A few years ago, Forrest Fenn, an art collector and antiques dealer in New Mexico, hid a treasure chest filled with $3 million in gold nuggets, ancient jade carvings, and other artifacts somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe. In 2010, he self-published a book of clues as to its location, in the form of a poem, and tens of thousands of people have gone looking for it since. Now, one of them has been missing for almost a month.
Randy Bilyeu, 54, moved to Colorado two years ago in order to spend more time searching for Fenn’s treasure, the Associated Press reports. On January 5th, after spending two weeks scouting the river west of Santa Fe, he set out on a raft, with a GPS device and his dog, Leo. His ex-wife, Linda Bilyeu, filed a missing person’s report on January 14th. Bilyeu’s raft and his dog were found the next day.
New Mexico Search and Rescue suspended their search effort after a few days. “Unfortunately, we just don’t have anything to go on right now,” State Police spokeswoman Sgt. Elizabeth Armijo said. “If someone were to find clothing or footprints or just something that might be indicative of the hiker, then we would have an area to go to. But we just have not found that yet.”
Fenn, 85, has been helping out with the search effort, chartering helicopters and planes to search the upper Rio Grande. “Every time we go out and don’t find Randy it’s discouraging but we’re not going to give up,” he told the AP. “There are still places out there that I want to look.”
The eccentric collector—who turns up in a 1999 New Yorker story about counterfeit Paleolithic stone spear points—had the idea to stash some of his most prized possessions in a chest and hide it somewhere in the mountains almost two decades, when he was being treated for kidney cancer. He was told he had a 20 percent chance of survival, Hemispheres magazine reported in a 2013 profile, and thought that he might write his memoir, drag the chest somewhere out into the wilderness, and die. He imagined a future traveler coming up his skeleton, opening the chest to find his book and his gold.
But Fenn didn’t die, and the plan fell to the wayside. When he turned 80, in 2010, he was inspired to execute the plan in a modified form—he hid the treasure and published his memoir. The book contained nine clues, written as a poem:
As I have gone alone in there
And with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where,
And hint of riches new and old.
Begin it where warm waters halt
And take it in the canyons 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.
So why is it that I must go
And leave my trove for all to seek?
The answer I already know,
I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.
So hear me all and listen good,
Your effort will be worth the cold.
If you are brave and in the wood
I give you title to the gold.
Over the years, Fenn has added to those clues, disclosing that the treasure is located north of Santa Fe, in the Rocky Mountains, that it is hidden higher than 5,000 feet above sea level, and that it isn’t buried in a graveyard or a mine. “The treasure is not hidden in a dangerous place,” Fenn said earlier this month. “I’ve said many times not to look for the treasure any place where an 80-year-old man couldn’t put it.”
However: “Things can complicate the search,” he told Hemispheres. “Earthquakes, mudslides, forest fires, floods, trees, falling rocks. There are those who have been at risk in water when they attempted to search someplace where it was not really safe to go. Some have not been prepared to face the elements after they parked their car and started walking. Some have lacked the proper clothing, food and water.” He’s discouraged people from looking during the winter.
Fenn told the AP that he gets 120 emails a day from people looking for the chest, and that he thinks 65,000 people have gone looking for it. He also insists it’s not a hoax. “That gold is out there—I held it with my own hands,” a friend, Douglas Preston, told Hemispheres.
“Some of the most wonderful things in the treasure are enormous gold nuggets the size of hen’s eggs, weighing more than a pound each, and worth several times their bullion value. He included things that would survive a long time, and that would be interesting and unusual. And the chest itself is quite rare; it’s a Romanesque lockbox from the 12th century, and with the gold and jewels inside, it weighs 42 pounds.”
Even now, though, with Bilyeu missing almost a month, Fenn isn’t going to say where it is. “There have been too many people looking,” he said. “It would not be fair to them if we shut the thing down.”