AP Photo/Jeri Clausing
We were told there’d be gold.
And “treasures bold,” according to the viral poem by New Mexico millionaire art collector Forrest Fenn. Appearing in his self-published 2010 memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, each of the six stanzas rachets up that titular thrill, opening:
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.
The lines are rendered in trochaic octameter, a little-used poetic rhythm more commonly associated with Edgar Allen Poe, and conjuring up that trademark supernatural atmosphere (“Once upon a midnight dreary”). Contained within, allegedly, are nine clues to a locked bronze chest hidden somewhere deep in the Rocky Mountains. Suppose you found it: over 20 pounds’ worth of sapphires and diamonds, rubies and emeralds, Pre-Columbian animal artifacts and ancient Chinese carved faces, a 17th-century Spanish ring, and yes, lots and lots of gold, sizable nuggets and coins by the hundreds.
Now, after a decade-long crazed search, resulting in a handful of deaths and at least one emergency rescue by chopper, it has been found.
The winner has chosen to remain anonymous, for fear of public outcry (or worse). Referred to simply as the man from “back East,” he’s a millionaire overnight—subject of course to appropriate taxation and pending lawsuits, including one against Fenn for “misleading clues.”
Was it all worth it?
According to the authorities, who were suddenly charged with monitoring the tens if not hundreds of thousands of crazy-enough treasure hunters, each of them setting off into the wilderness somewhere between “where warm waters halt” and “the canyon down” (but “not too far to walk”), with nothing but those cryptic lines of a first-time poet’s singsongy ABAB for guide—well, no.
“He’s putting lives at risk,” cried chief of New Mexico State Police, Pete Kassetas. That was back in 2017, when he was urging Fenn to call the whole thing off.
Fenn’s response: “If someone drowns in the swimming pool, we shouldn’t drain the pool.” Adding, somewhat unhelpfully, “We should teach people to swim.”
Perhaps we’ve all been played the fool. The quixotic quest certainly smacks of tilting at windmills (the chest itself is apparently carved with “Castle of Love” reliefs, featuring knights fighting over maidens). And just as Cervantes’ Knight Errant ends up pantsless in the woods doing somersaults, his trusty sidekick no longer able to bear the sight of his “adventurous” master, we ought to expect little more of our own unbridled spirit. Certainly there are those just happy this thing is over with.
But upon closer inspection, this mad caper reveals something deeper about human nature than mere greed and gullibility. The real journey Fenn appears to have been inviting us on—appears in fact to have been on himself—is an inward one, and the true rewards are yet to be claimed, at least if the latest sensational coverage is any indication.
Back in 1988, the Vietnam vet was diagnosed with terminal cancer. But he wasn’t looking for any worthy heir to the Old Santa Fe Trading Co fortune (estimated $6 million yearly gross). Nor was he conspiring to boost sales for his memoir (now a whopping $61.01, plus shipping, on Amazon). This was, as they say, never about the money.
Fenn was simply looking for a place to die.
The idea was to go off into the woods with his treasure, to the pre-chosen spot alluded to in the poem, then take some pills and lie down with the gold. What he didn’t expect was that he’d make a full recovery—and, over the next twenty years living with this unhatched plan, undergo a change of heart as well.
No longer did he want to take it all down with him, as a friend jested. Now he wanted to give it all away.
Instead of making one last trip into the woods, then, in 2010 he made two: the first to deliver the Romanesque chest, the second to deliver its weighty contents. Over forty pounds in total, the loot he decided had to be left in a place even an octogenarian could get to.
Apparently, that was “under a canopy of stars,” Fenn wrote on his website, announcing the mysterious “back East” winner. The poem “led him to the precise spot.” But if that sounds romantic, like the perfect happy ending to this story, the truth is that Fenn’s feelings were somewhat bittersweet. “I don’t know,” he said recently. “I feel halfway kind of glad, halfway kind of sad because the chase is over.”
Understanding this sentiment—that the journey matters more than the destination, even when X marks the spot of $3 million—is the key to unlocking the real treasure, in the form of Fenn’s lessons for life and leadership.
Among our most prevalent myths, the Hero’s Journey describes virtually every narrative from Gautama Buddha to Bilbo Baggins. The story goes that we move from the known world of nine-to-fives (or 24/7s in COVID time) to the unknown, where normal rules no longer apply and all our outer problems of work and relationships and spotty wi-fi get seen for what they really are: problems with ourselves. Facing our own demons, we eventually triumph and resurface from that down-the-rabbit-hole tumble with some “inner treasure” to share.
This was, arguably, at the heart of Fenn’s poem. Since only one (if any) of us could ever claim the actual treasure, there had to be something in it for the rest of us. And that was, according to Fenn, that after our plunge into the unknown we continue “to be drawn by the promise of other discoveries.” The pot of gold turned out to be a MacGuffin, that coveted object with no real value in and of itself, only acting as a vehicle to further the plot—get us out of our comfort zone, thrilling to the chase.
What, after all, was in it for the old man relinquishing his precious metals? Writing as only one who’s got a second lease on life can, free of earthly attachments and attuned to what matters most—giving, letting go, accepting come what may—on the inside:
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.
The truth is, that we can’t take our riches with us to the grave. Fenn realized this and spurred an adventure that, with any luck, will help us realize this too. Perhaps the riches that can’t be stashed away in a locked box—that generosity of spirit, for one—might be among those we can start leaving each other clues for now.