It all started with a poem, and a hunt for buried treasure. It was about a year ago that I learned that my little sister Clair had become, well… a bit obsessed with the idea that she knew where a by-now well-known Santa Fe artist and entrepreneur, named Forrest Fenn, had hidden a treasure rumored to be worth $1- $2 million.
Fenn, an eccentric and colorful character, who spent summers as a kid in the northern Rockies, had decided that Americans just aren’t spending enough time outdoors, like they used to. So he figured if he hid a treasure out in the western wilds, and left clues to its location, it just might lure Americans away from their electronic entertainments.
He wrote a clue-laden poem and even a book of short, humorous stories, that were supposed to contain all the requisite bread crumbs to lead a clever reader to his million-dollar stash. His efforts struck a chord with tens of thousands of Americans, who have been searching from Montana to New Mexico for the past three years now, so far without anyone announcing success.
My sister had spent months poring over every sentence that Fenn had written. She eventually narrowed her search to a canyon in southwestern Montana, where all the clues seemed to align. She had gone beyond Fenn’s own words and researched old mining claims and century-old surveyor’s notes from the area, looking for additional clues, which only seemed to confirm her belief that she was on to something.
She had visited the spot a couple times, without success, but had developed new ideas over the winter and wanted her siblings to join her this spring for a renewed search. To me, it was a lark, but I had always wanted to take my son Max out to the northern Rockies to hike in mountains. When I was a kid, our family would pack up the car every summer and head west, usually to Glacier, but the time constraints of owning our own business had made summer vacations a luxury before now. A treasure hunt seemed the perfect excuse to make an exception.
When Max jumped at the idea, we agreed to rendezvous in early June with my sister, my brother Zac, who lives outside of Taos, and even my mother and her husband, who live in Grand Rapids. It was a regular family reunion, something we hadn’t done in years.
To Max and me, it was a fun vacation at the start of an otherwise busy summer. To my sister, who calls Colorado home but works the western oil fields as an itinerant truck driver, it was more serious business. She’s an artist at heart, but got into driving a water truck at the start of the fracking boom. It’s a tough life— she more or less lives in her Carharts and sleeps in trailers stuck out on the prairie much of the time. She’s worked the gas fields in Colorado, oil fields in Texas, but most often she’s found herself forced to work the Bakken in western North Dakota. She hates it, of course. The wind is bitter in winter, accommodations are lousy, entertainments few, and she knows she’s exposed to toxic chemicals on a regular basis. And there are an awful lot of unattached males out there, and a pretty, petite woman gets too much attention.
For her, finding the treasure was a way to escape all that.
We spent our first full day in Montana down in the canyon, searching through old mining ruins along a roaring stream for clues or, better yet, a treasure chest. The wildflowers were amazing, and we saw elk and deer, but no treasure. It didn’t take long to figure out that even if we were in the right canyon, we were still looking for a needle in a haystack. “Your odds would be better playing the Powerball,” I told my sister.
By the next day, my sister seemed to have accepted, treasure or not, that her search was over. She spent an hour on the phone making arrangements. When our visit was concluded a few days later, she would be heading to Williston.
We spent the rest of our time hiking in and around Yellowstone National Park, which was located just a few miles south of the national forest campground where we stayed.
Yellowstone is amazing this time of year— it was 100 shades of green, broken only by wildflowers and wildlife. The crowds of midsummer hadn’t yet arrived, so we had hiking trails more or less to ourselves. One morning we visited the Lamar Valley in the northeastern portion of the park, and saw thousands of bison and big herds of elk and pronghorn, along with marmots, bighorn sheep, and even a grizzly bear, from a comfortable distance.
But we found perhaps the most interesting wildlife viewing right in the small rustic campground where we stayed for five nights. Both elk and bison regularly came to the campground to graze, and a trio of big bulls we dubbed the “Three Amigos” would spend hours at a time there, grazing, dust bathing, but mostly just placidly chewing their cud. One of their favorite dusting spots was not just within the campground, it was part of our campsite and we would sit and watch from 25 feet away as they’d roll in the dirt, then stand up and shake, sometimes sending a cloud of dust and clumps of their shedding winter coats right in our faces. Seeing these enormous animals so close was a bit unsettling at first, but it was clear they weren’t afraid of us, so we decided not to be too afraid of them. Which is not to say we were going to walk up and slap them on the rear end. We generally tried to keep at least the picnic table between us.
We had campfires every morning and evening, and talked and laughed as we reminisced about growing up together, and pondering the widely divergent paths we had taken in life.
As I thought about it, I had to hand it to Forrest Fenn. While my sister was disappointed in not finding his stash, I couldn’t help but think of the value of our time together in such a place. It was Max’s first real road trip, and his first visit to this remarkable part of the country— and I got to be there for it all. What’s not to treasure?