THE FENN TREASURE HUNT
This morning I decided to read another story from the Mile High Stories book, a book of short non-fiction stories published by 5280 Magazine. This is the second story I’ve read out of this book. This story is about a guy who got caught up in searching for a treasure hidden by a crazy old guy named Forrest Fenn who lived in Santa Fe. I don’t want to relate the details of the whole story here but suffice it to say that Fenn hid a treasure somewhere in The Rockies and wrote a poem about it which gave clues as to where it was hidden. Hundreds, and perhaps even thousands of people over the next decade began searching for the treasure, which was said to be worth a minimum of $2 million. I would have thought that the guy who hid the treasure would be dead, but no, he was still alive and living in Santa Fe while thousands of people went out searching for the treasure he had hidden. An entire online community sprung up around this as people combed the mountains and rivers and plains looking for this thing. They met up at conventions and shared potlucks and BBQ’s.
Was it the value of the treasure that kept people looking for it? Or was it “the thrill of the chase” as Fenn called his autobiography?
There’s a lot to unpack here, and I don’t think anyone has made peace with all of it. The story in the book is about the first guy who died trying to find the treasure. His name was Randy Bilyeu. He was 55 years old when he died searching for the treasure in 2016. He had moved from the southeastern U.S. to the Denver area several years before to be able to have closer access to wherever the treasure was. He felt like he was narrowing down on where it was, and he intensified his time searching for it. His body was eventually found in the Rio Grande River several months after he went missing while hunting for the treasure.
To me, this begs the question of Fenn’s culpability. He was alive and well and living in Santa Fe and he had thousands of people from all over searching the countryside and putting themselves at risk to find this treasure. After Bilyeu died, four other people died in their search as well. Most of the deceased were males in their fifties, their lives cut short by perhaps 25 to 30 years by their “thrill of the chase.” Fenn himself died in 2020 at the age of 90. On the other hand, the guys who died were middle aged adults who presumably should have been more aware of dangers in the wild and given to a bit more – shall we say – “common sense.” The fact is the treasure was found somewhere in Wyoming by a presumably younger guy – a medical student – who also went in search of the treasure. It was found a few months prior to Fenn’s death in 2020.
THE BIG DEAL
Have you ever known anyone who has been chasing a “big deal” their whole life it seems like, and never had it break through? I know someone who has been chasing a big deal for close to 30 years. On the surface of things, this seems to be a harmless occupation, and if someone wants to spend their time doing it, that’s their business. On the other hand, it may not be as harmless as it appears to be on the surface, as a person can spend years – decades even – of their lives chasing a dream that never comes together and is never fulfilled, kind of like digging a dry hole deeper. For instance, the ex-wife of the now-deceased Randy Bilyeu had come to believe over time that the hidden treasure did not in fact exist and that Randy and his fellow treasure hunters had been taken in by hoax. As I mentioned earlier, the treasure was found eventually, but it ruined and even ended a few lives in the interim. It may not be illegal to do something like that, but it makes you ponder the ethics of it, for sure.
Now chasing “The Big Deal” may seem harmless on the surface of things too. It doesn’t straight up endanger anyone’s life. The chasers of this dream don’t need to wander around in the wilderness, dig illegal holes on federal land, or try floating down The Rio Grande River in a small raft they don’t know how to use. However, this chase attracts crazies from all points on the map. When the deal closes, they believe they’re going to become exceedingly wealthy. For those people who do believe this, there is no talking them out of it. Although they may occasionally be plagued with skepticism, they keep plugging along with it, because they can’t bear the thought of ultimately letting it go. Instead of cutting their losses, they double down on them. The deal itself may morph into a different deal, but the presence of a deal remains. One deal flows right into another and then another and then another. At this point, I don’t believe it’s the money or the lure of untold wealth that keeps people going with the deal. I think it’s “the thrill of the chase.” The participants in this deal are overwhelmingly old men in their 70’s and 80’s, with a few younger guys thrown in for good measure, and the thing won’t die until they do.
The thrill of the chase indeed.
JULIE AND JULIA
On a much lighter note, I often think of the movie Julie and Julia, about a young woman named Julie Powell, who decided to learn to make every single recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook: 524 recipes in 365 days. She got into this idea as a way to spend time doing something she loved and getting away from the stress and boringness of her job as a customer service rep helping people obtain grant money after 09/11.
The movie is cute. I enjoyed it, and it offers tidbits of thought about what’s possible when it comes to blogging. I love to bake, as an example, and I’ve considered doing a similar blog, where I bake every pie in one of my baking books. Most of the current blogs or vlogs, or podcasts, or whatever you want to call them, portray the blogger/vlogger/podcaster as an expert in whatever it is they’re blogging about. My pie baking blog/vlog would have to be a comedy though, because just my attempts at making pie dough are hilarious. There are times when I’ve laughed so hard, I cried while making the pie crust. My crusts never come out looking pretty either. Never! And my days of being able to eat whole pies over a couple days’ time without gaining weight are long gone. My blog would have to be titled something along the lines of how I gained 36.5 pounds in 365 days by eating only 3.65 pies a month for 12 months. Most of the pies taste good, but to look at them, you’d never know. To do this successfully, I’d have to have enough money to buy all the ingredients every week, plus a new wardrobe. The girl in the movie never got fat, but she was a young movie star.
The similarity of baking every pie in a baking book and treasure hunting or working on “the big deal” are not lost on me here. People have goals, you know? While I’m not convinced that I know what Julie’s goal was in cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook, I can surmise a couple of possible motivations:
- She wanted to perfect her cooking skills.
- She wanted something to take her mind off the stress of her day job.
- She wanted to be a successful blogger.
- She wanted to answer the question of “why did the chicken cross the road?” or in this case, why did the wannabe chef wanna cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s cookbook? Answer: Because she could.
- Was she secretly looking for a way to get rich? Did she know or believe that her blog and books would eventually reward her with hundreds of thousands of dollars, or maybe more?
- Or was it just “the thrill of the chase?”
I read another book once also along the same lines, called “Living Oprah,” in which the author, Robyn Okrant, details her year of following Oprah’s advice on her show and what the results were. It was also kind of funny at times, especially the parts where she describes Oprah’s diet advice to help people have better, healthier, poop.
Why do people do this stuff? The thrill of the chase.
PHOTOGRAPHING THE COLORADO ROCKIES
Which brings me to my own compulsive behavior around traveling and photographing Colorado. Beginning back in 2014, when I got my first copy of Don Mammoser’s book “The Photographer’s Guide to the Colorado Rockies” I’ve traveled through almost every location he mentions in the book. I have a few stragglers to pick up, because not everything in the book was easily accessible during the time of year I was there, or I just haven’t gotten around to it yet, or what he described as a lake with great reflections when he wrote the book, is now a dry hole, or a mud pit filled with mosquitos. Out of 100 photogenic locations throughout Colorado he mentions in the book, I have, so far, visited 81 of them. In fact, I’ve probably visited closer to 90% of the places listed in the book, but I don’t take credit for them unless I’ve photographed them as well. So, for instance, I drove home from The State Forest State Park on Colorado Hwy 14 through Poudre Canyon, with several locations mentioned in the book, but I was tired by then, and not really impressed enough to stop for photography. I did stop at a dairy outside of Longmont, or Fort Collins or Boulder or somewhere and got some good photos of that place. (Not in the book!) But I haven’t taken credit for The Poudre Canyon because I didn’t stop much while driving through, and I didn’t stop for all the places he mentions in the book. I’ll probably go back that way at some future time and do some more photography near the Wyoming border, in places like Red Feather Lakes and I’ll drive through Poudre Canyon again to see if anything leaps out at me when I get there.
Yes, I’m still one of those crazy people who plans trips well in advance and pours over guidebooks to decide where to go next. I know, I know, most sane people these days just go to Trip Advisor. I have no idea how long it takes someone to scout out all the locations Don mentions in his book, but I would figure that if you’re doing it full time, you could do it all in a year. It’s taken me much longer, because I did in fact have a day job when I started this quest. I got out only on the weekends and maybe one evening or two during the week. As my chosen locations drifted further from home, I had to schedule my photo trips for longer than a day and spend time doing overnights in order to be able to do them all. It’s been an interesting and challenging adventure. I’ve enjoyed the thrill of this chase! My photography addiction has taken me to some amazing places I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
I’m not a camper, and many of the locations I’ve visited would probably best be seen by camping; so instead, I spend a fair amount of time in cheap, 2-star motels along the road. Some are better than others, but none of them are worth raving about on TripAdvisor or Travelocity or Yelp. They’re good for what they’re good for. These are not glamorous luxury weekends by any stretch of the imagination, but the scenery makes it worth it for me. I’ve considered buying a small teardrop camper, but honestly, I don’t think I would be any more comfortable in a little camper, and it probably wouldn’t be any cheaper either, what with camper payments, camper insurance, gas, and food. So, I just keep going as I have been.
Question: What do you give the person you don’t like for their birthday? Answer: An old, out-of-date guidebook. Jokes aside, an old guidebook I have used for reference, but is currently out of print I believe, is Hidden Colorado, by Richard Harris. I used this book extensively when I was exploring Downtown Denver and all along The Front Range and Colorado’s eastern plains. I think I bought it at a used book sale. I used it when I moved to The Western Slope as well. It’s a great reference for museums, some hotels and restaurants, and other places of reference that don’t change, like national parks and monuments and even state parks. Restaurants and hotels change much more frequently than parks, mountains, and deserts. I’ve visited most of the places in that book as well and made copious notes in the margins about when I visited and what I found when I got there.
In the last few years, I have purchased more than one copy of the books I mentioned above, because somehow, I lost the original ones I had. Sometimes the first version shows up again later and I transfer the notes from the old, previously lost book to the one I’m currently using, maintaining my records in one place. I have purchased similar guidebooks to places outside of Colorado that I’ve visited, such as Cape Cod and Oregon and other points unknown. The Cape Cod book saved our bacon when we were there and couldn’t find the ocean because John accidently instructed the MapQuest app to avoid highways, avoid traffic, avoid road construction, avoid lights…it was avoiding everything and sending us in endless circles through residential neighborhoods. We only noticed the settings long after. How many people go to Cape Cod and can’t find the ocean? So, I bought a book and a paper map. I’m sure I’ll go back there again someday and when I do, I’ll take my guidebook from 2015 with me.