Today is my birthday. I’m sitting at our campground beside the Arkansas River, having a beer and some black licorice (my indulgence) before we head into town for dinner.
The river here is low—it’s late in the season and all the snow has already melted and emptied down from the mountains, rushing past the spot where I’m sitting, and tumbling on across the Great Plains to the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. Nonetheless the current in the Arkansas is deceptively strong, even up in the headwaters here in the mountains of Salida, Colorado.
A week and a half ago it was Labor Day afternoon, and Courtney and I found ourselves wading across this river at a seemingly calm stretch between two runs of rapids in Browns Canyon National Monument, a few minutes up the road. We had been in Salida all of an hour, just long enough to unhitch the Airstream, make some sandwiches, and buy a topo map in town. “You guys sure seem to be on a mission,” the man at the map store remarked. And we were. We were on a hunt for hidden treasure, and we didn’t have a moment to lose.
The day before, in Dubois, WY, we’d happened to watch a YouTube video about something called the Fenn Treasure. In 2010 an eccentric antiquities collector named Forrest Fenn had allegedly hidden a bronze chest containing $2M worth of gold pieces and artifacts somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, and had inserted a cryptic poem into his self-published memoir that acted as a verbal map to the treasure. People from around the world had interpreted the clues in countless ways and gone on foolhardy expeditions into the wilderness to search for the trove, and in nearly 10 years of searching nobody had ever found it. We laughed at these eccentric folks and mused about how ludicrous it was to expect to be able to find a shoebox sized treasure chest in a space as vast as the Rockies, with nothing to guide you but half-cocked interpretations of an ambiguous riddle.
We read and dismissed a few popular theories of what the clues might mean, until we came upon one that caught our attention. It posited that the treasure might be hidden up a gulch in the wilderness of Browns Canyon, just a few miles away from the RV Park we happened to be heading to the next day in Salida, Colorado. We looked at a map and compared it to the clues in the poem, and our light-hearted skepticism gradually melted away into earnest curiosity. The more we discussed this theory and delved into our own interpretations of the cryptic clues, the more we realized we too were becoming obsessed, until we reached a point where, just like the folks we’d laughed at moments ago, we believed that we’d cracked the poem, that we deserved to find it, and we had to get to it first. “I know what I want to do for my birthday, “ I said. “I want to find that treasure.”
After pulling into Salida on Labor Day afternoon and making our preparations, we drove to the starting point of our mental treasure map at Hecla Junction campground and boat ramp in Browns Canyon. We paid the day-use fee, nervously said hello to two BLM rangers, hiked a half mile down a fisherman’s trail, and changed into water shoes. We were on the popular, accessible west side of the Arkansas River. The east side was all designated wilderness, with no marked trails or bridges for miles in either direction—perfect for hiding treasure. That was where we were headed, and the only way across was to ford it on foot.
We stepped off the shore and into the icy river. The water was only shin-deep, but the current was forceful. I led the way and Courtney followed behind. Every step was a labor, and I could understand why this was a popular destination for whitewater rafting. The rapids downstream gently roared and the river pulled at us as we stepped gingerly on the slippery round stones underfoot. It was much more challenging than we’d expected, but we finally made it across. We climbed up on the opposite shore below an abandoned railroad track, where we changed back into our hiking shoes and continued toward the treasure.
The next step was a hike up a dry creek bed called Railroad Gulch. Our path was soon blocked by overgrown vegetation, but we scouted out a nearby game trail that led the way up into the landscape. The terrain shifted from cottonwoods and low grassy hills into palisades of red hoodoos rising overhead with cacti, pinyon pines, and juniper dotting the dry wash. We were expecting a straightforward path to a blaze marking the treasure spot, but out here in the wilderness we realized that this place, like nature itself, was vast, varied, filled with symbolically interpretable landmarks, and composed mostly of hiding places. The sun was starting to get low, and I’d already been attacked by a jumping prickly pear.
We made our way up to a tall spire of red rock and consulted our map. We had only gone about half as far as we had expected to go and we’d run out of time. We hadn’t seen seen a soul out here. In fact we hadn’t seen any footprints, litter, or a single human-made trail. The only evidence that people ever came up here at all was a barbed-wire fence marking the boundary of the San Isabel National Forest. We also hadn’t told anyone where we were going, and this was mountain lion country (indeed—the next gulch over was named Cat Gulch for a reason). People had died looking for this treasure. Yesterday we’d shaken our heads at those fools, but now we felt like fools ourselves for rushing so stridently out into the wilderness to look for a small box that most likely was hundreds of miles away.
We made our way back down the game trail to the river, which appeared deeper, swifter, and more menacing now in the late afternoon shadows. Courtney admitted that when we’d crossed earlier she was sure several times that she was going to fall in. We walked up and down the weed-choked train tracks looking for an easier crossing, but found none. Finally, around sunset, we put in back at the same spot we’d crossed before. This time we walked side by side, holding hands to help keep each other steady. By the time we made it back to the truck and drove into town it was dark.
That was almost two weeks ago. Since then the weather has warmed up and we’ve had time to do much more research about the different spots along the canyon that could possibly be the hiding place of the Fenn Treasure. But we have not gone back into the wilderness. The irrational rush of believing we were on the verge of finding that elusive box was intoxicating, powerfully motivating, and a little scary. Through our research about the treasure we also started to realize what that rush can do to people. The pages and pages of online descriptions of incorrect “solves,” failed expeditions, and time and money spent revealed how an obsession like this can consume people’s lives, let alone their vacations. We didn’t want to go down that path. We wanted to enjoy our time in the Rockies seeing the sights we’d hoped to see to begin with, and we wanted to savor our time in the lovely town of Salida. If another day of treasure hunting came our way then we’d happily go on another hike, but we weren’t going to let it take over our trip.
Now as I sit here outside I feel relaxed. It’s almost time to go to my birthday dinner, and I’m excited to explore this town some more. A week ago I wanted nothing more for my birthday than to go treasure hunting in the wilderness. But now I’ve gotten exactly what I really want: a relaxing day without any urgency, a nice dinner out with Courtney, and maybe a quiet evening stroll along the Arkansas River.
—September 13, 2018