In the summer of 1988, not long after doctors removed his cancer-plagued right kidney, Forrest Fenn began approaching writers with a curious proposal. As anyone at all acquainted with him knows, Fenn is a rare character — a swashbuckling former fighter pilot who hustled his way into a lucrative business selling art to the stars out of his lavish Santa Fe gallery — yet even by his own standards, the scheme he was suggesting was an odd one. Fenn, then 58, was looking for someone to write his biography, he said. Naturally enough, the book would include stories from his life: tales of being shot down in his F-100 over Laos, of searching for artifacts in deserted canyons, of peddling moccasins to Rockefellers and hand-carved corbels to Spielbergs. Yet this particular biography would have a secondary purpose. It would also act as a cryptic guide to a treasure chest that Fenn was planning to hide somewhere in the Rocky Mountains — along with his own corpse.
“I thought I was gonna die,” Fenn explained recently in his feathery Texas drawl. “I kept asking the guy who gave me radiation what my chances were, and all he would say was, ‘Mr. Fenn, you’ve just got an uphill battle.’” Two years earlier, Fenn’s father had also been diagnosed with advanced cancer, and he had taken what Fenn saw as the dignified way out: a handful of sleeping pills. Fenn already knew he didn’t want to wither slowly away either. “Dying is something I want to do by myself,” he said. “I don’t need any help. I don’t want somebody holding my hand, everybody’s crying — Jesus.” What he didn’t know was how to end things on his own terms.
Then, late one night, Fenn had an idea: What if he followed in his father’s footsteps, but with an adventurous spin? He would stuff a treasure chest with glittering valuables, write a clue-laden poem that would point to its location, and then march out to his favorite spot on earth to take some pills and lie in eternal repose with the gold, like a doomed conquistador in an Indiana Jones movie. All he needed was someone to write and publish the book in which he’d place the poem. “Because there was no point in hiding it if no one knew I hid it,” Fenn said.
“Forrest told me the idea at lunch one day,” recalled the bestselling author Douglas Preston, a longtime friend and one of the first writers Fenn approached. “His plan was to inter himself with the treasure, so that anyone who found it could essentially rob his grave. I said, ‘God, Forrest, that’s a terrific story — you’re the guy who’s going to take it with you!’” Still, Preston didn’t go for the idea (although he did appropriate it, with Fenn’s blessing, for his 2003 thriller The Codex), and neither did any of the other writers. “I think they didn’t like the idea of me dying out in the trees someplace,” Fenn said.
Fenn’s failure to launch this scheme was no great disappointment, however, for the simple reason that his cancer treatment worked. Yet he couldn’t let go of his treasure idea. He held on to the chest he’d bought, an ornate bronze lockbox, and spent years filling it. Fenn tinkered with its contents constantly, aiming to create a stash that would dazzle anyone who opened it: gold coins, Ceylon sapphires, ancient Chinese carved-jade faces, Alaskan gold nuggets the size of chicken eggs — some of these items coming from his own private collection, others acquired just to add to the hoard.
For the next 20 years, Fenn kept the chest in a vault in his Santa Fe home, covered with a red bandanna. Occasionally, he’d test out its amazement quotient on friends, who tended to view the whole thing as just another amusing Fennian lark. Certainly, few of them expected he’d actually hide it. For one thing, the man was a born raconteur who readily admitted to embellishing his stories. For another, the treasure was worth a fortune — seven figures, most likely — and not even Fenn was crazy enough to just give something like that away. And after so many years of talk, if he was really going to do it, wouldn’t he have done it already?
Then, sometime around 2010, Fenn did it. Without even telling his wife, Peggy, he slipped out and squirreled away his chest — to which he’d added a miniature autobiography, sealed with wax in an olive jar — somewhere in the wilds of the Rockies. It took him two trips from his car to get all of the treasure to the hiding spot, because it weighed 42 pounds and he was in the neighborhood of his 80th birthday by then. For a while, Fenn kept what he’d done secret. His own daughters didn’t find out about it until he self-published his memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, complete with the poem he’d spent years refining.
The book’s publication triggered an explosion of interest, surpassing even Fenn’s loftiest expectations. “I only printed a thousand books,” Fenn said. “I thought, My mother’s dead, so who’s going to buy it?” He says he’s now outsold that original run by a factor of 20. At Collected Works, the local bookstore to which Fenn donated most copies of the book — he didn’t want to be accused of using the treasure as a publicity stunt to enrich himself — the proprietors still keep their Chase stock behind the counter because it’s such a theft risk. When I looked up the book on Amazon this spring, the cheapest available used copy was $368.86. Plus shipping.
Soon, as word began spreading about the eccentric millionaire who hid a treasure chest in the mountains for anyone to find, the world came calling. There were features in Newsweek, stories in The Huffington Post, and seven appearances on the Today show. Entire websites appeared dedicated to parsing Fenn’s poem with a fervor that would make even a Talmudic scholar raise his eyebrows. Before long, treasure hunters were flooding into Santa Fe in such numbers that they caused a measurable boom in the city’s already substantial tourism industry — the “Forrest Fenn Effect,” one columnist dubbed it.
For the thousands who have been snared by Fenn’s gambit, the treasure’s location is an all-consuming mystery. Some have uprooted their lives to hunt for the chest; at least one has even mortgaged her home to fund her expeditions. Searchers have been arrested for digging up burial sites, for making trouble in national parks, and even for barging onto Fenn’s own property — all of them obsessed with the idea of the trove just sitting there for the taking, if only they could unravel Fenn’s clues.
Yet amid all of the furor over the gold and where it might lie hidden, one question — which could well be the key to it all — has been mostly pushed aside: Why on earth did Forrest Fenn do it?
In the dusty, sun-beaten environs of Santa Fe — where every new building is legally required to be designed in the Pueblo style and where the art galleries are so plentiful that it seems there are more bejeweled cow skulls in the city than human citizens — two large compounds bear Fenn’s imprint. The first is the former Fenn Galleries complex (sold off in 1988), which he purchased as a rotted-out house in 1972 and subsequently expanded into a stately pleasure dome worthy of presidents and Hollywood royalty — adding, by hand, a brick-laid plaza, an opulent, gold-fixtured guesthouse, and a sculpture garden featuring a scenic pond that once harbored his two pet alligators, Elvis and Beowulf. The second is his family’s 2.5-acre homestead on the old Santa Fe Trail, ringed by high adobe walls and thick with aspens and pines.
When I pulled through the front gate of the latter compound on a cool, sunny day this March, a large tan poodle greeted my rental car with bared teeth. I pulled to a stop in front of the house and tried to get out, making soothing noises. The dog yapped me back into the car, scrabbling up on the door to snap at my head behind the window. I made another attempt just as Fenn, clad in a light-blue button-down and jeans, began shambling out onto the gravel to greet me. I was promptly rewarded with a bite on the back of my thigh.
“He didn’t get you, did he?” Fenn asked, concerned.
“A little,” I admitted, wincing, as the poodle trotted away.
Fenn led me through a grand, high-ceilinged entryway, down a short hallway, and into a bathroom.
“Let’s have a look,” he said. “Did it break the skin?”
“I don’t think so,” I lied, surreptitiously feeling for blood spots along my leg.
“What,” Fenn replied, looking skeptical, “you don’t want to take your pants down?”
In other words, Fenn is not the kind of man to stand on ceremony. Media reports and frustrated treasure hunters typically portray him as a cryptic puzzle master who revels in misdirection, yet in person Fenn broadcasts forthrightness and candor. His small, close-set eyes, perpetually squinting as if from too much time spent in the cockpit, always meet yours. Several times he told me he would answer any question I asked — except, of course, any that might give a clue to the treasure’s location. Yet even that, he insisted, is simpler than the searchers (who have been known to comb his books for anagrams and hidden patterns) seem to think. “I’ve said many times that everything about my poem and my book is straightforward,” he said.
Fenn is 84 now, which has left his hearing shot and his hair in a thin white arch that crests over a half-bald scalp, but his mind is still as keen as a blade. Because he loves to answer questions by telling stories, I kept waiting for one of his anecdotes to meander so far from the point at hand that he wouldn’t find his way back, but it never happened. He is so canny, in fact, that it comes as something of a shock to learn that his intellect was long a source of crippling insecurity.
Growing up in the Hill Country town of Temple, Texas, Fenn felt a constant awareness that his poor academic showing was a disappointment to his father, the principal of his elementary school. “I didn’t think I was very smart, but I didn’t have to be smart to figure out that my parents weren’t really proud of me,” he told me when we sat down in his library, its walls lined to bursting with American Indian artifacts — age-cracked pottery, feathered headdresses, great cases of arrowheads. After graduating (barely) from high school, bewildered and directionless, he followed a few friends to Texas A&M and pretended to be registered but hurried out in tears when he was discovered. “I felt I wasn’t worth anything,” Fenn said.
What turned his life around was the military. In 1950, Fenn enlisted in the Air Force, where he connived his way into pilot training — typically the province of high achievers. “I told myself that if I was going to compete in that environment, I couldn’t do it intellectually, but I could out-hustle all these guys,” he said. He put in 20 years with the Air Force (during which he also married his extraordinarily tolerant wife and had two daughters), retiring, he said, once they tried to “promote” him to lieutenant colonel, which would have meant a desk job. But what played an equal role in his leaving, though he doesn’t like to frame it this way, was his time in Vietnam. During his 348-day tour there, Fenn not only ran a command post but flew 328 combat missions. He retired with a slew of medals for valor, but even now, his experiences haunt him. “I had this nightmare about a year ago where I was told that the government knew exactly how many people I killed, and they were going to tell me,” he said.
Yet Fenn’s trauma in war also had a serendipitous side effect: It led him, albeit indirectly, into the art business. “Because I had a hard tour in Vietnam, I wanted the world to stop and let me out,” he told me. “Santa Fe was the only place I knew where I could wear Hush Puppies and blue jeans and make a living.” In short order, he packed his family into the car and moved to New Mexico.
One of the stories Fenn loves to tell is of the first morning after he retired from the Air Force. After so many years spent rising before dawn to report for duty, Fenn instinctively started to get out of bed at 4 a.m. “Then I got back into bed and started thinking,” Fenn recalled, likely for the thousandth time. “If I have an advantage over everyone, it’s that I think a lot. So I told myself that from now on, I was going to wake up at 7 in the morning, lay in bed till 8, and think.”
It was in this frame of mind that Fenn decided to start the gallery that would make his fortune. What, he thought, did he want from a business? That was easy: high margins. And where did one find products with the highest margins? In the luxury trade — specifically art, where you could flip an undervalued painting for an extra six figures or more overnight. Never mind that Fenn knew almost nothing about the field; as always, he could out-hustle his competition.
“Let me tell you something that may startle you,” Fenn said, leaning in conspiratorially. “I’ve never been interested in art. Art to me was always a commodity. If you say that out loud, everybody will throw rocks at you. It’s like cussing in church.… But I looked at it as a business instead of a love. I never loved art, and that’s what gave me an advantage.”
Of course, Fenn is exaggerating here — he rhapsodizes about the work of the many artists who became his friends — but it’s true that he approached the art world with uncommon business savvy. Despite his lack of training, he had an uncanny eye for a work’s value. Early on, he recognized the benefit of winning over luminaries, which is why virtually any visiting celebrity received an invitation to stay, free of charge, in the gallery’s guesthouse. “Forrest was a very, very good art dealer,” reported Preston. “For example, he would buy the estate of an unrecognized artist, write a book about him to raise his profile, and then sell what he had for a very large profit.”
Fenn also had a gift for provocation that helped boost business and made him into a minor celebrity, featured in People and Forbes. During the height of the Cold War, he finagled his way into the USSR to gather paintings for a much-publicized show of Soviet art. In the early ’80s, along with the former Texas governor John Connally, he went in on a cache of a hundred paintings by the infamous high-art forger Elmyr de Hory. When he displayed the work at his gallery, customers responded with horror upon being informed that the paintings were fakes. Fenn happily volleyed the outrage back: “If you like it less because it’s a fake, who is the fraud now?” He sold the de Horys, like most everything else, at a huge profit.
“I’d say he thinks out of the box, but there is no box in my dad’s life,” said Fenn’s daughter Kelly, who told me that Fenn’s provocations often crossed over into family life. “He once wore a finger necklace to my 21st birthday party,” she said. “I don’t know what they were exactly, but they were real.”
Fenn’s greatest gift, though, was as a salesman. “Men liked him because he was a Texas guy’s guy,” recalled Linda Durham, a Santa Fe gallerist who worked for Fenn in the late ’70s. “Women liked him because he was flirtatious and attractive and gave them presents.… He had a case of jewelry and things, and I’d see him just give a woman a $2,000 necklace. Wow, I thought, that’s amazing, a gift like that. But then the husband would end up buying several $50,000 paintings.” Fenn attributes his success to the fact that he sincerely likes people. He says he hired seven art Ph.D.s and had to let them all go because they made the mistake of being more interested in the merchandise than the people to whom they were selling it. “What I learned from Forrest is that it’s not just the painting you’re buying,” said Durham. “It’s also the experience. He not only sold art; he sold himself.”
When he received his cancer diagnosis in 1988, Fenn was already in the process of selling his gallery. “My rule was, I didn’t want to do anything for over 15 years,” he said. After recovering from treatment, he went into his own version of retirement, which consisted of writing art books and excavating his own personal “Indian ruin”: the San Lazaro Pueblo, a 160-acre site that he managed to buy, much to the displeasure of the general archaeological world, after the ranch on which it sat went into foreclosure. His name began to fade from the headlines. But then came The Thrill of the Chase, which catapulted him to greater fame than ever — now and, quite possibly, eternally.
In many ways, The Thrill of the Chase is one of the most misleadingly titled books published in recent memory. Putting aside the long, wrenching section in which Fenn grapples with his experiences in Vietnam, thrilling exploits are little in evidence. (Indeed, one of Fenn’s first anecdotes has him hunting not through ancient tombs but through a Borders store, which leaves him feeling ornery: “If Robert Redford had ever written anything he probably could have done it better than the guy who wrote that Gatsby book.”) The treasure goes unmentioned until the final chapters, by which point it feels almost like an afterthought. What The Thrill of the Chase is about, really, is not excitement or gold but the distant, unreclaimable past.
Specifically his childhood. Glossy and packed with black-and-white photos, the book has the feel of a high-end scrapbook. We hear of the young Fenn whittling yo-yos to sell to his classmates and slipping out his junior-high window when his teacher wasn’t looking. We get a picture of the family cow. And most important, we see Fenn embark on his earliest adventures, in what one senses is still his spiritual home turf. Every June, Fenn and his family made the 1,600-mile trip north to their one-room cabin in West Yellowstone, Montana, where he would spend the summer in a bliss of outdoorsy escapades. Fenn grew to know Yellowstone so well that he worked as a fishing guide there before he was even old enough to drive.
The treasure, when it finally appears, makes a somewhat jarring sight; on one page, Fenn is reminiscing about fly-fishing, and on the next, we see a full-page photo of a treasure chest out of a 17th-century privateer’s opium dream. Then, at last, Fenn arrives at the all-important poem, tooled over for decades: 24 lines of mind-boggling ambiguity, obscurity, and general vagueness. By Fenn’s reckoning, the poem contains nine clues in all, but because they’re meant to be solved sequentially, it’s the first few that are most crucial:
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.
Other than a general disclaimer that the treasure is “in the mountains somewhere north of Santa Fe,” Fenn adds little else in the way of instruction. (He has made a few clarifications in recent years, however — like saying the treasure is “not associated with any structure” to stop searchers whose inspired interpretation of “home of Brown” had them digging under old outhouses.) Since publishing the book, he’s resisted all pressure for information: from anonymous callers who threaten to kill him unless he divulges the treasure’s location, from emailers with sob stories about ailing grandmothers, from readers who say they want their books signed but then try to grill him for hours. “Just go back to the poem,” he tells everyone. “The poem will take you to the treasure.”
Because of the fondness Fenn shows for his childhood summers in Chase, thousands of searchers have zeroed in on Yellowstone as the treasure’s likeliest hiding place. (The park’s rangers, who regularly arrest these hunters for unsanctioned digging, haven’t exactly expressed enthusiasm over the extra traffic. “People who choose to believe the treasure exists typically seem to be unprepared for wilderness conditions,” Yellowstone’s chief ranger Tim Reid told Earth magazine.) Dal Neitzel, a longtime searcher who has become Fenn’s de facto ambassador to the treasure-stalking public, told me of one woman who drove herself into bankruptcy with her manic Yellowstone explorations. “She was looking in the dumpsters behind the restaurants,” Neitzel said. “She rented a van with a wheelchair lift and used it to pull up a drain grate in a road that belonged to the city of West Yellowstone, until the cops came by.”
Neitzel’s website, to which Fenn often contributes, plays host to hundreds of regular hunters who hotly debate likely hiding spots; another forum, chasechat.com, has more than 33,000 posts devoted to The Thrill of the Chase alone. Some hunters can spout off the birthdates of every member of the Fenn family across six generations, along with the numerological clues that might be contained therein. Others have assembled detailed maps showing every site in the American West with “Brown” in its name.
With all the fruitless effort that has already been expended, one might suspect that the endeavor is futile — perhaps by design. Not so, says Fenn. Two separate search parties, to his certain knowledge, have been within a few hundred feet of the chest. And how does he know this? Because they told him where they’d been over email — though Fenn merely smiled to himself and withheld further comment.
Spend any amount of time in Fenn’s company and it becomes clear that the treasure hunt is, essentially, his full-time job. There is the ceaseless deluge of email —120 a day, arriving in a steady drumbeat of dings — which Fenn answers with the promptness of a Snapchatting teenager. There are the hundreds of letters and handcrafted tributes from searchers, all neatly filed on gray metal shelves in his garage. There are, of course, the reporters, incessantly asking for quotes and interviews. And then there are the callers, whom, to be fair, Fenn brought upon himself; early versions of the book included his home phone number.
Because Fenn feels he owes the treasure hunters something in return for their work, he’ll meet with most anyone for a cup of coffee at the bookstore downtown, where he can slip away if the conversation takes a worrying turn. (Ever since one disturbed searcher showed up at their home and refused to leave until police intervened, Fenn’s wife prefers to keep the treasure hunters away from the house.) “I hate to meet all of these guys,” Fenn told me as he hung up the phone, having just made another such appointment, “but I hate to tell ’em no.”
One person whom Fenn was pleased to see, however, was a searcher named Katya Luce. The first day I met with him, Fenn mentioned that he’d told a particularly devoted treasure seeker she could stop by — a woman, he said, who had moved from Maui to New Mexico just so she could hunt for the chest. This was hardly a ringing advertisement for Luce’s grip on reality, yet she turned out to be a pleasant and firmly sane middle-aged woman, fashionable in tight turquoise pants and a patterned blouse. As soon as she walked into the library, Fenn offered her a seat on an old American Indian drum — which didn’t really look like the sort of thing people should be sitting on — and began grilling her.
“So what’s your overall view of the treasure?” he asked.
“My overall view?” Luce replied, puzzled. She swept a lock of sun-bleached hair behind her ear. “I believe it’s still out there.”
“But you’ve wasted all of this time looking for it,” he pressed, a devilish grin on his face.
“Wasted? No, never. No regrets.”
“But you spent all your money looking for it.”
“I did,” she laughed. “I had to sell everything I had out in Hawaii and came out here basically with a bunch of clothes.”
“So you’re sorry because you haven’t found it.” Fenn looked over wryly to me. “I’m trying to get her to show us the downside.”
“The downside is I did spend a whole lot of money, though I still have a great metal detector,” Luce said. “But it’s changed my life.”
Luce first learned about Fenn’s treasure in 2013, when she was visiting New Mexico for a wedding and a friend handed her a copy of The Thrill of the Chase. Back in the early ’90s, Luce had worked at a Santa Fe gallery, so she recognized the name on the cover: “Who could forget Forrest Fenn?” She had always been fond of adventure (in years past, she was a professional hot-air-balloon pilot), but something about Fenn’s chase touched her. Without thinking twice, Luce extended her stay so she could begin the hunt.
“Oh my God, the thrill of the chase, it’s almost like a fever,” she told me, as Fenn looked on approvingly. “Sometimes I would pray for somebody to please just find it, so they could put us all to rest.” Luce estimates she has gone out on at least 50 separate treasure hunts, spending “maybe $15,000, including gas, lodging, and food” — though not including the hundreds of hours she’s spent studying everything from topographical maps to old fly-fishing books for clues. “After the first handful of searches where you go out and don’t find the treasure, then you get it: I’m out for adventure,” she said. “The treasure is what you discover along the way.”
The next afternoon, I made the twisty two-hour drive north to the small art-resort town of Taos, huddled below the knife-like Sangre de Cristo range, so Luce could show me one of her first attempted “solves.” After picking her up at the gallery where she works, we headed northwest, toward Manby Hot Springs. When you leave the confines of its cities, northern New Mexico grows very austere very quickly; the land comes to seem like varying altitudes of brown rock, interrupted by the occasional dark-green shrub. As I navigated over the mountainous ruts of a dirt road, Luce pondered the ups and downs of the chase.
“The summer before last, when I had a hunting partner, we really thought we nailed it,” she said. “There were so many times when we thought we were going to bring it home. You can feel it in your bones, your blood, your heartbeat.” At one point, Luce’s partner grew obsessed with the spillway of a dam near the town of Eagle Nest and went so far as to procure diving equipment. “We knew nothing about scuba gear,” Luce said. “She borrowed these oxygen tanks from a doctor, and thank God I Googled it and realized this would have completely killed us. So we ended up hiring a scuba-diver kid and made him sign an agreement that if he found it, we’d give him $20,000 after the treasure was sold.”
We parked on a high dusty flat beneath the jewel-bright sky and hiked down a rocky cliff side, worn away over millennia by the winding dirty-green Rio Grande below. On the other side of the canyon, faint against the dirt and stone, were the remains of an old stagecoach road. After a short downhill trek through the mucky snowmelt, we arrived at the hot springs — several small, clear pools abutting the murmuring river. Yet the only treasure to be found there was a trio of bearded, leathery-skinned naked men, who eyed us skeptically from the water.
“I pictured this as ‘where warm waters halt,’” Luce explained, looking studiously away from the skinny-dippers. “Then you’d go ‘in the canyon down,’ along the river, into the gorge.”
On the trail again, conversation veered back to Fenn, as it inevitably does. To find the treasure, Luce believes, you need to try to think like Fenn does — to see the land through his eyes, picture what might have appealed to him in his childhood treks to Yellowstone. She admits that when she first reached out to Fenn, she was hoping he’d drop a hint or two; these days, she just likes checking in.
“He’s got a great poker face about it,” she told me. “He wants to be encouraging to people, but I know he doesn’t want the game to be over.”
“Why do you think that?” I asked.
“Well, he’s having so much fun with it,” Luce replied. Then she went silent for a moment. When she continued, her voice was quieter. “And this is kind of his last hurrah. He loves his wife, but without this, I just don’t think he’d have as much to look forward to, you know? I think ... I think in a way, this is helping keep him going.”
Fenn always knew that on the day he finally hid his treasure, he would have to turn and walk away. Yet after two decades of planning, letting go proved surprisingly difficult. “In the back of my mind, I knew that if I was sorry tomorrow, I could go back and get it,” he told me one day. “The more I thought about that, I started laughing at myself, like, no, I’m not going to go back and get it. It’s probably the most profound thing I ever did in my life.”
To understand why Fenn found this so profound — and why he did it at all — it helps to understand his relationship with history. For most of us, the past is a dead thing: dried out, spent, inert. Yet for Fenn, it is just the opposite. Ever since he found his first arrowhead at age 9, he’s been an avid artifact collector, but not in the typical mold. Placing antiquities behind museum glass offends him; he wants people to touch and smell them, so they can participate in history. At his gallery, he’d let groups of schoolchildren run their fingers over the surface of $150,000 Gilbert Stuart portraits, much to the horror of their teachers. In his home, ancient treasures are as ubiquitous and accessible as Ikea picture frames. “Everything I have, you can pick it up and hold it,” he told me — even the most valuable relic he owns, Sitting Bull’s peace pipe, appraised at $1.1 million.
At times, this liberal (or, some would say, irresponsible) view of antiquity has landed Fenn in trouble. For his various artifact-hunting expeditions across the Southwest (which are at least theoretically legal, if a welter of strict rules are followed), some publications have characterized him as “a looter with good lawyers and deep pockets” — a shameless plunderer who “wasn’t just taking a treasure or two but returning to caves and stripping them clean.” On multiple occasions, federal agents, including representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Land Management, raided his home in search of illegally obtained relics but never turned up much. (A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment.)
Most controversial of all, however, is the excavating work he’s carried out at the San Lazaro Pueblo. Though he has touched only a minuscule fraction of the complex’s estimated thousands of rooms, the archaeological community has reacted with outrage at the idea of an amateur breaking ground in such an important site. (Fenn recently sold the property to a friend, but he remains involved in its excavation.) The author David Roberts, an expert on the Southwest’s ancient ruins, calls Fenn’s private digging “deplorable”; another, Craig Childs, wrote in his 2010 book Finders Keepers, “There are a good number of archaeologists who would not stop to help Fenn if his car had broken down on the side of the road.”
Characteristically, Fenn offers a full-throated defense of his participatory view of history. Often, this defense is less than convincing. When I asked him about the dangers of letting grimy-fingered kids touch a Gilbert Stuart portrait, for example, he replied, “There was no damage to the painting, so why not?” Yes, I wanted to reply, but what if there had been? Wouldn’t something irreplaceable have been lost forever? But at other times, his argument is surprisingly seductive. He’s no plunderer, he said, but a “caretaker” of the artifacts in his collection. “Go to the National Gallery or the Smithsonian, and they have 20 million things you can’t see,” he told me. Isn’t it better, he asked, to give people a chance to experience them serving the purpose for which they were created?
“I tell you what,” Fenn said at the end of our first afternoon together, hoisting himself up from the leather sofa. “I’ll give you a treat.” He shuffled over to one of the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that line his library and pulled out an old green bottle that I recognized immediately from Too Far to Walk, one of the nine other books he’s written.
“This is the Jackie Kennedy brandy,” I said, startled.
In June of 1984, Fenn lodged Kennedy in the guesthouse of his gallery, where she was a model visitor. “A lot of people stayed at my guesthouse, and she’s the only one who left my cleaning lady a $50 tip and a two-page handwritten letter,” he told me. When Kennedy departed, she left behind a mostly empty bottle of Korbel brandy, which now enjoys pride of place next to Fenn’s Air Force medals. In the past 30 years, he has offered sips from the bottle to only two people. He unscrewed its top and extended it to me.
“Now, you take a big swig, I’m gonna punch you out,” he warned.
I held the bottle for a moment, hesitating. Wasn’t this, in its way, a piece of American history? I took the tiniest volume of liquid that could plausibly be called a sip into my mouth, held it for a moment, and swallowed.
“So, do you feel different now?” Fenn asked.
I couldn’t say that I did. History tasted pretty much exactly like old brandy. Yet for the rest of my life, I’d be able to say I shared a drink with Jackie Kennedy.
“See, when I look at you taking a sip of this, I would think of you feeling like you’re on a different plateau,” Fenn said, grinning. “Because you’re part of it now. Instead of being a spectator, you’re a player.”
This, of course, is the true motive behind Forrest Fenn’s treasure: carving out a part to play in history. Read The Thrill of the Chase as a human document instead of as a mere treasure map and it grows obvious that Fenn is deeply concerned with what he will leave behind. The reader gets the unmistakable sense that when mortality stared him in the face, Fenn saw that he was going to become no more than another name on a gravestone, and he didn’t like it at all. For the next 20 years, then, he dedicated himself to crafting the ultimate personal monument — a treasure hunt with the aura of ancient myth, which could extend his life for centuries, if not longer. Egyptian pharaohs accomplished this with pyramids, Shakespeare with words; Fenn, inventively enough, hoped to live on through an adventure for the ages.
But to my shock, when I first posed this theory to Fenn, he denied it. “You’re talking about legacy?” he said. He shook his head dismissively. “People ask me about that a lot, and I have to say that I don’t feel that way. My philosophy is that when I’m gone, who cares anymore? If I died this week, it would not bother me at all if no one ever mentioned my name again.”
This seemed so blatantly untrue, I had to object. If he didn’t want to be remembered, why had he stuffed his sealed autobiography into the chest along with hairs plucked from his own head for carbon dating? Why had he been casting bronze bells and burying them in the desert for future generations to unearth? Why, on one of them, had he emblazoned the legend, “If you should ever think of me, a thousand years from now, please ring my bell so I will know”? Still, Fenn held firm.
Then, the next morning, once again to my surprise, he abruptly changed his stance.
“You can throw the word legacy back at me again,” he said, unprompted. “I was thinking about it last night.” He smiled craftily. “Maybe you’re right.”
Though its been more than 25 years since Fenn sold his gallery, he still has a tendency to stroll through it like he owns the place — which, spiritually speaking, he still does. As he gave me a tour of the complex on my last day in Santa Fe, Fenn seemed to have a story for every fixture and floorboard.
Here was the spot beside the courtyard where the Secret Service set up a machine gun when President Ford visited. There was where Steve Martin used to cover up the security camera in the guesthouse with his coat. Fenn still seemed to revel in the smallest details: the hidden art on the tiles in the steam room; the ornate intricacy of the antique doors (“17th-century Spanish,” he kept saying, almost like a catchphrase); the bricks from the Fort Worth stockyards, cracked by moseying cattle.
Out in the sculpture garden, Fenn beckoned me over and gestured toward the trunk of a thick white poplar tree. “See the F carved in there? That’s my initial.” The letter was barely legible now, a gray-brown knot that I never would have noticed if he hadn’t pointed it out. Fenn waved distastefully at another blur of gray, farther up the trunk. “There were other F’s there, but they’re obliterated now.”
Such ravages of time are often on his mind now that he’s nearing his 85th birthday, though Fenn remains matter-of-fact about the prospect of his days coming to an end. “If I get Alzheimer’s, I’m going to flag my calendar for six months from now and do it my own way,” he told me. “Hopefully at my last dying gasp I will still go back to that place and die at my favorite ...” He trailed off, perhaps wary of giving out a clue.
How would he feel, I had asked early on, if someone were to track down the treasure this week? Fenn had paused for a few seconds, almost crestfallen, before telling me that he would be OK with it. Later that last day, after we left the gallery and sat down to lunch at a bustling strip-mall grill, I brought it up again.
“Would you be disappointed if the treasure were found?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “because I’ve made up my mind that it’s none of my business anymore.… But I think a little part of me would be sad that everybody stopped looking.”
“Do you feel like you want the mystery to outlive you?”
He paused over his plate of double-fried oysters.
“Yeah. I think I would.”
But whatever somber note had crept into his voice evaporated when I observed that the treasure — one small chest hidden in a 3,000-mile-long mountain range — didn’t seem likely to be found anytime soon. The Fenn sparkle came back into his eye.
“Well, you don’t know where it is,” he said, grinning. “When somebody finds that treasure chest, everybody’s going to say, ‘My God! Why didn’t I think of that?’”