SANTA FE, N.M. — Clearly, Forrest Fenn is a man who takes the long view.
He says it took him 15 years to write the clues that tell where to find his hidden chest of gold. He says it could take 10,000 years for somebody to find it.
"In 1988 I had what everybody thought was terminal cancer," Fenn said. Contemplating death, he thought of the old adage "you can't take it with you."
Fenn's view, however, was, "I will take it with me."
So he bought an ancient bronze chest that in itself is worth a small fortune, and began packing it with some of the things he has spent his life collecting. The owner of the Old Santa Fe Trading Co., his house is filled with some of his favorite items he's collected over the last 60 years — American Indian dolls, shields, arrowheads, beads, pottery and Spanish furniture. Inside the chest, he said, are coins, gold nuggets, jewelry and other artifacts.
The chest contains, among other things, 20.2 troy pounds of gold. It also contains a turquoise bead bracelet he won in a pool game that, if anybody finds during his lifetime, he'd like to have back. He says it's his favorite thing in the chest, and the least valuable.
The question of where to hide the chest was something he didn't even have to think about.
"I knew right away" where he was going to hide it, he said. He wanted to make it "difficult, but not impossible" to find, he said, "not to find on a Sunday picnic."
"I'm not saying I don't want anyone to find it. I'm absolutely neutral on that."
The poem, which contains the nine clues that he says lead right to the treasure, is in his book, "The Thrill of the Chase," as well as on his blog, http://www.oldsantafetradingco.com/the-thrill-resource-page.
While nobody has found it yet, some have come closer than they know. "There have been several parties of people who have figured out the first two clues," he said. "But nobody has correctly interpreted the full nine clues." He said he hasn't told anybody just how close they've been because "they'd go crazy."
Many have tried — and failed — to coax extra clues from him. When jokingly asked if he would like a drink, he answered with a laugh, "I don't drink for that reason!"
He said he knows his treasure hasn't been found yet, but he said he can't explain how he knows that, because that information would in itself be a clue.
The long view
The 11th-century chest of gold is not the only treasure Fenn is leaving behind as a legacy — or perhaps a grasp at immortality. He's written several books besides the one that contains the poem with the nine clues — "The Thrill of the Chase" — and has another due out soon.
And then there are the jars. He designs them in wax and then has them cast in bronze at a nearby foundry. He places a tiny-print 20,000-word version of his autobiography inside an olive jar, then seals the lid of the jar against moisture with wax. The olive jar goes into the bronze jar, and then he buries the whole thing deep enough that currently available metal detectors won't find it. He's buried about eight so far, he said, and plans to bury more than 30. Several finished jars line up at the edge of his desk, and more wax models are waiting to be cast.
Will these ever be found? Again, he takes the long view. "The Rosetta Stone took 2,000 years to be found," he said.
He designs bronze bells the same way. One is inscribed, "If you should ever think of me, a thousand years from now, please ring my bell so I will know." Some of the bells contain a clapper made of copper nails recovered from a 17th-century Spanish galleon by his nephew, a deep-sea diver.
Returning to his theme of history, he says, "I like history a lot. But what's history going to be like a thousand years from now?"
Grab every banana
Fenn's father frequently advised him to "grab every banana," something Fenn said he didn't quite understand. One day he finally asked his dad what that meant, and was told, "Now that you ask, maybe you're old enough to know." His father explained that the train goes by the banana farm only once, and any banana not grabbed is lost forever.
Fenn's book, and his speech, are well-peppered with aphorisms like this. Some are original, and others come from other sources, such as Einstein: "Imagination is better than knowledge." It's easy to infer why Fenn appreciates this quote. He acknowledges he barely graduated from high school, and might not have if his father had not been the principal. But he says his lack of education has been in his favor. He got ahead in life by "thinking, hustling, and going in the back door instead of the front door."
"If you don't know whether to say yes or no to something, say yes."
When he has a hard decision to make, he sets an alarm clock for three minutes and when it goes off, he makes his decision. "Why not say yes instead of no?"
He describes an ongoing game of chance — flipping a nickel for $100 — he played with an old friend until the friend could no longer afford his losses. He says he was able to influence the coin toss slightly by thinking positively.
"You can make a difference to a small degree," he said. "Science will not bear out that theory, I don't think."
But he lives by this theory of succeeding by force of will. "It doesn't matter who you are. It only matters what you can make people believe you are."
His history-filled house is where NBC's "Today" show films a short segment once a month in which he hands out a new clue each month, including such obvious hints as "The treasure is more than 300 miles west of Toledo." He isn't about to make it easy for anyone.
From the story he tells, nobody made it easy for him. He's made his own luck, he's believed in himself, and he's grabbed every banana.
Will that bring him immortality? Maybe not, but he's thinking positively about that, too.
"If your mind stays active you can live a long time."
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