This week, there's been renewed media coverage of the ongoing search for a $2 million treasure said to have been hidden by Forrest Fenn, a New Mexico author. At least three Coloradans have died hunting for this cache in recent years, and the ex-wife of one victim from this state puts the overall death total at six. The revived attention has prompted one sheriff to put out a public warning about the risks involved in looking for these riches.
How does Fenn feel about the various reports, which have emphasized both physical dangers and those that flow from obsession? In response to an email inquiry, Fenn writes, "I have read those stories and I have no comment."
Fenn's reply represents his first communication with Westword in nearly two years. For a June 27, 2017, story, he confirmed that he would not call off the search despite a request from New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas that he do so following the death that month of Grand Junction pastor Paris Wallace — the second Coloradan to perish looking for the treasure, following Broomfield's Randy Bilyeu, who died in 2016.
The next day, treasure hunter Eric Ashby disappeared after his raft flipped in the Arkansas River. A body found weeks later was positively identified as Ashby in January 2018.
Although Fenn hasn't answered Westword's questions about Ashby or any of the other deaths, in a previous Q&A, he delivered safety tips similar to the advice offered by Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin.
"You must know that this country is unforgiving if you don’t give it the respect it deserves," Gootkin noted in a post. "Let someone know where you are going — exactly, not some vague geographic area to keep your secret safe — and when you expect to return. Be prepared for the changing weather and wilderness conditions. Many areas have no cell phone service. Mountain streams and rivers are especially dangerous. Bears, snakes and gravity are found in abundance in our corner of the world. We encourage everyone to vigorously pursue their outdoor passions, but think like a local. Before you go after the treasure, consider your level of skill, preparation and knowledge of the area. Consider the volunteer hours spent searching if you need to be rescued, and the anxiety of those left at home."
That Gallatin County is in Montana, near Yellowstone National Park, indicates the sheer size of the area where the treasure might be. The main hint to its location is found in a poem from The Thrill of the Chase, Fenn's 2011 memoir, with a key passage 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." In addition, a map on Fenn's Old Santa Fe Trading Co. website shows potential hiding places stretching across parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, in addition to Montana.
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Randy Bilyeu's ex-wife, Linda Bilyeu, considers Fenn's treasure to be a hoax; "Randy lost his life searching for 'nothing,'" she says. And she believes that five others have done the same: Wallace, Ashby, Jeff Murphy (he died after a 500-foot fall in Yellowstone in 2017), Jeff Schulz (he passed away in 2016) and a fifth person whose family reached out to her but has thus far chosen not to go public.
Such tales haven't dissuaded plenty of others from trying to strike it rich. The latest round of reports was kicked off by a fascinating longform piece on Money.com headlined "There's a Treasure Chest Worth Millions Hidden Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. These Searchers Are Dedicating Their Lives and Savings to Finding It." The central figure is Cynthia Meachum, who has spent an untold number of hours since her 2015 retirement looking for the treasure, as she documents on the website ChasingFennsTreasure.com.
Meachum's theories about the treasure prompted Gootkin's entreaty, which has been picked up by CNN and other national and regional outlets. But while the sheriff's post constitutes a warning, the publicity may only increase the number of searchers.
After all, Fenn has hinted that folks have been as close as 200 feet from the treasure — and in 2017, he told Westword that people should know it's "not in a dangerous place. They should remember that I was eighty when I hid it.... If someone thinks the treasure is hidden in a dangerous location, they should not search for it. There is no percentage in taking risks."