Mitch Albom: New Mexico treasure hunt is a wealthy man's legacy

commentBy MITCH ALBOMMarch 4, 2013 

When was the last time you went treasure hunting? At summer camp? Digging through a Cracker Jack box?

This past week, thousands of budding treasure seekers were so inspired, they crashed the website of a multimillionaire art dealer from New Mexico. His name is Forrest Fenn. He is 82. And he claims to have hidden a chest filled with millions of dollars worth of gold coins and gems.

The chest is buried somewhere in New Mexico. The clues are in a poem. The poem can be found in Fenn's self-published book. The book is available primarily through one New Mexico bookstore. And -- thanks to an appearance on the "Today" show -- that book was in the top 100 on Amazon.com last week.

Which may be the first time a treasure map made more money than the treasure.

"If I have a motive in this," Fenn told me Friday, "it's ... to get kids off the couch and away from their game machines and to smell the sun and have a little fun out in the trees."

He doesn't want fame. He has no plans to reclaim the chest. He simply wants Americans moving, exploring, seeing the beauty of the environment.

And maybe digging it up.

I think Fenn is fascinating. A self-admitted thrill seeker, he joined the Air Force, flew missions in Vietnam, stayed in the service for 20 years and later became a successful art dealer. He also survived a cancer scare. They gave him a 20 percent chance to live.

"After that, I thought, I've had so much fun in the last 75 years finding things, if I've got to go, let me leave a heritage for other people to do as I did," he said.

And so Fenn, a lifelong collector of things -- precious and quirky -- said he stuffed a chest with gold and jewels, carried it to a secret destination and hid it forever. He hopes others have as much fun searching the land as he has had.

Now. I can hear you screaming. GIVE US SOME CLUES! Well, first of all, I have read Fenn's poem, and if you think, based on that, you can spot a location in the fifth biggest state in the country (nearly 122,000 square miles) good luck. Here's a sample:

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.

From there it's no place for the meek,

The end is ever drawing nigh;

There'll be no paddle up your creek,

Just heavy loads and water high.

Got that?

See you there tomorrow!

"I've gotten 8,300 e-mails," Fenn said.

What do most of them want? I asked.

"More clues."

It's funny. Most people hide treasure to keep it from someone. Fenn really wants someone to find his -- but only after many have trekked to look for it.

"They didn't find the Rosetta Stone for 2,000 years," he pointed out.

Admittedly, this is a unique way to motivate outdoor living. On the one hand, you get all these people in the mountains and streams. On the other hand, as soon as they find the treasure, they might buy a mansion and never come out -- except to adjust the satellite TV.

But Fenn calls his book "The Thrill of the Chase" and to me, that's where the real value of a hidden treasure lies.

Think about the word "search." What's the first thing that comes to mind today? Google, right? A computer screen. A keyboard.

But once upon a time, "search" was a loftier word. It implied going somewhere, making an effort or a journey. You know. Like "Lord of the Rings." They didn't commence their epic quest by punching in keywords.

Some think Fenn is making this whole thing up. I don't. But I can tell you this: If the worst that happens is a few thousand people traipse around the natural splendor of New Mexico, it's not so bad. They might even find that the hunt for one thing led them to something else.

A pretty famous Bible quote suggests "for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." My guess is that Fenn is hoping the seekers of his treasure have their hearts distracted by something else, the joy of the pursuit and the beauty of the landscape. That's worth its weight in gold.

Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. E-mail, malbom@freepress.com.

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