Is the true booty the beauty of the backcountry?

By Jana Bounds EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, there is said to be millions of dollars in hidden treasure.

Many people believe that treasure is near Big Sky.

Some years ago, two friends set out to walk the 92 miles from West Yellowstone to Bozeman. They did it because they were kids, because they could, because they liked the challenge, self-sufficiency, and the mountain vistas.

“We tried to stay off of the road,” Forrest Fenn said of that long trek with his friend. “We were middle teens when we did that trip, and we quickly ran out of candy bars. When fishermen on the Gallatin learned what we were doing they gave us food.”

In harsh contrast to fly fishing in West Yellowstone and his idyllic mountain walks, Fenn would eventually go to war as a fighter pilot and be shot down twice in Vietnam. Those near-death experiences would be only a few he would face. After that, he became a successful art dealer and collector.

He hatched a plan to create a lasting legacy—and inspire folks away from sedentary lifestyles—when he was first diagnosed with cancer in 1988: He would hide millions in gold dust, coins and ancient Jade beneath the Western sky he so loves.

The cancer went into remission and he had time to pen his memoir “The Thrill of the Chase” in addition to other novels.

When the cancer resurfaced in 2010, he set to hiding the bronze chest brimming with riches by way of two trips from his vehicle in one afternoon, he’s written.

He then wrote a poem containing nine clues that would serve as a guide to the treasure.

“When I hid this treasure, this country was in a recession and lots of people were losing their jobs,” he wrote from his Santa Fe home. “I wanted to give hope to those who were willing to strike the trail and search for something that would make their existence a little easier.”

Bushwhacking has always been Fenn’s preferred method of experiencing the woods. So, he says the loot is not near a man-made trail. He also confirms that he spent a good deal of time in the town nearest the treasure.

When asked if the treasure is located at a place that served as the backdrop of pleasant childhood memories, he responded, “The treasure is hidden in a place where I would not mind spending a few thousand years.”

Jami Lavin, a server at By Word of Mouth, a bistro and catering company in Big Sky, has interacted with two different groups seeking the treasure in the past nine months. Her most recent conversation was with Canadians from Vancouver Island. If the Canadian duo is any indication, treasure hunters are quietly bolstering the Big Sky economy. She said the duo claimed to have visited the area over a dozen times in the past two years in search of the treasure.

Lavin believes the potential for treasure creates a heightened connection to the land, causing people to become more observant and appreciative of the nuances of nature.

“These guys studied for years and years on this. It’s a different type of recreational activity,” she said. “They’re discovering other things—not just the treasure. It takes people to places they wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Fenn confirmed correspondence with folks who have searched near Big Sky. “Big Sky is such a beautiful place it’s natural for people to want to search there,” he said. “I get emails from some of them and they thank me for giving them the excuse to go into your country.”

Ultimately, it seems this was Fenn’s goal—to get people away from their televisions and out into the wilderness, living life rather than watching fictional characters pretend to live.

Morgen and Ryan Ayres, owners of The Cinnamon Lodge, have guests who’ve returned each year to seek the loot. The couple has even accompanied one group hunting a few times. “They work these [awful] jobs in the city 50 weeks out of the year and come here for two weeks to hunt for the treasure,” Morgen said.

The hunt that’s inspired and enlivened many people has not been without heartache and headaches. Despite his insistence that the treasure is not hidden in a dangerous place and that people should not seek it in the winter, two people have died in the search.

Also, the quest has brought some mentally unstable seekers out of the woodwork: kidnapping and death threats, stalking. Some confrontations followed along the lines of a “Give me the treasure or else…” narrative. Several people have been arrested outside Fenn’s home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one treasure hunter recently suggested online that the treasure is actually booby-trapped by a spiritual force bent on stealing young souls.

Online forums dedicated to the hunt suggest that as winter hits, folks the world over will be scouring Gallatin County, Montana more generally, and a few other states, searching for clues with the help of Google Earth. The Fenn-specified search zone is north of Santa Fe and south of the Canadian border. While Fenn said that he welcomes any technological aids in the hunt, the treasure can’t be spotted via Google Earth.

Fenn denied EBS’s request for an additional clue.

“But I will say thousands of families have ventured into the forested areas of the Rockies and returned home with wonderful memories that will last as long as time itself,” he said.