John Kerrison heads to the Rockies in search of Forrest Fenn’s legendary hoard and finds a few more strange goings on than he bargained for.
I’m stood next to a river somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
A few seconds ago I tore my trousers trying to climb what could only generously be described as a fairly medium-sized boulder. Shortly before that I’d watched with pathetic abandon as my sunglasses were swept over the edge of a waterfall. I’m now looking at my feet, where a couple of inches from my hiking boots lies what used to be a snake. I can tell that’s what it was because its head is still attached to what might otherwise be mistaken for a rogue spinal cord. I’m beginning to question whether I’m entirely cut out for adventure. Just a week earlier, I was in an office writing about enterprise IT. Now I’m almost 5,000 miles away wondering what kind of animal could strip the flesh from a snake.
Like all great adventures don’t, this one had started on a typically drizzly night in a small Cornish pub. My friend Axel had told a story about hidden treasure in the Rocky Mountains; a vast collection of coins and artefacts worth up to $3 million. It had been put there, he said, by an eccentric art dealer named Forrest Fenn, who had written a cryptic poem containing clues to its whereabouts. Internet sleuths from all over the world were travelling to find it; it had become a post-modern gold-rush of sorts, but after five years and counting nobody had located the prize.
We wanted to be the first.
When you’re driving in a straight line for hours on end, any distraction is welcome. Thankfully one eventually presents itself, in the form of an alien.
A few months, three flights and roughly thirty hours of travelling later, Axel and I are in Denver, Colorado navigating a car roughly the size of The Cotswolds to the outer city limits and onto Route 285. We’ve decided the treasure is in New Mexico, and a friend has recommended this as the most scenic route to the state America calls the ‘Land of Enchantment’. He wasn’t wrong. From Denver’s doorstep, where dark heavy clouds hang low on the shoulders of mountains to the vast, open plains swallowing Highway 17, you immediately realise how big the country around you is—and in turn how small you are.
We drive for hours through a beautiful nothingness. The road is so straight that, despite the burning sun, you can see rainfall touching down miles in the distance. Small shacks, barns and farm buildings are occasionally scattered across the land as if they’ve been dropped from a great height, but for the most part it’s just open road and clear skies, separated only by the silhouette of the distant Rockies. Of course, the philistine’s view on vast, beautiful expanses is that they can get boring pretty quickly. And when you’re driving in a straight line for hours on end, any distraction is welcome. Thankfully one eventually presents itself, in the form of an alien on the side of the road. The alien is pointing to an old, wooden ranch entrance upon which a sign reads, ‘Come on in and explore the UFO phenomenon at the UFO watchtower.’
So, we do.
Entrance to the watch tower – image author’s own
ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER
The term watchtower might have been guilty of some artistic license. Before us appears what can at best be described as a platform; about ten feet high and twice as wide. Below this is a small dome-shaped building, with circular windows carved into the roof. It’s half flying saucer, half Luke Skywalker’s house in Tatooine. It’s also closed. Before we have a chance to turn back we see a pickup truck bearing down on us, kicking up dust in its wake. To our relief, the driver, Judy Messoline, is in her late 60s with a short crop of grey hair and a welcoming smile. She greets us with her dog, whose name I don’t catch, and invites us in.
When you walk through the garden you should pay attention to your body, because you can feel the energy from the vortexes.
The dome is a sort of a museum-cum-gift shop. The walls are covered with news clippings of extra-terrestrial encounters, old photographs and amateur paintings, along with stuffed toys and t-shirts for tourists. It reminds me of Rachel, Nevada, the closest town to Area 51 where the official UFO research centre is a static caravan owned by a man called Glenn.
“They have documented sightings in the valley since the 1700s,” Judy tells us, opening a book full of photographs. “I opened this in 2000 and since then we’ve had eighty-four sightings. I’ve witnessed twenty-six of them.”
She shows us a picture from earlier that year. A traditionally unidentifiable blur is hovering against the backdrop of the Rockies. It’s impossible to tell what that object is, although I’m too polite to say so. I ask Judy how she got in the UFO business.
“I came down here to raise cattle. I brought the land because it was cheap, and found out real fast that cows don’t eat sand too well. But from the time I’d moved here all I’d heard was UFO stories from the locals, and I’d say ‘we need a watchtower’ – never thinking I would do it, let alone see anything, you know?”
I wonder how many places there are in the world where ufology can be considered a more lucrative career than farming.
The watch tower & garden – Larry Lamsa
Judy offers to show us the garden, a large dirt patch filled with, well, everything. There are hubcaps, license plates, alien figurines, playing cards, combs, a worrying amount of shoes—hundreds of objects seemingly with no correlation.
“Since we’ve opened over twenty-five psychics have been by and they’ve all said the same thing,” she tells us. “That there’s two large vortexes out here, and they describe a vortex as a portal to a parallel universe.”
Axel and I look at each other, Britishly.
“When you walk through the garden you should pay attention to your body, because you can feel the energy from the vortexes. I encourage people to leave something in the garden, so we have trinkets from all over the world out here.”
I take a stroll and place an Oyster Card in the grip of a particularly weather-beaten Action Man—just in case he happens to travel to a parallel universe that operates a tube system. With that we leave the watchtower behind, promising that if we find treasure we’ll come back and put some in the garden.
THE THRILL OF THE CHASE
It’s dark by the time we cross the state border into New Mexico. We pull the car over and take in the still, hot desert air. Everywhere around us cicadas fill the silence. Although we won’t realise until morning, the scenery of the Great Plains has been replaced by the rugged Badlands of cowboy fiction. We’re in the real Wild West, and somewhere there’s gold in them there hills.
The next day we continue our journey in searing heat, driving from the adobe and art galleries of Santa Fe up into the Jemez Mountains. At the foothills of the mountains sits the town of Los Alamos, most famous for being the birthplace of the atomic bomb. As we pass through a security checkpoint I think about Judy’s watchtower again. Years earlier a government engineer named Phil Schneider had claimed that a secret underground base below Los Alamos had been the scene of an all-out war between humans and aliens. Unsurprisingly few took his claims seriously, but it seemed extra-terrestrials were becoming a theme of our trip.
I have a contact… He says the treasure is in an alien womb.
Case in point: while on the road I had been receiving bizarre emails from an anonymous source calling himself ‘White Rock’. White Rock warned me that Forrest Fenn’s treasure was in fact a plot to steal human souls—as you might expect. Not only this, he claimed that it was hidden in a cave that was actually ‘an alien womb’. I couldn’t decide if the entirety of the U.S. was UFO mad or if I was just moving in strange circles.
We spend the next few days exploring the mountains; wading in streams, soaking in hot springs and meeting other treasure hunters—all of whom have their solutions to Fenn’s poem, none of whom have found the loot. Eventually, having run out of ideas and being not a penny richer, we decide the best course of action would be to meet the man himself.
We find Fenn, a soft-spoken Texan pensioner, signing copies of his latest autobiography in the Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe. We spend around forty minutes talking on a number of subjects, including art, history, the shortcomings of English food and the Vietnam War, where as a fighter pilot he was shot down—twice. Eventually the subject turns to treasure.
“I have a contact…” I start, reticently. “He says the treasure is in an alien womb.”
“A what room?” Fenn replies. He’s a little hard of hearing.
“No, a womb,” I make a sort of womb shape with my hands over my stomach. “An alien one.”
People are turning to look at me.
“Huh.” He says, thoughtfully. There’s a long pause. Maybe two. “Well, I guess now all you need to do is find an alien womb.”
There’s probably a sign for one of those off Highway 17, I think.
Words & Selected Images by John Kerrison
Published 21st August 2015
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