Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure sends searchers on a spiritual journey that should renew their faith and open their hearts to a larger life, according to a North Carolina woman who claims to have solved the local writer’s famous poem.

Pam Shetron, who has published her interpretation of Fenn’s poem on a website, said Fenn is a hero and has cleverly taught people about faith and what’s important in life — that the search, the friendships and the path are more important than money and physical riches. She said the poem leads to the Christ of the Mines Shrine in Silverton, Colo., but there is no treasure box at that location — just silent, peaceful spirituality.

“This is a spiritual journey Mr. Fenn is taking us on. It’s about faith,” she wrote on her blog June 23. “You can’t see faith, but you may have it. You have faith the chest you never saw is out there somewhere north of Santa Fe. Seeing is not always believing. Have faith in all you can not see, but choose to believe in it anyway.”

Fenn is not one to dismiss or confirm anyone’s hints into the hidden treasure chest. In regard to her interpretation of the poem, he said, “that’s her opinion, she’s entitled to it.” The former business owner and artifacts dealer went even further in an email to The New Mexican: “I had not heard of the shrine until I read about it on Pam’s blog a few weeks ago.”

But that will probably not end the debate over what Shetron says is her solution to the poem, which Fenn published in his autobiography, Thrill of the Chase, after surviving a diagnosis of cancer. The controversy has been lighting up blogs and websites of gold hunters and Fenn loyalists for several weeks. Shetron said there is nothing in this for her, except providing information on what she has gained from her research and trips to Silverton — as well as her personal visit with Fenn.

“He could hand me the treasure chest tomorrow, and I’d hand it right back,” she said. “I don’t want to write a book, I don’t want the money. I just want to write the story. I have worked on this every day since the poem was handed to me. I couldn’t walk away from it if I tried.”

A native of Texas and an Air Force veteran, Fenn is a former art and antiquities dealer who owned a Santa Fe business for 17 years and developed relationships around the world. His 42-pound hidden treasure chest was first revealed in Thrill of the Chase, published in October 2010. He claims the chest includes his favorite bracelet as well as a 2,000-year-old fetish necklace, gold, jewelry and artifacts. He has tossed out the value as $1 million, but that is just a guess, he said.

Some dismiss Shetron as a religious zealot or as just another searcher who seemed sure of a solution but is now frustrated and offering up an alternative explanation.

But that doesn’t explain the fact that after almost four years since the search began, with thousands of people exploring millions of acres of land, no one has found Fenn’s hidden chest.

Last week, Fenn said he was certain the treasure chest was still out there — and the speculation intensified.

One blogger who supports Shetron wrote, “Anybody who knows the story would have a hard time denying this FITS! I was looking at the pictures of the shrine. I saw that the walls surrounding it are curved. I matched that with the curved writing in his book.”

“Everything else matches up. I’m just sad it’s over,” said another comment.

“My buddy told me to check this site out. He said it is all over for me and my ‘Fenn Friends.’ Looks like I lost a bet. Beer is on me tonight! Congratulations to this little lady from NC. Many cowboys are crying tonight,” a searcher wrote last week.

Is there an actual treasure chest? The New Mexican asked Fenn during a June 26 interview at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe. Fenn said, “Of course, and I’ve said that over and over and over again.”

Shetron doesn’t doubt the existence of the chest, overflowing with gold coins, as it is photographed in the back of the autobiography. She argues, however, that it is close to Fenn’s home, in a place that will be revealed after he dies. Once made public, it should be placed in a Santa Fe museum that can properly tell the Thrill of the Chase story, she said.

But the poem is a separate journey, she said, and one she believes Fenn didn’t think would be solved so quickly.

A hunt for more than gold

Shetron was not one of those searchers out in the Rocky Mountains, climbing hillsides and scouring topographic maps. A self-described stay-at-home mom, she was born in Philadelphia and now lives in Charlotte, N.C., with her son and husband. She said she has a reputation for insight and spirituality, and it was her husband’s co-worker who handed her the poem in March 2013, asking half-jokingly if she could get a GPS on its location.

When she started researching the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe, where Fenn said he alone walked in and hid the booty, Shetron kept coming across the town of Silverton, and the Old Hundred Gold Mine, near the ghost town of Howardsville. That is where she initially thought the physical treasure was hidden.

The family visited the area over Memorial Day weekend in 2013 and took the public tour of the mine site three times in one day, looking for anything unusual in the shafts. On the last tour, they asked for permission to crawl around and lift rocks, but they failed to find anything out of the ordinary. They also visited the Christ of the Mines Shrine, a 16-foot-tall statue of Jesus that was erected in 1959 on the north slope of Silverton.

In the meantime, she talked with locals, which is where she learned that the Cement Creek, which is naturally polluted, is referred to as Brown Gravy. One of Fenn’s hints is: “Put in below the home of Brown.”

Also on that trip, the family detoured to meet Fenn at his home on Santa Fe’s historic east side. She said there was an immediate connection, and she knew she was on the right track.

But she didn’t plow through the rest of Fenn’s writings and biographical material until she returned to North Carolina.

And even after the poem led her back to Silverton and back to the shrine, it didn’t all click until after her husband got permission from the church to open up a wall at the base of the shrine and explore its inside. A local mason who came with them recovered the area after the investigation this spring, she said.

Only then did it become clear to Shetron that her solution was correct, and that the poem was taking visitors on a hunt for something other than gold. Again, she went back to Fenn’s writings to learn more about his friendship with Eric Sloane, as mentioned in the book Seventeen Dollars a Square Inch, a personal tribute to Eric Sloane.

The book “is almost a recorded conversation between two friends who shared a common interest and the love of simple things and simpler times,” according to the description on one website. In the preface, Fenn writes: “The purpose of this book is to publish the last written words of a man who was a mentor to me late in my life, and whose memory occupies a special spot in a warm corner of my mind where only the fondest of recollections are allowed.”

Then, Shetron said, she got it. “I said, this thing is not about getting rich and it’s not about the gold and notoriety, it’s about a man and his life and a friendship that will live forever.”

Shetron is not the first who claims to have solved the poem, but she is one of the only searchers so far who has made her findings so public and who answers questions about conclusions that might be amiss.

Her blog has more than 27,000 visitors, and she gets hundreds of emails a day. Raised Catholic, she claims to be more spiritual than religious. “My life experiences have made me more connected,” she said.

“I’ve put everything together,” she said. “If you have a question, I’ll have an answer for you, not just the poem but things that are in the book. If you do the research, everything is there for you.”

Inspired to venture outdoors

The official Thrill of the Chase blog is managed by Dal Neitzel, a Seattle-area man who used to deep-water dive and help recover shipwrecks. Now a videographer, Neitzel met Fenn through a family connection and is writing a biography of the Air Force pilot who settled in Santa Fe to trade artifacts, sell artwork, excavate an ancient pueblo — and inspire searchers to get outside and hunt for gold.

Neitzel has gone in search of the treasure almost 40 times himself, and his blog has photos and narratives from dozens of other searchers — hardy travelers from the upper reaches of Montana to Wyoming and Colorado, and to Ojo Caliente and New Mexico’s national forests.

Neitzel is not surprised the treasure has eluded himself and others. “It’s not supposed to be simple. He encouraged people to look for it, He wants to encourage people to go in the outdoors,” Neitzel said.

Fenn said he knows the chest is still out there, although won’t say how he knows that — and that has helped fuel the speculation that he is referring to life as the real chase, or that the chest is someplace close, where he can see it.

“I know today that the treasure chest is still out there,” he said June 26. “I can’t tell you how I know, so don’t ask.”

He suspects the chest will be found by the kind of person who wants notoriety, but there is nothing to stop someone from taking it quietly and keeping the wealth a secret, he said.

Fenn, who turns 84 next month, also has taken a personal involvement in the quest by answering questions and visits from searchers — as he did with Shetron and her family in 2013. “This really occupies his mind. It’s fun for him. How many treasure hunts are there of this caliber where the person who hid it is still around and answers questions?” Neitzel said.

“I believe the reason he knows it hasn’t been found is that it’s so incredibly well hidden,” he said.

But if it is so well hidden, doubters wonder, then how does Fenn know it is still there?

Fenn is always the first to point out that the Thrill of the Chase and the poem are accomplishing what he intended: getting people to engage with the outdoors. He points out the story of Renelle Jacobson, who has a rare bone disease but still came to search for the treasure.

In his blog post “Salute to a Warrior,” posted on Neitzel’s site, Fenn writes about Jacobson’s visit to his home. “I’m sick 3 to 4 days a week, have low energy the rest of the time and my sleep schedule is often turned upside down,” she told Fenn, according to the post. “Working on this treasure hunt has given me a way to occupy my time when I’m awake after midnight. When I work on your puzzle for an hour, I can say that I worked toward a goal.”

Fenn continues in his own words, “Imagination is her pleasure and faith is her nourishment.”

In an interview with Australian television last month, Fenn said, “I love the fact that I’ve started a fire in a lot of people and if nobody finds the treasure, I promise you a thousand years from now people will still be looking.”

Is Fenn religious? “I am not very religious, but I am spiritual. My church is in the mountains and along the riverbank,” he told The New Mexican.

‘I know it’s real’

Does any of this mean there is no treasure? Does it mean that Fenn’s “thrill of the chase” is really a pursuit of adventure and friendship, and is that passion the path to a richly filled life, rather than money or gold?

Douglas Preston, a Santa Fe writer who shares Fenn’s love of mystery, adventure and, of course, fiction, sides with the searchers.

“I think Forrest hid it very well and that the clues in the letter are subtle and difficult to understand. I still think it’s out there. I did see the treasure chest and handle the treasure, so I know it’s real. And I know it’s no longer in his vault. And finally, Forrest is just not the type of person to mislead others and send them on a wild goose chase,” Preston said. “He’s a straight shooter.”

Contact Bruce Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.com.