“Life adventures are like thunderstorms. It gets dark, the wind blows, everyone runs for cover. A few people get wet . . . then it’s gone, until the next one. And the survivors are those with the biggest umbrella.” — Forrest Fenn
Note: I’ve been asked to give a warning that some content below can be triggering to individuals who are sensitive to topics like: child abuse, death, and rape. This is a story of my life threaded into the story of a treasure hunt, and it can be familiar and intense at moments. I understand that it’s a story many of us have experienced: loss, grief, and suffering. I share my story in hopes it encourages others to keep moving forward, to keep seeking and ultimately find the peace and happiness in the journey.
In the year 1988 a seemingly unconnected series of events occurred: millions of acres of Yellowstone burned in a historic and unrelenting wildfire, a man discovered his body was ablaze with the unforgiving disease of cancer, and that same man, contemplating what could be his last great adventure, purchased a 12th-century Romanesque 10”x10”x5” lock box for $25,000. Alone, and in secret, sitting in his newly purchased Santa Fe home, the man known as Forrest Fenn quietly began to fill the mystery box with gold coins, priceless antiques, and his favorite treasures. As he placed each item inside, he’d imagine the memories that each object quietly held, their stories and secrets of the past and the stories yet untold now woven into his very own story.
Decades later in 2009, on a desolate stretch of Yellowstone backcountry road, the 80 year old Fenn pulled into a dirt parking lot next to a creek nearby his sacred fishing hole. Years of carefully architecting a plan, Fenn already knew his likely and familiar destination. Surveying his surroundings, he took a deep breath of the crisp fresh air — his nose filled with the smell of pinyon trees, sagebrush, and fresh water. Ready, he ventured off 2.5 miles into the clearing to confirm his special spot.
Hours later, after verifying the place, he returned to his car and pulled off a blanket covering his bronze chest full of treasure. Fenn strenuously unloaded the box which now weighed over 40 lbs. Moving much slower this time he embarked back on the trail, down a canyon, and into the wood. Arriving at the boxes final resting place, Forrest sat next to a strong rock wall. He reflected on his life of adventure, as the high waters of the falls next to him babbled into the creek below. Carefully holding the box one last time his fingers gently inspected the two strong columns and beautiful Roman figures engraved in the bronze. He tucked the box into it’s hiding place, walked back to his car and murmured to himself, “Forrest Fenn, did you just do that?” He paused, looked back again and then resolved to never divulge the treasures explicit location to anyone.
Sitting in his car, he pulled out a well-worn notebook from his glovebox to review his “map”, a 24-line poem filled with clues leading to the treasure. An idea and plan seemingly inspired by Minerva, the goddess of poetry, art, and wisdom. . . .
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 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.
Satisfied with his work, and not looking back, Fenn drove away.
Weeks later in his home office, Forrest reviewed the final manuscript of his memoir titled, The Thrill of the Chase. Flipping through towards the end of the manuscript, Fenn smiled as his eyes gazed upon the typed letters of his poem. In just a few months his book would be published and soon the entire world would know his secret. A secret he still hadn’t yet divulged to anyone, including his own family. Lost in his thoughts Fenn tried to imagine the reaction to his work, the people who would try to solve the puzzle, and the stories he’d be told of hope and adventure from fellow seekers like him.
In the years following the publication of his memoir, Fenn would look back at that moment alone in his office and realize that that night wasn’t just any night, it was the spark that started a wildfire.
I’ve Done It Tired
I sat alone in my bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, my three kids fast asleep down the hall. Having finished another round of late night work emails, and growing tired of the task at hand, I hopped onto Twitter to take a break.
Scrolling sleepily through tweets a sudden chat notification from my girlfriend Katie read, “I love you.” Surprised she was still awake, I looked at the clock which glared 11:47 PM. “I love you, too. What are you doing awake?” As I awaited a response, a tweet caught my eye — “Did you know a man hid a $1M treasure somewhere in the Rocky Mountains?”
Intrigued by the complete lack of any meaningful information and my proximity to the Rockies, I Googled, “Rocky Mountain Hidden Treasure”. Immediately thousand of words filled my screen and the the name Forrest Fenn was prominently littered among them.
“I can’t sleep. You?”
“The first clue in the poem is ‘Begin it where warm waters halt’. That’s the first clue. If you can’t figure that clue out, you don’t have anything.” — Forrest Fenn
Begin It Where Warm Waters Halt
As you take the long road into Yellowstone, you begin to understand how vast the area is that America’s first National Park encompasses. Sprawling meadows, deep waters, rolling hills, sharp mountains, unique wildlife, dark forests, and geothermal mysteries make-up the surreal and raw landscape.
Our solve first took us into Mammoth near the Yellowstone North Gate. Wide-eyed by the spectacular scenery, we drove into the quaint little town where animals mingled alongside tourists — a bison grazing in the distance, an antelope watching from a hill above, and an elk jay-walking while onlookers gawked slackjawed in wonder.
We parked the car and headed up to the bizarre local landmark, the otherworldly Mammoth Hot Springs. This unique and natural beauty is a broad span of land covered in massive, striking terraces of calcium. The process of their creation has continued for thousands of years: hot water from the spring rises through the limestone below and when it touches the surface, chemistry — something that often feels a lot like magic — happens. Literally, where the warm waters halt, a massive scale version of what happens on scaly white faucets around the world.
It is inspiring to walk through this continually evolving museum, the springs and terraces laced with stairs and boardwalks that are quickly moved to accommodate the ever-changing landscape. Along the path natural monuments are scattered, and each dynamic installation surrounded with tourists.
Our destination was specific: Minerva Terrace. This piece is the most extensive formation and named from the Minerva Spring deep down in the belly of the Earth. The stop was particular in our search, and the sign in front of it made clear why. This delicate feature named after the Roman goddess of art: Minerva. The name inspired by the steaming water and travertine formations that are a massive living sculpture, a nature-made temple dedicated to its secret muse. The deep soul of the Earth, born out and driven onto the surface — vulnerable for all to see.
Why Is It I Must Go?
In the Fall of 2017, a random conversation with a friend led to a last-minute trip to New York City to see British magician Derren Brown. In one of his acts, he presents a personal artifact — a box with a lock. Derren in a splendid fashion recounts the story of the box, it’s owner — his grandpa, the stern rule never to open it, and his wild guesses at the treasures held inside. For years and years the mystery box taunted Derren’s imagination, and at his grandpa’s death, he finally came into possession of this great lifelong enigma. There alone, hidden away from others, Derren finally had the opportunity to open the box. Hesitating, he inserted the key and lifted the lid. Peering inside, he found nothing but a note. Inspecting it, Derren read the simple message in his grandpa’s scrawl . . . “Derren, I told you not to open the box.”
As Derren shares this story to the audience, he muses that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. Instead, he postures that the afterlife isn’t so much a place, but it’s our things and stories that we leave behind. The box, in Derren’s estimation wasn’t empty at all, in fact it was full of riches new and old: memories.
In the bleak Santa Fe doctor’s office, having just received the tragic diagnosis of cancer, Fenn somberly wondered, “Why is it that I must go?” His long full life took focus as he contemplated the weight of the reality that his own body began systematically killing itself. The cancer, he was told, would consume him in 3 months and his chances of surviving the disease were a mere 20%.
At that same moment, hundreds of miles away, the Yellowstone wildfires devastated everything in its path.
And Take It In the Canyon Down
We wandered through Mammoth for a few hours marveling at the sights, but the excitement pushed us forward to our next destination. Inside my car, we pulled out our notes, and the Yellowstone map to see how to get to our next clue — according to the poem it tells us that we must take it in the canyon down, not far, but too far to walk. We started the car and began to drive east down Lava Canyon.
For months I studied Yellowstone through guidebooks, websites, and mostly Google Maps. I retraced our plan over and over and would spend hours justifying to Katie why each line in Fenn’s poem spoke to specific landmarks with clever and poetic doublespeak.
Daily I carefully followed the road through the canyon. The next spot, by my Internet-fueled conspiracy and calculations, was a 13-minute drive away, or a two-hour walk. In reviewing the solve, it seemed plausible that we had it right, but it wasn’t until we began the drive winding down the narrow canyon that we fully realized that it felt like we might be onto something.
“The tree grows slowly, the Earth is patient” — Chinese proverb, as quoted by Forrest Fenn
No Place for the Meek
A chair hurled across the kitchen of our small home. The surrounding walls of our home are filled with fist-sized holes and the bathroom door is scarred with the marks of a forceful break in. My father yells my name again as I hide behind the living room couch. My mom away at work unaware and unable to protect her baby cubs. I’m 7, and this is the first time the mighty predator sought his meek and pathetic prey.
I scan the room quickly and see the diaper wipes I had promised to hide carelessly strewn across the floor like some Gatsby had been there. Across the way my 2 year old baby brother obliviously looked on at the ongoing hunt as he continued to unload the treasure of wipes from the box. The wood floors creaked as my father neared and I curled in on myself even tighter hoping to conceal myself further.
Silence, and silence still. Suddenly darkness turned to light as I’m ripped from my hiding place. Held in a fist, I’m haplessly carried like a rag doll through the air. As we move down the hall, my father screams at me punctuating each sentence with the sound of my body loudly thudding against the walls. We reach my bedroom, and a firestorm of fury hails upon me. The hidden treasure was found and spoiled; the revenge thoroughly executed.
Arriving to school bruised, I’m quickly escorted by my teacher to the principal’s office. Blinds drawn and the room hidden, quiet murmurs fill the room by the staff huddled inside. Standing alone, I’m asked what happened. I don’t respond. Refusing to speak, I’m asked to strip to my underwear. Uncomfortable and wanting to be done, I relent and comply with the request. My mostly naked body on display as the room suddenly falls silent as all the faces in the room become grim. All drawing closer, the solemn caretakers carefully examine the fresh bruises covering my body — pointing, whispering, note taking, and carefully trying to divine what kind of fiery monster would scorch a small child like this.
Fearing another hunt, I doubled my resolve to never tell my secret.
The blunt edge of fury continued, and my mother endured the majority of the suffering. One evening in an act of self-preservation I hid in a closet as I heard the house and my mom being shredded into pieces. The storm passed, and I carefully ventured out into the destruction. Unexpectedly, I found my mom tucked in a corner of the kitchen covered in her blood and tears. I fell into her arms and we both cried for what felt like forever. The next morning on the quiet drive to school she asked me if I’d be okay if my father never came home again. That night, he didn’t return.
Hiding from multiple failed marriages and debt collectors, my father fled to Turkey in 2009 and concealed himself under a secret name. In 2017, he sat alone in a doctor’s office in a foreign country. Consumed in his thoughts, he cried for a brief moment.
The cancer had spread like wildfire, and it would soon kill him.
Across the world and nearby the meadows of Blacktail Deer Creek in Yellowstone, surrounded by the brutal realities from the destruction of the wildfire, a young sapling grows bravely, oblivious of the scars surrounding it.
The Home of Brown
As we drove down Lava Canyon, we kept a lookout for our pull off: Blacktail Deer Creek. Arriving, we put in the car and began to gather our gear together for the hike. A few cars down from us a couple of senior men were also prepping, but for a different hunt.
Curious to see if my hunch was accurate, I approached the men with a few loaded questions. At first hesitant to share much information with a stranger, the fishermen quickly began to regale me with tales of their well-earned secrets of fly fishing in Yellowstone. In this conversation, I learned a couple of new details: Blacktail Deer Creek was a shallow, narrow creek, and it was one of the few spots not restricted to fly fishing in Yellowstone.
“What do you catch here?”, I ask.
“Sometimes Brook trout, but this is home to Brown trout.”
Stunned by the confirmation of the old man, I thanked them and walked away. I excitedly tell Katie that this could be the “home of Brown” in the poem, and we set off on the trail ahead.
Not far from the parking lot a shout came after us, “Hey kids, be safe and keep your eyes out for brown bears!”
“I took it out and put it at a very secret, and a very dear place . . . private . . . and I walked back to my car, smiling. Telling myself, yeah. I really felt good. I had done something that I had dreamed about for a very long time.” — Forrest Fenn
If You Are Brave and In the Wood
There’s a moment, a single spark, that starts a wildfire. Within seconds a blaze overtakes, and the landscape forever changed. For almost a decade Fenn’s Treasure has sparked a madness in thousands of people, calling out to them to seek the treasure. Assured that their solution would lead them to that sacred spot, risking their life only to return empty-handed, and in some cases, some fellow hunters never returned.
I often wondered at what point my madness had gone too far: was it hunting locations on Google Maps for hours, the detailed research of a strangers life, the purchase of Bear Spray, or the fact that I didn’t stop when I was driving to a predator-filled remote area with my girlfriend.
At many points I gave up, doubting I was even remotely close to the treasure. Like so many before me, consumed in my wildfire and unwilling to give up, so I kept pushing forward. Fenn was my muse; he was my guide calling me to adventure.
The first time I went to Katie’s home, I was impressed by the carefully curated stacks of books adorning her living room, paper cairns marking her journey through literature. On her mantle, were her most prized books. I looked over the spines, trying to decipher her through the secret message left for all to see. Towards the top, I noticed a worn copy of Catcher in the Rye, a near clone of the same novel that also sat carefully placed on my bookshelf in my front room. A coincidence, a conversation, a spark, and a retelling of our first curse-word laden angsty romp through the mad mind of Holden Caufield. A book Fenn himself, we’d also later learn, treasured.
In the final page of the book, Holden Caufield watches a merry-go-round, and it’s riders. Just out of reach from them, a giant gold ring looms waiting to be stolen in exchange for a prize. On each revolution, Holden’s sister Phoebe would reach for the treasure, risking her life in the process — a madness to get the treasure, despite the risk.
To himself, Holden muses, “All the kids tried to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.”
“If I was standing where the treasure chest is, I see trees, I see mountains, I see animals, I’ll smell wonderful smells of pine needles or pinon nuts, sage brush. And I know the treasure chest is wet.” — Forrest Fenn
In the sacred temple of the Roman goddess Minerva, the god Neptune raped a beautiful young virgin. Finished with the monstrous act of blazing his victim with forced sexual fury, Neptune discarded his prey, leaving her behind in the temple helpless and alone. In the desperate moments that followed, the weak Gorgon maiden named Medusa cried out to the gods above hoping for divine assistance.
Responding to Medusa’s cries, Minerva arrived and saw that her sacred temple was defiled. The goddess, who is known to be quick to anger, instantly punished Medusa by making her appearance hideous, turning her lovely locks to serpents, and placed a curse on her that anyone who didn’t tarry scant, but marveled and gazed into her eyes would be petrified and turned to stone.
No one ever asked Medusa how she felt about the curse. Instead, Medusa is a monster that would turn men to stone. However, in secret, Medusa knew what had once blazed her, now gave her the strength and power never to be taken advantage of again.
As we approached our search area, we could hear the roar of water in the distance. Roughly 500 feet from the Blacktail Deer Creek Trail, a hidden waterfall crashes down a small ravine littered with heavy loads of fallen and burnt wood — leftovers from the previous wildfire. The wall opposite of where we stood looked like a giant fence post with broken towers of rock looming like oversized blazes or cairns; human-made stacks of rock that act as markers indicating that you are on the right path.
These massive nature-made rock structures are known as columnar basalt. Following an eruption of lava, the intricate networks are created. As the flow cools, it turns into volcanic stone or basalt. As the lava contracts, the stress on the rock causes it to fracture into tall hexagonal columns similar to the towering columns on Fenn’s treasure chest.
In awe of what we looked upon, we were motionless as though we turned to stone. Silently we stood admiring the beautiful art of the goddess Minerva wrought by the rock-forming superpower of Medusa.
“We shall not cease from our exploration; And at the end of all our exploring; Will be to arrive where we started; And know the place for the first time.” — Forrest Feen quoting T.S. Eliot
I Give You Title to the Gold
We scoured the canyon for a couple of hours. Exploring every nook that whispered it’s secret to us, and we hiked all over and left nothing unturned.
I crossed the falls up towards the blaze. As I got closer, what seemed to be a small stack of basalt, quickly became a massive, intimidating structure. I got up close and back behind me, and up the waterfall I see Katie scouting near a cave.
Behind the blaze, there’s a space that dropped down into a safe secret nook. I turn on my flashlight and out of the corner of my eye I notice a strange looking item below. Thrilled, I shouted out for Katie, but my shouts go unheard because of the thunderous crashing of the waterfall. I looked back behind the blaze, and I reach deep inside after the object . . .
On a ledge perched over the falls, Katie and I zip up our backpack and stare off into the distance. Sitting quietly on a fallen, burnt, dead tree — both of us wet, weak, cold, and tired from all the exploring. The waterfall roars next to us as we reeled from the experience. Silent and smiling, we look at each other, satisfied with our solution.
“So, now what?”, Katie asks.
I laugh, “I guess we find a new adventure, a new chase.”
We embraced and kissed in our final moments in our new sacred spot hinting of riches new and old. As we got up, I reached into my back pocket to confirm the treasure I concealed earlier was still there.
A few steps ahead and above me, Katie turned back around to ask a question. I stood with a treasure in my hand, and the first clue for our next big adventure. I smiled, and she began to cry.
“Katie, will you marry me?”
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . and then one fine morning . . .” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; a Fenn favorite
The Thrill of the Chase
Jay Gatsby, in The Great Gatsby, reached out into the darkness towards the green light at the end of the dock across the bay. It was a constant reminder of his dreams in the distance, his elusive fantasies that hinted of riches new and old. The green light is a single symbolic point of reality, an almost unimaginable faint light that reaffirms those things which we don’t yet fully understand, but are always reaching towards — a self-inflicted madness to keep searching.
On the drive home, we announced the news of our engagement, and our phones swelled with excitement. On the long drive back to Salt Lake City, Katie and I chatted about our future, our plans, our stories, we envisioned our next adventure and reminisced about our past.
Through a long stretch of Idaho, Katie’s phone lit up. Her brother Nick had sent a message, “Congrats! But I’ve gotta ask, did you find the treasure?”
Katie responded, “An engagement would be a pretty good cover story, wouldn’t it?”
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.