A lockbox full of gold and jewels, mountain hideaways, clues buried in plain sight: it’s all so typically New Mexico. At least the New Mexico of legend and story, or so it might have seemed until Santa Fe resident Forrest Fenn went and made it real. In case you’ve missed the tsunami of coverage recently (triggered by his appearance on The Today Show), former Air Force pilot, treasure hunter, and gallerist Fenn’s autobiography, Thrill of the Chase, features a 24-line poem that points the way to real riches that he buried somewhere “in the mountains north of Santa Fe.”
Why? He claims that he wanted to motivate people to get outside—into the particularly great New Mexico outdoors. "Get your kids out in the countryside, take them fishing and get them away from their little hand-held machines," he said during his Today appearance.
New Mexico got its start in much the same way. A bunch of Spaniards read about the vast legendary hidden cities of gold in and amongst our mesas and mountains. In 1540 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado came looking; a little later Juan de Oñate tried his hand. They both failed.
But Fenn promises he’s offering more than a legend. Much more, including 20 ounces of gold, a 17th century Spanish ring with a large emerald, a bracelet with 254 rubies, sapphires and diamonds, a turquoise bracelet, and necklace that's 2,000 years old. All stashed in a Romanesque strong box right out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
If you’ve spent your life around and in our mountains (or even just visited), you have no problem imagining places you too might stash two million dollars in treasure. To be sure, the “mountains north of Santa Fe” doesn’t really narrow things down. There’s over a million acres of such mountains, many of which include the state’s tallest peaks. It’s rugged country. But for the tens of thousands of people buying Fenn’s book and planning expeditions every bit as dream-laden as those of the state’s founders, it’s better than nothing.
But where to start? One possibility is to the east—near the Dry Cimarrón river. Fenn mentions the “home of Brown.” Our own Tim Keller spent some time at the Brown ranch a couple of years ago, and his resulting story, “Home on the Range,” is getting a lot of attention. There’s also “heavy loads and water high” nearby. But treasure maps, even ones drawn with words, are meant to deceive as much as to direct. So, perhaps to the west, to places like Abiquiú or Eagle Nest?
Wherever the poem and its promise takes you, you’ll be following in the footsteps of adventurers and explorers, bandits and miners, and ranchers and artists all of whom came to the state to find their own treasure. Some even did. Good luck, and let us know how it goes. If you witness just one stunning New Mexican vista awash in the colors of sunset, we think you’ll be the richer.
Peter BG Shoemaker is a New Mexico-based journalist and writer. Read more of his work here.