In January, Bilyeu disappeared after heading to New Mexico to look for treasure — specifically what's described as a $2 million cache of gold and jewels hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains by Forrest Fenn, a former Santa Fe art gallery owner and author. Shortly after Bilyeu vanished, his dog, Leo, was found, along with his raft. But it would take around seven months more for Bilyeu's body to be located.
On his website, 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 five years, thousands of people have headed to New Mexico to look for the treasure, fulfilling Fenn's goal of using lucre to tempt folks into experiencing and enjoying nature. But Bilyeu's death, which followed the rescue of a treasure-hunting woman from Texas who'd gotten lost three years ago, demonstrates why Fenn has long encouraged safety among chase participants; he's cautioned against searches during the winter and said the treasure was hidden in a place that a man of his vintage could easily reach.
After news of Bilyeu's passing broke, we conducted an interview with Fenn via e-mail; he can no longer hear very well using a phone. In it, he weighs in on the recent tragedy, treasure-hunting best practices, the joys of nature and whether or not he'll offer any more clues about where the riches can be found. Check out his thoughts below — and click for more about Forrest Fenn and the hidden treasure.
Westword: I know you were very concerned about Randy Bilyeu in the wake of his disappearance. What's your reaction to news that his body has been identified?
Forrest Fenn: It is tragic that Randy was lost, and I am especially sorry for his two grown daughters.
How would you describe your goals when you first went public about the treasure?
When I hid the treasure, this country was in a terrible recession. Too many people were losing their jobs. I wanted to give hope to those who had a sense of adventure and were willing to go searching. I also wanted to get the kids out of the game room and away from their texting machines, and out into the mountains and the sunshine.
Did the reaction of so many people to your revelations about the treasure surprise you?
Yes, it did surprise me, but it was very rewarding to see the positive reactions of so many people. I still receive about fifty e-mails a day from those who thank me for giving them motivation to go out into the mountains.
What advice would you give people searching for the treasure when it comes to safety?
Anyone who goes into the mountains should be prepared, use a GPS and always be aware of possible dangers.
How much experience in the wilderness should people have before attempting a search?
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.
Would you recommend that searchers be accompanied by one or more person, as opposed to going it alone?
The experts say that one should never hike in the mountains or the deserts alone.
What equipment should they have?
It's easy to get turned around in the forest and lose your bearings. One should have plenty of water, warm clothes and a GPS.
How often should they communicate with others about their whereabouts?
There are many places in the mountains where cell-phone service is not available. Using common sense is always an asset.
Are there times of the year when you'd discourage them from searching?
I recommend that no one look for the treasure when snow or low temperatures are present in their search areas.
You've talked about how searchers shouldn't look for the treasure in places an eighty-year-old couldn't put it. Does that mean it's in a place that's not particularly dangerous to access?
I hid the treasure in a place that is not especially difficult to reach.
Has the search for the treasure been by and large a positive experience for you and those who've looked for it?
Yes, we estimate that 65,000 people have searched for the treasure. Many send me photos of children wading in the small creeks or picnicking in the trees.
Does Randy Bilyeu's passing give you any regrets about the treasure hunt?
Accidents can happen anywhere. Randy may have had a heart attack or otherwise became incapacitated.
Will there come a point if no one finds the treasure that you'll call off the search?
At this point, I don’t have any inclination to call off the search. Thousands of people are having positive experiences, and the rewards that come with hiking in the mountains are many.
Or will the search continue until the treasure is found?
It is out of my hands now, and the search will continue until it is found.
If more time passes, will you provide additional clues?
I will give no more clues.
Are there any other comments you'd like to share on any of these topics?
Many of our young people today are sedentary. They spend too many hours sitting on the couch playing video games. I would like to see fathers load the family into the car and head for the Rocky Mountains and experience the rewards that come with spending the night in a tent and hearing the rustle of small animals just a few feet away. Our kids need to see a skunk or a porcupine in the wild. They need to turn over a rotten log and see what is under it.
"The Thrill of the Chase"
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.
“The Treasure is hidden higher than 5000 feet above sea level.”
“No need to dig up the old outhouses, the treasure in not associated with any structure.”
“The treasure is not in a graveyard.”
“The treasure is not hidden in Idaho or Utah.”