Forrest Fenn’s Treasure

Forrest Fenn’s Treasure

Imagine turning over a log somewhere in the Rocky Mountains and finding this…

All you have to do is follow a trail of clues from “where warm waters halt” until you identify a mysterious “blaze”, then look down. A box packed full of gold and jewels could be yours.

I am regularly contacted by people who alert me to potential adventures. In late 2012, an email brought the tale of an eccentric millionaire who had supposedly hidden a treasure in the Rocky Mountains “somewhere north of Santa Fe”. (I have lost track of who sent the email, if it was you please let me know so I can give you credit!). This modern legend is now well known, so I’ll just say that Forrest Fenn wrote a poem containing nine clues that are claimed to lead to his treasure – if followed precisely.

Of course I was intrigued, but too busy to pursue it at the time. My time is valuable, and so I wanted to satisfy myself that the treasure was real, that it wasn’t going to be found too quickly (except by me!), and that it was indeed solvable and findable. Initial investigations were promising, and around Easter 2013 I was fortunate enough to find myself in the home of Forrest and his lovely wife Peggy in Santa Fe. While Forrest rightly remained deadpan and gave nothing away, I was impressed by his sharpness and I left convinced that the treasure was worth spending some time searching for. Better still, as I later wrote to Forrest, I left with the handshake of a man who has become a modern legend in the mould of D B Cooper.

I have traveled from the UK to the Rocky Mountains more than a few times, ingraining wonderful memories, learning lots and literally unearthing unexpected treasures. I feel that I have discovered things about the hunt that nobody else has, whether they lead to the treasure or not. I’m a great believer in keeping my mouth shut unless I have something important to say, but I do enjoy reading other people’s thoughts online, and contributing anonymously to related forums and blogs from time to time. Right now, nine years after Forrest Fenn’s treasure hunt began, there is rarely anything new. Thoughts and comments appear in regular cycles as would-be treasure hunters come and go with the ebb and flow of media releases.

Today I felt like writing down some of my thoughts on the repetitive ideas and comments that I have read. As time goes by, I will edit this post to add to my thoughts, and sometimes to correct them in the light of new evidence.

You may not agree with what I write, but I have spent a lot of time researching and tracking this treasure and following associated stories, I have been involved in more than the obvious elements of it, and I have a reasonable amount of success in solving puzzles that lead to these sorts of treasures.

General thoughts:

As I have said, I believe that the treasure is out there.

Forrest Fenn has had a remarkable life, he is a remarkable character and it’s quite something that he has put together a treasure and hidden it somewhere for others to find. The idea is not new or unique, but it is quite something.

To me, the world changes when I am treasure hunting – things look brighter, the world takes on a new and exciting character. Treasure hunting brings lots of benefits. I was the first to say that we should enjoy the journey and not just the destination in Forrest’s hunt. But…

If you’re just in the treasure hunt for “the thrill of the chase”, and you would like it to last forever, what is the real point? And aren’t you subconsciously sabotaging your chances of finding it if you don’t want it to end? Why would your subconscious brain serve up a solution if you’re also telling it that you don’t want the hunt to end? Yes, enjoy the journey and not just the destination, but be in it to find the treasure!

So many times, I hear that “the real treasure was the adventure/mounains/wilderness/friendship”. I know this will seem mercenary, but I have discussed this with some of the most successful treasure hunters I know, and they all agree that the best mindset to adopt is the one where the real treasure is the treasure! We have plenty of other “treasures” in our lives, none of them involve lumps of gold or cryptic poems…

On a related note, I see people talk about having multiple “solves” in case one doesn’t “pan out”. If you have multiple guessed solutions, it really would be better just to stay at home. When Vikings reached the shore of a foreign land that they wished to conquer, they burned their boats. By taking away their only means of retreat, they had a bigger incentive to push forward. In the First World War, one of the reasons why Royal Flying Corps pilots were not issued with parachutes was because the Air Board felt that “the presence of such an apparatus might impair the fighting spirit of pilots”…

Same with treating the hunt like a holiday. If you’re planning to mainly go fishing, you’re not really a treasure hunter. In my opinion, you’d be better spending your time, money and focus on a fishing holiday that is closer to home.

Same with failure. If you fail to find the treasure on a trip, you have failed. It’s as simple as that. I know that Thomas Edison’s team used multiple failures to eventually develop a functional lightbulb, but they were finding things out as they went along, and experimenting in a scientific way. With this treasure hunt, it doesn’t work that way – unless you are genuinely finding things that will improve your solution as you go along – and I don’t see evidence of that happening.

Try not to be black-and-white in your thinking about Forrest Fenn and the treasure hunt. While Forrest has said that he crafted the poem for 15 years, and he felt like an architect, this doesn’t mean that it’s a brilliant treasure hunt. I have solved treasure hunts where the authors thought that their solutions were fantastic, and they weren’t – they were really bad.

I can tell you that Forrest Fenn is a scarily smart individual. This is fact. But he worked on the poem in his own mind for 15 years, with no way of checking how good it was. To our knowledge, he has never set any similar puzzles or challenges, and other than anecdotal evidence of his interest in cryptic crossword puzzles, we have no idea if he has ever even tried to solve a puzzle like his own. Add in The Curse of Knowledge, and that’s not a good recipe….

People talk about pitting wits with Forrest, but as a hunt-setter myself, that doesn’t fit. Forrest would not have written the poem if he didn’t want us to use it to find his treasure. So his job is to lead us to his treasure. If he just wanted to “win”, he could simply have written an impossible hunt (thought he may have actually done this anyway).

I think that we are really working with Forrest, and Forrest is working with us, to find his treasure. If he does not eventually lead somebody to it using the poem, Forrest has failed. I think he has succeeded at pretty much everything that he has put his mind to, so there is that to think about…

Forrest would probably agree that he is not the saint and genius that many point him out to be. Nor is he the devil, but he is human and is subject to the temptations and foibles of humans.

Some argue that Forrest has never assisted individuals searching for his treasure, and the argument usually given is “because they would have found it by now”. This is not a good argument. Somebody could find the chest tomorrow, having had the advantage of Forrest’s help, however small.

I have seen people say that there are “no rules” and that Forrest can do what he wants. I don’t agree. If nothing else, there are the “rules” of human decency. People have spent time and money looking for his treasure, some have even lost their lives. While no purchase is necessary, we have been encouraged to buy Forrest’s Thrill of the Chase book to help us to interpret the clues. We all deserve a level playing field.

I’ll repeat that treasure hunting and especially treasure unearthing is a fantastic way to spend time. But to balance this, I have seen the worse side of treasure hunts. More than half the hunts I have participated in have concluded in a bad way. With some, the prize never existed, and the hunt was terminated, often with a very poor excuse given. Sometimes, the winner hasn’t even existed, or has been a stooge. Sometimes the hunt-setter has been persuaded to hand over the prize without it being won fairly. Treasures have been found accidentally. Treasures have not been claimed because the hunt was too vague. You get the idea.

Oh, talking about bad things that happen. Yes, the hunt-setter should accept some responsibility for the bad as well as good things that come from the hunt. Some argue against this, saying that many people get injured and lost in the Rocky Mountains every year. But… people who enjoy outdoor pursuits and adventure are often those with a leaning to these things, and at least some knowledge and physical capability. The thought of treasure is wonderfully thrilling, and can make people who would not normally do so, get out into nature. That is a great thing, but it means that those people may be more unreasonably compelled or even obsessed, and their capabilities may not match the challenges that the mountains throw out.

If the hunt-setter encourages rule-bending and a maverick attitude, this compounds the issue – because any further “rules” about keeping safe in the mountains and where not to go can lose their meaning. “Aha!”, some people think. “If he says not to go into a bear cave, that’s exactly what we should do!”. If you think I am exaggerating about this sort of behaviour, I strongly recommend digging into the book Quest for the Golden Hare by Bamber Gascoigne. Back in 1979, Bamber witnessed the burial of the Masquerade treasure that was the fore-runner to Forrest’s hunt (and incidentally, the inspiration for many tens of similar hunts before Forrest’s). As well as the burial, Bamber researched and recorded the behaviour of many who became obsessed by the search for the Masquerade treasure. Yes, hunters have to accept responsibility for themselves, but we must consider that sometimes the search can become an unhealthy compulsion that is no more the hunter’s fault than other mental health issues would be. (I’m sorry to be so dark about this but I love our pastime and I feel very protective of fellow hunters).

Forrest can be poor at getting precise information across. As a fighter pilot, I am sure that he was very good at transferring vital information to others, but as an art salesman I suspect that he got used to talking in a vague way so that people would think that they understood what he was saying. Forrest has said things like “what does it matter what words I use if somebody understands what I am saying?”. On the face of it, this sounds logical and reasonable, but if you think about it, it’s paradoxical. Of course it doesn’t matter if somebody understands what he is saying, but in the vast majority of cases (I have tested this on blogs and forums) nobody can agree on what he is saying. So in this case, it does matter which words he uses!

The “orthodoxy” of the treasure hunt

People say that all solutions are equal until someone is in possession of the treasure chest. This doesn’t make sense. If I decide to base my solution on the number of hairs on your dog’s tail then it’s doesn’t have much merit. Equally, not possessing the chest is not a valid reason to reject somebody else’s ideas. When I have set hunts, and followed the discussions of people trying to solve them, I have seen small parts of the solutions posted by individuals. If these were put together, somebody could find my treasure, and I am sure this is true of Forrest’s hunt. The parts of the solution are probably out there already, it’s just that nobody has put them all together.

Talking of “solution”, that is the correct noun. “Solve” is not a noun. You can’t have a “solve”. At best you have can have a solution. But even then, you don’t really have a solution unless you have the correct solution.

There is incessant talk about a “lead searcher”. And there is as much incessant talk about there not being a lead searcher, because we can’t possibly know who it is. But of course there is a searcher out there who is closer to finding the treasure than anyone else. And of course nobody including Forrest can be sure who this is. So it really is pointless discussing it. So I shouldn’t have said that.

A small detail – the treasure poem talks of a blaze. Some say that a trail can be a blaze, because one can “blaze a trail”. This is not logical, and makes no sense in the English language. A blaze can be used to mark a trail. A blaze can’t be the trail.

More lighthearted thoughts

Why would anybody say “doub-le-U doub-le-U doub-le-U aitch” when “where warm waters halt” is what the architect wrote, and is much less of a mouthful – with only half the syllables?!

Why say “boots on the ground” instead of “in the field” or “hunting”? My boots are generally on the ground even when I am sitting comfortably in my armchair. (I do know the origins of the phrase, but I don’t have to like it or think that it’s relevant here ;-)).

-Shaun