Cynthia Meachum began her search for the hidden treasure at the confluence of two shallow streams in this tiny village north of Santa Fe, N.M., the spot “where warm waters halt,” or at least that’s where she thinks they do.
The only one who knows for sure is Forrest Fenn, who buried the clues to the whereabouts of a bronze chest loaded with riches in a poem printed on Page 132 of his self-published memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase.” It tells of the cancer he beat and the two times he was shot down by enemy fire in Laos and Vietnam when he was a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War.
The poem has 24 verses. There are nine clues. Or so he says.
Meachum, 62, thinks she has deciphered eight of them – “or maybe not,” she conceded. She has been second-guessing herself since she started looking for the treasure three years ago.
Fenn, 85, a successful art dealer in Santa Fe, had no better explanation for hiding a treasure – he calculates it could be worth $2 million – than to say he wanted to give families a reason to “get off their couches.”
He estimates that 65,000 people have joined the search for riches that are described as “265 gold coins, hundreds of gold nuggets, hundreds of rubies, eight emeralds, two Ceylon sapphires, many diamonds, two ancient Chinese jade carvings, pre-Columbian gold bracelets and fetishes, and more.”
He has only his word to show that the treasure is real.
Embarking on the search is as easy as buying a state map at a gas station off scenic Route 285, unfolding it on the hood of a rental car and looking for the place “where warm waters halt,” as his poem said. But actually finding treasure is not as simple.
Asking Fenn does not necessarily speed up the process either. Send him a question like, “Is this hidden spot near your home?” and the reply will be maddeningly mysterious.
“I don’t know how close near is,” he wrote. “To an ant, a mud puddle can be an ocean.”
He receives, on average, 100 emails a day, he said, most of them from people wanting a definitive clue. Every Friday, he reveals on a website his answer to one of the many questions the searchers ask him, each answer holding the promise of a hint of some sort – or not.
A typical question: “May I ask what type of car you used to go into the mountains to hide the treasure chest?”
A typical answer: “A sedan.”
Fenn has offered this much: The treasure is at least 8.25 miles north of Santa Fe, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains and “higher than 5,000 feet above sea level.” He drove, parked and carried the treasure to its hiding spot in two trips. First, he took the cast bronze chest. Then he took the valuables in a backpack.
Searchers have scoured public and private lands in four states, scouting out possible locations on paper maps, on Google Earth and on foot, using the poem as their guide.
One woman claimed the poem led her to the Christ of the Mines Shrine in Silverton, Colo., where the treasure she found was spiritual – “the eternal love of Christ,” she wrote, declaring the search over. Fenn said he had never been to the shrine.
But other searchers continued looking for a more material reward.
Some people do not believe Fenn. They assert that he has made up the treasure story to sell more copies of his memoir, whose printing and binding are done according to his precise specifications by Collected Works, a bookstore and coffeehouse in Santa Fe that donates part of the proceeds to charity and keeps the rest.
“He has never taken a dime from the sales,” said one of the bookstore’s owners, Mary Wolf.
Fenn’s wealth appears sizable. A small fortune is on display on the floor and walls of his compound – Persian rugs, Blackfeet Indian daggers and an assortment of rare books, including the proof sheets for Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” with 26 of the author’s markings.
Searchers have risked their lives to find a treasure they are certain is real, braving rushing creeks in Yellowstone National Park only to be rescued by rangers. One man, Randy Bilyeu, of Broomfield, Colo., disappeared in January while searching for the treasure along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. He is still missing.
Meachum, who has been looking for the treasure full time since she lost her job last year repairing lithography machines for a subsidiary of Nikon, once snowshoed 9,000 feet uphill to comb through a search area. She has canvassed 20 different locations, and has taken notes and photographs documenting every reasoning of hers and every turn on a road, trail or canyon.
She is a student of Fenn’s. Her exploits are neatly cataloged in three binders, his writings are arranged in a neat pile by her desktop, and his quotations are carefully handwritten on the pages of a notebook.
“To find this treasure,” she said, “I have to get inside his head.”
She scrutinized a trout fishing book, she said, following two streams, Rio Medio and Rio Frijoles, to their meeting spot on lower ground, under a bridge in Cundiyo, their waters warmed by the sun.
She drove me there last month, to a spot where the rivers’ warm waters halted, and used lines in the poem to explain each of her moves.
Sometimes, she made sense.
She climbed rough steps wedged on the face of a mountain, toward a narrow trail above. “And take it in the canyon down,” the next line in the poem says. To Meachum, that’s the second clue – and we were on it.
She followed the winding, narrow trail down into a canyon. There were rocks on one side. The river rushed down below, sheltered by groves of cottonwood trees. She recommended keeping an eye on the mountains and “look for something unusual.” Keeping an eye on the steep embankment is probably not a bad idea either.
Clues three, four, five, six, seven and eight revealed themselves one after the other in the verses – or was it Meachum twisting the words to make them fit?
“There’ll be no paddle up your creek,” read the poem, “just heavy loads and water high.”
On the edge of a cliff, she closed her eyes and took long deep breaths. Clue nine confronted her: “If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,” it says, “Look quickly down, your quest to cease.”
“Do you see anything that looks like the blaze?” she asked me.
I pointed to a rock that seemed more red than the ones around it.
“Nah,” she said. “That’s just a rock.”