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OPINION | STEVE STRAESSLE: Fenn's fortune

by Steve Straessle | July 10, 2021 at 2:52 a.m.

"A n archaeologist."

That was my earliest answer to the question of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was probably 10 years old and had a hankering to hold history in my hands, seeing in person the product of someone's labor from centuries before. I remember scouring the creeks near my house for arrowheads. I stomped through the empty lot across the street from my Fort Worth grandparents' house, seeking dropped riches. I always scanned the ground for treasure when hiking with friends.

The Indiana Jones movies poured gas on that fire, and I imagined traveling in search of fortune from days past. On trips to the library, I'd check out biographies and other nonfiction, spending hours reading about lives long gone.

Later, in college, I majored in history despite my dad wondering aloud what profession I'd venture into with such a degree. I once worked for a consulting business that brokered artifacts for museums and private collectors.

Throughout my life I've maintained a heightened interest in finding treasure. Shoot, I even buy lottery tickets as a token treasure hunt.

When Daniel Barbarisi's new book about Forrest Fenn's treasure hit the stands this summer, I felt like that 10-year-old kid again, reliving my hunts and the joy of finding fossils, old coins, or more modern cast-aside valuables.

The book, "Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America's Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt," details the incredible story of Forrest Fenn, a Silver Star-awarded Vietnam War fighter pilot and art dealer who hid a treasure "in the mountains north of Santa Fe."

Inserting himself into the pursuit and participating fully as part journalist, part treasure seeker, Barbarisi is an excellent storyteller. His book reads like Jon Krakauer's exploit of Mount Everest devastation, "Into Thin Air." Barbarisi witnesses and explains the humor and folly, tragedy and challenge, of chasing Fenn's treasure.

Forrest Fenn's art gallery made him a multimillionaire. Diagnosed with cancer, he hatched an idea to hide a treasure chest and ultimately finish his days on Earth in the same spot. Meaning, he was going to die next to the treasure. To make it more interesting, he developed clues in the guise of a poem he self-published in 2010. However, while he was filling his treasure chest--a 12th century bronze box--his cancer went into remission. The treasure hunt changed its tone. No longer about Fenn's final resting place, the hunt became a focal point for Fenn to entice people outdoors, to enjoy nature while figuring out the details of his poem. He thought it'd be a lot of fun for those seeking the estimated $2 million of coins, jewels, and gold in that hidden box.

Five people died on the hunt. Incredible, I thought as I read the details of each demise. An online tangle of treasure seekers often turned ugly, troll-filled, and downright dangerous. People trespassed on private property, dug on government land, required rescuing from treacherous situations. Marriages ended. Friendships faced damage. Careers suffered.

In spite of danger and pitfalls, the treasure-seeking community grew into the thousands. Folks did indeed venture outdoors, though Barbarisi points out that much of the "solve" process had to be done behind a computer screen. There was actually a "Fennboree" where hopefuls would gather to hang out, discuss clues, and ultimately prove to one another they weren't crazy for being modern-day treasure hunters. Barbarisi even details the finding of the Atocha Motherlode, a massive sunken treasure that produced millions, as if to signal some sense of sanity behind Fenn's hunters.

I couldn't help myself at that point. I Googled "treasure in Arkansas" to see if anything nearby popped up. It did. A couple of sketchy websites pointed to a handful of treasures yet to be found in the Natural State, including loot buried by Jesse James' gang in Malvern, the Lost Spanish Mine in Boone County, the Old Spanish Treasure Cave in Gravette, and the St. Joe's Lost Silver Mine in, well, St. Joe. It seems Jesse James and the Spaniards weren't too smart with their spoils whenever they crossed Arkansas' borders.

In my mind, I went back to my creek-walking days and those early mornings on my paper route when I'd search for artifacts and dropped valuables. Maybe I'll venture to Springdale to look for Jesse James' cave-hidden cache. Or maybe it'll be John Bogs' Lost Treasure 10 miles north of Searcy. I felt that old glow rising in my chest just thinking about it.

Barbarisi takes the reader full circle through the life of Forrest Fenn and the hunt of a lifetime. The book is so well-written that it's hard to put down. Forrest Fenn's treasure remains one of the great stories of the last decade, with each of us knowing a little bit about it. When my daughter was in fourth grade, her teacher handed out copies of Fenn's poem and asked the students to decode it as an assignment in literature, geography, and problem-solving. Brilliant.

Forrest Fenn passed away last year at the age of 90. He probably hadn't expected to unleash the tidal wave of mischief and resolve that his hidden treasure created. But, as Barbarisi pointed out many times in his great book, the real prize was using one's brain and body at the same time, participating in a wonderful adventure that required intelligence and skill.

It's enough to make one feel 10 years old again.


Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.

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