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A dud of an ending (so far) to Fenn’s treasure hunt

Forrest Fenn released this photo, which he said shows a treasure chest filled with valuables that he stashed somewhere in the Rocky Mountain region a decade ago. Fenn said in June that someone from “back east” had finally found the chest. (Courtesy of Dal Neitzel)

It’s time to take a break from the big news – the pandemic, upheaval over racial injustice and the potential postponement of, or civil war over, an American presidential election – and return to Forrest Fenn.

Fenn, of course, is the Santa Fe antiquities collector/dealer and raconteur who famously announced a decade ago that he had stashed an antique chest full of gold coins and other valuables somewhere in a multi-state Rocky Mountain region north of Santa Fe. As part of a memoir, he published a poem said to include clues to where the loot could be found.

The lure of a real treasure hunt became a national sensation and many, many people – estimates have run up to hundreds of thousands – joined the chase. At least four people died looking for Fenn’s gold, including two in the Rio Grande in New Mexico.

The internet became full of theories about the treasure’s whereabouts and what the Fenn faithful call “solves” to the poem’s puzzle. While most of the searchers were good-natured and loved Fenn for creating a whole new pastime, others turned on Fenn and claimed the hunt was always a hoax, or that he had moved the treasure from where the poem indicated it would be. There are at least two lawsuits based on such theories, and Fenn has been stalked by some of the most avid and least sane treasure hunters.

In June, Fenn announced that the chest had finally been found by someone from “back East,” but he wouldn’t say where the chest had been stashed. He added that he had “always said” that the finder would get to decide whether to identify himself or herself and say where the chest was located.

Fenn subsequently released a picture of a weather-worn treasure chest filled with what appear to be gold coins. He said the treasure finder provided the picture. Just recently, he specified that the treasure had been found in Wyoming to “bring some closure to those whose solves were in New Mexico, Colorado, or Montana.”

None of this means that we’ll never find out where, precisely, the treasure was. The best guess is that the finder will eventually come forth – maybe making a big splash on television or with a book – and we’ll finally know what some of those vague clues in Fenn’s poem mean. The poem said for hunters to begin “where the warm waters start” and “put in below the home of the Brown,” on their way to somewhere with “heavy loads and water nigh” and a “blaze.” The Yellowstone region has been a prime suspect.

But the details of the winning solve also may never emerge. That would be a sad and unsatisfactory end to this adventure story. Was it really all a hoax created to sell books or bring Fenn fame, or just to get people out to enjoy and hike through the Rockies?

One problem with full disclosure, judging from the fantaticism of some Fenn treasure hunters, is that the finder would be faced with more than just celebratory fanfare and at least 15 minutes of fame. Fenn’s critics and doubters would certainly jump full force into a new search – an intense background check of the so-called finder, trying to figure out whether he or she ever had connections with Fenn or otherwise had an unfair advantage in the hunt. If Fenn and this person were ever in the same state at the same time some time in their lifetimes, conspiracy theories would abound.

Let’s all hope a genuine, verified, unassailable Fenn treasure finder soon steps into the limelight, tells us how he succeeded in solving Fenn’s poem and then survives unscathed.

With all the national media attention and speculation the treasure hunt generated, this dud of a conclusion (for now) is just no fun.