"I've said over and over not to look for the treasure in the wintertime," author Forrest Fenn says
Forrest Fenn
| Credit: Jeri Clausing/AP

Hidden treasures are a recurring mystery in fiction and fairy tales. But this one is for real. Somewhere in the mountains and forests of the American west is a handsome bronze chest full of jewelry, gold and valuable artifacts, just waiting to be found. And finders, keepers.

It was hidden in summer 2010 by an eccentric, 85-year-old art dealer (and decorated Vietnam War combat pilot) named Forrest Fenn of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Why? Two main reasons, he says: to lure people away from their TV sets and into the healthy wilderness and to give working class Americans, still suffering from the recession, a chance at sudden, blessed wealth. And he adds, “I’ve had so much fun over the last 75 years looking for arrowheads and fossils and strange things out in the forests and along the river banks, why not give others the opportunity to do the same thing?”

To guide the search, Fenn wrote a 24-line poem for his book, The Thrill of the Chase, that he says contains nine clues. For example, one stanza reads, “Begin it where warm waters halt/and take it in the canyon down,/not far, but too far to walk./Put in below the home of Brown.”

Fenn and his treasure chest have attracted worldwide publicity, including massive attention online and at least six appearances on the Today show. His book is in its sixth printing. But in January, Fenn made far more serious news when a Colorado man, Randy Bilyeu, disappeared while searching and is believed to have drowned in the Rio Grande River.

Fenn talked about the tragedy and the strange history of his treasure to Richard B. Stolley, founding editor of PEOPLE and his neighbor in Santa Fe:

How did the accident happen?
Randy and his little dog put their raft into the Rio Grande near Santa Fe on January 5. Eleven days later the raft and the dog were found nine miles downriver. That’s rugged, mean country. Every night for a month after January 5, the temperature was below freezing. And a major snow storm also came through there during that period.

You got personally involved in the search. Why?
It bothered me. First of all, I’ve said over and over not to look for the treasure in the wintertime. I want all the snow melted and the mud dried before they go. I don’t feel responsible for what Randy has done, but I wanted to be part of the rescue. I can’t go down in those canyons at my age, but I can charter a helicopter.

Did you?
I chartered helicopters for three days looking up and down the river. It cost me something like $9,000. And I paid expenses for some people who came to search.

Has anyone suggested that because of the accident, you should reclaim the treasure and end the search?
Three different people have suggested on the Internet that I stop the search. But my answer is that searchers have spent money and vacation time looking for the treasure, and I don’t feel I could do that, even if I wanted to. I certainly did not anticipate anyone was going to get killed, but I answer those people this way: If a hunter goes into the mountains looking for deer, and is lost, does that mean we should stop deer hunting? If someone drowns in a swimming pool, should we drain the pool, or should we teach people to swim?

You have said 65,000 people have joined the search over the years. Where did you come up with that number?
I spent about an hour figuring it out one time. I get about 120 emails a day, and I’ve had as many as 1,200. When a man goes out to search, he often brings his wife and kids. So I figured 65,000 was a good guess.

What’s the treasure worth?
I have never said. Everybody who writes about it adds another million. It’s been up to five million dollars. Look at the picture of the treasure chest on the back cover of my book. There’s a gold frog that’s 1,200-1,500 years old, pre-Columbian jewelry, bracelets, a jaguar claw that’s absolutely wonderful, nuggets of gold that have been pounded out, coins that have numismatic value beyond the spot of gold. These are all things that I have collected over the years. As you know the price of gold goes up and down every minute. I made up my mind I would never try to guess what the treasure’s worth.

Who else knows where the treasure is buried?
I never said it was buried. I’ve avoided that word. I hid it. I don’t mean to imply that it isn’t buried. I just didn’t want to give that as a clue. It took me two trips in my car to hide the treasure. And I can tell you an 80-year-old man is not going to make a trip into a canyon, then come up and go down again. As for who else knows, I’m the only one. My wife doesn’t know.

What arrangements have you made in case of your disability or death?
I don’t want any arrangements. Somebody’s going to have to find it. If I was to tell anyone where it is, it would be my grandson. And I’m not going to tell him.

Of those 65,000 searchers, have any gotten close?
Some people have gotten within 200 feet. I know that because afterwards they told me where they were.

Since the poem, have you added clues?
The Today show wanted clues every time I was on, but I made sure none of them would take anyone closer to the treasure. I’ve said it’s not in an outhouse because people were digging up outhouses. When people were going to tear the side of a building down, I had to say it’s not associated with any kind of structure. So now all over the Internet, the question is: What does Fenn mean by structure? One lady called me from Minneapolis or someplace, and said, “I’m a cripple, and I can’t get out of my house, but I think I’ve solved the problem. I just have to have something else to go on?” So I said, “Okay, I’ll give you another clue – the treasure is hidden more than 300 miles west of Peoria.” She said she was tickled to death and hung up the phone.

Have the searchers ever come to your home?
Yes. I’ve had to dial 911 three times. A man was arrested at my front gate for harassing me. I put my phone number and email address in the first printing of The Thrill of the Chase, and got four death threats: “Mr. Fenn, tell me where the treasure chest is or I’m going to kill you.” How do you answer a guy like that? Since then, I only put my email address in my books.

Are there skeptics who question whether the treasure really exists? That it’s a hoax?
Four people have suggested the whole story is fake. But interestingly, all four of them are still out there searching for the treasure. Here’s what happens: Somebody figures out in their own mind exactly where the treasure is, and they go there and it’s gone. They decide one of two things: either somebody has already found it and taken it home, or the whole story is a hoax. So they ask me how I can prove that I actually hid the treasure? What can I do? The only thing is to take them out there. Lots of people saw the treasure chest when it was in my vaults before I hid it.

Have you been back to the site since hiding the chest?
No, but I could go if I wanted to, even at 85. One of my clues is that it’s above 5,000 feet and below 10,200 feet. I said that because people were climbing up to the tops of mountains. The biggest clue of all is: Don’t look for the treasure any place where an 80-year-old man could not have taken it. That eliminates half the places where people are looking.

How do you think this will all end?
Nobody is going to happen upon my treasure chest. They will have to figure out the clues and go to it. Somebody could find it this summer, or it could be a thousand years. The guy I hope finds my treasure is a redneck from Texas who’s lost his job, with a pickup truck and 12 kids and a wife to support. But nature can impact the location, you know. We can have flash floods, earthquakes, forest fires. I don’t have any control over that. I’m a bystander now.

But after six years, do you think it’s possible that nobody will ever find it?
Come back in a hundred years, and let’s discuss this again.