The Hunt For a 21st Century Treasure Chest

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Right now, nestled somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, is a chest containing gold coins, nuggets and jewels. It’s worth anywhere between $1-3 million, and it’s waiting to be found.

The chest was hidden years ago by the now-85-year-old millionaire Forrest Fenn, who grew up in Texas, served in the Air Force, and later made his fortune as an art and antique dealer in Santa Fe, N.M. When Fenn was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1988, he planned to take a treasure chest out into the wilderness to die with. Then the cancer went into remission, and a modified plan began to materialize.

In 2010, Fenn published his memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, which contains within it the first clue to a treasure hunt. The six stanza poem holds a total of nine clues:

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 drawing ever 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 book itself is also in the chest, albeit a small version—Fenn included a magnifying glass for easier reading. Now five years later, despite an ever-growing body of clues, and a countless number of people who have dissected each and every one, followed every lead, spent money, time and even faced criminal charges, the 40 pounds of chest and treasure remain undiscovered.

It’s a constant race with an elusive finish line.

With all the information, the loot is believed to be located at an elevation between 5,000 and 10,200 feet in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana or in New Mexico, north of Santa Fe. Fenn has said it’s not in a dangerous place (like a tunnel or mine) and encourages interested parties to remember he hid it when he was 80, so they shouldn't look anywhere an octogenarian couldn’t go. It’s not near any structure, nor in a graveyard, and Fenn says he’s sure that it’s wet. He even published a map of the area surrounding the treasure.

Most of all, Fenn makes sure to maintain that the chest really is out there. There’s been speculation that the treasure is a hoax to sell books (he claims he makes no money from them), or a way to get people to tamper with government land, or a way to write his own fantastical legacy. Others have wondered whether the treasure can even be legally claimed, as state and federal land laws could stand in the way if it's buried (which would also be a reason why someone might stay mum if they found it). Fenn hasn’t said whether it is or isn’t, nor has he said whether it’s on government land.

What he has said is well-documented by the league of seekers online, who convene to share their stories and weed through the clues. There are professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs alike, and the hunt—filled with mystery and adventure—seems to thrill Fenn. He gets hundreds of emails daily and helps to both amplify the fervor, and satiate the searchers. Over the years people claim to have found the chest, but Fenn has said he’s never seen sufficient evidence to support those claims. He did, however, tell Outside that people have come within 200 feet.

Even the New Mexico Tourism Department is on board with the hunt. Earlier this year, they produced a video featuring the story and Fenn. In it, he says that to be with the chest would mean to be within sight of trees, mountains, and animals. He says he’s conflicted about whether he wants the chest discovered in his lifetime, and puts forth the notion that it isn’t just about the treasure (though of course, there'd be no story with no treasure).

One of Fenn's parting lines: “Well I think there are a lot of people out there looking for the treasure. When they got home, they found out they enjoyed something better than finding the treasure.”