When Forrest Fenn, a wealthy New Mexico art dealer, hid a chest filled with old coins, golden relics and precious gems somewhere in the wilds of America in 2010 he set off a decade-long treasure hunt. The content was worth millions of dollars; even the chest was a treasure, a 12th century bronze Romanesque lockbox that had cost $25,000.
Those hunting the wealth had little to go on: a cryptic poem, some of Fenn’s personal writings, as well as clues given out in media appearances and a general geography (somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe). Still, that didn’t deter them. Over the following years hundreds and then thousands would scour the wilderness of states such as New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming searching for the riches. Many would empty their bank accounts in the process, others would destroy their marriages. A handful would die in tragic circumstances.
By some estimates, 350,000 people took part in the hunt, though that’s likely much higher than the real number and many did so from the comfort of their own homes, focusing on cracking the puzzle remotely. Still, diehard hunters undertook hundreds of trips into isolated and little explored regions in search of signs that could lead them to the elusive gold.
In Chasing the Thrill, Daniel Barbarisi, a former reporter with The Wall Street Journal, tries to straddle the line between journalist and treasure hunter as he plunges into the world created by Fenn, going out in search of the treasure and hanging out with the many characters involved in the hunt, chief among them Fenn himself.
Barbarisi first heard about the hidden treasure in 2017, seven years into the hunt. He soon became hooked, drawn in by the riches on offer, the community that had built up around the story and ultimately the man himself. Trying to find the treasure meant getting to know the details of Fenn’s life as well as his own. ‘It was an ego trip of historic proportions, sure, but also a fascinating move by a man whom I was starting to see as something of an enigma,’ writes Barbarisi. After a colourful life, a cancer diagnosis in his 50s led Fenn to consider going out on his own terms. His plan was to hide the chest and then overdose on sleeping pills, leaving his body and the treasure to be found by whoever could solve the clues. As it turned out, Fenn would survive his cancer scare, but the idea had been born and over the following decades he honed his plans, finally hiding the chest in 2010 when he was 80.
Barbarisi uses Fenn’s story as a leaping-off point to examine the history of treasure hunting more widely, from the Spaniards who scoured Northern America for rumoured golden cities in the 1500s, to those who continue to search for shipwrecked treasure beneath the seas. However, the book is ultimately the search for Fenn’s gold, as well as an attempt to understand the man who hid it and those who dedicated so much blood, sweat and tears to the hunt.
Through the book we also get a glimpse of the stunning beauty of the Rocky Mountains, including areas such as Yellowstone National Park, as well as the awesome scale (and dangers) of the natural world. Treasure hunters get washed away trying to cross the Rio Grande river, including a 52-year-old pastor. Government officials, at several points, demand the end of the hunt, to no avail.
Fenn’s claim to have hidden the treasure has come in for a fair amount of scepticism over the years, from those who believe it was all a con or a tax dodge, to those who accuse him of playing favourites, giving extra clues to those he likes more. Meanwhile, controversies frequently surface surrounding past run-ins with the law, as well as accusations of soliciting naked pictures from female treasure hunters, all of which only create further drama and divisions.
Fenn is just one of the colourful characters that populate Chasing the Thrill. Most of the hardcore hunters are eccentric and pleasant, if guarded, though the potential fortune does bring out the ugly side in some; one man was jailed for threatening the life of Fenn’s granddaughter. The controversies don’t stop when the treasure is eventually found. In fact, when the hunt finally ends it plunges the community into further uncertainty; anger grows when details of the victor and where the treasure was found are initially unforthcoming. Many hunters can’t let go, after dedicating so much of their lives to the search.
Chasing the Thrill is a fast-paced and exciting read, a book that revels in the beauty of the natural world but also highlights the sad fact that it took a material reward to get people to go out and explore. In many ways that was Fenn’s goal all along, to get people to reconnect with nature. In this he succeeds, and as readers we are all the richer for it.