Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt

  • By Daniel Barbarisi
  • Knopf
  • 368 pp.
  • Reviewed by Daniel de Visé
  • May 26, 2021

In this lively read, a journalist sheds objectivity and searches for riches alongside his subjects.

Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt

Thousands of impassioned hunters spent the better part of the last decade combing the Rocky Mountains for the elusive Fenn Treasure, an ancient bronze chest that an aging New Mexico eccentric had packed with loot and hidden in the wild. The hunt abruptly halted last summer when someone found the bounty, scripting a perfect ending to Daniel Barbarisi’s new book, Chasing the Thrill.

Forrest Fenn, a wealthy art dealer and adventurer, launched the hunt in 2010 with his own self-published book, The Thrill of the Chase. He had filled an antique chest with gold and jewels, a haul worth at least $1 million, and concealed it somewhere in the mountains north of his Santa Fe home. He sprinkled clues within the book that could lead some clever hunter to the stash.

A cult of Fenn treasure hunters formed in Santa Fe and spread across a population of modern-day pirates with time on their hands: retired military men with all-terrain vehicles and survival gear; insomniac, empty-nest moms; and millennials with gambling problems and student debt. Fenn hunters “skewed male, and older,” Barbarisi writes. Following the 2013 broadcast of a “TODAY” show segment, the hunt exploded into a national craze.

Barbarisi, a former Wall Street Journal sportswriter and fantasy-sports obsessive, joined the hunt in 2017. As he searched, he interviewed fellow hunters and plotted out a book about the Fenn treasure. The result is an adventure memoir that chronicles a decade-long quest for gold.

By actively chasing the MacGuffin that fueled his book, Barbarisi risked life and limb, hiking through the parts of national parks that signs and rangers told him to avoid, clambering up slippery slopes and violating the personal space of bears.

Moreover, Barbarisi’s participation in the hunt left him a “thin veneer of journalistic remove,” in his words. His own lust for the treasure clouded the traditional journalistic mission, to chronicle events with dispassion. What if he actually found it?

With a wife and baby back East, Barbarisi spent only about a year actively searching for the treasure. Poignantly, he clearly believed he stood a realistic chance of finding it. So did many other Fenn hunters. In a survey taken at the height of the quest, 17 percent of hunters reported they believed themselves “100 percent certain” to find the treasure. Never mind that thousands had failed to unearth the chest across several years. Delusion suffuses Barbarisi’s account.

The treasure hunt is a staple of American letters. One obvious touchstone for Fenn’s challenge is Masquerade, a 1979 book by British writer Kit Williams that almost singlehandedly launched the pastime of armchair treasure-hunting.

The Fenn hunt will also remind some readers of Tropic Hunt, an annual puzzle contest launched in the 1980s by Miami Herald humorist Dave Barry. Barry and his pals transformed the local cityscape into a game board for a day. Gangs of puzzlers prowled the streets, decoding clues and inching toward a game-ending solution. To solve even one Tropic Hunt clue required Einsteinian leaps of logic; teams of postdoctoral students usually claimed the prize.

Sadly, as Barbarisi painfully illustrates, most hunters drawn to Fenn’s puzzle lacked the skill set to solve it. Parsing a literary text for hidden meaning was a task for an English major, not an army of retired soldiers with inflatable rafts and rappelling gear.

Fenn hunters leapt down rabbit holes of Colonel Kurtz-sized obsession, forsaking common sense and ignoring even the simplest of Fenn’s clues. Seekers died after taking injudicious risks to reach the treasure, despite Fenn’s oft-stated assurance that he had hidden it in two short trips from his car. Hunters wasted years searching for the loot outside the Rocky Mountains or south of Santa Fe, places where Fenn had said they would not find it.

Chasing the Thrill illustrates the creeping narcissism in today’s selfie-taking, blog-publishing, Instagram-posting society. Barbarisi’s hunters twist Fenn’s clues to suit their fancies. Searchers upend outhouses seeking the “home of Brown” referenced in a famous Fenn clue. One seeker becomes convinced another clue, referencing a place where “warm waters halt,” refers to Old Faithful, which spouts boiling water. Another sees the periodic table of elements in a grove of trees.

The man who finally solved Fenn’s puzzle, in the covid summer of 2020, was eventually revealed as Jack Stuef, 32, a Georgetown graduate who had written for the Onion before dabbling in medical school. (This Aaron Sorkin sendup was one of his Onion favorites, he said in an email.) At Georgetown, Stuef double-majored in government and…English.

Stuef found the treasure in a pine forest in Wyoming, a place few others had thought to search. Fenn died three months later, at 90. Those events provide a satisfying ending to Chasing the Thrill. But Stuef refused to reveal just how or where he had located the treasure, for fear that the idyllic site might be overrun. He told Barbarisi that he pored over Fenn’s public pronouncements and stumbled upon a series of “slipups” that told him where to look. But he would not elaborate, an omission that will frustrate readers.

A fringe of mentally unstable hunters haunted Fenn in his final years, sending threatening emails and even showing up at his Santa Fe home. Might he have steered Stuef to the treasure in his final months as a means to liberate his family from the curse of the Fenn Treasure?

Perhaps. But no matter: Chasing the Thrill leads the reader on an engaging armchair treasure hunt, a welcome escape in these waning days of covid. Daniel Barbarisi’s bold gamble — inserting himself at the story’s center — pays off. The writer emerges as a sympathetic protagonist, and his participation buys him entrée into a secretive and mistrustful club. By the final chapters of Chasing the Thrill, we share his wonder in watching the Fenn saga draw to an exhilarating close.

Daniel de Visé is author of Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show and The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France.

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