“Where warm waters halt… where warm waters halt… where warm waters halt.” For two summers, I’ve been exploring the Rocky Mountains with those words on my mind. Why those four words in particular? Because I believe they lead to a modern-day treasure chest.
In 2010, Forrest Fenn, a retired antiquities dealer based in Santa Fe, N.M., set about creating his own legend: He bought an antique bronze chest and filled it with valuables and artifacts including gold dust, coins and nuggets, Chinese jade carvings, a 17th-century gold-and-emerald ring, an ancient turquoise bracelet — together worth between $1 million and $2 million — and then lugged all 19 kilograms of it to a mysterious hiding place somewhere “in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe.” He then released a poem containing nine clues as to the treasure’s whereabouts. More than four years later, nobody has yet found Fenn’s treasure, and he maintains that if it goes undiscovered, the chest will stay safely in place for hundreds of years.
Thousands of people from all walks of life have gone searching for Fenn’s treasure in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana (Fenn has eliminated Utah and Idaho). When I heard about the treasure, I couldn’t help thinking about it from a geologist’s point of view: The poem implies that the treasure is hidden near water, but the courses of waterways can change drastically over time, even from season to season, let alone over centuries. And as someone interested in archaeology and paleontology, I’m well aware that if you find something interesting on public land, it’s not always “finders, keepers.” I was intrigued. Could I put my background in geology and my hiker’s knowledge of landscapes to work searching for a treasure chest?