An eccentric millionaire hid a treasure in the Rocky Mountains. Why?
Over the course of one week in August, tens of thousands of listeners tuned in to WXPN’s broadcast of the 1969 Woodstock music festival.
DJs played the legendary concert in its entirety—all four days of it—rising with Ritchie Havens’ spirited opener and setting with Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary finale.
Tuning in was a trip. During a sunny Saturday, I drove around town running errands, my car radio redirecting me through Max Yasgur’s farm no matter where I went.
The broadcast was billed as “Woodstock Week: Back to the Garden Again,” a clever nod to Joni Mitchell’s tribute, “Woodstock,” which she first performed a month after the festival, singing:
Of course, those last lines are, in turn, a clever nod to the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. More specifically it’s about poor Adam and Eve unwittingly playing a game of Let’s Make a Deal with a satanic serpent subbing in for Monty Hall.
“Hey, kids,” the crafty creature hisses, “this place is beat! Nothing ever happens. Take a bite of this forbidden fruit and, one day, you’ll enjoy smart phones, movies on-demand and virtual reality!”
It wasn’t an easy choice. The Landlord had been clear from the get-go about the Tree of Knowledge being off-limits with disobedience bringing eviction.
As the story goes, our ancestors are seduced by the snake into this original sin and end up on their butts—just beyond the boundary of an everlasting Paradise they once called home and to which they can never return. No do-overs. No way back.
Or is there?
Joni thought it was possible. But that was 50 years ago. In the era of acid.
Back to the garden…
My mind left Country Joe and the Fish jamming onstage and flashed back to a recent series of adventures in the Yellowstone area, where an old college buddy and I went looking for hidden treasure.
Allow me to explain…
A TALE OF TREASURE
About 10 years ago, an eccentric millionaire outdoorsman by the name of Forrest Fenn hid a bronze chest full of gold and jewels somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Then he issued a challenge to the world to find it. The treasure map? It was nine clues Fenn stashed in a 24-line poem he wrote.
Hidden clues to a hidden chest of gold.
I started researching this story in November, 2018. It was an incredible premise: not a movie; not a TV show; not a video game. This was, by the looks of it, the real deal.
And, if it wasn’t—if it was all a big trick—it would still make for a great read. Hopefully.
Why would an eccentric millionaire outdoorsman hide a treasure in some secret location in the Rocky Mountains? For one, he wanted get people off the couch and back in touch with nature again.
“Get your kids out in the countryside, take them fishing and get them away from their little hand-held machines,” Fenn told TODAY in a 2013 television interview.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, there are a helluva lot of people out there—other than children—who need more time away from those machines. I was one of them. Probably still am.
So I bought into Fenn’s pitch, and dove into the story and the adventure headfirst. Along for the ride was an old college buddy of mine, Eric Lippert, whom I recruited at the end of 2018. Eric also succumbed to Fenn’s spell.
Together, Eric and I explored the area just outside the northeast corner of Yellowstone, the wilderness surrounding what is the least traveled entrance to the park.
In the middle of winter, we snowshoed over—and sometimes through—several feet of snow, into a frosted canyon, in an area in which recent reports warned of both wolves and snowslides. In the following summer, we took a rugged hike into the Beartooth Mountains and almost actually walked into a wandering moose, who was equally spooked. Then, in a vicious thunderstorm, I crossed storm-swelled rapids by shimmying across a fallen log.
There are dozens of other stories. All of them connected by a similar thread: The extreme unlikelihood that Eric and I would have
been doing any of these things had we not become fascinated by the legend of Forrest Fenn and his bronze chest full of gold and jewels.
THE VALUE OF EXPERIENCE
In June of this year it was announced that someone else had found the treasure.
Of course, Eric and I were disappointed. But after a long phone call, we were comforted by the countless number of great stories we’d collected over the past year and a half. So much so, that I decided to write about it for my college magazine. You can read the story here. I hope you do.
In the process of working on the piece, going back and forth with the editors, one of them asked a question:
“Why [is it] two grown men felt so passionately about the quest that they decided to embark on it?”
It was a completely reasonable question. But it bothered me for some reason. Who wouldn’t want to go on a Rocky Mountain adventure looking for hidden treasure?
I continue to ask myself variations of that question. Why is it that we are too often completely satisfied experiencing the world solely through the two-dimensional screen of a television, or a laptop, or a phone? After a while, doesn’t it begin to feel second-hand? We settle for the essence or appearance of the experience, but not the experience itself.
I’m no Luddite. We need technology, just as our ancestors needed the first technology: fire. But like our ancestors, we should understand that all technologies are only as good as our wisdom to use them. In other words, the same fire we use to cook our food can be used to burn down our neighbor’s house.
That’s the problem. As the paragon of animals, we should know better. Alas, there is no other creature great or small that builds gilded cages as well as we do—whether it’s tethering ourselves to our phones or cementing ourselves in front of our televisions and computers.
Likewise, there’s no other animal doing as much damage to the planet as us. Which begs the question: Have all of these second-hand experiences skewed our judgment?
The Tree of Knowledge may have provided vast intelligence, but our first taste of Wisdom came from experience, as it usually does. It was the consequences of our actions that got us the boot from Paradise.
But what if we actually never left Paradise? What if it was just another one of the serpent’s tricks?
By every definition and measure, our Earth is Paradise. Our best astronomers employ our greatest technologies, searching the heavens for something else like it, only to come up short, again and again, in one way or another. In the apparent endless vastness of space, our Earth is uniquely fit for us, the human race.
When I first started looking for Fenn’s treasure, there was a waterfall I pinpointed on maps as a possible location. I began picturing it in my mind while driving around town, while at work, or before going to bed. Photos weren’t good enough; I had to see it for myself. So I flew out West in winter and Eric and I hiked miles through the snow to get to it.
It was worth the effort.
In a way, that frozen waterfall became my Garden. My slice of Paradise. It is still a location I carry with me—a place and time I go to where everything stands still. It may sound weird, but when life presents stressful situations, I think about the serene beauty of that frozen waterfall. The stillness of it all.
I can thank Forrest Fenn for that.
The Devil may have bribed us out of Paradise—or tricked us into thinking that we left, when maybe we didn’t. Perhaps taking a cue from the snake, Fenn turned the tables. He bribed thousands to go out into the wild to look for treasure—and, in the meantime, rediscover a piece of Paradise.
Sure, technologies can connect us with each other. Those benefits come from our knowledge of things. However, the Great Outdoors can connect us with ourselves and something greater than us all. That’s something altogether different, but equally as vital.
Taking a cue from Forrest Fenn, we’re offering a bribe for your adventures. Follow the link for Adventure Story Contest directions! We want to hear about your first-hand experiences. Where did you go? What did you find? Who knows? Maybe you’ll win a cool prize for your efforts!