RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, there's a bronze chest filled with gold and precious gems. The search for this hidden treasure has become a hobby for some, an obsession for others and, for one recent searcher, a fatal pursuit. Meanwhile, the man who hid the treasure marvels at the great chase that he set off. NPR's John Burnett has our story.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Forrest Fenn is an 85-year-old millionaire in Santa Fe, N.M. A former Vietnam fighter pilot, a self-taught archaeologist and a super successful art dealer, he's now best known for his treasure.
FORREST FENN: No one knows where that treasure chest is but me. They can go get it, but I'm not going to tell them where it is. If I die tomorrow, the knowledge of that location goes to - in the coffin with me.
BURNETT: The ornate, Romanesque box is 10 inches by 10 inches and weighs about 40 pounds loaded. Fenn has said only that it's hidden in the Rocky Mountains somewhere between Santa Fe and the Canadian border at an elevation above 5,000 feet. It's not in a mine, a graveyard or near a structure. For further clues, you have to read the poem in his self-published book, "The Thrill Of The Chase."
(Reading) 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.
SACHA JOHNSTON: Where warm waters halt. No one agrees on what that means. Does that mean where two rivers converge? Does that mean where a hot spring pours into a river? Does that mean at the Continental Divide?
BURNETT: Sacha Johnston is an avid searcher in Albuquerque. She runs a website that sells Fenn treasure tchotchkes. Now, six years after publication of the poem, tens of thousands of people have reportedly gone looking for Forrest Fenn's treasure, thought to be worth well over a million dollars. The treasure's creator sits at his laptop in the study of his Santa Fe manse, his blue eyes twinkling mischievously. He reads emails all day from treasure hunters imploring him for just one more clue.
FENN: That's the kind of email that I don't respond to because if you want me to give you a clue, I'm not going to answer your email.
BURNETT: Surrounding him is his extraordinary collection of Native American artifacts - Apache dolls, moccasin boots, buffalo skulls.
FENN: I love antiques, particularly American Indian.
BURNETT: In the '90s, he earned the opprobrium of Southwestern archaeologists over his excavation of a Pueblo Indian site that he owned. They consider him a plunderer. Fenn thinks they're clubby fussbudgets. The war over Indian relics has largely subsided. Today, Fenn is all about the treasure. He says he hid the box in the midst of the Great Recession to cheer folks up and to get them off their couches and into the great outdoors. And yes, he admits to being a little off-kilter.
FENN: Sure, I'm eccentric. I pride myself in being eccentric. I don't want to go down that center line like a lot of people do.
BURNETT: The hunt for the treasure can become an obsession. Randy Bilyeu was a 54-year-old retired mechanic who had moved from Florida to Colorado to look for the bronze box full time. He was last seen alive on January 5. His car, a raft and his little dog were found near the Rio Grande south of Santa Fe. Fenn is delighted the quest has motivated so many people to discover the Rocky Mountains. But he cautions -
FENN: You know, we don't want to get anybody else lost. Be prepared. Take a GPS, take at least one other person with you and wait 'til the snow melts and the ice melts.
BURNETT: Is the treasure really worth risking your life over? Doug Preston is a best-selling author and a longtime friend of Forrest Fenn. He says he saw the chest before Fenn hid it and it was filled with gold nuggets, gold coins, pre-Colombian gold figures, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds.
Is there any documentary evidence that Forrest Fenn actually hid this treasure chest?
DOUG PRESTON: Well, as far as proof goes, I - there's no proof. It's hard to prove a negative, and the negative is that the chest is gone. And also, knowing Forrest for as long as I have, I can absolutely say with 100 percent confidence that he would never pull off a hoax. I'm absolutely sure that he hid that treasure chest.
BURNETT: A noted New Mexico archaeologist contacted for this story says he, too, saw the treasure with his own eyes, and he also believes that Forrest Fenn is not a trickster.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) 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.
BURNETT: The searchers read and re-read the cryptic poem and pore over topographic maps, waiting for the aha moment. Then they trek through aspen forests, explore canyons and belay down cliff sides looking for the treasure. Cynthia Meachum, a retired high-tech worker, says she's left her home in Albuquerque to look for the treasure at least 60 times.
CYNTHIA MEACHUM: You know, you go out, you look, you don't find it, you come back home, you go through your clues again, your solves again and you think, you know, where did I go wrong? And you go out and you do it again. And I have actually seen some of the most spectacular scenery because of this that I ever would've seen.
BURNETT: And for that, Forrest Fenn would be pleased. John Burnett, NPR News, Santa Fe.
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