Geoff Van Dyke is the editorial director of 5280 magazine. During his tenure, 5280 has been a National Magazine Award finalist three times and won the Ellie for Personal Service in 2019. Van Dyke has edited stories by 5280 staffers that have been anthologized in Best American Sports Writing, Best American Crime Reporting, and Best Food Writing. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, he lives in Denver with his wife and two sons.
The following is an excerpt from the article “Lost” that appears in “Mile High Stories.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Awards winner for Anthology.
Randy Bilyeu thought he’d located Forrest Fenn’s infamous cache of gold and jewels. Then he went missing in New Mexico’s high desert. Inside the hunt for Fenn’s riches—and the search for the man who vanished looking for them.
By Robert Sanchez
One night early this year, Randy Bilyeu was on the phone with his best friend. He wanted to share some good news: After more than two years of searching Colorado and New Mexico for a hidden treasure chest filled with gold and jewels, he thought he’d finally discovered its location. It wasn’t too far from Santa Fe. Now he just needed to go get it.
Bilyeu was looking for the celebrated Fenn treasure—a 12th-century Romanesque chest hidden by an eccentric arts and antiquities collector that’s said to be packed with 42 pounds of gold coins, rubies, diamonds, sapphires, ancient jade carvings, pre-Columbian bracelets, and gold nuggets. Between 2014 and 2015, Bilyeu made nearly a dozen trips from his Broomfield apartment to Santa Fe in search of the chest. During his hunts, Bilyeu, who was 54 years old and twice divorced, had sent photos to his two adult daughters and to a dwindling number of close confidants, most of whom worried about his safety during his excursions and had become skeptical of the fortune’s existence.
Among them was Tom Martino, a longtime friend in Orlando, Florida, who talked to Bilyeu on January 4. The stash, Bilyeu said, was near the Rio Grande, in a place called Frijoles Canyon on Bandelier National Monument land between Santa Fe and Los Alamos. It would be difficult to get, though. In early January, temperatures, especially at night, would fall far below freezing. He’d been near the spot in the past month, and Bilyeu knew he would need a raft to move down the river and deliver him to a sandy patch from which he could begin his search. Further complicating matters was the fact that Bilyeu wanted to bring his traveling companion, Leo, a nine-year-old poodle-terrier mix. Bilyeu had never piloted a raft, and Leo was afraid of water. “It was the craziest thing I’d ever heard,” Martino says of Bilyeu’s plan. He told Bilyeu the search seemed risky. Bilyeu agreed: It was too cold and the weather was too dangerous to make a hasty search. Even still, he wanted to try.
In fact, he was already close. Bilyeu had driven the roughly 400 miles from Broomfield to Santa Fe with Leo, he explained to Martino. He was staying in a Motel 6 outside downtown. He’d purchased an $89 raft from a local sporting goods store, and he had waders, a wet suit, a backpack, maps, and his phone. Bilyeu sounded impatient. The Rio Grande was fewer than two dozen miles away. Bilyeu would drive there, inflate the raft, and begin his search despite his misgivings about the dangers he might face.
The next morning, a light dusting of snow covered the ground. Bilyeu backed his 2011 Nissan Murano into a space near a well field just off the Rio Grande. A thick cottonwood tree, its bare branches exposed to the elements, stood almost directly in front of him. The river was at least 50 yards wide and likely barely above freezing. Leo wore a miniature white sweater to protect him from the chill.
Bilyeu inflated his new blue-and-gray raft, then loaded the dog, two metal oars, and a manual air pump into it. His phone was turned off, perhaps to conserve battery power. Bilyeu finally lowered himself into the raft and shoved off. Within seconds, he and Leo began moving down the Rio Grande. A few minutes later, they disappeared into the canyon.
Since the beginning of recorded history, people have searched for treasure. From Egyptian grave robbers to Coronado exploring the Southwest for the seven cities of gold to modern-day crews probing ocean floors for sunken riches, the allure of the hunt has always evoked a romantic mysticism. Tales of hidden or buried valuables abound in popular literature and in movies. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a classic of American cinema. The Goonies frightened and delighted Gen Xers during their childhood years. And Steven Spielberg will soon release his fifth installment of the iconic Indiana Jones franchise.
In recent years, Bilyeu had become obsessed with the Fenn treasure, which was hidden by an 85-year-old Santa Fe resident named Forrest Fenn. The prize is reportedly valued at $1 million to $3 million today and is stashed somewhere in the Rocky Mountains between 8 and a quarter miles north of Santa Fe and the United States–Canada border. After hiding the 10-by-10-by-five-inch chest, Fenn gave clues to its location in a six-stanza poem he included in his autobiography, The Thrill of the Chase, which he self-published in 2010. He’s since followed up the poem with a series of additional clues (among them: the chest is at an elevation between 5,000 and 10,200 feet) and a map of the search area that encompasses four states. Outside Magazine has called it “America’s last great treasure.”
Since Fenn’s autobiography was released, tens of thousands of seekers have entered the wilderness to hunt for the hidden wealth. Books have been written. Several websites are dedicated to the search. At least two documentary films are planned for release this year. In its most elemental form, the Fenn stash is the everyman’s fantasy, an easily grasped extension of treasure-hunting mythology. With hiking boots, a map, and basic transportation, the chest could be one overturned log or steep hillside away.
Bilyeu made his first trip to New Mexico in 2014, from his then home near Atlanta, shortly after seeing the treasure featured on the Today Show. “It captured his imagination,” his sister, Kathy Leibold, told me this past spring. Bilyeu ordered Fenn’s book and studied the poem. He took several trips to the outback near Santa Fe, sleeping in inexpensive motels and spending much of his free time poring over maps and the poem. In 2014, he quit his job as a retail salesman and moved to Colorado because of its proximity to the search area. Alone in his apartment just northwest of Denver, Bilyeu, six feet tall with gray stubble and a high arch of receding hair, would find himself imagining his future fortune.
The day Bilyeu and Leo shoved off, and for several days after, Martino left messages on Bilyeu’s cell. “Randy always came back OK, which is stupid to assume now,” Martino says. This time, Martino began to worry almost immediately. Nine days had passed since their last conversation, and there was no sign Bilyeu had returned from his adventure. Martino sent a Facebook message to Linda Bilyeu, Randy’s first wife. He told her about Bilyeu’s latest hunt and the trip to the river. Linda called the Santa Fe Police Department the next morning and filed a missing-person report. Based on information from Martino, search and rescue crews deployed to an area called Old Buckman Road. Within a few days, they found Bilyeu’s Nissan: Inside the vehicle were a map, a bag of pretzels, and Bilyeu’s hiking boots. A search helicopter flying over the river also discovered Bilyeu’s raft on a small sandbar along the east bank, about seven miles from the launch point at Buckman. The raft was turned over and pulled toward a large shrub in a way that indicated careful consideration. Under the raft were the pump and both metal oars, one of which was snapped near its middle; the other was bent significantly. Just a few yards away stood Leo, in his now-dirty white sweater, emaciated and frightened, but alive. Snow and rising water had wiped out much of the beach, erasing whatever human traces might have existed a couple of weeks earlier. Nearby plants didn’t appear to be disturbed. The Rio Grande wasn’t particularly deep, but dive teams searched farther downriver, in deeper, muddier sections. A trail from the raft to the canyon rim led several hundred feet up a rock wall, a difficult climb for almost anyone, especially in wintry conditions.
“It’s like he just vanished,” Linda told me by phone from her home near Orlando. It was March, and about two months had passed since she reported her ex-husband missing. There still weren’t any clues to his whereabouts. Linda had spent nearly every minute ruminating on the situation and helping to coordinate a cadre of volunteer searchers. “There’s no way in hell I thought I’d be in the middle of something like this,” she said, bewilderment in her voice. “I don’t want to be in this place, but here I am.”
Linda hoped Bilyeu would show up alive, perhaps in one of the caves in the national park, which had been home to Ancestral Puebloans nearly 1,000 years earlier. Police ruled out foul play in the disappearance, and there was no indication Bilyeu was suicidal. In one of her wilder theories, Linda wondered if her ex-husband found the riches and simply made himself disappear, perhaps to live a millionaire’s life on some sunny beach in Mexico. “If we find him alive,” she sometimes joked, “I’m going to kick his ass.”
Regardless, she’d spent much of her winter marshaling more than 20 regular searchers who kept in contact with her. Some knew how to fly drones, some were experienced hikers, and some simply were familiar with the search area. Drone pilots regularly sent video to Linda for inspection, and she studied each frame. Discarded trash bags in the rough form of a body, a plastic laundry detergent bottle, and old clothes left in the wilderness had gotten her attention many times. “You start seeing shadows and think, ‘Is that him there? What about there?’ ” She posted the videos on a private Facebook page dedicated to the search and asked for help.
That the ex-wife of a man who’d gone underprepared in search of a hidden chest of riches was now helping try to find him was not lost on anyone. “It seems kind of crazy,” said Michelle Stoker, Bilyeu’s 26-year-old daughter. “But Mom’s naturally a take-charge person, so it was common sense that she’d be involved. She wants to do the right thing, and this is the right thing.” Said Linda: “Randy might have done just about the stupidest thing imaginable, but we share children and grandchildren. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Other theories abound, almost all of them involving the Rio Grande. Bilyeu slipped and fell into the river, where he hit his head, became unconscious, and drowned; Bilyeu walked into the river, his waders became flooded, he couldn’t get back to land, and he drowned; Bilyeu unknowingly stepped into a fast-moving stretch of the river, was swept under, and drowned. The Rio Grande dumps into Cochiti Lake, inside the Cochiti Pueblo Reservation eight miles south of the raft’s location, but tribal authorities hadn’t found anything in their searches. Perhaps it was still too cold, searchers speculated. Bodies in frigid water tend to stay low, like rocks, and pop up when they warm. Several weeks passed. Newspaper stories were written about the search. Missing-person fliers were posted near the river. Spring came, and the irony was inescapable: Randy Bilyeu should have been beginning his search. Now, instead, everyone was looking for him.
[“Lost” originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of 5280 Magazine.]