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My old Toyota Corolla, with its blooming rust spot on the left fender and a collection of dents, trembles as I urge it up a zig-zaggy road into New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I’m feeling almost guilty about pushing it so hard. The Corolla doesn’t know it yet, but our relationship is ending—within a few hours, if everything goes according to plan. When I haul a treasure chest out of the wilderness, I’ll call the nearest Subaru dealer and have them deliver me a shiny, new all-wheel-drive, for which I’ll hand over a fat gold coin.
On the seat next to me, under a road atlas and an empty coffee mug, lies the document that catalyzed our impending breakup: a 24-line poem (far right) penned by an 83-year-old New Mexican art dealer and archaeologist named Forrest Fenn. Its hidden clues, he says, lead to a bronze chest filled with millions of dollars worth of gold nuggets, rare coins, gems, and jewelry. I’m not sure why I brought the poem—good luck? a sense of security?— because I’ve puzzled over its clues enough that I know the lines by heart. I’m also pretty sure I know where its cryptic code points. Nothing left to do now but collect my riches.
WHERE THE TREASURE LIES
by Forrest Fenn
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 answer 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.
I’ve heard people who win the lottery say they won’t quit their jobs. Not me. I’ll retire right away, then buy a handsome little boat and sail around the world. Never mind that I can’t sail. I can afford lessons. I can afford anything. Maybe after a tour around the globe I’ll move to a cabin in the woods and fly fish.
Winding down the backside of the mountains, I catch a whiff of burning brakes. That’s okay. We’re almost there. Besides, I have more practical concerns: Most boats have names. What should I name mine?
My friends and family have come to expect strange declarations from me in my 15 years as a freelance writer: Off to the jungles of Southeast Asia, or to report in Afghanistan, or to climb a mountain in Nepal. But when I told them I was leaving to find a literal treasure, it was as though I’d said I want to be an astronaut when I grow up. I’m 39. But when I told my nine-year-old nephew my plans, he looked at me with eyes big and mouth open, an expression that said, Adults get to do things like that? Maybe growing up will be just like being a kid, only awesome.
He’s right. It is awesome, especially since I can use my adult brainpower and resources on the job. There’s a real, potentially life-changing prize out there, and a real person will find it. It’ll take more work than playing the lottery, but earning the prize is part of the appeal for me—and, I suspect, for the hundreds of others who have tried to follow the clues since Fenn released them in 2010. Whoever finds the treasure, it’ll be thanks to wits and skill—not mere luck. I’m good with wordplay and handy with a map and compass. Why shouldn’t it be me?
Fenn says he hid his treasure somewhere in the Rockies, at least 8.5 miles north of Santa Fe, where he lives. Northern New Mexico alone is 30,000 square miles. Daunting, to say the least. Luckily, I’ve watched Indiana Jones. I hit the books first: Fenn’s 2010 memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, a rambling account of his childhood in Texas, summers spent as a fishing guide around Yellowstone, bombing missions in Vietnam, and his rise as a particularly skilled art dealer and amateur archaeologist.
The book has hints that help explain the nine clues hidden in the poem. It was a cancer scare that spawned Fenn’s plan to hide a treasure chest, so two stories stood out to me, both reflections on mortality and what re- mains after we’re gone: In Vietnam, where Fenn was shot down twice, he visited a remote waterfall and near its base he found a graveyard filled with the bodies of French soldiers. The rest of the world had forgotten about them. Years later, after Fenn had moved to Santa Fe and opened an art gallery, a friend of his asked that he scatter her ashes over Taos Mountain. He flew his plane over the summit, but he didn’t think she’d want to rest forever in the cold of the snow-covered peak, so he dropped her ashes somewhere close by instead. In both stories, he mentions yellow and purple flowers in the area. Coincidence? No way. My girlfriend, who had been studying a map of New Mexico as I read aloud from the book, smiled and tapped her finger on an area east of Taos.
“Agua Fria Peak,” she said. I looked at her dumbly. “Cold water.”
Ah ha! And that’s not far from Taos Mountain. If Fenn had turned his plane east, he could have poured the ashes around there. Begin it where warm waters halt. I dug deeper and learned that near Agua Fria Peak is a memorial dedicated to 16 Marines killed in Vietnam in 1968. One of them was Davis F. Brown. Home of Brown.
In an afternoon’s time, I had whittled down my search area from a quarter-million square miles to just a few. I’d start at the memorial, head to a nearby river with a couple of waterfalls—there’ll be no paddle up your creek; just heavy loads and water high—and somewhere between them I’d find the treasure. I loaded up the car with snacks, camping gear, and Fenn’s book, and was off to claim my prize.
Chewing a piece of jerky while Johnny Cash sings of bad luck and hard times, I admire the mountains that stretch to the horizon. The view almost makes me pity the other treasure hunters, wasting their time in all the wrong places. They’re going to be pretty bummed when they hear a first-timer scooped it up.
But as I descend into a broad valley, doubt creeps in. There’s the memorial, set on a wide, grassy hillside. But there’s not so much as a skinny creek nearby, and none of the fast-charging streams and waterfalls I’d expected.
I pull off the road a few times and charge into the surrounding forests, too stubborn to accept that I might be wrong.
Finally I flop back into the car, snatch the poem from the passenger’s seat, and scan the stanzas with disbelieving eyes. Chastened by the setback, I ponder my first lesson in the elusiveness of Fenn’s treasure: From a few hundred miles away, it was easy to jam square clues into round holes and feel pretty confident in my conclusions. So confident that I gave Google Earth little more than a quick glance before hopping into my car for the 10-hour drive from Phoenix. I chalk it up to amateur’s hubris.
Time for Plan B: experts.
Before I left for New Mexico, I had clicked and scrolled through blogs, message boards, and Facebook pages where searchers trade theories. Some recount fun weekends with family; others declare the treasure has already been found, or that it’s a hoax. Many are cagey in their posts, not wanting to give too much away. And there are those who know exactly where it is, 100 percent, but don’t have the money to finance their expedition, or can’t get the time off work. “I broke Forrest code last year and know where he has buried his treasury [sic]. Actually it isn’t buried but I won’t say more,” one poster wrote. “If you want my maps, make me a deal, a substantial deal.”
But hour three of research yielded a promising lead: Taos art gallery owner Doug Scott has been hiking and rafting some of the most remote areas of northern New Mexico since the early 1970s. For the past several years, his fascination has been waterfalls. He’s photographed hundreds. Some are just 100 yards off-trail, but unknown to most everyone who passes by—just the sort of place Fenn might have visited with his treasure.
Just off the old plaza in Taos, I step into a gallery filled with early-morning sunlight, its walls lined with paintings of wildlife. I spot Scott in the back, near an easel. A thin gray beard runs along his jawbone and frames a face tanned and weathered by decades outdoors. Scott has just opened his gallery for the day and the tourists aren’t drifting in yet, so he offers me a seat at the back. I’m far from the first treasure hunter who’s come looking for his advice, he tells me. He’s met about 50 so far, and he can usually spot them quickly, milling in the gallery but not paying attention to his art.
“The majority of the people looking for the treasure who bother me about it can hardly walk a mile,” he says. “They tell me ‘I know it’s up that canyon. Come out with us. We’ll split it with you.’” He declines politely, tells them he has too much work, but doesn’t tell them the rest: “They’re basically lazy people,” he says. “They want to be a millionaire without working for it.” Um, who doesn’t?
Scott says he hasn’t looked for the treasure himself. And while he can recommend plenty of waterfalls for me to visit, he doesn’t have any leads on where it might be. I wonder if he knows more than he’s letting on. Maybe the poem has kept him awake at night, too. Maybe he has his own secret map of likely spots, his own dog-eared copy of Fenn’s book. Maybe his search for waterfalls is just a clever front. Maybe I’m getting paranoid.
He wishes me luck, then pops up from his seat to greet a couple eyeing a painting of charging horses. That’s my cue to leave. I wander down the street, past cafes and more art galleries, plotting my next move. Scott can’t be the only local who might, even unknowingly, harbor inside knowledge.
On the edge of town I spot the Taos Fly Shop, a weathered wooden building that looks like an old Wild West trading post. Fishing has been a big part of Fenn’s life, and many people interpret home of Brown as brown trout, which would make these guys the area experts. Inside, I find Nick Streit and his wife, Christina. Nick grew up fishing these rivers and now runs the shop, which his dad opened in 1980. By his ruddy cheeks, I can see Nick still spends plenty of time on the water. The guides are out with clients, and Christina is working a broom across the floor. I ask about Fenn’s treasure and they trade a glance. Nick gives me a here-we-go- again nod.
They’ve been visited by a few vacationing couples, and four college buddies on a reunion trip, but Nick particularly remembers a young woman who came asking about areas out near Agua Fria Peak, my first failed location. “She knew just where she should go,” he says. She asked him questions for an hour. He brought out topo maps, and was generous with his time. She scribbled a crude sketch of the area on a piece of scrap paper. “I told her, ‘You can buy one. It’s only $8.’ She says, ‘Oh, I can’t afford that!’
“This girl was going to a place outsiders shouldn’t be going, and walking across people’s property,” Nick says. “They have guns.” He gives me a raised eyebrow that says You need to know what you’re getting into.
I hadn’t really considered bullet wounds as a potential outcome of this quest. Imagining a backside full of buckshot dampens some of the romantic allure. So I stop imagining it, and forge ahead. “Where would you look?” I ask.
Nick and Christina suggest the rugged sections of the Rio Grande River, or the wilderness areas north of Taos.
“How do I know you’re not trying to throw me off, be- cause you’re looking for it, too?” I realize it’s hard to joke about the treasure without sounding half-serious.
“If we found it,” Nick says, “we’d hang a sign on the front door: Gone fishing forever. Treasure found.”
With a very nice $8 map from Nick and Christina’s shop, I head north of Taos and camp in Carson National Forest, near an area that Nick suggested, with canyons and mountain streams that would make good hiding spots. I’m up early and dayhiking deeper into the mountains, the poem stuck on repeat in my head. I poke around some rocks near a cascading stream and peer into pools of water—Fenn says the chest is hidden, not necessarily buried— but I find no treasure. As I look out on the miles of woods around me, it occurs to me just how little of the wilderness we actually explore. As of today I can count these mountains as a place I’ve hiked, but I’ve only seen the view from this brown band of trail snaking through the forest. Fenn could have hidden his chest behind any one of those distant ponderosa pines.
I crest a hill, which opens to a vast meadow between ridges. A herd of 200 elk stand a few hundred feet ahead. They’re frozen, having seen me before I noticed them. They bolt. I see flashes of brown and hear the thunder of their hooves, hundreds of branches snapping, and mothers calling for their bleating calves. Farther along I pass six bighorn sheep and see another three higher up, perched on a steep ledge, looking down at me. While no human but Fenn has laid eyes on the treasure’s hiding spot, I imagine some animals have. If only I could ask them.
I eat lunch on the rounded, rocky hump of Gold Hill, watching storm clouds gather on the horizon, and make it back to treeline before the thunder rolls in. A few miles from the car, the valley floor narrows to about 60 feet wide, with rock walls on both sides. The poem plays through my head on its maddening loop as I scan the canyon for a little waterfall, or an easy-to-miss cave where Fenn might have tucked the treasure chest. My heart beats a little faster each time I go to check on a spot. I wish I’d brought my nephew; he’d appreciate turning a hike into a giant game of hide-and-seek.
Just ahead, maybe 20 feet, a deer crashes through the brush and runs to the far side of the little box canyon. I can hear him moving toward the rock wall on the right side, where I’ll be able to get a good look at him. He steps out from behind the trees, 30 feet from me.
Only he’s not a deer. He’s a rather large black bear.
What a silly way to die this will be, killed by a bear while hunting for treasure. Although, what a way to die! Killed by a bear while hunting for treasure! I take a few steps backward and wait. He stares at me, then sniffs the air and turns to some berries on a nearby branch as I step lightly past him and down the trail.
I’ve hiked a 19-mile loop through stunning scenery, and had it all to myself. But back at the doomed Corolla, with my tired feet enjoying flip-flop freedom, I realize that much of the trek was unnecessary: A 79-year-old man carrying a heavy box probably wouldn’t have lugged it miles from a road. Another rookie mistake. At this point, I’d have the same luck throwing darts at my new map.
I need to see Fenn.
For those who torture themselves trying to decipher Forrest Fenn’s poem, being invited to his house is like finding the golden ticket and visiting Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. At least that’s how I feel as I pull through the gate in a neighborhood of old Santa Fe homes hidden by high walls and drive up to his small, stucco villa, escorted by a trio of yipping dogs.
Fenn has welcomed a few treasure hunters into his home, but I don’t have a heartwarming story. So I’ve played my other card—reporter. I can give him a little publicity, and maybe cajole a clue from him along the way.
I knock on the door, and there he is, wispy white hair, crisp blue button-down shirt tucked into jeans, with a soft voice and Texas drawl predisposed to storytelling. Stories that start like this: “I was standing right here one day with Ralph Lauren…”
Fenn leads me into his den, which is like a little museum, the walls and shelves crowded with moccasins, jewelry, tomahawks, and a model of the fighter he flew in Vietnam. This is just the barest glimpse of the art and artifacts he has collected, traded, and sold over the decades to amass his wealth.
He writes his books here, and answers emails from treasure seekers. He’s received more than 36,000 over the last three years. He’ll often respond if the notes are short, and kind, and the writer signs her name and doesn’t ask too many questions. Many people are looking for tips, or telling him where they’ve looked and wondering whether they’re hot or cold. He never lets on, but he tells me a few people have deciphered the first two clues correctly, and a few have been within 500 feet of the treasure.
Certainly the treasure is in part about legacy, and Fenn is having fun in his old age—creating a reason for people to talk about him before he goes, and, if the treasure re- mains unfound, to remember him long after he’s gone. But he’s more modest in his reasoning; for the record, he says he hid the chest to inspire people to turn off their TVs and gadgets and enjoy nature. He’s charmed by the emails about father-son searches, and the family-vacation treasure hunts, or the two brothers who hadn’t spoken for 17 years, until one read about the treasure. They went searching for it together and are best friends again.
On the flip side, someone sent him a death threat a few days before my visit. He’s called the police twice on people who stopped by uninvited and wouldn’t leave, and one man followed him when he left the house, thinking he might be going to check on the treasure. Others can’t believe that their search spot was wrong. “They’ve figured out exactly where the treasure chest is,” Fenn says. “They go to that spot and it isn’t there. So one of two things: Either Forrest Fenn is a fraud, or someone has already found it. They’re absolutely convinced. Never mind that it’s 400 miles some place else.”
“Does it give you some enjoyment knowing this drives people crazy?” I ask.
“Well, I’m kind of proud of that,” Fenn says, “because what you’re saying is I make people think.”
We sit on a soft leather couch and our conversation meanders from Jimmy Carter’s passion for arrowhead collecting to the intricacies of property law1, but he’s evasive when the topic shifts to the treasure itself. He gently deflects my questions or tells me a new story, like fishing a beautiful stretch of the Madison River near Yellowstone. He has wanted to return there, but it’s too far to walk—which is both a line from the poem and the name of his new collection of stories about his life. Plenty of people are searching that area, where Fenn spent so many childhood summers, but he’s not offering me a hint.
He’s released a trickle of new clues since he first announced the treasure, which keeps him in the spotlight, of course, but he also doesn’t want the blame for hunters’ missteps. He says the treasure is above 5,000 feet—and north of Santa Fe—so hapless fools won’t be dying in the desert, and that it’s not associated with a structure or buried in a cemetery, to keep them from destroying property or desecrating graves. But those extra clues aren’t much help, because Fenn knows some pretty obscure hiding spots.
He first explored the Southwest backcountry in the 1960s while stationed at an Air Force base in Arizona. Cruising over the canyons and deserts in a fighter jet, he’d spot a tucked-away ruin, and return later by Jeep or on foot. When he moved to Santa Fe in the early 1970s, he fished the Pecos River and small streams, and hiked all over central and northern New Mexico, “to get the lay of the land,” he says, “and learn something about the country in which I lived.”
He seems confident that hunters are still far from finding the chest, and I don’t think he wants it found anytime soon. He’s enchanted with the idea that someone may be as interested in the treasure 500 years from now as he is in the objects that surround him in his den.
Fenn takes me to his “laboratory,” a small room just off the garage loaded with Spanish chain mail and religious medallions, whole pots and plates from the Pueblo eras, musket balls, arrowheads, and stone tools. He encourages tactile relationships with artwork and artifacts, and tells me I can touch anything. Most of the antiquities I’ve seen in my life were sealed behind glass cases, so it’s pretty damn cool—and a surprisingly powerful sensation—to rub a 500-year-old Spanish coin between my fingers, or a piece of Ming Dynasty porcelain that made its way from China to New Mexico via the Philippines and Mexico City.
Fenn was nine years old when he found his first arrowhead, the same year he started a list of rules to live by, which he has added to and reordered throughout his life. “I decided that my number-one rule is this: It doesn’t matter who you are, it only matters who they think you are,” he tells me. “It’s what I can make you believe.”
Oh boy. For a quick moment I feel like I’ve been had, suckered into an elaborate illusion.
But I think even a trickster like Fenn would find it unseemly and lacking honor to just lie about the treasure. And he doesn’t appear to lack for money. Rather, his rule seems to reflect his impatience with title and privilege and societal norms. Anyone can be a successful art dealer or archaeologist without fancy degrees. Just like anyone can hide a box of treasure—and carve out a little place for themselves in history. Just like anyone can find it.
He says he always knew the hiding spot, but spent 15 years massaging the clues to match before he hid the chest. With the cancer treated, he had time to get the words just right. “People think I sat down one night and wrote that poem. I didn’t write that poem, I crafted it,” he says. “No one is going to find that treasure chest on a Sunday afternoon picnic or over spring break.”
Even Peggy, his wife of 60 years, doesn’t know where it is. For several years before he hid the box, it sat on a table in his vault—where he keeps many of his pricier possessions—covered with a red bandana. One day she pulled away the bandana and found a stack of Fenn’s books in place of the chest. He told her only that he’d hidden it sometime in the previous 18 months.
Will he ever pass on the location? Maybe a deathbed disclosure?
“No,” Fenn says. “Never, never, never, never, never. People may still be looking for it for 10,000 years from now.”
My time with Fenn, enjoyable as it was, hasn’t brought any clarity to my search. But I’m not ready to resign myself to the dartboard strategy. Northern New Mexico still feels like the right place, speckled with deep canyons, waterfalls, and remnants of past civilizations. Fenn has even hinted in interviews that he might like to go to the hiding spot to die and have his bones rest near the treasure, which suggests a location close to home.
I head northwest of Santa Fe to Los Alamos, where I’ve arranged a coffee-shop rendezvous with Craig Martin, author of 100 Hikes of New Mexico. The 61-year-old has a gray ponytail brushing his shoulders, and he hikes about 1,800 miles a year. As the open-space specialist for Los Alamos County, he maintains and promotes the county’s trails, essentially doing the same things as Fenn: Trying to get people outside.
Martin has read Fenn’s poem, and he humors my request for expert analysis. He dons a pair of reading glasses and ponders the stanzas. He sips his coffee and removes his glasses. But no epiphany; instead, he quotes Henry David Thoreau: I frequently tramped 8 or 10 miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.
“He knew what it was all about,” Martin says. “You love a little tree and you go and visit it. Out here it’s rock formations, petroglyphs, or a little stand of wildflowers that only grow in one place. Last week I found a new species of plant that hadn’t been documented in Los Alamos County.”
Maybe he can see the disappointment on my face, the golden gleam draining from my eyes. He throws me a crumb.
“Along the Rio Chama. That’s where I’d look.”
An hour north of Los Alamos, I turn down a rattly, dirt Forest Service road that skirts the trout-filled Chama River for 13 miles. I think I’m finally onto something. After meeting Martin, I studied maps of the area and found divine inspiration: This road ends at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, built in 1964 at the base of a high red sandstone wall. The monastery is home to a couple dozen monks. Monks wear brown robes. Home of Brown. And upstream, the river pools in a reservoir behind the El Vado Dam, where warm waters halt.
I park just below the monastery and start up a dry streambed into Chavez Canyon, ready for more clues to click like the tumblers on a vault’s lock, or at least for the feeling that they might. It’s kind of addictive, and I’m starting to understand why so many people spend their weekends geocaching. Whatever the prize, there’s something about the search itself that makes any hike more exciting. Like something special might happen around any turn. I guess that’s probably how Fenn felt looking for relics. It’s like doing a puzzle while taking a hike. It’s fun.
I climb up through the first of several sculpted sandstone slots. Halfway through the second, stemming my hands and feet against the slick-with-grit walls, I pause to consider the sense of this. If I fall, out here alone, I’ll be in trouble. Luckily, this is in keeping with the poem: From there it’s no place for the meek, the end is ever drawing nigh.
This is exactly the sort of place I’d imagined when I’d read Fenn’s poem for the first time, though I figured I’d be using a rope to swing across a pounding stream, or maybe easing my way along a brittle bridge, with a swirling whirlpool and certain death just below.
The few footprints I saw early on the trail have stopped. Now it’s just the occasional deer track until, while crossing through a patch of soft mud in the streambed, I see a fresh cougar print as big as my fist. I make a quick and pointless glance over my shoulder—if the cougar wanted to bother me, he’d already be latched on my neck.
At the third slot, an 8-foot ledge leads up to a large cavern. I prop a branch against the rock face and climb it like a ladder until I can pull myself over the lip. But the cavern is empty, and before me is an even higher wall, 20 feet tall.
This canyon is too rugged for an old man with a heavy box. But I can picture a younger Fenn in just this sort of place, searching out an ancient ruin that hadn’t been seen in 1,000 years, brushing dirt from an artifact and turning over the past in his hand.
Back up at the monastery, I want to ask the monks what they think of such earthly treasures as Fenn’s box of gold and gems—or, a long shot, if they have any inspired thoughts about its location—but realize I need only look around me for the answer. They live simple lives of material deprivation. If they saw value in earthly riches, they wouldn’t be out here.
“What do you do here all day?” I ask one of the monks.
“We pray!” he says, sounding rather jubilant. Seven times a day. In between, they work in the fields along the river, growing hops, and they brew beer, which is sold throughout New Mexico. I also learn they’re Benedictine monks, who wear black robes, not brown. Oops.
I wander into a building next to the chapel. On a table near a small room filled with photographs of the New Mexico desert, I find an essay the monk Thomas Merton wrote about the monastery and the power of wilderness. “There is nothing final or permanent about the desert. All that really matters is ahead of one,” he writes.
After reading his essay, I sit on a covered porch, on a long wooden bench, and watch clouds push across the clifftops on the far side of the Chama. Mist hangs over the fields of hops. The monastery grounds are purposefully quiet, with little conversation. From far over in the monk’s area, a bellowing, joyful laugh breaks the stillness.
All of a sudden, I care much less about Fenn’s treasure. Having shared the trail with a cougar will be my reward for the day.
I watch a monk stroll past the rows of hops, then I walk back to my dinged and dented car, which waits for me along the road, still loyal. I’m ready to get home and savor a monk-brewed beer. And yet, as I drive back down the dirt road, my eyes are drawn to the side canyons and mesa tops and the far-off peaks along the horizon. I already know I’ll never be in the Rockies again without a few lines of the poem sneaking into my head. Fenn’s treasure is out here, somewhere, maybe 1,000 miles away, or maybe up the next canyon, just around the bend in the river.
Of course, the river! I’ve been going about it all wrong! What I need is a raft. I’ll float down the Rio Chama, hop out along the way, and investigate all these hiding spots. I’ll find my box of riches yet.
I wonder if “Hey Forrest, I found it!” will fit on the back of a sailboat.
Brian Mockenhaupt is still driving his Toyota Corolla.