It all started with a book, Coronado’s Children, that recounted (alleged) tales of forgotten treasures in the wilds of west Texas. I first came across it at an early age – maybe eight or nine. And I was immediately hooked, poring over old road maps, drawing anally-precise little Xs on the most likely locations of the concealed bullion and mislaid bags of stolen bank loot. From the sound of it, these riches were stashed in every hollow tree stump and under every rock pile in the region. So I began to scrimp and save, buying a cheap metal detector a few years later. Mail order, no less. I may have wet myself when it finally arrived; bright red control box and coil, a pair of adjustable dials to fine-tune for precise depths and metals (coins, nuggets, ingots), the detection meter with its bouncing needle – it was like a Geiger counter on steroids. I hurriedly popped a nine volt battery in and ran to the backyard.
But my glittering dream soon lost its luster, as every beep issued by my new toy turned out to be a bottle cap or rusty nail rather than the lost gold of the Incas as I envisioned. And I cursed the gods who saw fit to strand me in Michigan, a place seldom frequented by pirates or stagecoach robbers looking to hide their ill-gotten fortunes. I was convinced that if I could just get myself, my map and my electronic marvel to El Paso, then, like Ginger Rogers, I’d be singing “We’re In the Money.”
The metal detector is long since gone, and my one trip to west Texas was little more than a drive-through, though it did make me realize that there would be ample hiding places for a cache of cash in those miles of deserted, scrub-covered hills.
And now, along comes Forrest Fenn. A self-proclaimed collector and adventurer, he (allegedly) squirreled away a box of gold, gems and other trinkets somewhere amongst the rugged spires of the American west. And to help narrow the search, he’s woven a handful of cryptic clues to its whereabouts into several stanzas of mangled verse published in a book called The Thrill of the Chase.
Nonsensical rhyme aside, this is the sort of thing I have waited for since those days in suburban Detroit, slowly sweeping that metal detector to and fro, listening for a telltale chirp in the headphones that would send me to my knees, garden trowel at the ready, giddy with anticipation over the bonanza I was about to unearth.
It would appear I am not alone. The story has been featured by The Today Show, Newsweek and NPR among others, sending hoards of modern-day children of Coronado into the countryside looking for the prize, as many as 65,000 by one estimation. Fenn claims he did this to get people off the couch and outdoors again, so on that point he appears to have nailed it. But now the body count is starting to climb. A 54-year old from Colorado, by all accounts a ‘regular’ on the trail of Fenn’s treasure, disappeared in January of last year while poking around in the hills near Santa Fe, New Mexico. His remains were found several months later near the banks of the Rio Grande. Then another treasure-seeker’s corpse was plucked from the same river earlier this summer, and just recently a third turned up floating in the Arkansas River. Yes, they were all adults and yes, they died in pursuit of something they loved, but I also think it’s worth noting that Indiana Jones didn’t do his own stunts.
I doubt any of this is what Fenn, now in his eighties, ever expected. And before he decides to call off the hunt to avoid legal repercussions – by simply revealing the location of the gold, one would assume – I’ve decided to go have a look for myself. In fact, I already did.
It’s something I’ve considered ever since first catching wind of it a few years ago. Still, after scrutinizing terrain on Google Earth (stretching from northern New Mexico to the Canadian border) and convincing myself of possible locations, I didn’t head out with shovel in hand because, well, it’s not what grownups do. “I’m on a treasure hunt,” seems a foolish response when people ask what I’m up to these days. Especially considering my time might be better spent looking for a job.
Hell, for all I know it may already be gone. People have been combing the west since 2010, when Fenn first published his book and poem. There is certainly a chance that someone may have come across it and just slipped quietly away. Fenn estimates its value at somewhere between one million and two million dollars, so bragging about having unearthed that sort of windfall might not be advisable. I imagine it wouldn’t take long for the taxman (followed closely by a bevy of coattail relations and salivating conmen) to beat a path to your door once your ‘look what I found’ selfie hit social media.
Yet all the while, that excited kid digging for Spanish doubloons in the backyard has been asking, “What the hell are you waiting for?” Then my wife flew back to Michigan to be with family for the Memorial Day weekend, and suddenly I had several days all to myself. A quick calculation revealed that the odds of locating Fenn’s chest in roughly 300,000 square miles of wilderness were still slightly better than – at my age – finding employment, and my ‘search zone’ was only four hours from DIA, so…
Okay, now I’ve come clean. Yes, that was the reason for my brief trip to New Mexico a few weeks back. But rather than singing like Ginger Rogers, my efforts prompted more of a Yukon-Cornelius-after-licking-his-pickaxe reaction – nothin’! Nothin’, that is, except for some pleasant hiking in the shadow of Wheeler Peak, a star-filled night and a camp meal fit for a king.
Barring my own reality series on the Discovery Channel, I don’t plan to make a habit of this – there are too many other things still to accomplish. But should the opportunity arise now and then, I might just mosey into the mountains for a few days, sleep on the ground, revel in a cup of hot coffee as the sun comes up, and take in the scenery. And if I find that other treasure I’ve been dreaming of all these years, well, that will be like icing on the cake.