They called it “the solve.” The solution to a puzzle created by a Santa Fe art dealer named Forrest Fenn, who had hidden a chest full of treasure somewhere in the Southwest and published a book containing a seemingly nonsensical poem that, when deciphered, provided clues to the treasure’s whereabouts. Everyone searching for the chest, reputed to be worth a good $1 million, had a “solve.” And everyone of those thousands of treasure hunters—no one knows for sure how many there were—was convinced their “solve” was the one and only way to success.
“It was essentially a get rich quick scheme where everyone thinks they can get rich,” says Daniel Barbarisi, author of Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death and Glory In America’s Most extraordinary Treasure Hunt. “Everyone I dealt with [involved with the hunt] was convinced they were going to find the treasure,” he adds. “I was constantly surprised how confident the people I dealt with were in their solution.”
Barbarisi’s wildly entertaining book is many things: a history of treasure hunting throughout history (pirate gold!), in literature (Treasure Island) and film (the Indiana Jones movies), plus the story of the ten-year long Fenn phenomenon, the cult it created, and the complicated man who started it all. It’s also a love song to the glories of adventure in a world which seems to have forgotten what it’s like to dream.
The treasure hunt was, it turns out, initially a bizarre suicide plot in which Fenn, who thought he was dying of cancer, would take the chest to a special spot, then kill himself. But he got better, and in 2010 decided to hide the chest anyway.
“We were just heading into a recession,” Fenn said of his decision. “Despair was written all over the newspapers. So I did it to give those people hope. My audience is every redneck from Texas who lost his job, has a pickup and a bedroll. That’s who I hope will read my book and go out and look for the treasure.”
The chase didn’t really take off until three years later, however, when it was featured in an episode of The Today Show. Then came the deluge: Fenn-related blogs and YouTube videos popped up (one blogger even claimed Fenn or his brother was the famous plane hijacker D.B. Cooper); the state of New Mexico created a tourism campaign around the search; some people died while on the hunt (a total of five succumbed to various accidents), and Fenn himself was accused of sexual misconduct by several female fans.
It all took on the flavor of a cult, with searchers desperate to gain access to Fenn, who seemed to enjoy the fame and notoriety. And given that the majority of searchers were Republican males of retirement age who drove big trucks and were devout Christians, the comparisons to Trumpism were inevitable.
“This situation that he created, to find the treasure they had to be obsessed with him,” says Barbarisi. “If that’s not a cult, then what is? And the fact he involved himself so much, the Trump America parallel has been made. It’s there.”
Yet the parallels end there. Fenn did tend to mythologize his own past, and had happy memories of what he saw as a simpler America, which, says Barbarisi, is “not a world everyone wants to idealize, and you can see how that might appeal to some groups over others. But Fenn wasn't even a Trumper. He cast a write-in vote for Harry Truman in the 2016 election, and he was none too pleased with a lot of what he saw going on in Trump's America during the times I interviewed him.”
Still, that cult atmosphere existed, and seemed to come to a head with the annual Fennboree, a sort of Burning Man for the searcher world held in the mountains outside Santa Fe and a celebration of all things Fenn. It was here that about 150 cultists met, exchanged treasure hunting tips, and paid obeisance to the “Golden Fenn,” a Captain America action figure painted gold, with a large F emblazoned in its chest. There were a lot of firearms in the crowd, Marine and Army bumper stickers, plenty of tattoos, and Trump paraphernalia.
“Everybody wanted to tell you what they think, they wanted to show off to you,” says Barbarisi. “Everybody’s conclusion was completely valid, or invalid, whichever way you wanted to look at it. I thought a lot of these people saw this chest as a way to prove themselves. These were people looking for something in their lives, and there are worse things to believe in.”
All during this time, certain undercurrents came to the surface that made the Fenn phenomenon more complex, and sometimes scarier, than anyone initially imagined. At least one person broke into Fenn’s house looking for the treasure, and another stalked Fenn’s granddaughter on multiple occasions (Fenn himself estimated that 7 percent of the searchers were nut jobs). Negative consequences of the ultimate find popped up: potential death threats from disgruntled losers, and legal ramifications depending on where the chest was found (public, private, or tribal lands), tax issues, you name it.
This negativity even affected Barbarisi, who went out on several hunts. He was accused of "solve stealing," and became the subject of a conspiracy theory that, thanks to his access as a journalist, he was to be a sacrificial lamb in a Fenn plot to keep the treasure from people he disliked—Barbarisi was going to be with a favored hunter when the chest was found, and was there to confirm it.
“The more time I spent on the hunt,” says Barbarisi in the book, “the more I’d come to believe that those fringe elements could be genuinely dangerous to whoever finally found the box.”
And then there were the deaths. After the second one, pressure was put on Fenn to end the hunt, which he refused to do. Instead, he simply narrowed down the potential search area. “He had competing interests there,” says Barbarisi. “He cared about the people who died and felt bad about it. But he also wanted to protect his hunt. He believed in his hunt, thought it would be a force for good. He was weighing the deaths in relation to the larger enterprise. These were two things he cared about, and they were in conflict.”
On June 6, 2020, it was announced that the box had been found. The lucky searcher was Jack Stuef, a 32-year-old Michigan native and medical student, who discovered it in an undisclosed location in Wyoming. The chest, which contained gold coins and nuggets, jewels, Chinese and Native American artifacts, and other goodies, was valued at anywhere from $555,000 - $1.3 million. According to Barbarisi, Stuef, who has gotten a more positive response to the find than he expected—along with some threats and conspiracy theories—has begun the process of looking to auction the treasure.
Fenn died that September, aged 90. There are still questions about whether he was happy the chest was found in his lifetime, or not. But if nothing else, he will be remembered for the last decade of his life, when he gave the world what Barbarisi calls “the latest tale in a very long story; it’s the evolution of people seeking things. When people read this book, I want them to think adventures are real. I wanted to believe in adventure, and it’s out there.”