Never the capture: NMSU student dreams of discovering lost cities

By Billy Huntsman

Managing Editor

It’s summer 2014 and NMSU student Donovan Duran and his friend, Shea, have been trekking across the rocky, hilly grasslands of northern New Mexico for the last three hours, after leaving their car at a scenic overlook spot off the highway.

Grasslands of northern New Mexico. Creative Commons photo.

The sun is in the middle of the sky and it’s blazing hot, boiling the horizons, as well as the two of them, who are pouring sweat.

Ahead of them, they see a gradually sloping hill littered with bushes and as they near it they at least hear, on the other side, the rushing of the Chama River, which is running high and fast, which they had anticipated after watching the news for the region’s weather before setting out on this adventure.

As they hunch over and half-walk, half-climb up and over the hill, the poem goes through both of their minds again, but they don’t speak it because speaking expends saliva, which expends hydration, which will eventually tire them out if they’re not careful:

As I have gone alone in there
And with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where,
And hint of riches new and old.

Begin it where warm waters halt
And take it in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.

From there it’s no place for the meek,
The end is ever drawing nigh;
There’ll be no paddle up your creek,
Just heavy loads and water high.

If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,
Look quickly down, your quest to cease,
But tarry scant with marvel gaze,
Just take the chest and go in peace.

So why is it that I must go
And leave my trove for all to seek?
The answers I already know,
I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.

So hear me all and listen good,
Your effort will be worth the cold.
If you are brave and in the wood
I give you title to the gold.

This poem supposedly has the nine clues needed to find the buried treasure of the poet, Forrest Fenn, a still-living Santa Fean explorer who, in 2010, buried more than $1 million of treasure “‘in a thrilling but safe location,’” Fenn says in his memoir, The Thrill of the Chase.

Numerous people have searched for this treasure, as attested to in this blog, without success.

So Shea and Donovan had, for the past six months, spent every waking moment reading through and trying to decipher this poem, in the process memorizing it.

Just last night, they had interpreted the last part that had been frustrating them for so long. It had been 2:17 at that point and they immediately went to bed, awakening less than five hours later to jump in the car and drive north. As the sun broke over the horizon and they’d been driving on Interstate 25, they had both taken turns calling their families.

Donovan’s mom had sounded nervous but had not tried to dissuade him, because she knew she would not be able to. When Donovan decides to do something, he does it until he hits a brick wall, she knows. She had told him to be safe and she loved him.

They then called into their jobs, leaving voicemails that they would not be in today or tomorrow, sorry.

And now here they were, on the adventure they’d been fantasizing about for the better part of the last year. And Donovan is sure, so sure, they’re going to find Fenn’s treasure.

They get over to the other side of the hill and as they skid down in crab-walks, they see the rushing whitecapped water and both think it’s faster than they’d expected.

chama river
The rushing Chama River. Creative Commons photo.

Fortunately, as they get to the bottom of the hill and stand amid the bankside bushes, Donovan removes from his backpack a strand of electric blue nylon rope. He ties one end around his waist, the other around Shea’s. There’s about a 10-foot length between them.

Donovan goes first, putting his feet on the ledge of the bankside, looking across the wide river, in the middle of which is a small sandy island.

If I can make it to there, he thinks, I can make it to the other side.

He watches the river for a moment, gauging its speed. He looks beside him and finds a thick tree branch lying in the underbrush. He pulls it out and finds it’s about four feet long. Back on the bankside, he stabs the pointed end of the branch down into the water, quickly striking the sandy riverbed. He digs it in, feeling it vibrate from the rushing current, and grasps it tightly as vaults into the water, dousing the grassy bank and Shea behind him in his wake.

The water is freezing in this northern climate, unaffected by the radiating sun. It feels good to him, rehydrating his thirsty flesh. He reemerges, his black hair clinging to his forehead and his temples. Immediately, thoughts of how refreshed he feels vanish, replaced by the urgency to get across the raging water to the island.

The branch, which he repeatedly pulls out of the riverbed and stabs in it again farther ahead before the water can take him too far down, is the only thing keeping Donovan from getting swept away. As he fords across the river, his eyes narrowed on the island—some five feet away, though it might as well be a thousand miles distant—he has his first doubts, will they get across?

Behind him, Shea watches nervously as he gets to the ledge of the bank himself, the length of the rope nearly taut. He can see it will be so just before Donovan gets to the island, so that Shea will have to leap into the water without any more stability than Donovan’s tree branch.

Just before Donovan gets stranded in the middle of the river, Shea jumps in—with no branch of his own. He’s immediately swept away, as though the river were a hand shooing away a fly.

Donovan hears the splash and an instant later he’s jerked downriver by Shea’s weight. He almost loses hold of the branch, but somehow manages to keep it in his grasp.

He stabs it into the riverbed again, nearly stopping their progress down the stream, but the branch did not go deep enough and Donovan is pulled away again.

Shea hasn’t been able to bring his head up yet and Donovan has only been able to do so with the aid of the branch, which he desperately stabs into the sandy riverbed again, as hard as he can, and this time it sticks. Their progress halts and Donovan is able to heave himself up onto the island, pushing against the current and riverbed with the branch, and once he’s on the marshy island he throws the branch down into the muck and works at pulling Shea in. It’s difficult, as attested to by his red-flushed face and the protruding veins in his neck, but finally Shea also gets on the island, gasping and dripping.

This is the kind of stuff that 23-year-old Donovan lives for.

Whereas some people are born to enjoy academia or business pursuits, Donovan says exploring the world, particularly rediscovering lost cities, sunken ships, ancient relics, is what he was born to do.

“Since I was a kid, I just wanted to explore, I just wanted to find new things, and wanted to add things to history that were missing,” he says.

Where this desire comes from, he doesn’t know, he says. It was neither started nor nurtured by Indiana Jones, he says. He describes his interest in ancient mysteries and lost cities as “an order” given him before his birth.

When he was young, both he and his parents thought it was just a phase, such as his weeklong desire to be an ophthalmologist. Unlike this desire, Donovan’s interest in the undiscovered and the hidden never died out, he says.

“My blood kind of boils for it,” he says.

This interest is integral in his quest to living a full life, Donovan says.

“People talk about (living a full life) all the time, I hear it every day,” he says.

This means something different for every person, he says, while for him it entails rediscovering lost cities, sunken ships, and ancient relics.

“A lot of people might say, ‘Oh, that’s impossible, that doesn’t happen, there is no such thing,’” Donovan says, his upper lip spreading in a jubilant smile, while his tobacco-packed bottom lip remains static. “There is.”

Heracleion, an ancient Egyptian city, spent more than 1,200 years in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea before being rediscovered in 2000 by French archaeologist Franck Goddio and the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM).  To read more, visit

Franck Goddio 1
Goddio and IEASM exploring the sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion. Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk.
franck goddio 2
Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk.
franck goddio 3
Goddio and IEASM team retrieving a monument from the sunken city. Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk.
franck goddio 4
Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk.

A 10th-century torshammere, or Viking pendant, representing the Norse God of Thunder Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, was rediscovered in Denmark in 2014 by amateur archaeologist Torben Christjansen armed with a metal detector.

The City of the Monkey God, a.k.a., La Ciudad Blanca, was rediscovered in March 2015 in the rain forest of Honduras by a team of archaeologists from Colorado State University.

One thing all of these discoverers have in common is a mutual interest in archaeology, which Donovan says he also has. So why is he not majoring in archaeology?

The rewards are not worth the investment, he says.

“Archaeologists aren’t going after the big things,” Donovan says. “They’re not going after the cities or any of that stuff. They spend a lot of time researching one area and then they find these arrowheads.”

Though he acknowledges that many of the discoverers of lost cities and ancient relics are archaeologists, as many are not, he says.

“These people that find these things, the general public might never hear their name, but their name will live on,” Donovan says.

Though sitting in his small office with four metal filing cabinets along one wall and a too-long wooden desk along the other, which he plans on replacing with a smaller box-shaped glass desk in the coming days, he says he does not feel trapped or confined. He does, however, feel anxious—for what the future holds for him.

“I don’t see myself in the office-aspect for very much longer, I think that this desire is going to overtake me at some point,” Donovan says.

He says everything he’s working on right now—his classes, his job—is all working toward his eventual goal of leaving in search of lost cities.

“If exploring could pay the bills, that’s exactly what I would do,” Donovan says. “But I wouldn’t subject other people to poverty for my dream.”

Getting married and having children also plays a part in living a full life, Donovan says. While exploring would be a priority, once he has a family that will be his utmost priority, he says.

So for the last year and a half, Donovan has been developing a business centered around “a therapeutic rehabilitation model for prisoners” called Owl. Donovan says the model is “getting a lot of attention” and predicts the business “will take off” starting in January.

If it does, Donovan predicts the business will provide him and his eventual family with a source of income. As he operates the business, Donovan says, he will take periodic breaks from the business to travel to places such as South America, the Middle East, Asia, Iceland, Norway to search for lost cities. When his kids are older, his envisions taking them with him.

Jessica Chenoweth is a graduate student in accounting at NMSU. She and Donovan have been dating for nearly four years. She says she supports Donovan’s aspirations and would only be nervous if he were different than how he is.

“He’s not a person that would go without planning,” she says.

She says his training as a Marine also reassures her of his safety.

“If there’s an emergency, you want Donovan around,” she says.

Donovan sits in the glow of his laptop’s monitor at his kitchen table in his otherwise pitch-black apartment. Beside his computer sits a half-mugful of black, cold coffee. His eyes are bloodshot, it’s been too long since he last blinked, and the lighting from the screen makes his sparsely bearded face look gaunt.

With the mousepad on his laptop, he scrolls down the page, eyes tracking right along the words, the sentences, the paragraphs on the screen, narrowing. Every once in a long while, he looks away, closes his eyes, rubs them fiercely, looks back up, continues reading.

He looks at the time in the corner of the screen: 2:34 a.m.

Damn, he thinks. He has to be up in four hours. He wants to go the gym before going to work as an assistant in The Round Up/Oncore Magazine’s office, before classes, before getting more homework for his biology and psychology classes, which are propelling him toward graduate school, maybe to solely practice psychology, or perhaps to start a career as a neurosurgeon.

But this is more important than all of that, he thinks.

Farther down the page, he finds the words ‘Ciudad de los Césares’ and ‘Tierra de Patagones.’ His heart starts beating a little faster, heavier in his chest. He clicks on the end of the sentence, moves the cursor to the beginning, highlighting it all. He clicks ‘Ctrl + C,’ opens a new Google tab, presses ‘Ctrl + V,’ the sentences copies into the search engine, he clicks ‘Enter,’ his heart not slowing.

The results pop up in less than a millisecond and he starts scrolling down the page, reading the descriptions and subconsciously hoping to find something he hasn’t already seen.

As an explorer, Donovan’s pearl of great price and the destination he is currently most researching is the City of the Caesars, which he started on two weeks and more than 100 hours ago.

andes mountains
The Andes Mountains in South America. Donovan speculates the City of the Caesars is located somewhere in the Andes. Creative Commons photo.

“(The city) is so shrouded in mystery,” he says.

To research and hopefully locate such lost cities, Donovan primarily uses pictures of archived captain’s logs, maps, journal entries, and the like. For the City of the Caesars, he is currently wading through archives from Spain, written in the 1500s—in Latin, which he neither speaks nor understands.

“I use Google a lot,” he says.

What he searches for when reading through these archives is simple.

“Where are you and when, who did you meet?” Donovan says.

He says this process is difficult, but makes him feel “productive.”

“I feel kind of like I’m a detective,” he says.

Donovan started searching through archives when he was 13. His father died when he was 12. Donovan says there is no connection between these two events, saying his interest in historical mysteries was present even before his father’s death.

Donovan describes his father as Mufasa, the patriarch from The Lion King.

“He liked space a lot,” Donovan says. “He worked for NASA. We would talk and he would say things like, ‘We can’t be the only ones here.’”

In retrospect, Donovan wonders if his father would have taken the opportunity to explore space had it presented itself.

“Maybe I was too young to really notice that he wanted to explore space,” Donovan says. “Maybe that was his thing. I don’t know. Died too young.”

While he has curiosity as to what exists outside of the world, unlike his father, Donovan says, his “purpose” is discovering the mysteries within the world.

“I want to figure out the mysteries here, because that’s just what burns,” Donovan says.

Whatever mysteries lie outside of the world, Donovan says, he leaves them up to God to reveal.

Donovan and Shea spend 15 minutes here convalescing before fording across the water on the other side of the island.

They don’t know it yet, but once they make it to the other side and continue through the undulating hills, Donovan will nearly fall off a cliff and later they’ll face up against a grown cougar, which they’ll engage in several unblinking moments. Then, as it stalks toward them, Donovan will take the tree branch he kept and swing it a half-dozen times at the beast before it decides to prowl away. Later, they’ll awe at how they hell they ever escaped becoming that cougar’s dinner.

And much later, as the dusk settles on the second day, they’ll give up their search for Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure. And though their hopes will be a little let down, as they head back to their car they’ll realize they aren’t too disappointed.

Though Fenn photographed the treasure and featured the photos in his book, Donovan says he suspects the treasure is not the intended reward.

“I speculate that maybe the journey is the treasure,” Donovan says.

Author: nmsuroundup

The student voice of New Mexico State University since 1907.

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