And with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where,
And hint of riches new and old.
—Forrest Fenn, from "The Thrill of the Chase"
There's gold in them thar hills. Also emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and possibly other precious artifacts amassed by eccentric art dealer Forrest Fenn, who stashed them in an actual treasure chest and hid it somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Fenn estimates the value of the booty to be as high as $2 million.
Fenn originally teased the location of the hidden treasure in his 2010 book The Thrill of the Chase, which included a twenty-four line poem that supposedly conceals nine clues. (You can find it on Fenn's Instagram.) The clues, along with cryptic emails and interviews by the eighty-seven-year-old millionaire, have fueled a cult-like devotion in searchers from all walks of life, who gather online to scrutinize quirks in typography and syntax, and who regularly descend on the Rockies in the hopes of uncovering the elusive treasure.
Since Fenn announced the concealed bounty, almost three-hundred-fifty thousand people are estimated to have tried to discover it, mostly peacefully but not without controversy. Multiple people have claimed they found the treasure over the years, though Fenn insists it remains where he hid it. And in January, an autopsy confirmed the identity of a treasure seeker who had washed up in the Arkansas River the previous summer. This brought the quest's death toll to four, and authorities encouraged Fenn to call off the hunt. Since then, he has released more clues to discourage reckless behavior, but the hunt goes on.
Fenn has said that his inspiration came in the form of a cancer diagnosis. Convinced he was dying, he conceived of the hunt in 1988 and considered including some of the more unusual artifacts he had acquired, such as Sitting Bull's peace pipe and a mummified falcon from King Tut's tomb. Then he convalesced. But, decades later, he went through with it. This time, he claimed his goal was to encourage families to get outdoors and experience nature, to stop texting, to interact more.
We learn all this and more in Fenn's Searchers, local filmmaker Matt Maisano's new documentary, which has its local premiere at Full Frame Theater on Thursday. A graduate of the Fitchburg State University film school, Maisano moved to the Triangle in 2014 to take a position as a videographer and producer at PBS. When a coworker told him about the hunt in 2013, the seed was planted for Maisano's first feature documentary film project.
"I spent two years with it brewing in my mind," Maisano says. "Then, on New Year's Eve in 2015, I decided to just go for it."
And go for it he did. In 2015, with a crew consisting only of himself and Deborah Saez, who was his wife at the time, and a car full of film gear he'd acquired over years of professional production work, he went to New Mexico, where Fenn lives. He had very little idea of what to expect, but at least he had made contact.
"I sent Forrest Fenn a blind email, and he emailed me back," Maisano says. "I knew there was no project if I couldn't interest Fenn in participation."
The timing of the trip was also important, coinciding with Fennboree, an annual convention of Fenn's treasure searchers, and they shot most of the film there in less than two weeks. Maisano knew that the real story would not be Fenn, but those who undertook the Herculean task of finding his treasure. But at first, many of the searchers were wary of him.
"I had to really earn their trust," he said. "A lot of Skype, a lot of email. Most people hold on to their solve"—the term used for an interpretation of Fenn's cryptic clues—"as close as you would hold onto your wallet." Maisano's efforts paid off as he embedded himself in different groups of searchers. One was led by a woman who scoured the same side of a single hill more than fifty-nine times before finally deciding to take a crack at the opposite side.
When Maisano finally assembled his footage in 2015, he felt he still needed an ending. He found it in 2017, when the searcher community financed a premiere screening of an in-progress rough cut at Fennboree.
"Fenn attended that first screening," Maisano says. "When it ended, he patted me on the shoulder and said, 'Great job, Matt.' I couldn't ask for anything more than that."
With so many fervent hunters seeking the same treasure with the same clues, it's natural to wonder how it remains undiscovered. Maisano believes the answer lies not in the individual interpretations of the poem and clues, but in Fenn himself.
"Too many searchers put too much of themselves into the hunt," Maisano says. "Instead, they need to focus on Fenn. He spent fifteen years on the poem. This poem is an extension of himself. He's the closest thing we have to a real-life Indiana Jones."