It’s a memoir of the author’s life, from his childhood in Texas to his 20 years’ service as a US Army Air Force pilot, shot down twice in Vietnam. It tells how he opened an art gallery in Santa Fé, New Mexico, and, after being diagnosed with cancer at 58, was given just three years to live.
The poetic clue
And take it in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.
From there it’s no place for the meek,
The end is ever drawing nigh;
There’ll be no paddle up your creek,
Just heavy loads and water high.
If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,
Look quickly down, your quest to cease,
But tarry scant with marvel gaze,
Just take the chest and go in peace.
It’s the cryptic poem he included in the book that has captivated thousands, and sent at least five to their doom.
The poem holds the clues to finding a treasure chest filled with gold and jewels that Fenn hid in a remote part of the Rocky Mountains in the rugged American West shortly before publishing The Thrill of The Chase in 2010.
There are hundreds of gold coins, gold nuggets, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds, and fabulous antiquities including a 1,200-year-old gold frog and a finely-wrought jaguar claw, all packed like pirates’ treasure into a Romanesque bronze chest, 10 inches square, weighing about 40 pounds fully loaded.
It’s been valued at £1.6million, though some now put it as high as £4million.
A lifelong outdoorsman, Fenn, now 89, envisaged the treasure hunt as a way to encourage others to explore the countryside he loves.
“I wanted to get people out enjoying nature,” he says.
“I’ve had such fun over the past 75 years looking for arrowheads and fossils and strange things out in forests and along the river banks. Why not give others the opportunity to do the same thing?”
An estimated 100,000 people have followed Fenn’s clues, scrambling around remote corners of the Rocky Mountains in search of the treasure, so far bringing back nothing but memories.
Yet five have paid with their lives.
Michael Sexson, aged 53, of Colorado, is the latest victim, found dead in a remote area near Dinosaur National Monument, after disappearing while seeking Fenn’s treasure.
The riches almost claimed a sixth victim: Sexson’s 65-year-old companion was rescued barely alive.
Both men had previously searched the area for the trove, but last month became trapped for days in deep snow.
Their survival gear was meagre: water bottles, candy bars and a copy of Fenn’s book.
“It’s tragic and heart-breaking that some searchers have been lost while they looked for my treasure,” says Fenn from his home in Santa Fé where he deals in art and antiques.
“I certainly did not anticipate anyone was going to get killed, but I answer it this way: If a hunter goes into the mountains looking for deer, and is lost, does that mean we should stop deer hunting? If someone drowns in a swimming pool, should we drain the pool, or should we teach people to swim?”
Fenn resists calls from critics, including the New Mexico State Police, to remove the treasure from the wild and end the deadly hunt.
“Searchers have spent money and vacation time looking for the treasure, and I don’t feel I could do that, even if I wanted to,” he says.
When he hid his treasure ten years ago, “it was an easy trip”, he says, though now, approaching 90, he says that he no longer has the strength to retrieve it.
The first victim of Fenn’s treasure hunt had moved from Florida to Colorado to be able to more easily search the Rocky Mountains.
Randy Bilyeu, aged 54, below, disappeared while following the book’s clues in near-zero temperatures in New Mexico backcountry in January 2016.
His skeletal remains were found a year later.
“I’ve said, over and over, not to look for the treasure in the wintertime,” says Fenn, who financed a fruitless three-day helicopter search for the first victim.
Bilyeu’s ex-wife, Linda, lamented that “Randy’s mind was manipulated in some way” by the book, and warned other treasure hunters of the lethal risks.
“I’m not angry,” she told Fenn. “I’m not bitter. I’m simply a woman on a mission to alter your legacy before someone else gets killed.”
Yet others followed and died.
Jeff Murphy, aged 53, of Batavia, Illinois, perished hunting the treasure in Yellowstone National Park, after falling 500 feet down a slope in June 2017.
A week later the body of Pastor Paris Wallace, aged 52, of Grand Junction, Colorado, was found beside the Rio Grande river days after he told his family he was hunting the book’s gold.
Eric Ashby, aged 31, who moved to the Rocky Mountains to seek the treasure, was found dead beside Colorado’s Arkansas River in 2017.
And last week Sexson joined that tragic list.
Fenn begs searchers to simply use common sense.
“Don’t look for the treasure any place where a 79-year-old man couldn’t have taken it,” he says. “That eliminates half the places where people are looking.”
The trove is secreted above 5,000ft in the mountains, below 10,200ft, says Fenn, who notes: “I never said it was buried. I hid it.”
The fortune has also brought unwelcome intruders to his home searching for clues, and even death threats warning: “Tell me where the treasure is or I’m going to kill you!”
Others have accused Fenn of an elaborate fraud, but he insists: “The treasure chest full of gold and jewels was viewed by 100 or more people before I hid it. There is no hoax.”
Fenn’s treasure hunt is reminiscent of that inspired by British author Kit Williams’s bestselling 1979 book Masquerade, whose illustrations supplied clues to a buried bejewelled golden hare.
The prize was finally found in 1988, but ended in scandal when it was revealed that the author’s ex-girlfriend had given a friend clues to its location without cracking the book’s secret code.
Despite the trail of dead treasure hunters, Fenn insists many have benefited from the search.
“Family members who have been estranged for years have reunited to join the search.
Seven people said they were contemplating suicide until they read about the treasure.
Now their lives have been turned around.
“But nobody is going to happen upon my treasure chest. They will have to figure out the clues and go to it.”
Fenn plans to take the treasure’s secret with him to the grave if need be.
“Somebody’s going to have to find it,” he says.
“If I were to tell anyone where it is, it would be my grandson – and I’m not going to tell him.”
While the book, in its 11th edition, is currently sold out, used copies can be found online for upwards of £100.
Not much to pay for a shot at £4million.
Unless it costs the buyer their life, too.
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