The Legacy of the West’s Great Modern Treasure Hunt

Forrest Fenn treasure
The late Forrest Fenn sits in his home in Santa Fe, N.M. in 2016.Jeri Clausing/AP/Shutterstock

The facts of the famed Fenn Treasure Hunt are pretty well known. In 2010 Santa Fe, NM art dealer Forrest Fenn filled a chest with $2 million worth of gold and jewels, hid it somewhere in the Rocky Mountains and published a book and poem with clues to its location. Over the next decade tens, and maybe even hundreds, of thousands of people attempted to decipher the riddle to find it. Along the way, five people died and others became so obsessed that their lives imploded. It all came to a stuttering conclusion last year when Fenn announced the treasure had been found, but released few other details. Conspiracy theories and even lawsuits followed. Then Fenn died, prompting Jack Stuef, a 32-year-old medical student from Michigan, to come forward as the solver of the Fenn Treasure.

To most that was the end of the phenomenon, but Daniel Barbarisi says don’t count on it. The journalist and author spent two years on the hunt, interviewed Fenn and revealed Stuef to the world. He recounts it all in his new book Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt.

“In the book I sought to capture the spirit of the chase, the history of it and what it made people do,” he says. “What happens when you drop a treasure into the modern world? Why is there such a universal attraction? Why do people take it too far?”

Case in point, although the treasure was found in Wyoming more than a year ago, for some the hunt continues and a lot of questions remain. “It’s very much not over,” Barbarisi says.

We caught up with him to find out what he means.

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Men’s Journal: What was your experience hunting for the treasure like?
DANIEL BARBARISI: It was fun as hell. It wasn’t just some walk in the woods. You were out for a purpose. It’s a wonderful feeling. At the same time, there’s the pressure of being on a hunt and competing with others.

 

What was that like?
There’s something that happens. You’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money to get there. You’re running out of time and you know you should stop, but you have to see what’s over the next hill. You have to check this one more place. It gets really hard to stop. Even when it’s not safe. You know it’s not rational to cross the river, but you’ve got to do it. All the deaths that happened were different, but they all went too far and got unlucky.

 

Why did people get so obsessed with finding it?
It wasn’t just about the money. It was about solving the puzzle. For a lot of the hunters it took on a greater meaning: I’m in it because I want to gain validation over my life. If I find it, I get to wipe the slate clean, get rid of the past. If I pull it off, nothing else matters.

 

Did it happen to you?
On several occasions. The closest was in Yellowstone. We had this really good idea for a solve. You’re not supposed to go off the paths in the park. I mean there are geysers and bears out there. But we justified it to ourselves: Fenn would want us to. We’re already this far out. We’ll go just a little further.

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What part did Fenn as a person play?
What made it special and not repeatable is Fenn himself. He was very involved and interactive with the community. That changed the game. Access and getting to know him was important. It was fascinating to see how people would interpret his words. Fenn and I talked about this. He’d be talking about nothing, like what he had for lunch, and people would think it was a clue. He would send a video out to 10,000 people and hunters would tell me, ‘He’s talking directly to me.’ I think when you’re looking so hard for something it is easy to find it.

Part of what made the Fenn Treasure so interesting is the community of people who were hunting for it, both online and out in the woods. What has happened to them since the treasure was found?

The community is smaller, but maybe more active. The people who are into it are very, very into it. There are still people that doubt the existence of the treasure. I actually saw it; it does exist. And some hunters continue to search for the original location. Reverse-engineering it. They’re hoping to find a place where something used to be.

 

Why do you think they won’t let it go?
A lot of people have a lot of questions. What happens to the chest and its contents? Will they be sold as a lot or as individual items? What happens to Jack? What happens to the community? The story is still playing out in real time. Waiting for those answers will sustain it for a while.

 

Steuf has never revealed where the treasure was found. Do you think we will ever know the exact location?
Maybe. Over time it might come out. I think Fenn thought the location would eventually come out. Personally, I don’t want to know where it was. I don’t want people to come to me to find the answer. I don’t want to be responsible for what happens to the place.

 

When we look back in five or 10 years, what do you think the legacy of the Fenn Treasure will be?
I think there are multiple legacies. It isn’t universally good or bad—there’s a lot of gray. It gave a lot of people something to get excited about. Something to aspire to. It also ruined people’s lives, people died, it was a nuisance. It was a crazy phenomenon and it will have a complicated legacy.

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