Chasing the Thrill

From The Wall Street Journal:

Begin it where warm waters halt / And take it in the canyon 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.

Have you ever heard of the Lost Dutchman Mine and the Beale Cipher? How about the Oak Island Money Pit? Or the artist Kit Williams’s “Masquerade” (aka the Quest for the Golden Hare) and the magician David Blaine’s “The Mysterious Stranger” (aka the Search for the Golden Orb)? I hadn’t either. But now I know all about treasure hunts and those who plan them—especially one eccentric denizen of the American Southwest, whose self-published memoir of 2010 contains the near-incomprehensible verse-clues quoted above.

Reading Daniel Barbarisi’s “Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt” might feel a bit like watching a Discovery Channel documentary, but the book is quite a yarn. In fact, it’s an exhaustive account of one of the oddest episodes in the crowded annals of bizarro Americana.

The impresario of “Chasing the Thrill” is Forrest Fenn, a former Vietnam War fighter pilot who made a fortune peddling Native-American artifacts and other works in arty Santa Fe, N.M. As we learn from Mr. Barbarisi, a former Wall Street Journal sportswriter and the author of an earlier book on fantasy-sports gambling, Fenn, at age 80, got the notion to hide a treasure chest in the rough country north of Santa Fe. He then printed a slim autobiography called “The Thrill of the Chase,” whose final chapter released his poetic arrows into the public imagination—verses containing nine gnomic pointers to the whereabouts of the trove of 265 gold coins, dozens of gold nuggets, plastic baggies of gold dust, a block of $1,000 bills, plus rare Mayan relics, Chinese jade and more. The 42-pound cache—secreted in a smallish 12th-century Italian lock box—was valued at up to $2 million.

Word of the Fenn lode predictably set off a gold rush of tens of thousands of ambitious, greedy and often deeply disturbed “clue solvers” who spent the next decade busting their brains and pondering maps, draining their bank accounts and risking their lives. They scoured “The Thrill of the Chase,” followed Fenn’s frequent interviews, watched and re-watched a 2013 “Today” segment he’d done, besieged his Santa Fe compound, corresponded by email, and followed a bunch of Fenn-obsessed blogs and YouTube channels. Then they traipsed through northern New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and southern Montana, certain that the Fenn treasure—like the mythical Land of Prester John in the Middle Ages—was just over the horizon.

The author spent years commuting from his home, job and family in Boston to the Southwest. He immersed himself in the Fenn hunters’ subculture, and pursued a number of failed solves with his wingman, Jay Raynor, a Canadian fantasy-sports wizard and crypto-currency trader. He then cozied up close to the magus, trying to get to the bottom of what motivated Fenn to launch his quest. Was he chasing a kind of pop immortality for himself? Or was he more a sadistic puppet master, savoring the spectacle of addicted hunters abasing themselves to win his favor in hopes of priceless hints to the solution? Or was he, as one cynical solver had it, simply a “media whore” hooked on attention. In any case, he writes, “Fenn had managed to mythologize his own past.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG has spent significant portions of his life living in dry and sparsely-populated parts of the United States. He will say that the open desert can be very beautiful, but will also acknowledge that it can attract some individuals who are a bit off and move farther in the off direction the more time they spend alone in the desert.

4 thoughts on “Chasing the Thrill”

  1. I can agree with that, PG – but would note that the deep woods can have much the same effect (cf. Ted Kaczynski). Or any other place of extreme isolation from society, which can just as well exist in front of a computer keyboard in a suburban basement. Perhaps more commonly seen in the latter, actually.

    • Not just in the recent lockdown.
      “Excentrics” like that have been around forever. Often unnoticed unless they finished devolving.
      ( “He was such a quiet sort.” )

      The internet gave most of them an avenue to mingle and vent since tbe USENET-only era. “Don’t feed the troll” has a long history.

      Fenn sounds very much like a troll. He just found a very effective way to get lots and lots of people to manipulate.
      No different than throwing valuables at a crowd just to watch them scramble.
      Despicable, goes without saying.

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