Forrest Fenn

Author Forrest Fenn in an undated photo.

Do you have gold fever? You might — people from all over the nation have come to the American West with the malady after hearing Forrest Fenn’s story.

Fenn, who will turn 84 in August, is a retired Santa Fe, New Mexico, art dealer who made it big hunting down treasures and reselling them to collectors.

But as Fenn discovered, all the wealth in the world cannot buy immortality, but legends can.

Fenn was diagnosed with cancer in 1988 and was told his days were numbered. That’s when he first thought to bury a treasure chest.

But Fenn’s cancer went into remission and gave him time to work on his memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase.”

Inside the memoir he self-published in 2010, Fenn put a short poem describing the location of the treasure chest he filled with over a million dollars worth of antique coins and relics, a jar of Alaskan gold dust and an ancient Chinese jade carving that he buried earlier in the year.

The chest weighs 42 pounds. Recently, treasure hunters have looked for it in Yellowstone National Park with metal detectors and shovels. Digging in the national park is prohibited.

Fenn first came to Montana when he was 3 years old and hoped to come back again.

“We spent our first summers in a tent at Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone Park and later moved to West Yellowstone where both my dad and I built motels, and fished and hiked in the nearby rivers and lakes,” said Fenn, who prefers to communicate via email because of his hearing.

During his time in West Yellowstone, Fenn said he walked the 92 miles to Bozeman. “We wanted to have the experience of it,” he said.

The treasure is out in the mountains, above 5,000 feet, somewhere between the Canadian border and Santa Fe, said Fenn. A map in his second book, “Too Far to Walk,” shows as much.

“I hid the treasure in hopes of prompting our overweight society to get off the couch and out of the game rooms,” he said.

Fenn said there’s not many better places than the Big Sky state for getting some exercise.

“I get 40 emails every day from people who say they visited Montana looking for my treasure and hated to leave. One lady from Manhattan (New York) said she didn’t realize there was a sky until she visited your state,” Fenn said.

As of today, Fenn has not heard of anyone finding his treasure, but he has received thousands of emails from people looking. Based on some emails, Fenn said he believes they have come within 200 feet of the treasure.

The real-life Indiana Jones grew up in Temple, Texas. After school he spent 20 years in the Air Force and his fighter jet was shot down twice over Vietnam — an experience that he said was humbling.

Coming so close to death on so many occasions has made Fenn something of an expert on what it means to live.

“In today’s complicated world it seems that many of us don’t realize that it is the chase we relish, and not necessarily the quarry. Disappointment comes sometimes when we win, because it’s over,” the art dealer said.

Troy Carter can be reached at 582-2630 or tcarter@dailychronicle.com. He’s on Twitter at @cartertroy.

Troy Carter covers politics and county government for the Chronicle.

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