Jesse Humpal drifted in and out of special education classes as a child. He almost failed out of his undergraduate program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and at Northwestern, where Humpal has earned two master’s degrees and a PhD, he almost threw in the towel on higher education entirely during a course on linear regression. But he persevered with the help of others — and now he's paying it forward.
The treasure is out there, somewhere. My friend and I have traveled for days across rugged and wild terrain searching for it — a bronze chest secretly stashed away by an old man who left nine cryptic clues.
It’s the last day of our journey. We drive through a hellacious thunderstorm, down a desolate dirt course in the Montana wilderness, approaching the creek marked on our map.
Eric slows the truck before the bridge. By the side of the road, a sign reads “HEAVY LOADS.” Another clue.
Suddenly all the pieces to the old man’s puzzle seem to fit into place. We exchange glances. Could this be it?
Thunder booms in the distance, and a light-voltage tingle tickles my spine. Amped with excitement, we exit the truck and ramble down a densely wooded path following the creek, swollen with raging waters.
A half mile in, I shimmy across a fallen tree over the rapids. My destination? A marked lodgepole pine towering next to a roaring waterfall.
Exposed at the base of the giant pine is a rock-and-root-lined hole. Its bottom goes deep. I stretch out my arms to reach for the chest. There’s just one problem: The treasure simply isn’t there.
The Legend of Forrest Fenn
One of my Northwestern buddies, Eric Lippert ’92, and I lived this adventure last summer while hunting for the Forrest Fenn fortune, a hidden treasure that had appreciated in both lure and lore over the past 10 years.
Eric was an ideal treasure-hunting partner. After Northwestern, four of us moved out to live in Jackson, Wyo. We all had visions of living in the outdoors forever. But Eric was the only one able to sustain the dream over the long haul.
Sure, Eric and I were disappointed in not finding the treasure that day in June 2019. But this is also true: I have never had as much fun not finding anything in my life.
How often in real life do any of us get the chance to search for an actual hidden treasure? How often do we live to discover a chest full of gold?
For a moment, Eric and I were on that threshold, very much alive.
“That was awesome,” Eric said as we got back in the truck, a grin stretched across his face.
That search was one of several we took into the far reaches of Montana and Wyoming looking for Fenn’s treasure. It would also be our last.
On Saturday, June 7, 2020, we were disappointed once again when the Santa Fe New Mexican confirmed — after speaking with Fenn by phone — that the purported fortune had been found by an anonymous treasure seeker.
I called Eric at his home in Jackson, and we talked about it. We recalled the wild tales of searching for Fenn’s chest, laughing like two kids lighting firecrackers for the first time.
You may have heard the story: In summer 2009, Fenn, a former art dealer and millionaire outdoorsman, said he took a hike somewhere in the vast expanse of the Rocky Mountains and hid a bronze chest full of gold, gems and artifacts. Then he challenged the world to find it.
His goal? To urge people to put aside their high-tech devices for a moment and explore our natural wonders.
To find the chest, Fenn said, one had to correctly decipher the nine clues scattered among the 24 lines of one of his poems. The poem, which first appeared in Fenn’s 2010 memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, was the treasure map.
According to Fenn, hundreds of thousands worldwide had been drawn to his hunt over the past decade.
Where Warm Waters Halt
Our quest began one night in December 2018 when I had a revelation while cooking barley in my kitchen.
Minutes later I called Eric. “You’re going to think I’m crazy,” I said.
I gave him the lowdown on Fenn and the search. He got it. Next, I told him about the nine clues in Fenn’s poem — specifically, the line identified as the first clue:
Begin it where warm waters halt
According to Fenn, it was the most important clue.
I revealed to Eric I’d been recently scanning maps of the Rockies, looking for places — any place — where warm waters could halt.
Yellowstone National Park seemed likely, with all its geysers, hot springs and other hydrothermal waterworks. The park, an annual family vacation spot where Fenn became a fly-fishing guide, also features prominently in his memoir.
Then, I filled Eric in on the revelatory pot of barley. As it began to bubble on the stovetop, it seemed to ask: “What’s the definition of warm water?”
I looked it up. According to the International Residential Code, hot water is water that is greater than or equal to 110 degrees in temperature. Thus, logic would have it that warm waters would “halt” at 110 degrees.
Stirred by this discovery, I rummaged through my maps, grabbed the one for Yellowstone and spread it out. My finger traced a line down the right side. There it was: The easternmost border of Yellowstone aligned exactly with the 110th meridian.
Could it be the answer to the first clue?
I had to find out.
I told Eric I was going out on the hunt. In a matter of minutes, he was onboard.
A spirit of adventure appealed to both of us. There was something so ridiculous yet also extraordinary about the whole endeavor that we couldn't pass it up. After all, when would either of us ever get the chance to do something as outrageous and adventurous as this in our lifetimes?
A Place Frozen in Time
Eric picked me up in Bozeman, Mont., the first Friday of February in 2019. By nightfall we entered Yellowstone’s north entrance.
That night we drove out of the northeast entrance of Yellowstone through the quaint log-cabin community of Silver Gate and into the rip-roaring town of Cooke City, where everyone seemed to be riding snowmobiles.
The next morning, we geared up and headed toward our first treasure spot. We felt confident about the 110th meridian, or what we called the “one-ten line.” But the rest was guesswork inspired by a chapter in Fenn’s book that talks about his serving as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and his spiritual connection with a waterfall there in the jungle.
In the area where the “one-ten line” crosses, we counted at least five major waterfalls. That’s a considerable number for a dozen square miles or so.
After warnings about wolves and snow slides, we set off. What followed was the most challenging 3-mile hike I’ve ever done. Wind and slides caused deep drifts, some perhaps 9 feet deep. At one spot, the footing gave way without warning, and I fell through up to my chest.
The struggle was worth it, though, to see Sheep Creek Falls. It was like walking into a vivid photograph, where everything had stopped. The 100-foot mammoth icicle stood still, posing in beautiful hues of blue, gray and white.
We maneuvered closer. At a clump of trees — what would be a small island during warmer weather — we dug out the snow then brought out the metal detector. Almost immediately, it started to go off. We were startled.
Then we realized it was detecting our trekking poles, which we forgot to move. Rookie mistake.
Four months later we returned to Sheep Creek only to discover that we couldn’t get nearly as close to the waterfall as we did in winter. We scratched it off the list, along with Silver Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, where underneath that towering pine, I stretched my arm out for the chest, to no avail. In the end, Fenn’s elusive fortune was just beyond our reach.
After coming up empty that day, I left Yellowstone with some consolation prizes. First, Eric and I gathered wonderful stories and memories on and off the trail.
Second, I found a renewed love for Yellowstone. There is no place in the world quite like it. Today, in a world turned upside down by the coronavirus, parks like Yellowstone offer us a much-needed place to stretch out and breathe fresh air.
And Yellowstone is criminally underutilized in winter, which is an exceptional time to visit. Crowds of 900,000 dwindle to 900; the majestic wildlife comes into full view against the stark, white panorama; and the only traffic consists of lone moose, packs of wolves and herds of roaming bison.
Eric and I had planned to go back to Yellowstone and Silver Gate in August. After five expeditions, we were convinced that we were close to finding the chest — but, then again, thousands of other treasure hunters were similarly convinced.
I like the way Fenn treasure hunt chronicler Dal Neitzel described the hunt in a 2013 article in Hemispheres: “Forrest Fenn is the hider of undiscovered dreams for thousands of folks who go looking for that treasure and discover not the place where the treasure is hidden, but the place in their heart where adventure sleeps and trails begin.”
Before the treasure hunt, I’d been comfortably occupying a safe, cubicle-like state-of-mind. Fenn’s challenge coaxed me out into nature and the unknown. It motivated me to take that one step beyond the border of conventional living, where I’d become all too comfortable.
The hunt offered a shake-up of sorts for me: a re-evaluation of perspective and priorities.
Now, more than ever, I find myself taking hikes, venturing for miles in nearby forests with friends and our dogs. Sometimes while heading up a narrow, wooded path, I’ll picture Fenn’s fortune hiding someplace just beyond the next bend. Then I’ll smile.
The treasures are still out there — plenty for everyone.
Jim Miller ’93 is director of publications at Out & About Magazine in Wilmington, Del., where he writes about music, the hospitality industry, and social and environmental issues. By night, he is a musician.