A Deadly Hunt for Hidden Treasure
As Dan Barbarisi, A01, reached the crest of a hill in Yellowstone National Park in 2018, his heart started to race.
“A stream the color of fire ran from the forest to our right, just past Restless Geyser, down into the Firehole,” he recalls in his new book, Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America's Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt, which came out May 18.
“It’s the blaze,” Barbarisi said to his friend and fellow treasure hunter, Jay “Beep” Raynor.
He was referring to a poem appearing in the memoir of ex-fighter pilot and millionaire art dealer Forrest Fenn, which they knew by heart. “If you’ve been wise and found the blaze, / Look quickly down, your quest to cease,” reads the fourth stanza. “But tarry scant with marvel gaze, / Just take the chest and go in peace.”
The chest was a twelfth-century bronze lockbox, measuring 10 by 10 by 5 inches and holding an estimated $1 million in gold nuggets, gold and silver coins, gemstones, and jewelry. In 2010, Fenn promised the treasure to whoever could decipher the nine clues in the poem and find the chest where he had hidden it in the Rocky Mountains.
In 2017, hearing of the treasure, Barbarisi felt the same way he had when he’d left The Wall Street Journal to work on his first book, Dueling with Kings: High Stakes, Killer Sharks, and the Get-Rich Promise of Daily Fantasy Sports. “I was like, this thing is gonna blow up. Something’s about to go crazy. I need to be in the middle of this.”
The real-life treasure hunt had all the ingredients of an irresistible story, said Barbarisi, who was editor-in-chief of The Tufts Daily and an intern for The Boston Globe when he was an undergraduate studying political science and history. He went on to cover City Hall and the Red Sox for The Providence Journal before moving to the Wall Street Journal in 2010.
“You want interesting, distinctive characters who have something special about them. You want a world that has its own language and structures and rules,” he said. “You want to dive down a rabbit hole that’s deep enough where it’s worth doing, and will reward you if you manage to survive it.”
Barbarisi went deep down that rabbit hole. He shadowed hunters ranging from the methodical engineer Cynthia Meachum, who scoured the New Mexico wilderness every day, to the pink-handgun-toting real estate agent and “Fenntuber” Sacha Johnston, who met her future husband, Jason Dent, on the hunt. He spent time with inner-circle “Fennatic” Dal Neitzel, who devoted up to 80 hours per week running a beginner-friendly blog about the hunt. And he sat for hours in Fenn’s study amid Mark Twain manuscript pages and the bones of saber-toothed tigers as the millionaire gossiped about hunters and mused about reconnecting people with nature.
Barbarisi also became fluent in “Fennspeak,” versing himself in popular theories for clues such as “where warm waters halt” and “no paddle up your creek.” He dove into the mania surrounding famous literary and historical hunts, and the practices of the modern-day, family-run company Treasure Salvors, Inc, which seeks, buys and sells treasure.
Scouring Fenn’s memoir and interviews as well as discussion boards, and working with Raynor to create and test solves (proposed solutions) over some 25 search days out in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming, Barbarisi became a treasure hunter himself. The process was similar to what he did for his first book, for which he became a fantasy sports “shark,” at his peak laying daily five-figure bets (using profits from previous successful bets), and eventually winning a $100,000 prize and championship belt as DraftKings’ Fantasy Hockey World Champion. He immerses himself to understand his subjects better and to give readers “a main character they can follow,” he said.
Scrambling across tree trunks, narrowly avoiding bears and hailstorms, Barbarisi found that what he was truly unprepared for were the emotions. “It was surprising how quickly you can become obsessed with this. You just get deep into it, and it’s very hard not to feel like the treasure is over the next hill,” he said. “In so many ways, it’s not about the money. It’s about proving you’re good enough, smart enough, special enough. It’s that feeling that this is gonna be the salvation, solve all your problems, wipe the slate clean.”
Driven by that obsession, the ranks of treasure seekers swelled to the tens of thousands and fights broke out over alleged Fenn favoritism and solve-stealing. Overzealous hunters broke into Fenn’s home, and at least five searchers died on the chase, falling down a steep slope or being swept away by a river. Many people urged Fenn to call off the hunt, including New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. “When people started dying, that changed things. It went from, ‘Look at this happy, wonderful treasure hunt!’ to ‘This may be dangerous,’” Barbarisi said.
Barbarisi didn’t strike gold that day by the river of fire, and eventually stopped hunting after realizing that finding the chest might put his wife and two young sons in danger. But finding the treasure was never truly his goal, he said. He wanted to authentically seek it in order to tell the story of the chase, in the hopes that his book would “serve as a testament to this thing for years to come.”
And that he did, right down to the twist in June 2020 that sent shockwaves through the Fenn hunter community and required the high-speed rewriting of the last three chapters of his book. The treasure, which many had begun to suspect wasn’t real, was found. Although the successful searcher didn’t share where he found it, he did reveal that it was his insight into and understanding of its writer that led to the right spot. “The chase wasn’t just a treasure hunt, it was about understanding who Fenn was,” Barbarisi said. “[The finder] got that when a lot of others didn’t.”
Barbarisi, who’s now a senior editor at The Athletic, has no plans to take on another book project immediately--but he looks back fondly on his days on the hunt. “I very much enjoyed getting to be a part this, wandering out in the middle of nowhere and believing you actually are in pursuit of something,” he said.
As he sums it up at the end of Thrill of the Chase: “We all got a chance to play. And we were all a little richer for it.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.