When Cynthia Meachum lost her job in 2015, it was the best day of her life. To hear the 65-year-old tell it, she got the bad news, waved off her boss’s apologies and nearly skipped away.
“I wanted to do cartwheels,” she says.
Meachum had been close to retiring from her gig as a field service engineer in the semiconductor industry anyway. Getting laid off meant she could fully throw herself into her true passion: finding Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure, worth millions.
She already had the “war room,” a converted library in her Rio Rancho, New Mexico, home where the walls are papered with giant maps of Yellowstone National Park and nearby forests. She had the resources, including manuals on fly fishing in Montana, the domain chasingfennstreasure.com, and connections to an international community of searchers.
Now — finally — she had the time.
“As soon as I walked out of that conference room, the first person I called was my spouse,” Meachum says. “And the second person I told was Forrest Fenn.”
It was, after all, not something she could really talk about at the water cooler. The elements of the Fenn treasure hunt sound like something out of a fairy tale: nine clues in a poem written by an elderly collector; a chest of jewels concealed somewhere in the Rocky Mountains; a bounty so valuable people have died looking for it.
For Fenn treasure hunters like Meachum, the search is no myth. It requires real commitment, and perhaps more importantly, it requires real money. From hiking boots to hotel rooms, the costs can add up quickly. Meachum recently calculated that she spent more than $10,000 on the chase last year alone — to her, a small price to pay for an “incredible adventure” that’s still unfolding.
Most searchers make the hunt part of their lifestyle, saving for and planning around it like with Meachum and her job. But for some, the hunt becomes an expensive obsession.
“That damn poem that Forrest wrote gets in your blood and in your head,” Meachum says. “The problem is, you don’t know if you’ve solved it until you’ve found the treasure. That’s what keeps us in the game.”
In 1988, Forrest Fenn thought he was going to die. The Air Force veteran-turned-fine art collector had been diagnosed with kidney cancer, and doctors told him he faced “an uphill battle” to survive.
One night, as he lay awake in bed contemplating this imminent fate, Fenn began thinking about how much he’d loved assembling his art and artifacts collection over the years. Then, in what he’d later write was “a perfect match of mind and moment,” an idea struck: “Why not let others come searching for some of it while I’m still here, and maybe continue looking for it after I’m gone?”
So Fenn “paid way too much” to buy a cast bronze chest and transformed it into what he described as an “opulent cache.”
He piled in gold coins, placer nuggets from Alaska, pre-Columbian animal figures and Chinese jade faces. In went a 17th-century emerald ring from Spain, several small diamonds and a silver bracelet encrusted with 22 turquoise disc beads. And for good measure, included was a 20,000-word autobiography, sealed in a jar and written in font so small the finder will need a magnifying glass to read it.
And then he lived.
According to legend, it wasn’t until about 2010 — he won’t say exactly when — that Fenn took action, driving into the mountains, hiking an indeterminate distance and leaving the chest in a secret spot. He also self-published a book, The Thrill of the Chase. In it, he coded nine clues about the treasure’s location into a 24-line poem about “the home of Brown,” “the blaze” and “where warm waters halt.”
The search really took off in 2013, when Fenn appeared on the TODAY Show to generate buzz. Collected Works, an independent bookstore that handles all official sales of The Thrill of the Chase, reportedly saw sales spike from 25 copies per month to 25 copies per minute.
Today, the hunt is so popular partially because there’s such a low barrier to entry. People don’t even have to buy Fenn’s book to participate — the poem can easily be found online for free. Once they’ve solved the riddle, all they need is a quick boots-on-the-ground trip, colloquially called a “BOTG,” to pick up the chest.
That means it is possible to take part in the chase cheaply. Nobody knows this better than Sacha Johnston, a 38-year-old searcher who joined the hunt in earnest about five years ago.
Because Johnston lives in nearby Albuquerque, New Mexico, her BOTGs only require six hours and less than $50 — “a tank of gas, a couple of bottles of water, and maybe a lunch while I’m up there,” she says. She’s done more than 300.
Johnston firmly classifies the hunt as a hobby, albeit one that necessitated tire chains for her 4Runner, hiking boots and waders. (The gun she carries while hiking was a Christmas gift.) She sees it as a break from her job as a real estate agent, a quick respite from the stresses of caring for her autistic 5-year-old.
“People have gold fever and will throw self-preservation out the window because they think there’s a million-dollar box filled with gold and jewels,” she says. “This is [just] how I choose to spend my free time.”
A lot of Fenn searchers defend their hunt-related expenses this way — as cash they would be spending on hobbies anyway. They’re not entirely wrong: The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2017, the average American devoted $3,203 to entertainment. If Johnston has spent $15,000 over the past five years on the Fenn hunt, she’s statistically pretty average.
In her eyes, the benefits outweigh the costs. She’s learned to identify animals by their scat, navigate without a compass, hike miles at high elevation and more.
Another important distinction: Johnston insists she’s not a normal treasure hunter; she’s a Fenn treasure hunter. The only reason she is OK with investing so much into this search is that it’s “financially and logistically feasible,” given that she believes it’s in New Mexico.
“If it was hidden in any other state … I would not be looking for this treasure 300 times,” she says. “I can’t afford that and would never justify the kinds of costs where it would affect my daily life and my ability to provide for my family.”
She’s not the only searcher with a frugal mindset. Manchester, England-based searcher Jono Jones added a Yellowstone-area BOTG to a five-and-a-half-week summer vacation he took in the U.S. with his partner and kids last year. The Fenn stop, which they squeezed in amid expeditions to New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas, cost about $5,800 total.
As an IT contractor who doesn’t always have a steady income, 40-year-old Jones kept money on the mind while stateside. Each morning, the family made ham and cheese sandwiches in their hotel room so they didn’t have to buy lunch at a restaurant. They also purchased an annual pass for the national parks to save on admission fees.
Jones felt dejected when he didn’t find it — he’d even contacted a bank in Montana about setting up an emergency safety deposit box where he could store the treasure — but the failure hasn’t decreased his enthusiasm for the search.
They’re planning to return this summer, and Jones is again hyper-conscious of not wasting time or money. Because he’s overseas, he says he feels like he needs to have multiple solutions in order to rationalize a trip.
“With the costs involved, I have to make sure I’ve done all the work I can on a solve,” he says. “My preparation for this year has been intense.”
Forget X marks the spot on a curling piece of parchment. This chase is thoroughly modern, with searchers congregating in every corner of the internet.
On Facebook, there are 2,000-member groups like where people squabble over the clues, share videos of elk, watch Yellowstone webcams and debate whether the weather is warm enough for BOTGs. On Reddit, some 14,000 people subscribe to /r/findingfennsgold, where the top post of all time there is an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia meme mocking searchers’ zeal for overanalyzing Fenn’s life.
“Forrest said he likes ketchup on his cheeseburgers,” it reads. “The treasure must be near a river of ketchup.”
There are also independently hosted forums like Hint of Riches and Chase Chat, the latter of which boasts more than 109,000 posts in sections like “Forrest Facts” and “The Therapy Room.” A subgenre has sprung up on YouTube, where so-called FennTubers interview each other for video podcasts, post footage from their BOTGs and analyze everything from Fenn’s doodles to ethics in treasure hunts. (One of the most prolific channels, A Gypsy’s Kiss, has racked up more than 1.7 million views since 2013.)
And then there are the blogs. Perhaps the most well-known Fenn site belongs to Dal Neitzel, a 71-year-old searcher who runs a TV station in Bellingham, Washington.
Neitzel’s blog, dalneitzel.com, is a crucial resource for searchers who believe that getting into Fenn’s head will help them crack the case. At 88, Fenn’s had a long life, and some people are certain he’s been dropping hints, either on purpose or accidentally, for decades. Neitzel faithfully collects these anecdotes, quotes and biographical details, often adding in his own skeptical commentary.
These unofficial “clues” often bleed over into expeditions, and as they do, they drive the cost of the chase up.
For example, Fenn, his brother Skippy and pal Donnie built a motel near Yellowstone in the ‘60s. So while a searcher on a BOTG could theoretically grab a campsite for $20 or so, they’ll more likely want to stay at the Dude Motel, where reservations start at $211 a night in June (room No. 4 is Fenn’s favorite). Availability might affect plane tickets, which could influence car rentals, and so on. Oh, and they can’t forget to schedule in a dip in Fenn’s secret bathing spot on the Firehole River.
“A lot of folks believe that stepping into Forrest Fenn’s shoes for a few minutes will help them find the chest,” Neitzel explains. “If you understand his sense of humor, his history, his life as a 14-year-old in the summer when he was in West Yellowstone … maybe it can help you interpret the poem.”
The chase inspires a lot of purchases. Searchers buy up signed copies of Fenn’s books, Catcher in the Rye and Robert Redford’s The Outlaw Trail. They assemble small libraries of topographic maps, aviation maps and maps from one specific company, Benchmark, that Fenn helped produce. They trawl eBay for Fenn artifacts, like this cast bronze jar he made that sold for $5,600 a couple of months ago, and scrutinize movies like the 1962 silent film The Great Chase, available on DVD for $50.
That’s all before they even set out for BOTGs. Those trips come with an entirely separate packing list, requiring bear spray, bug spray, Camelbaks, hiking boots, GPS devices and more. Everything goes into a (preferably Army-grade) backpack — one that’s big enough to carry the chest down a mountain, of course.
Neitzel never goes on a BOTG without Ezmerelda, his 1999 GMC Safari. He’s stopped counting how many trips he’s taken, though he estimates it’s around 75. Each 2,400-mile round trip typically costs Neitzel about $2,000.
“It’s easy to get addicted to looking for this treasure because it’s a great deal of fun. And of course, nobody’s found it yet, but I enjoy the thrill of the chase,” he says. “If you want to find it, you keep looking. That can be expensive, depending on where you live.”
For all the excitement, Fenn’s treasure hunt does have a dark side. The chase lore is full of stories about searchers who have gone overboard, losing their savings, homes and marriages to the quest.
According to Stuart Vyse, the author of Going Broke: Why Americans (Still) Can’t Hold Onto Their Money, the Fenn treasure hunt is likely addictive because it sits at the perfect intersection of several psychological factors, like the allure of making money without work, the element of adventure and the perceived intelligence involved in solving the puzzle.
But one of the largest reasons why searchers are so willing to spend money on this is the sheer fact that the clock is ticking.
At its heart, the search is a race where there can only be one winner, so there’s no time to deliberate — especially because Fenn said last year he thinks the treasure is close to being found. He’s confirmed that people have been within 200 feet of the chest, upping the urgency even more.
Vyse says that competitive aspect creates a desperation among searchers, similar to when a person feels moved to buy a product simply because there’s a limited number of them on sale.
“The odds of being correct are very low,” he says. “The idea is that ‘if I can figure it out, it’ll be a big deal. It’ll show how smart I am. I’ll get the publicity.’”
The frenzy around the search has led to serious consequences. Stalkers sometimes track Fenn and his family, send him threatening messages and break into his house. Four people have died trying to find the treasure, most recently in 2017. As a result, then-New Mexico State Police chief Pete Kassetas publicly demanded Fenn retrieve the chest or “call off the hunt.”
He did not.
“I want people to have fun and I want people to be adventurous,” Kassetas said at the time. “But the reality is … when you have $2 million or so, as it’s rumored to be…. people make poor decisions.”
The Fenn searchers don’t like to focus on the deaths or the debts. Instead, people prefer to talk about how Fenn has reunited long-lost relatives, rekindled their love of the outdoors and taught them skills they’d never pick up otherwise.
The hunt has made it so a North Carolina searcher who goes by Kristie Thor is “more than a couple thousand in the hole.” But she’s OK with it. She says the cash is worth it to be part of the community — to know the tight-knit group of people who helped raise $60,000 when a searcher lost her home in the California wildfires last year and the crew behind the summer Fennboree event celebrating the search.
Together, they design T-shirts and hold poker tournaments and plot mini treasure hunts of their own. They brag about their friendships with Fenn. They almost speak another language, their sentences studded with references to canyon down and Ojo Caliente and Fenn’s great ball of string (really).
Despite its cliquey nature and the costs of participation, Thor insists the hunt is accessible. If a searcher can’t afford to buy The Thrill of the Chase, for example, he or she can win a copy on Thor’s twice-weekly YouTube show.
Thor points to a 2016 interview where Fenn said he hopes the finder is “a redneck from Texas who’s lost his job, with a pickup truck and 12 kids and a wife to support.”
“Everyone can make this happen for them, no matter what their financial means are,” she adds.
There are, however, occasional moments of pause. Cynthia Meachum, who has dedicated her retirement to the treasure hunt, says it’s eye-opening whenever she reflects upon how much money she’s spent on the chase.
“It’s like, holy smokes. I don’t know if that tells me I’m really crazy or what,” she says.
What does Fenn think about all this money people have spent chasing his treasure?
Fenn’s hearing isn’t what it used to be; he mostly interacts with people over email. But he did give MONEY some insight into his own personal history with money — and perhaps something more. Here’s what he said:
“Money means more to those who don’t have any.
When I was a kid in the late 1930s, I would mow yards around my neighborhood and get paid a quarter. It was really a big deal to me. I remember keeping my left hand in my pants pocket with the coins held tightly in my fist. I walked straight and whistled because that money represented 5 Wimpy hamburgers, or 4 burgers and a Coke, or 3 burgers, a Coke and a bag of Fritos. A cup of ice cream was a nickel. There were so many options, and the world was mine for the next two days.
I didn’t realize it at the time but I had entered the world of commerce, and the lessons I learned about the strength of money would be very valuable to me later.”