In July 2017, a body was pulled out of the Arkansas River in Colorado’s Royal Gorge area. It took several months to identify the deceased, but it was eventually determined to be Eric Ashby. Ashby was a 31-year-old man that had been living in Colorado Springs at the time of his summer disappearance.
Ashby had gone on a rafting trip with friends near the end of June and the raft he was in overturned, sending him into the raging rapids below. This was the last time he was seen alive. It was tragic, and it shook the local community. No one assumes that whitewater rafting is a sport without risk, but when that risk becomes real, it can be heartbreaking.
While deadly river accidents occur on Colorado’s waterways every year, with more than 20 occurring in the snowmelt swollen waters of 2019, this case was a bit different – Ashby was allegedly treasure hunting at the time he disappeared, said to be searching for millions of dollars of gold and other riches allegedly hidden somewhere in the American West.
Editor’s Note: Treasure hunting can be very dangerous. Know the risks, the laws, and your own abilities prior to embarking on any sort of treasure-seeking quest.
In April 2016, roughly a year before Eric Ashby’s fatal rafting accident, Ashby left his home state to move to Colorado. According to his family, the decision to make this move was largely influenced by his search for treasure.
The treasure was thought to be that of eccentric millionaire Forrest Fenn, consisting of a chest said to be hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, filled with gold nuggets, rare coins, gemstones, and jewelry. The value of this chest is estimated to be around $2 million, though without more specific knowledge of the contents, it’s hard to be certain.
Ashby’s wasn’t the first death related to this hidden treasure, either. Randy Bilyeu, a Broomfield resident, died in New Mexico while allegedly hunting for the same treasure. Jeff Murphy, of Illinois, fell down a 500 foot slope in Yellowstone while seeking the cache. And Pastor Paris Wallace of Grand Junction, Colorado was found dead in the Rio Grande River after telling family members he was headed out to find treasure buried in the ground. Others are also assumed to have died while in pursuit.
As made apparent by these fatalities, treasure hunting can come with a real risk.
However, this risk hasn’t kept 10s of thousands from searching for Fenn’s prize. In a 2016 interview with Westword, Fenn estimates that 65,000 people have been searching for his gold. No one has found it yet, with many left wondering whether or not the treasure is anywhere where to found.
The idea of crafting a treasure hunt came to Forrest Fenn in 1988, when he had a brush with death in the form of a terminal kidney cancer diagnosis. Despite the odds, Fenn didn’t die and he eventually recovered, postponing his adventure-inspiring plan for several decades.
However, when the Great Recession hit America near the end of 2007, Fenn again started thinking about his treasure hunt. According to an interview with Business Insider, Fenn saw so much sadness and despair that he wanted to give people a reason to hope for something better, for something to believe in.
In 2010, a 70-something Forrest Fenn headed north from Santa Fe on two trips during which he allegedly buried his riches – once to plant the chest and a second to fill it. He’s now in his late-80s, and, according to him, the gold has stayed put ever since.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to find buried treasure without a map. While Fenn never created a map to his treasure chest, he did publish a poem that contains a list of clues to decipher. According to him, if one is able to correctly interpret the clues, the clues will lead them to the riches.
To give you an idea of what the poem is like, here’s a single stanza of the six-stanza piece:
“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.”
As the clues hit the public, thousands tried their best to decode his words. Apparently, no one was successful. Or if someone was, that someone is also really good at keeping a secret.
Other clues that have been released aren’t left up to as much interpretation as the lines of the poem, though these later clues act as simple guiding instructions opposed to specific directions to the treasure.
For example, it was later said that the treasure will be found above 5,000 feet in elevation. It’s also been said that the treasure isn’t in a building, mine, or cemetery. Other clues include that the treasure isn’t “that dangerous” to access. After all, Fenn was an aging man in his 70s when he hid his score. He’s also said the chest is likely wet.
Additional clues can be found in various writings, interviews, and blogs around the internet, with a number of websites dedicated to interpreting Fenn’s cryptic words and several large communities of treasure seekers spending massive amounts of time and energy to hunt the stash down.
Some treasure seekers even try to better understand Fenn’s personal life, thought process, and passions in hopes that it will give them an insight into his mind, thus a better chance of finding the treasure. For example, Fenn is said to like waterfalls…could this be why the chest is wet?
Is the treasure in Colorado?
Many people seem to believe that the treasure could be somewhere in Colorado for a number of reasons.
In one interview, Fenn mentions that the chest is surrounded by the scent of pine needles, piñon nuts, and sagebrush – all of which can be found in the Centennial State.
Others find it noteworthy that Fenn avoids explicitly mentioning Colorado in a book he’s published about his life and the hunt he’s inspired, made odder by the way he seems to mention every other possible state that the treasure could possibly be. Is this a subtle and intentional hint? If so, what does that mean?
Additionally, some hunters think the “House of Brown” reference in the previously included stanza of clues is a reference to a building called “Brown’s House,” located in the Buena Vista area. Other lines in that verse include mentions of warm waters and a canyon – with a canyon and the hot waters that fill Mt. Princeton Hot Springs located nearby Brown’s House.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that most of Fenn’s clues can be twisted in multiple ways that each seem to make their own sense.
For example, there’s also a possible “House of Brown” explanation with origins in Montana. In Gardiner, Montana, there’s a “Joe Brown Put-In” spot on the Yellowstone River. Located nearby, there’s a canyon that’s home to a waterway called the “Boiling River,” potentially fulfilling all of the criteria for that same verse.
Internet sleuths have also tracked down a property in Colorado Springs that they think Fenn might have owned, as well as indicators that Fenn wants to be buried in the Centennial State upon his death. At this point, it’s also worth noting that Fenn’s original intention was allegedly to be buried at the site of the treasure.
Granted, all of these hints and clues are open to a seemingly endless gauntlet of interpretation. Hunters seem to twist them to fit their own theory as they see fit.
As for Fenn’s reason for hiding the treasure in the first place, it wasn’t to get people lost or killed.
In the same aforementioned Westword interview, he makes a few statements about his motive, mostly related to inspiring adventure and finding joy in natural things during an era of changing times.
Fenn also encourages people to be safe while they search, utilizing the buddy system, heeding seasonal changes, and bringing along a GPS.
He states that the loss of life in pursuit of his treasure is tragic, but seems to find peace in the idea that accidents can happen anywhere to anyone at anytime.
Roughly a decade after the treasure was left behind by Fenn, it has yet to be found. And so it sits in wait of an adventurous soul with a witty mind and a brush of luck.
While many seekers might find the ambiguity of Fenn’s clues a bit exhausting, most seem to hold a sentiment that Fenn himself would likely share – it’s not about whether or not the treasure is found, it’s about the adventure of the hunt that might take you there.
See the full poem here.