Scott Conway was so certain he knew the location of Forrest Fenn’s purported hidden treasure that he spent the last five years making trips to New Mexico to dig for it.
He drove nearly 1,800 miles from his home in Pennsylvania to Heron Lake State Park a few times a year. He would park his car in a secluded area along N.M. 95 and trudge into the wilderness until it swallowed him.
Skirting shrubs and a trickle of water, 47-year-old Conway, a Gulf War veteran afflicted with a slew of physical symptoms from the conflict, would hike to a shallow basin between two gentle slopes, where he knew he would find his fortune — if he just dug another hole.
He believed a May visit to the site, his 17th trek, would be his last: He would hit the right spot. The smell of dirt hung in the air there around the many holes left from his past attempts to unearth the treasure chest.
That visit was Conway’s last, but it didn’t end with Fenn’s trove in his hands.
Instead, rangers from New Mexico State Parks cited him with destroying public property and other counts and ordered him to end his dig three feet from where he believed the treasure was resting.
Conway is one of thousands of people who have searched for the chest of gold, jewels and other valuable artifacts that Fenn, a Santa Fe author and antiquities dealer in his late 80s, claims he hid in 2010 somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe.
Fenn gained fame after launching the hunt with the release of his memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, containing a poem he says is filled with clues about the location of the chest, reportedly holding a cache worth $1 million to $3 million.
Fenn has touted the hunt as an opportunity for families and friends to get out of the house, away from technology, and enjoy a wilderness adventure. While many treasure seekers have done just that — pondering the poem together, working to unravel its riddles and then piling into SUVs armed with maps and GPS devices for a day in the forest — others have become obsessed, dedicating countless hours to the hunt.
Some have drained their bank accounts and quit their jobs, determining the promise of a fortune was worth the risk. Conway said he spent about $40,000. A handful have found themselves in serious danger and in need of rescue.
At least four people have died.
The first was Randy Bilyeu of Colorado, who disappeared in early 2016 outside Santa Fe. His raft and dog were found near the Rio Grande. Three deaths came in the summer of 2017: Jeff Murphy of Illinois, who fell down a steep slope in Yellowstone National Park; Paris Wallace of Colorado, whose remains were found in the Rio Grande Gorge near Pilar; and Eric Ashby of Colorado, a rafter who died on the Arkansas River.
Citing the dangers, New Mexico State Police asked Fenn to call off the treasure hunt, but he refused, saying that would be unfair to people engaged in the search.
People like Conway, who doesn’t see his passion for the hunt as problematic.
“It’s an adventure,” Conway said.
More than that, it’s a way for him to cope with the debilitating effects of the Gulf War. He suffers from muscle spasms, memory loss, chronic fatigue and muscle pains from his time in the war, he said. He blames exposure to toxic gases.
“I can’t do much,” he said. “I’m not doing much at home. I’m in a state of depression.”
For him, the thrill of the chase was “a relief thing.”
New Mexico State Parks issued a statement in late July about Conway’s dig, saying “there is no evidence of Forrest Fenn’s treasure in the area.” State Parks spokeswoman Christina Cordova said no further digging is planned at Heron Lake, and that the division is currently working with the federal Bureau of Reclamation to document the damage.
Fenn, always careful not to reveal too much about the location of the treasure chest, refused to specify in an email exchange with The New Mexican whether the hunt required digging.
“I have never said that I buried the treasure, only that I hid it,” Fenn said. He added: “I am not saying that I didn’t bury it.”
Conway, who had returned home after being cited, came back to New Mexico in July to try and pressure State Parks officials to allow him to finish the dig.
He lost the battle.
“They tried zero effort to look into the situation,” he said. “All they see is a hole.”
Conway couldn’t do all the digging himself at Heron Lake. He mostly watched in late May, metal detector in hand, as a friend from Pennsylvania, 27-year-old Brittany Brown-Signs,, and a man she called her fishing pal shoveled dirt out of a hole in a spot where Conway was sure the chest rested.
They were 15 feet down, with only a few feet to go before their shovels reached a metal object detected by Conway’s device, when park rangers appeared and shut them down.
Conway and Brown-Signs believe her fishing pal had reported the dig.
“I was ratted out by someone who was actually supposed to help me,” Conway said.
The rangers cited Conway with three counts: destroying park property, littering and using a metal detector in a state park without a permit.
Brown-Signs, a tattoo artist, had befriended Conway through her business in Pennsylvania. As Conway spoke with her about his dig for Fenn’s treasure and the cryptic poem, she was swayed to visit the site.
She went with Conway to Heron Lake three times, the first in late 2017, and was convinced by his solution to the poem’s clues: A large stone must be the “blaze” in the poem, she said, and there were two logs that formed a cross — an X.
There were “literally a thousand things” indicating Conway had the right spot, she said: “All the signs point in all the right directions. It’s more probable that this is the spot than it isn’t.”
She also admired Conway, she said, because he looked beyond Fenn’s poem. “He studied the man.”
Like Conway, Brown-Signs is frustrated with State Parks officials for refusing to allow her friend to finish his dig and possibly end the hunt.
They were careful not to disrupt wildlife, she said, except for some cicadas. She regrets disturbing the underground insects. Still, she said, the group didn’t cause any devastating environmental damage.
“Holes are built all the time and the world continues,” Brown-Signs said, adding the planet “will survive that little hole if it means saving someone’s life.”
As Conway traveled to New Mexico with various friends and family members, his wife, Traci Conway, stayed home, often frustrated about his obsession.
“Everyone who searches for that treasure thinks they’re in the right spot,” she said.
Though she’s disappointed with the way her husband’s hunt ended, Traci Conway is also relieved.
“I knew he was going to get caught eventually,” she said. “Now I don’t have to worry.”