New Mexico author Forrest Fenn considered ending the search for a hidden treasure after the death this month of Grand Junction pastor Paris Wallace, the second Coloradan to perish looking for it over the past eighteen months. But he has now concluded that the hunt should go on, in part because of a life he says was saved by the quest.
"I think the e-mail that helped me make a decision was the one from a man who was contemplating suicide, and then he heard about the treasure chest and his life was turned around," Fenn notes.
On his website, as we've reported, Fenn, who's in his eighties, describes his 2011 memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, as "the remarkable true story of Forrest Fenn’s life and of a hidden treasure, secreted somewhere in the mountains north of Santa Fe. The book contains clues to the treasure’s location" — specifically in a poem reproduced below in its entirety. A key stanza reads: "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."
Over the past six years, thousands of people have headed to New Mexico to look for the treasure, described as a $2 million cache of gold and jewels, fulfilling Fenn's goal of using lucre to tempt folks into experiencing and enjoying nature. But then, in January 2016, Randy Bilyeu, a 54-year-old from Broomfield, disappeared after heading to New Mexico to look for Fenn's riches — and in July, his body was positively identified. His death followed the rescue of a treasure-hunting woman from Texas who'd gotten lost three years before.
In an e-mail Q&A with Westword after Bilyeu's remains were ID'd, Fenn wrote, "It is tragic that Randy was lost, and I am especially sorry for his two grown daughters." However, he said the incident didn't make him regret starting the treasure hunt. In his words, "Accidents can happen anywhere. Randy may have had a heart attack or otherwise become incapacitated."
Fenn emphasized safety for treasure hunters. "Anyone who goes into the mountains should be prepared, use a GPS and always be aware of possible dangers," he noted, adding, "Many people don’t have experience hiking in the mountains, but that doesn’t mean they should stay at home. Just be careful and don’t get overextended."
Linda Bilyeu, Randy's ex-wife, wasn't reassured by these words. In an e-mail interview for a follow-up post, she branded the treasure a hoax. "Randy lost his life searching for 'nothing,'" she wrote.
Then came news that Wallace had vanished earlier this month while seeking out the treasure. His car was subsequently discovered, and on June 18, the New Mexico State Police revealed that a body had been located at Rio Grande Gorge, not far from the community of Pilar — and between five and seven miles from the abandoned vehicle.
Shortly thereafter, New Mexico State Chief Pete Kassetas told the Santa Fe New Mexican that he believes the treasure hunt should be brought to a close.
"I would implore that he stop this nonsense," Kassetas told the paper, adding, "I think he has an obligation to retrieve his treasure if it does exist."
Kassetas's words had an impact on Fenn, who told Westword, "I have to respect what the chief said," and admitted that he was contemplating whether the time to call off the search had come.
During an e-mail interview yesterday, however, Fenn explained that he'd reached the opposite conclusion.
The chief's call "caused me to stop and think for a few days," he reveals. But he also says that of 600 e-mails he received after Wallace disappeared, only eight unsigned messages urged that the treasure hunt end. As such, "after a long deliberation and discussions with friends, I have decided that stopping the search would not be fair to the thousands who have searched the Rockies and gone home with wonderful memories that will last them forever. A number of family members who have been estranged for years have reunited to join in the search."
He adds, "I will not stop the searching, but we are working with the state police and the search and rescue people to make it safer to hike the mountains."
Eliminating all risk is impossible, he acknowledges: "There is no way to prevent accidents. An average of nine people lose their lives each year at the Grand Canyon.... No one knows the dangers that lurk in the mountains more than those living in Colorado. It is important to observe the rules made by rangers and Forest Service personnel, and I am sure that subject is constantly being emphasized in your social media."
It has been "a hard decision for me," Fenn admits — but "the decision has been made."
Here's the poem, accompanied by a handful of additional 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 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.
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“The Treasure is hidden higher than 5,000 feet above sea level.”
“No need to dig up the old outhouses, the treasure is not associated with any structure.”
“The treasure is not in a graveyard.”
“The treasure is not hidden in Idaho or Utah.”