Memorial Day search for Fenn’s treasure yields snow, pot and dental surgery

Memorial Day search for Fenn’s treasure yields snow, pot and dental surgery

LAS CRUCES, NM — They say it’s impossible to find Fenn’s gold on the first try. On Memorial Day weekend, we set out to prove them wrong.

In northern Colorado, the weather turned cold.

John Ryan, a Las Cruces man whose business cards describe him as an “alchemist,” had done his research. When Ryan first heard about Santa Fe millionaire Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure on a BBC broadcast in late March, he began cobbling together the clues, researching watersheds and reclamation projects, and formulating a strategy.

“I know where that treasure is,” he told me one afternoon, on the patio at Starbucks. “I’ve got it narrowed down to one square mile. But I’m going to need some help.”

Fenn’s gold

Fenn has spent much of his 84 years collecting rare artifacts and has lived an exciting life. After graduating from high school, he joined the Air Force and became a fighter pilot. During the Vietnam War, Fenn flew hundreds of missions, and was even shot down twice, in Laos and south Vietnam.

While stationed in Asia, he would use his leave to fly to Pompeii, where he began collecting. It was a hobby that, after he retired from the service, would become a career. Fenn opened a successful gallery in Santa Fe, dealing in art and ancient artifacts. His clientele included Ralph Lauren, Robert Redford and Suzanne Somers.

In 1988, Forrest was diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer.

The disease was virtually a death sentence; Fenn’s chance of surviving it, his doctors said, was about 20 percent. So he began treatment, and — for the first time in his life — he starting thinking about his legacy. He wrote a book, “The Thrill of the Chase.”

Fenn beat the cancer. But while receiving treatment, he spent several years composing a poem. At the same time, he was carefully selecting and gathering gold coins, diamonds, emeralds and other gems, and placing them in a large bronze chest. When he was finished amassing the treasure and filling the chest, he drove up into the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe, and he hid it.

Only Forrest Fenn knows where that treasure chest, weighing more than 40 pounds and estimated to be worth more than $2 million, is hidden. Fenn’s poem is said to contain nine clues which, if properly decoded and followed correctly, will lead you straight to that box of gold and gems. It’s not an easy riddle. Fenn believes 50,000 treasure hunters will search for the gold this summer. And, as far as Forrest Fenn knows, no one has found it yet.

Little Snake, Little Snake

“The Little Snake River winds along Wyoming’s southern border, in and out of Colorado,” John said. By this time, our conversation had moved to the Bosque Brewing Company, just up the street. “There are nine clues in the poem. All of them point to a one-mile stretch on the Little Snake. And Fenn has given several clues since that also fall right into place.”

That was about the time that Abe Anderson showed up and asked what we were talking about. We filled him in.

“Count me in,” Abe said.

John said that in his research, he’d come across some writings of Forrest Fenn.

“Fenn was an avid fly-fisherman,” John said. “I was reading about a particularly profound experience he’d had. And writing about it he said, and I quote, ‘Little Snake, Little Snake.’” John pronounced the comma, for dramatic effect.

“I’m in,” I said.

John explained that there’s a line in Fenn’s poem, “Begin it where warm waters halt/And take it in the canyon down,” that he was certain refers to hot springs in Wyoming which had been diverted in a recent watershed/reclamation project. It all seemed eminently plausible.

One after another, he rattled off the evidence he’d amassed. The trip was planned for Memorial Day weekend. Jay Scholle, a “compassionate grower” from Saunderstown, Rhode Island, was added as the expedition. Jay is the owner of Natural Solutions, a company that grows medicinal marijuana. John’s wife is Jay’s cousin.

Before leaving, we agreed on the split. As expedition leader, and the brains behind the operation, John would take half. The remaining half would be split four ways. If the treasure is worth $2 million, my cut would be $250,000. I was OK with that.

John, who would ultimately get five-eighths of the treasure, decided that he would re-hide one-eighth somewhere in the Rockies — in order to give other treasure-hunters a reason to keep searching.

John Ryan drives north, in search of Forrest Fenn’s gold.

The expedition begins

John, Jay and I left Las Cruces at 4:30 a.m. last Saturday. In every way imaginable, I felt like Hunter S. Thompson, leaving the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel for a madcap Las Vegas adventure. The drive ahead of us was long — 750 miles — and tinged with absurdity.

As we approached the Border Patrol checkpoint north of Radium Springs, I told them both, “As your attorney, I advise you to play it cool. I don’t know what you’re into, and I don’t wanna know. But I’m not trying to be the guy that some devil-may-care, first-year federal prosecutor tries to pin the Kennedy assassination on.”

Such would be the tone of the entire trip. The sun rose as we passed the Caballo Mountains, north of Truth or Consequences.

In Albuquerque, we picked up Abe at a Whole Foods Market. We didn’t know much about Abe, except that he’s a self-described “adventure seeker.”

It was agreed that we’d tell no one the real reason we were in Wyoming. If anyone asked, we were fly-fishing on the Little Snake. Abe assumed an alias — Lincoln Benavidez — and began telling people that he was our Native American tracker.

As we hit the Colorado state line, snow began to fall.

As your attorney, I advise you to play it cool. I don’t know what you’re into, and I don’t wanna know. But I’m not trying to be the guy that some devil-may-care, first-year federal prosecutor tries to pin the Kennedy assassination on.
— Damien Willis

Driving north

Outside of Buena Vista, Colorado, we stopped to stretch our legs, and wandered down to the banks of the Arkansas River. I found a small antler, shed by a deer or antelope. No longer than seven inches, it seemed like a talisman of sorts. It was agreed we should take it with us. For luck.

In Buena Vista, we rented a two-man inflatable kayak at Colorado Kayak Supply. It would be essential if we were to find the gold. We loaded it up — pump, patches, paddles — and continued north.

In Leadville, Colorado, we stopped for a late lunch at Doc’s, then hit Earl’s — a recreational marijuana dispensary. Since marijuana has been legalized in Colorado, dispensaries have sprouted up across the state. However, they deal only in cash, as most banks won’t do business with the marijuana industry, fearing the federal prohibition that remains in place. Earl’s is a cash business.

As I sat in the parking lot, a man who may have been Earl carried three large Tupperware containers — the type you’d use to store Christmas ornaments — through the front door. The clear containers were full of pot.

In a back room, small jars were filled with different strains of Indica and Sativa, with names like Arctic Ice, Purple Urkle and Casey Jones.

Back on the road, we continued north through Minturn, Bond and Craig. Just before sundown on Saturday, we reached the Wyoming state line.

The thrill of the chase

We turned onto the dirt street in Dixon as dusk fell, and into the parking lot of the Dixon Motel. After checking in, we wandered across the street to the Dixon Club, the only bar for miles. Julie Hatcher, who owns the bar and motel, is also the only bartender. She heated a Schwann’s frozen pizza for us in a toaster oven, and we settled in for a night of planning over cold pints. It was nearly 2 a.m. before we stumbled across the street to our rooms. Dawn would arrive soon.

In fact, dawn passed us by. We awoke Sunday morning, sometime after 7:30 a.m., to snow flurries — imperfect conditions for kayaking. In keeping with the plan, Jay and I took John and Abe/Lincoln to Savery Creek, which feeds into the Little Snake River. As the snow continued to fall, we inflated the kayak and they put in above the Savery Creek Bridge. The river was flowing fast. The only paddling that would be required would be to avoid tree stumps and barbed-wire fences that crossed the river in four places between Savery and Dixon.

The air was cold as they entered the water — 39 degrees. Jay and I struck out for the crossings; there were about five that we needed to check out, wandering up and down the river bank looking for any indication of buried treasure nearby. As John and Lincoln made their way toward the Dolan Bridge, Jay and I worked communications detail, and explored the banks of the Little Snake in hip waders.

It was just past noon when we saw John and Lincoln round the corner above Dolan Bridge in their orange kayak. Snow had been falling all morning, and they were cold when they reached the truck.

“I think we’re entering the hot zone, the active zone,” John said, holding a cold Heineken in his cold hand. “We put in a little high, just to be safe. But that treasure is out here somewhere, and I think we’re getting close.”

Lincoln crawled into the truck to warm up. He was having second thoughts about continuing.

“I can’t feel my hands or feet,” he said. “And my ankles itch.”

After 20 minutes, John said he’d go it alone. As John loaded the kayak back into the river, Lincoln decided he’d go, too.

Two hours later, we picked them up at the Dixon Bridge, just west of town. If the treasure was out there, we hadn’t found it.

The way home

Sunday night, Julie made us chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes. Dixon doesn’t have a restaurant, but Julie is a pretty good cook. After dinner, I headed back to the room for a hot shower. It had been a long day, and I was tired.

As I crawled into bed, I received a text message from John.

“You are missing a tooth extraction at the bar,” it read.

I resisted the temptation to run back across the street. Later, I learned that cooler heads had prevailed at the eleventh hour. A string had already been tied to the offending tooth, and to the bar’s front door. Just before the “extraction,” a young man at the bar finally got the other man — the one with the string coming from his mouth — to listen to reason.

We pulled out of Dixon at 8 a.m. on Monday, Memorial Day. The drive back to Las Cruces was subdued. We returned the kayak, and had lunch at the Eddyline Brewery in Buena Vista. At lunch, as he enjoyed a Pine Creek Porter, John waxed poetic about the thrill of the chase.

“Indeed, the thrill is in the chase,” John said. “There’s a big part of me that is glad we didn’t find this treasure, because it’s going to get people out, exploring, and dealing with what we dealt with yesterday — which was making us really feel alive, throwing it all on the line, going all in, going downstream, and really enjoying life to the fullest.”

John remains confident that the treasure is up there, perhaps in a hollowed out tree stump, somewhere on the Colorado-Wyoming border, waiting to be found. Of course, only Forrest Fenn knows for sure.

— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 05/31/15

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