The sports and pop culture calendars have paused. The safest thing that you can do right now is stay inside. And millions of people are looking for creative ways to pass the time. The Ringer is here to help. We’re starting a series called the Social Distancing Diaries, with our staff’s ideas for finding comfort, joy, community, or distraction while doing your part to flatten the curve. In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into what we’re passionate about and want others to discover—from bidets to buried treasure and everything in between.
My wife, Colleen, and I are puzzle people. Jigsaw puzzles are quality distractions, as various people have learned since the spread of the coronavirus forced much of the world to retreat inside for the foreseeable future. Our household got into puzzles months ago, before the pandemic pandemonium gripped the globe. In the past month or so, we’ve completed five puzzles ranging from 500 to 1,000 pieces. We’ve done puzzles featuring butterflies, bears, sundry Disney characters, and inspirational messages. Last week, we polished off a 1,000-piece puzzle with an ’80s theme that included images of Mr. T, Alf, Donkey Kong, Pacman, MacGyver, and the Ghostbusters. It was a delightful snapshot of my childhood. It was also a necessary fix for a deepening habit.
The urge to puzzle (a verb as well as a noun in our house) has become increasingly powerful. Colleen and I puzzle when we wake up and before we head to bed. We puzzle during happy hour and while making dinner. We puzzle in between work assignments and while we’re on phone calls. When we complete a particularly tough section or find an elusive piece, we generally celebrate by exclaiming “puzzah!”—a mashup of huzzah and … you get it. We apologize for nothing.
The descent into utter puzzle madness has been swift. Colleen recently used the phrase “puzzle porn” and suggested we enter a puzzle league. I have watched various puzzle strategy videos. The other night, I created a proprietary sorting system for interesting and irregular pieces; I believe this to be a groundbreaking advancement in the field. As part of my rapid assimilation into puzzle culture, I also started researching various puzzle companies. (I am now a proud member of the White Mountain Puzzle Club.) That led me to read about Stave Puzzles in Vermont, a puzzle company that sells handmade, irregular, custom puzzles that are hyperexpensive and that has a host of rich, famous, and loyal clientele that includes the likes of Bill Gates, Oprah, and the Queen. Reading about Stave sent me into a deep, dark puzzle dive during which I learned about perhaps the greatest puzzle of all: Forrest Fenn’s treasure hunt.
And here, before we go any further, I must warn you—nay, beg you—to save yourself. It is not in the interest of any writer to ask people to stop reading, and I’m sure my editor won’t be thrilled that I’m advising you to take the off-ramp before you zoom any farther down this especially bizarre highway with me. I want you to go and live your life (at a socially safe distance while self-quarantining) and be happy. I don’t want you to become as consumed with Forrest Fenn as I now am. Also, I want the treasure for myself.
Forrest Fenn is an eccentric 89-year-old art dealer/collector, author, and adventurer. In 2010, he self-published a book called The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir. In it, he writes that he hid a chest containing rare gems, jewelry, coins, and gold somewhere in the mountains between New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Fenn claims the treasure is not buried and is located at an elevation of 5,000 to 10,000 feet. He says the chest “weighs 42 pounds and an old man carried it to its secret location.” As a helpful guide, he wrote a poem that he says contains nine crucial clues leading to the treasure’s location. Various reports peg the value of the chest in the millions. If it’s real. A lot of people think Fenn is full of shit, including the ex-wife of a man named Randy Bilyeu who disappeared in 2016 after searching for the treasure and was later declared dead.
According to reports, at least six people had died while searching for Fenn’s booty. One man, Eric Ashby, went missing in the Arkansas River in 2017. About a month later, his remains washed up in Fremont County, Colorado. After another treasure-hunting Coloradan, Paris Wallace, died in 2017, the New Mexico State Police chief asked Fenn to call off the search; Fenn declined. And just a couple of weeks ago in mid-March, two snowmobile riders from the Denver area went looking for the treasure in a Utah park and got stranded. Only one made it out alive.
None of these deaths have deterred people from launching their own expeditions. A couple of years back, BuzzFeed did a cheeky unsolved-mystery-style documentary and dispatched two reporters to find the treasure; they didn’t. (The year before, Vox also sent two reporters to make a video. They, obviously, also did not find the treasure.) For the obsessives, there’s a Facebook community, an Instagram account, and a truly batshit Reddit thread. The whole thing has a serious Goonies energy to it. The only thing missing is One-Eyed Willy’s map and some of Data’s handy gadgets to aid the quest.
There are, of course, outstanding questions here, including how Fenn came upon and collected enough treasure to give away millions of dollars worth of it in the first place. In 1972, he moved to Santa Fe as a middle-aged Air Force veteran. Years later, he suddenly had an art gallery that, according to Newsweek, employed 16 people and had sales of $6 million a year. That’s a hell of a transformation for any amateur archeologist. The whole enterprise was dodgy enough that the FBI reportedly searched Fenn’s home in 2009 as part of an investigation into looters and grave robbers.
In addition to those who are certain Fenn fabricated this whole thing, as well as those who truly believe it’s real and that the treasure is still out there, there’s a camp that thinks the chest has already been found and that whoever found it hasn’t officially claimed it to avoid paying taxes and/or alerting would-be thieves who might want to rob them. And just this past December, an Arizona man named Brian Erskine claimed to have found Fenn’s loot in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, somewhere between the towns of Silverton and Ouray, just off U.S. 550, otherwise known as “the million dollar highway.” It gets better—and weirder. According to The New Mexican, Erskine’s court filing “presumes Fenn ‘concealed a box at the site only metaphorically.’ In addition, the court document says Erskine assumes a ‘controlled, voluntary transfer of box ownership by execution of a legal deed’ from Fenn to whoever finds the treasure.”
How anyone unearths and/or transfers ownership of a metaphor beats me. For his part, Fenn denied that Erskine had cracked the case, telling The New Mexican that the treasure is “still out there, outdoors.” That’s good to know. If and when any of us are ever allowed to go outside and travel again, I’d really like a chance to Indiana Jones this thing and track down the treasure. What a deeply satisfying puzzah! that would be.