CHEYENNE, Wyo. – They’ve been pulled from steep canyons and rushing rivers, sometimes no longer breathing, after chasing a cryptic poem’s clues and promise of treasure deep into the Rocky Mountains.
Now, many of those who’ve encountered imperiled or dead treasure seekers over the past decade have the same reaction to news that an unidentified person supposedly has found Forrest Fenn’s purported $2 million treasure at an undisclosed location.
“We are very happy,” said Dan Johnson, spokesman for Dinosaur National Monument.
A decorated U.S. Air Force fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and retired Santa Fe art and antiquities dealer, Fenn announced June 6 that a man from “back East” he didn’t know — and who didn’t want to be named — a few days earlier found the antique chest containing coins, gold nuggets and other valuables.
Fenn stashed the chest in 2010 somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe, in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming or Montana, he wrote in “The Thrill of the Chase,” a memoir with a 24-line poem he claimed led to the chest if deciphered.
Many seem to think the poem’s clues lead to Dinosaur National Monument, a rugged, desert area known for dinosaur fossils on the Utah-Colorado line near Wyoming. Treasure hunters have run into trouble there a couple times every year, Johnson said.
“Then there’s always the ones who won’t say that’s what they were actually doing. But we definitely had some inclination that’s what was going on,” Johnson said.
Last year, one pair of searchers in the monument got in trouble with a swimming-pool-grade raft on the treacherous Green River. Not far away, two treasure hunters using snowmobiles needed rescue twice this past February and March.
The second time, searchers found one of the men dead.
Rangers in no-less-auspicious areas such as Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park and adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest report no treasure-related rescues over the years. An official in northwestern Colorado doubted his local lookers were on the right track.
“It was not in these locations where people had been going and endangering themselves,” Moffat County sheriff’s Lt. Chip McIntyre said.
Fenn’s poem can be read to refer to a vast number of locations in the region. The opening lines say, “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.” They could mean “go NE @ lone in” and refer to Montana’s Lone Indian Peak; Gold Run and Gold Prize creeks are about 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the northeast.
Or maybe Fenn was referring to Soldiers Chapel, a quaint church gorgeously framed by Lone Mountain near Big Sky, Montana, and perfectly aligned in the opposite direction with Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming.
In any case, Fenn, 89, drastically reduced potential hiding spots by saying repeatedly the 40-pound (18-kilogram) treasure was neither in a dangerous location nor one where a 79-year-old man couldn’t schlep it alone. But plenty of searchers who took Fenn at his word that he indeed hid a treasure nonetheless forgot, disregarded or didn’t hear about that promise about accessibility.
In January, treasure hunter David Christensen, of Winamac, Indiana, needed rescue after rappelling deep into Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. He pleaded guilty in March to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to seven days in jail. An attempt to reach Christensen by phone Friday was unsuccessful.
Just east of Yellowstone in Park County, Wyoming, a Virginia woman needed rescue three times — in 2013, 2015 and 2016, the Billings Gazette reported.
Treasure hunters who discovered the outdoors will hopefully continue to do so “with preparation and safety in mind,” Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said in a statement Friday.
“You have lightning, bears, cliffs, thermal areas. Lodgepole pine trees aren’t known for staying standing — they come down easy. There have been people killed by all of those methods over the years,” said backcountry guide Jim Holstein with Yellowstone Tour Guides in Big Sky. “You definitely have to be prepared and you should know what you’re doing.”
At least four people have died pursuing the treasure. Linda Bilyeu, the ex-wife of one, voiced bitter doubt Fenn hid the treasure, let alone that it was found.
“It’s another game for him to get back into the news so he could get more attention,” Bilyeu told The Associated Press. “Enough people have died because of that selfish man.”
During the search for Randy Bilyeau in 2016 — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found his remains along the Rio Grande River in northern New Mexico — his relatives and New Mexico State Police pleaded for Fenn to call off the hunt.
Fenn refused, saying that would be unfair to those who spent time and money looking for the chest. Fenn has not returned messages from The Associated Press and other news media since announcing the treasure was found.
A photo not made public confirmed the chase was over, Fenn told the Santa Fe New Mexican.
“It was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago,” Fenn said in a statement on his Old Santa Fe Trading Co. website.
He promised “more information and photos” in the days ahead.
The statement — especially the “canopy of stars” part — has settled little for avid Fenn treasure hunters in online forums: They want to know the solution. But McIntyre in Moffat County was glad that the treasure is put to rest through discovery.
“We are relieved that it’s been found and hopefully people won’t be out endangering themselves,” McIntyre said.
Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.
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