyes. Just as well. I figured he’d be looking at me with disappointment for my embarrassing lack of preparation.
Quite the auspicious start to our careers as treasure hunters. Treasure hunters. It still sounded crazy. A few months before, Beep had discovered the tale of Forrest Fenn, a wealthy New Mexico art dealer who claimed to have hidden a treasure chest worth millions somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe. In 2010, Fenn published a book and a poem that promised to lead searchers to the treasure—if they could figure out the poem’s nine clues. Beep had become completely obsessed with the chase, and I’d followed him down the rabbit hole.
We’d flown into Albuquerque the day before, and made our way up to Santa Fe later that night. Then early the following morning, Beep and I had stowed our newly purchased treasure-hunting gear and jumped into the car for the two-hour drive north through the wilds of New Mexico, the kind of place that isn’t really barren but is still sparse enough that you mostly lose cell service. Once outside of 83,000-person Santa Fe, the starkness of the landscape is stunning: flat and broad for miles and miles in every direction, until that land runs into mountains far in the distance on each side. We’d theorized that Fenn’s treasure must be somewhere among them—that chest and its cache of gold, diamonds, emeralds.
Driving toward those peaks, the only markers of civilization we saw were the periodic small towns, just hamlets really—a bar, a general store, maybe a school. In between them was nothing—nothing, except crosses at regular intervals along the highway, marking spots where unfortunate drivers had crashed. There were more of them than I’d ever expected, more than I’d seen along any other stretch of highway anywhere. They were our constant companions as we drove, pacing the distance between the only true landmarks on this journey: Native American tribal casinos. They rose out of the plains like the palaces of ancient kings, massive and elaborate and blinking with lights and signs and promises of riches. There was so little along this route, and yet one of these strange oases appeared every fifteen miles or so, and the parking lots were all packed. Who were all these people? Where did they come from? They’re a bit like us, I figured, hoping to strike it rich—just in the form of plastic chips, not gold coins. And probably just as unlikely to realize their dream.
As we’d made our way to the search spot, I’d found myself growing more confident in our “solve”—our solution to Fenn’s poem, our step-by-step route to the treasure. It had actually felt as if the treasure was within reach. The spot we were seeking was barely marked—it didn’t even show up on Google Maps, the world’s current digital arbiter of what is legitimate and what is not. We’d found the location on a United States Geological Survey map, listing Agua Caliente Canyon and, a few miles’ hike away, Agua Caliente Falls. We’d zeroed in on the sites for two reasons. First, Agua Caliente means “hot water” in English. In the first line of Fenn’s poem, the all-important verse that is supposed to lead searchers to the treasure, he advises seekers, “Begin it where warm waters halt/And take it in the canyon down.”
Many people have taken that instruction literally—seeking out a spot where a river changes in temperature, or where a hot spring hits another body of water. But what if Fenn was just playing with words? What if, instead, he wanted us to start where “warm waters halt” in a different way—to begin where Agua Caliente Canyon ends, and then follow the canyon itself off into the wilderness? From there, we’d make our way to Agua Caliente Falls, which could be the site of “heavy loads and water high,” one of the other clues in the poem.
This seemed like a pretty good idea when Beep and I were hashing it out back east, I from my home in Boston and he from his outside Toronto. But now that we were on the ground, hiding in our car, our internet searching seemed remarkably naïve.
“It’s a lot easier to do it from your computer,” Beep said, giving voice to my thoughts.
Excerpted from CHASING THE THRILL: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt by Daniel Barbarisi. Copyright © 2021 by Daniel Barbarisi. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.