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Fenn originally printed just 1, copies of his memoir and stocked them at Collected Works, an indie bookstore in Santa Fe. In , Hemispheres magazine ran a story on his treasure hunt. Soon after, the Today show aired a series on Fenn, and his slim, page book became an overnight sensation. News coverage followed, from national TV broadcasts and local newspapers throughout the Southwest. Fenn achieved Wonka-like status among the self-described Searchers, the online community that cropped up around his legend. Lovers of riddles and outdoor exploration converged to form a dedicated network of blogs, message boards, websites, and Facebook pages devoted to the hunt.
Searchers espouse theories in Fenn forums and detail their quests in YouTube testimonials. They imagine an year-old man—or even a young, healthy person—carrying a bronze chest across his back. What kind of terrain—steep, wooded, rocky—could he traverse without tripping over tree roots and stones?
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And, barring its discovery, there is no way to prove that he actually hid it. Given the more than , square miles of mountains where the box could be located, it seems unlikely that even the most intrepid Searchers will find it anytime soon, if ever. Still, over the past eight years, the possibility that the bounty does exist has been enough to spur treasure hunters into the red canyons of the high desert and wild rivers of the Rockies. He told me that , people have looked for the treasure, an estimate he bases on his always-full inbox.
The hunt tends to attract people with technical backgrounds, Meachum says. I use flowcharts. I use schematics. How hard can this be? How that translates to the modern-day landscape is unclear. Since publishing his treasure riddle in , Forrest Fenn has doled out about a dozen additional hints in interviews, books, and TV appearances.
Though Fenn occasionally stokes the frenzy with interviews, he regards online sleuthing as unnecessary. Perhaps inevitably, determined Searchers have disregarded his advice. The news devastated the Searchers, who, for the first time, had lost one of their own. Bilyeu was embedded in the Fenn community: He was friendly with Dal Neitzel, who runs one of the most visited Fenn treasure websites, and he once met Fenn at a book signing in Santa Fe.
Disturbed by the news, Fenn paid for a helicopter to carry a search party. Fenn and his family have found strangers digging in his backyard for the treasure, he says.
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One woman wandered up the driveway to pray. In April , Fenn sought a restraining order against a year-old Texan who showed up at his home taking photos. Despite all this, Fenn insists it would be wrong to halt the hunt.
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There is a risk in nearly everything we do. After graduating from high school, Eric Ashby started cooking in restaurant kitchens around Townsend, nursing dreams of becoming a professional chef. With a wave of dark hair, mischievous eyes, and a ready laugh, he made friends easily. Then, in , a motorcycle accident left Eric with a gangrenous leg. He told his dad that a doctor prescribed him oxycodone for the pain, and he got hooked. Later, Eric took a swing at a plainclothes police officer who had pulled him over. He immediately geeked out over the riddle.
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Tempted by the mystery and still struggling to overcome his oxy habit, in April Eric moved to Colorado Springs, where he had some friends. The change of scenery was just what he needed. He kicked the pills, his friends say, and found a job as a server at Edelweiss, a kitschy German restaurant. He lived in his car for a while to save money and started dating Jamie Longworth, a local medical marijuana grower. He often stayed up late after waiting tables, smoking weed and compiling clues on his laptop.
He tracked possible locations for the treasure on maps, homing in on Royal Gorge Park an hour away. He enjoyed the intellectual puzzle of it all. Brown, who had lived in the Gorge.
He urged Eric to take precautions. When he told Longworth where he was headed, she urged him to reconsider. Ten days later, Paul received the anonymous call while he was greeting wedding guests. A few days later, he was contacted by detective Sterling Jenkins, a stocky, goateed officer who specialized in marijuana enforcement. It could be a hoax. Paul Ashby holds a copy of the contract drawn up by his son on the day he disappeared. The document stipulates that Eric will split the treasure among those hunting with him, should it be found. But unlike Bilyeu, who had attended Fenn book events and was immersed in the Searcher community, Eric was unknown to other treasure hunters.
He rarely shared his hunches online, and he often went treasure hunting alone. Though she and Eric had grown up in different states, she in Florida and he in Tennessee, the siblings were in touch often. She then provided a screenshot of a Facebook message that Nies, who had worked with Eric at Edelweiss, had sent her on Saturday, July 8, just hours after Paul got his mystery call, and 10 days after Eric had gone missing. Nies said that she was with Eric and three of her friends that day. Eric drowned in the river unfortunately.
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