The likes of Forrest Fenn won’t come our way again anytime soon.
His life, whether flying combat missions in Vietnam, running art galleries or devising a treasure hunt, was spent at full throttle until his death last week at 90.
As such, his time spent on Earth was not without controversy. He had huge fans and fierce critics — whether about how he collected artifacts or concerning the treasure hunt that caught the world’s attention.
Sparked by the desire to leave a legacy after a cancer diagnosis, Fenn came up with the idea of a treasure hunt. He told the world that somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, he had left a chest full of coins and antiquities. In his 2010 memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, he laid out clues.
Tens of thousands of treasure-seekers took up the chase, following an age-old human urge to discover hidden riches. In the West, with the tales of the Lost Dutchman Mine in Arizona or Apache Chief Victorio’s treasure in New Mexico, the payoff is always around the bend. Santa Fe was the natural setting from which to launch the hunt.
Fenn took that human urge to seek out gold and sent treasure-seekers off on the chase. He wanted people out of the house, into the outdoors and seeking adventure, not sitting on the couch watching television or staring at a computer screen.
The search was not without risk — people died looking for the chest and others became lost and had to be rescued. Many said the search should have been suspended.
It was not, and the people caught up in the chase kept looking, with unanticipated positive side effects. Seekers forged bonds, with treasure-loving campers gathering at Hyde Memorial State Park for meetings. The quest captured the imagination of millions, spawning television news programs, articles and documentary films. More treasure-seekers followed.
Richard Lamb of Dallas wrote to The New Mexican about his own experience seeking treasure, saying this: “I discovered his treasure poem online and got caught up in some recreational hunting in New Mexico. He was a driving force that initially took me to a state park in New Mexico three years ago. I was so impressed by the scenery, friendly park staff and wildlife, I returned and got an annual camping pass. … Forrest Fenn led me to New Mexico.”
In 2020, not long before Fenn’s death, he announced the treasure chest had been found in Wyoming. The hunt was over. Yet another wrinkle remained.
The finder asked for anonymity, causing many to speculate that the treasure remained hidden. Photographs were eventually produced, but the hunt did not have a clean ending — at least not for skeptics.
For the rest of the world, Fenn’s advice to grab life and get off the couch is valuable beyond a treasure hunt. Treasure may be elusive, but joy in the great outdoors is constant. That’s quite a legacy.