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Chasing The Thrill: How A Modern Treasure Hunt Resulted In Obsession, Death And Relief

Penguin Random House

Last summer, a modern-day treasure hunt came to an end when New Mexico Art Dealer Forrest Fenn's chest of jewels, gold and pre-Columbian artifacts were found somewhere in Wyoming. Fenn hid the treasure in the Rocky Mountains in 2010, after he was told he was going to die from cancer.

Journalist Dan Barbarisis broke the news of the identity of the finder of the chest, while writing a book, Chasing the Thrill, on the treasure hunt. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska asked Barbarisi why people were so dedicated to finding the treasure.Dan Barbarisi: It can be very hard to turn back. Because you get that mania, it starts to grab you. 'Well, I feel like I'm really close, if I didn't explore this thing before I have to fly back to the East coast and not be able to come out here again. I wouldn't be able to forgive myself.' That's certainly something I've talked to a lot of other hunters about. And it's something that I think certainly could have been in play with a lot of the fatalities. In this case, where you run into a lot of situations where you just want to go a little more, you just want to explore a little further. And that might not be the smartest idea. But that feeling can take hold pretty quickly. And once you're out in the field, it does sometimes become a little hard to turn back.

Kamila Kudelska: Another aspect of it is Forrest Fenn,his whole history and why he decided to do this. And you've met Forrest Fenn, you've talked to him. I wonder if you can kind of just describe him a little bit. From your understanding, why did he do this?

DB: What he would tell you is because he wanted to give people something to dream about. He wanted to inspire people, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, and give people who may have lost something, something to wish for and dream about and get them outside into the wilderness. But there's also, why did he do this for himself? There's a lot of questions, I think. This is a man who didn't, I think, like the idea that he would just pass on and be forgotten. His father had died not long before he originally came up with the treasure hunting plan. And his father had been a beloved school principal. And after that, though, nobody really remembered him. And I think that deeply impacted Forest and he didn't want the same fate to befall him in some ways. I remember talking to him about legacy. And he very quickly said, 'I don't care about legacy'. But I don't think that was true. I think he did care about leaving something behind and being remembered-in some ways by doing something that had a lasting impact. I think he liked the idea that people would still be looking for his chest long after he was gone. This is a guy who mythologized his own past. And in his book, his original book, the Thrill of the Chase, it's stories about his childhood, and there are hints in those stories. But you've got to learn all about Forrest Fenn, if you're going to really understand where his special spot was, where he hid his chest, which is the special spot where he in theory wanted to die, wanted to put a chest down next himself and die. So, to understand his treasure hunt, you have to understand the man himself. And so he was his treasure hunt in so many ways.

KK: There's this huge community that has come from Forrest Fenn's treasure hunt. There's these searchers and hunters. And besides just searching for the treasure, what was kind of important to these people? Why were they continually interested and invested in it?

DB: Yeah, I think the community element of it was really something that did bind people to the hunt in many ways. Some of them were from the search area, but many were not. Many were from far outside. It's like the search season was actually half the year, let's say, depending on where you were. In Wyoming, it's shorter. In Montana, it's shorter. New Mexico, it's longer, you can go out in March and April if you need to. But for a lot of the year, you're doing it on the internet. There could be a lot of conflict within it. At times, there was a lot of unity. And they did some really great things, raised some money for hunters who got into dire straits, things like that. It was like a very interesting thing, because it's a venture that was intended to get people outside. And yet so much of it actually took place from somebody's bedroom on the internet. But that said, there were hunters who met up and then went on group hunts together. Who went quote, unquote, boots on the ground together.

KK: When you heard that the treasure was found, what was your kind of original thought?

DB: 'Oh, my God, what happened here?' At that point, it was just trying to capture the emotions that people were feeling at that time, and what it made the hunters feel and do and say. And also just try to figure out what was even going on. What was gonna happen next? And if we could figure out who the guy was, who found it, where it was located, and all that stuff, because Forrest Fenn was not actually releasing a lot of information about it. And so there were a lot of questions. There was honestly a lot of anger in the search community about that. There were a lot of conspiracy theories flying around. A lot of this is all a hoax. This has been a waste of time. And so I was trying to kind of navigate that and figure out what was true and what wasn't.

KK: And what did you find out?

DB: So, Fenn did release some information about. He released some pictures of the chest. He revealed that it was located in Wyoming, but he still wouldn't tell the exact spot or who had found it. And so then, in early September of 2020, he passed away. And that inspired the finder, the guy who found the treasure, two weeks later to post a kind of remembrance of Fenn on the website Medium. And so I put in my information, who I was, and why he should talk to me. He reached out pretty quickly and I realized, 'Oh my god, this is the guy,' and we started talking for months and months. Obviously, I was trying to convince him to let me tell his story. And after a couple months of doing that, finally he essentially agreed to that. It was Jack Steuf who was a medical student, 30 years old at the time, in Michigan, who was the one who found the treasure.

KK: You got to talk to Jack, what was his reasoning? Why did he start hunting for the treasure? And what was his reaction when he actually found it?

DB: So many people who search for this, want to believe in something. They want the distraction. But it also brings you back. I mean, Jack had gone through treasure hunting books and stories and movies and stuff when he was young, and he loved the concepts of those things. This brought him back to that and allowed him to kind of play in that sandbox. For a lot of people this brings them back to that childhood feeling of wonder, and I think he had that absolutely. Jack searched for it for years. He actually very quickly came upon the correct general location. He spent a long time in that generalized area, trying to figure out where it was specifically. That took him a lot of time. But he eventually did figure it out. And it was actually a spot that he had actually been essentially walked over on previous hunts, but he hadn't known what to look for at the time, and the chest was pretty well hidden. He actually felt a feeling of relief, he went back to his car and he cried, because he just felt so relieved that he wouldn't spend the rest of his life absolutely sure that he knew where the treasure was and not be able to find it.

KK: I just wonder what you think Forrest Fenn's reaction to the chest being found? I know that there was a lot of discussion of him not believing it was going to be found while he was still alive.

DB: What I have been told is that there was a little bit of disappointment there. From talking to Jack, I think he loved that he got to talk to Jack about it. That somebody who figured it out and understood what he was trying to do, [and] found the chest. At the same time. I've also been told that his friends who talked about this believed he was disappointed that the chase was over. It ended in his lifetime and that it wasn't going to tantalize people after he was gone. So I think both things can be true.

KK: For you personally, we talked a little bit earlier about how the reasoning of Forest for doing this was to get people outside, to go adventure. Do you think that happened?

DB: In that goal, I think he definitely succeeded. This hunt is not black and white. It is not universal good nor universal bad. There is a lot of gray area with it. But, Forrest Fenn certainly did do something very interesting. He certainly did do something that was unique and different and that gave a lot of people hope and something to explore and dream about and in those elements, I think those are a lot of very good things.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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