My friend Forrest Burke Fenn passed away at the age of 90 earlier this month, and if I have anything to say about it, far too soon.
September 8 was certainly not the first time Forrest made me cry.
I am the person who found Forrest’s famed treasure. The moment it happened was not the triumphant Hollywood ending some surely envisioned; it just felt like I had just survived something and was fortunate to come out the other end. For so long, I thought I might be haunted for the rest of my days by knowing where the treasure was but being unable to find it. Would I still be out there in that section of forest 50 years from now looking for it? When I finally found it, the primary emotion was not joy but rather the most profound feeling of relief in my entire life.
I figured out the location where he wished to die (and thus, where his treasure was) back in 2018, but it took me many months to figure out the exact spot. This treasure hunt was the most frustrating experience of my life. There were a few times when I, exhausted, covered in scratches and bites and sweat and pine pitch, and nearing the end of my day’s water supply, sat down on a downed tree and just cried alone in the woods in sheer frustration.
I spent about 25 full days of failure looking for the treasure at that location before getting it.
When I got back to my rental car after the find, I put my hands on the steering wheel and bawled my eyes out. Then I remembered Forrest said the person who found the chest would either laugh out loud or start crying.
I realized he had been right and started to get annoyed that I still couldn’t stop his quotes from popping into my head even after the chase was finally done.
I laughed at myself for getting annoyed. Then I realized I had just fulfilled his other premonition about laughing out loud.
In the weeks after, I still couldn’t stop myself from reflexively thinking about what he was thinking. After living inside his head for two years, meeting him in person was sensory overload. I could now analyze his words and facial expressions and tone in real time, mere feet away from me. I could ask him questions about the chase and he would actually answer them! I never got used to it, and I was still analyzing him unnecessarily when he died, unable to turn my obsession off.
Now that he’s gone, I’m no longer annoyed those Fenn quotes are still rattling around my brain. His words will live with me and every searcher out there for the rest of our lives.
I spent a couple more days crying after Forrest passed. He had meant so much to me in such a short time, and I had so much more I had wanted to ask him, the kind of things that were just better done face to face. For weeks he had wanted to fly me back to Santa Fe to spend more time with him (he even tried to convince me to move there), but circumstances out of our control made it more practical for me to come later.
I had never met Forrest until this June, and it was destined to be our only time spent together in person.
But I’m thankful for the time we did have. When I met Forrest, I told him I hadn’t been sure I would ever get to meet him. The treasure was just too hard to find. He told me with a big smile that he had always said it was difficult to find but not impossible, and I had proved him right.
Forrest Fenn was born in 1930 in Temple, Texas. A poor student who disappointed his educator father, he grew into a life of adventure — a decorated Air Force pilot who was shot down in the Vietnam War and survived the Laos jungle, a rakish and prominent art dealer who courted the rich and famous, and, in his third and final act, a compulsive memoirist who wrote a poem that launched a treasure hunt in the Rocky Mountains that inspired many thousands of regular folks the world over.
The first line of his New York Times obituary calls him “eccentric.” “I’ve been called ‘eccentric’ and I’m flattered by that,” Forrest once said, “because the difference between an eccentric and a kook is an eccentric has money.”
Forrest Fenn was the kind of man to drink buttermilk out of the bottle. He kept alligators in the garden of his art gallery. He collected run-over soda cans as pieces of found art. He loved books and language and held onto words like “crean” that apparently nobody but he still used. He went into business with former Texas Governor John Connally, the Johnson and Nixon confidante who was wounded by the “Magic Bullet” in the Kennedy assassination, to sell Elmyr de Hory’s famed fraudulent masterpieces as fraudulent masterpieces. Forrest once shot a mountain lion and leapt down into a canyon, grabbed hold of the top of a tree, climbed down it, and tied the carcass to a rope so he could lift it out and get a $50 bounty from the Cattleman’s Association.
He was also a man with an independent mind and a security with his masculinity (perhaps uncommon to those of his generation) that allowed him to express difficult feelings and question his own decisions and values in life, becoming a pacifist after retiring from the military and even regretting that affair with the beautiful mountain lion that had run in his direction.
Forrest wrote poignantly about his struggles with self-esteem and self-worth, and it’s probably these writings I connected to most.
In the few years before I had heard of Forrest Fenn, my confidence in myself had been totally destroyed. I like to think it aided me in finding the treasure — without any self-confidence in my abilities, I had to stick to the evidence and not stray into hunches and speculation not strictly supported by the facts, and into their close cousin, confirmation bias.
Knowing the exact spot on the globe where a person would like to die is a weird intimacy to share with a stranger, but the experience of figuring it out and proving it beyond a reasonable doubt provided confidence that was intoxicating to me, and perhaps helping me regain that belief in myself will be Forrest’s greatest legacy to me. In the outpouring of love Forrest received from his fans after his death, it was clear he knew just what to say to make people feel special. For me, it was soon after I told him I found the treasure, when he let me know, completely unprompted, that he thought I was a genius.
Few human beings peak as octogenarians. For most, old age is a slow dimming of the light, but Forrest fought against that. At 80, he attracted a large audience for the first time in his writing career, and in the next decade, as he continually dealt with the passing of his peers, he made hundreds or perhaps thousands of new friends, treasure searchers he met at gatherings and sometimes in his comfortable museum of a home.
For a decade, he wrote memoir at a breakneck pace, sharing the stories of his life with great relish yet seeming to never run out of them, even when he was down to telling us about the condiments in his refrigerator and the spices in his cabinets. He didn’t seem to mind that much of his audience wasn’t really listening to what he was saying and were only looking for secret hints.
For a man who expressed anxiety about getting Alzheimer’s, he seemed to have found the perfect deterrent to cognitive decline — talking frequently and in guarded detail about a huge, closely-held secret to a cache of gold, yet never divulging it to the thousands of interested people inquiring. In a decade, he never made more than a couple of subtle slip-ups in front of all the dogged reporters who came to his house, and even those apparently haven’t been caught by anyone besides me. He never paid to advertise his hunt, yet seemingly every media outlet wanted a piece of him, and he still managed to stay sharp as a tack and “keep his secret where” till the very end.
Forrest had the ultimate poker face. In the summer of 2018, the only time I had talked to Forrest on the phone before finding the treasure, I called to tell him in desperation I had found a “blaze” — the mark that the poem says points to the treasure — that seemed after some effort by me to have been faked by a cruel fellow searcher even though it had evidently been there for years. I couldn’t believe the chances. I told him exactly where I had been searching, but the call only lasted about 20 seconds, and he gave no impression he found my discovery at all interesting.
That fake blaze was less than 1,000 feet from where I eventually found the treasure. And that’s not even the half of that story.
When I met Forrest, he had forgotten about the phone call and found it amusing when I told him. Of course, he had no idea how much I had tortured myself trying to read his reaction to that call.
Lost in some of the remembrances of Forrest is his generosity. Forrest used his chase not for personal profit, but supported a local independent bookseller and raised tens of thousands of dollars for cancer victims. He was a benefactor and donated artifacts from his personal collection over the years to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, on whose board he served for several years. Despite his years of disagreements with academics over the subject of archaeology, he supported and served on the board of the George C. Frison Institute at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Frison passed away the very same day as Forrest.
Of course, Forrest’s greatest gift to humanity was his treasure. Sure, it could only be given to one person, the one who found it, but it inspired hope the world over and the joy of discovery for all those who got to go out and appreciate the wonders of the Rockies. No good deed goes unpunished, of course, and that hope spun off into myriad permutations Forrest couldn’t have anticipated.
In some, that hope turned into false certainty in some people’s minds, and they had to be rescued or tragically perished after finding themselves in dangerous circumstances out in the wilderness. In others, that hope turned into entitlement, that the hard work they put into this all-or-nothing hunt meant they were owed the treasure in some way, and that entitlement turned into bitterness and loud recitations of his personal imperfections that some declared to the world in the wake of his death. In others still, the hope turned into obsession that tricked their own minds into strange and harmful ideas. At my most raw points of gnawing frustration, even I resented Forrest.
Forrest had a tremendous penchant, though, for turning the other cheek. He did an incredible thing and dealt with tremendous doubt directed his way, but he kept to his word, and it was a gratifying experience to prove him right.
In a final act of selflessness, in what should have been his moment of redemption, he went to great lengths to protect my anonymity. Over the past decade, he and his family have suffered stalkers, break-ins, and a potential kidnapping (just to name the things that have been publicized) from misguided searchers. I told him I didn’t want to be looking over my shoulder for people like that for the rest of my life, and he was completely understanding. Forrest went out of his way to protect me, a person he had never met before, even though in some ways it undermined the legitimacy of this hunt in some people’s minds.
My family and I will be eternally grateful. It’s incredibly generous to leave a chest full of gold out in the wilderness for someone to find. It’s a whole other thing to set aside one’s driving desire for a legacy in order to protect that stranger. Selflessness is the only way to describe it.
When I visited Forrest’s house in June, he asked me if I had ever read his book on his friendship with the artist Eric Sloane, Seventeen Dollars a Square Inch. I hadn’t. He gave me a copy. It’s a classic Forrest Fenn production: lavish, large, very personal, a little eccentric, and totally indifferent to appealing to the book-buying public’s wallets. But of course it looks gorgeous on my coffee table.
In the craziness of the past few months, I neglected to read it, but I picked it up after Forrest passed, and I’m glad I did. It’s a loving tribute of one friend to another, and reading it has helped me with my own loss. Its dust cover says:
Eric was a gifted painter and writer, and Forrest was a grateful admirer who sold his work. Their friendship lasted only ten years, but they were very influential years. You will see.
According to page 92, Forrest and Eric are busy now working to finish the book they began together years ago, so he won’t notice if I steal and rework that passage:
Forrest was a gifted adventurer and writer, and the finder was a grateful admirer who sold his famous treasure. Their friendship lasted only three months, but they were very influential months. You will see.
Alas, I’m a millennial and have student loans to pay off, so it wouldn’t be prudent to continue to own the Fenn Treasure. And at the end of the day, for all our similarities, Forrest and I couldn’t be less alike when it comes to collecting. I’m the kind of person who feels burdened by possessions and most free adventuring the world out of a carry-on suitcase, so the treasure and I will have to soon part, and I will offer it for sale (minus the turquoise row bracelet returned to Forrest, of course).
The treasure is a unique piece of American cultural history. The gold glitters, but brighter still are the embedded hopes and dreams of all the many thousands who searched for it. It should belong to a person or institution who will fully appreciate owning such an incredible thing.
But Forrest had a final wish for where he thought the treasure should end up. The first step for me will be to try to make that happen.
As for the legacy of Forrest’s chase, I suppose it is in many ways in my hands, as wrong as that feels. To be honest, I’m not sure what to do.
Whatever. Making plans is antagonistic to freedom. You will see. I’ll be back to answer some questions, in any case.
But no, not that one.
Forrest ends Seventeen Dollars a Square Inch with a quadplet poem for Eric (republished in Scrapbook 177). “Quadplet,” of course, is one of those invented words Forrest indulged in, so who knows what it really means, but I tried writing one for my own friend:
Cold, refreshing waters babble of your life,
Whistling pines proffer your wisdoms to sup;
In your place, the mountains rumble your name;
Can I even try to shut them up?
I’m sure I will go alone in there again in the future and appreciate its beauty anew. Forrest didn’t make it back to his special place in his final hour. But when I go back some day to lie down beneath those towering pines, tilt my hat over my face to shield against the bright sun, and drift off into one more afternoon nap in that serene forest in the wilds of the Cowboy State, I know he will be resting there next to me.
I hope that place will always remain as pristine as when he first discovered it.
Two people could keep a secret. Now one of them is dead.
Many searchers know that Seventeen Dollars a Square Inch doesn’t end with just the quadplet. There were two more characters at the bottom of the page — ΩΩ. Two omegas, side by side, just like at the end of The Thrill of the Chase. I’d always thought they could possibly have been a hint to a clue in the poem, but how could they be if they were also in this earlier book about Eric Sloane? To me, there wasn’t enough evidence of intent in order to consider it a hint.
It’s something I wanted to ask Forrest about when we met again, but I never got to. Some things will always remain a mystery, and I think that’s fitting. Forrest always said he was ambivalent about whether he wanted to see the chest found in his lifetime or for the chase to last many decades after he passed, and the depth of that ambivalence profoundly revealed itself to me in the process of figuring out exactly where it was.
He was completely open with me about anything I wanted to confirm or know when we met, but his emotions were a little perplexing. I could tell there was some eagerness in finally sharing these secrets with someone, but there was also melancholy. And so perhaps it’s fitting that ambivalence ends in me knowing most of the answers but him getting to keep some of them forever.
The relevance of the double omegas will go to the grave with the man who wrote the poem.
And so it is.