The Hunt for the Wasatch Treasure

The Hunt for the Wasatch Treasure

I’ve watched a lot of treasure hunting movies in my life, and almost every one of them has followed the same exact plot: main character discovers map, main character and ragtag crew of sidekicks and skilled professionals start hunting for treasure, enemies are made, treasure is found, betrayal ensues, and a wrathful god plays maracas with tectonic plates until the earth cracks open, swallows the greed-consumed villain, and takes everything with it except just enough gold coins to pay off the main character’s parents’ mortgage.

There are several messages that could be gathered from these films—the universe is pro “eat the rich,” for example. The most prevailing message is that when a person with too much free time learns there’s free money nearby, they’re dangerously close to becoming a feral maniac.

I learned this firsthand when, on the hottest July 4th weekend in recent memory, instead of eating watermelon with my family and watching people light Utah on fire for fun like a normal, well-adjusted person, I found myself waterless, sunburned, and curled up like a roasted cashew in the shade of a boulder off the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, literally terrified to touch anything in direct sunlight with my bare skin.

I had hiked over 30 miles of day hikes in one week. I was punching out of work early and poring over puzzles between Zoom calls. My feet were destroyed, I could barely walk down the stairs to my bedroom, and there was one night when I seriously considered sleeping in my Chacos.

I was hunting for $10,000. I knew it was buried somewhere in the Wasatch Mountains. And I could not, no matter how hard I tried, scratch the itch to find it.

The “map” for the Cline Maxim Treasure Hunt fell into my hands the way most treasure maps tend to fall into hands: mysteriously and by complete accident. Someone I follow on Instagram briefly posted about the hunt, tagged the guys who created it, and then deleted her post moments after I saw it. It was serendipitous, an alignment of planets.

The Hunt was the brainchild of John Maxim and David Cline, two Utah locals who decided it’d be fun to hide thousands of dollars in the mountains for people to entertain themselves with during the pandemic. In 2020, the two hid a chest containing $5,000 near Rocky Mouth Canyon. It was found in four days. This year’s hunt was designed to be harder, but throughout the month, John and David would release new clues and challenges to help treasure hunters get closer.

The map was a poem typed up on a burnt parchment backdrop. I’d stare at it for so long, I’d have it memorized by the week’s end. It read:

Begin your search where hikers rest
Majestic slopes all facing west
Through the tunnel of emerald green
Follow the river creek or spring
When the black bird clicks turn to port
If you reach the end of you’ve come up short
Begin to climb when your path swings north
Picking your way back and forth
Soon you’ll find you’re not alone
Greet the bear made out of stone
Along the bottom of the cliffs is key
The chest awaits beneath the tree
With treasure in hand, enjoy the views
The sun kissed reds and salty blues
An image of the poem posted on Instagram. It was typed up over a burnt parchment background with a watermark of a compass in the backdrop.
From @the.cline.fam on Instagram 

A few extra clues had already been released to the public by the time I saw the poem. The treasure wasn’t buried on private property, so ski resorts did not qualify as “slopes all facing west.” The chest wasn’t buried exactly, just kind of covered, and the possible location of the treasure was contained within a rectangular strip of land stretching from Ogden to Provo and as wide as the distance between the East edge of the Great Salt Lake and the East side of Park City.

That’s a massive chunk of land to probe, but I immediately knew from reading the poem that the chest was on a trail near a body of water, it was west-facing, and wherever it was, you could see the Great Salt Lake from its location. That meant Utah County and Park City were out.

It was June 27th. I think I might have gone on one of my bi-monthly Cry and Drives up Big Cottonwood Canyon that night. All I know is that I was driving north on I-215 towards my house and casually dreaming about what it would be like to own a car younger than the Bush presidency one moment, then the next I was casually hiking halfway up Heughs Canyon at 11 PM with nothing but a headlamp and my phone blaring “Good as Hell.”

I had theorized that cougars wouldn’t like Lizzo, or more generally, song, but after the bushes started rustling, I remembered that no sinless creature on God’s earth doesn’t like Lizzo, so I turned around and ran.

On that first day, I was passingly curious. By the end of day two, I was on the slippery slope to insanity and a shiny new Rav4.

You learn a lot about treasure hunting when you try it for the first time, but there are three big truths that become very obvious very quickly.

First, it’s an incredibly filthy and tedious business (Ben Gates made stealing the Declaration of Independence seem very white collar, but I just know he sweat stains into that jacket and went to bed with charley horses every night).

Second, you literally cannot do it on your own, even if you’re convinced you can.

And third, in case you failed to learn it before, men cannot be trusted.

By day two of my hunt, I had seventeen tabs open to various Google Maps, AllTrail entries, guides to the BST, Strava, topographic maps, near fossilized websites with outdated information that could maybe direct me to older, more obscure trails in the area, as well as Barnes & Noble’s last copy of Hiking the Wasatch by John Veranth.

I was probing for rivers, unexpected spots where you could see the Great Salt Lake (like Lake Blanche), places where hikers rest—benches, restrooms, graves. I didn’t have a plan per se, except that I wanted to start by looking at trails close to home. Neff’s Canyon was top of my list.

Neff’s checked almost all of the boxes—tunnel of trees, river, cliffs facing west. The only thing I couldn’t sort out was the black bird and the bear. I’d figured “clicks” referred to kilometers, but was the bird a metaphor? A sign? A Beatles reference? An actual blackbird nest? I couldn’t say.

I was hiking Neff’s west slopes, had lost half my weight in sweat, and was a second away from turning around to look someplace else when a man with binoculars swinging around his neck, calf-high socks, and what looked like an Osprey pack the size of a Saint Bernard appeared on the trail below me. He glanced down at the Wasatch Trails book in my hands as he approached.

“Looks like you’re doing the same thing I am,” he said.  

In the next two minutes, I had front row seats to this man’s imagination as he told me why he was convinced with every fiber of his being that the treasure was at Neff’s. Topographically, everything fit, he said. Heck, there was even a bear aka a four-foot high cairn at the top that could pass as a bear if you squinted at it the right way. But the real hook? He was positive he saw John Maxim in the flesh sneaking through the woods up here a day previously to spy on people.

When we finished our conversation, he walked ahead and disappeared into the trees, and I did what any sensible person would do: I followed him. At the top of the trail was a clearing with that vaguely bear-shaped cairn and an ashy old firepit. I felt around the rocks and trees and bushes. I peeked into every nook and crevice, but there was nary an X marks the spot to be found. There was, however, a trail adjacent to the clearing that faded into the trees and the river.  

Three cobwebs to the face and 25 shallow cuts later, I stumbled back into the clearing and decided rivers were terrible places to hide treasure chests.

I was staring intently at the base of a tree when Dora the Explorer burst out of the ferns behind me on his return from the mountaintop.

“I hiked all the way up to the cliffs and couldn’t find anything,” he said.

In one last, half-crazed sweep, he looked under the same rocks, logs, and bushes I had, then finally gave up and started hiking back, a puzzled expression sandblasted into his face.

Dora didn’t leave his convictions in the clearing. They cascaded down the trail behind him. A man named Carlo stopped me on my way down to ask me what I knew and then told me that a guy with lots of hiking gear had just told him he was positive the chest was up there. There was even a bear! Carlo said.

It occurred to me in this moment that the guy with the binoculars was either a terrible strategist or he had turned into a villain the second he left that clearing. So with the discretion of someone who’d get kicked off of Survivor on week one, I told Carlo everything I knew: I’d looked everywhere up there, hadn’t found anything, and I was pretty sure hiking gear man was a liar.

Carlo had been up and down the Wasatch Front. He had good intel, so I took down his number in the most platonic way possible when he offered it and told me we should share clues. When he texted “may I have pix” a week later, I finally got a clue.  

As the week went on, clues started dropping everywhere as John posted more Instagram stories about how to find the treasure. The biggest clue, the one that set the course for the rest of my hunt, was that John said he could hike to it in flip-flops.

“If it feels dangerous, you’re probably in the wrong place,” he said. This was a necessary caveat, as days earlier, 20 search and rescue crew members had been called into the mountains to help a man who had his foot crushed by a boulder while he was searching somewhere he probably shouldn’t have been for the cash.

Some of the clues were elaborate. There was a two-piece clue hidden in Texas and Idaho that could be only be solved when both pieces were brought together. That was followed by a cipher clue John and David dropped on day three of my hunt that looked an awful lot like my Google Docs look when I've got writer's block.

An image posted on the Utah Treasure Hunt website that shows John Maxim and David Cline posing in front of a tree and says, "Stay Safe & Have Fun: Good luck this coming week in your hunts! We hope you have grand adventures and can enjoy the amazing mountains we have in our backyard safely. We can't wait to follow along with you on your hunts. -Dave & John Bonus Hint: XGAWOEJEGWGXABCTWXWGXY
An image posted on the Utah Treasure Hunt website that shows the cipher clue

The worst part was when John and David started reposting Instagram stories from other treasure hunters.

“Got so close today, I can feel it!” some said.

“I know where it is! Going back first thing in the morning to find the chest,” another said.

A stronger person could navigate this baiting with ease and grace, but it spun me and my FOMO into a deeper level of obsession. I started screenshotting and zooming into stories to see if I could pick out noticeable landmarks or clues. I looked up the most confident Instagram users who got reshared and probed their page throughout the week to eke out whatever info I could find.

You could almost feel the urgency splashing over to the trails as the days went by. Four out of every five people I passed were talking about the treasure, where they had seen it, where they thought it might be. According to John, someone had come within five feet of it. Everybody wanted to know if they were that someone.

With no leads and an increasing fear that we were hours away from someone else finding it, I decided it was time for me to get myself a ragtag group of sidekicks and skilled professionals, aka Redditors. All I’m going to say is if the Goonies had been on Reddit, they would have found One-Eyed Willy’s treasure in 45 minutes, tops.

Someone had created a subreddit called r/utahtreasurehunt, and those nerds had already posted the solve for the cypher puzzle—“search where sailors rest”—as well as a slew of information about the poem, all of the trails they had checked out, a couple of flame wars about what constitutes a relevant treasure hunting post in the sub (wanna talk about Forrest Fenn? Go back to the late aughts, chump), and a dozen or so pictures of rocks with the question “Does this look like a bear?”

A list of Reddit posts inquiring about rocks that look like bears.

I skimmed Reddit hourly. I learned the “black bird” was probably a crow, so I’d have to walk “as the crow flies” aka straight for one kilometer before turning left. I learned that John and David were using a trail cam to keep track of the chest’s movement, and that was one more thing I could look for. The general consensus among Redditors was that sailors rest on the shore, meaning the chest had to be somewhere off the 100+ mile-long Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

“Sidekicks” in my pocket, I decided that over the course of the next three days and 4th of July weekend, I was going to hike every single BST entry point from Ogden to Draper until my fists were clutching $10 Gs.

I made it to exactly one of those entry points before the betrayal portion of my treasure hunt kicked in a little early.

I was on the Fernwood-Adams Trail near Layton, and everything married perfectly with the poem. I started tracking kilometers at a restroom near the trailhead. It led me through a tunnel of trees, hooked up to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, and followed the river until, one kilometer in, a faint trail split off of the main trail. I hiked that trail until I came to what looked like a natural endpoint in a really overgrown clearing. But due North, there was a small path that took me on a zigzagging path up a rocky hillside.

When I looked up, I saw The Bear.

You know how the woods fall into a hush every time something big is coming? The crickets stop singing, the birds stop chirping? I felt that happen throughout my entire body as I looked up and saw The Bear.

He was beautiful, a big boulder against a cliff that was shaped exactly like the head of a grizzly. As I got closer, I got even more excited: curled halfway up the cliff was a single, solitary tree. The base of the cliff was right beneath it.

By George, you’ve done it!

I was absolutely beside myself. I rushed to the cliff and fell into the dirt beneath it. It was going to be a red Rav4, no, a black one! Why just limit yourself to a car? Maybe I’ll buy a puppy. Maybe I’ll pay off all of my upcoming dental bills or buy that camera I’d been fancying.

Maybe I would have done all of those things had there been anything on that cliffside besides a pile of dirt. No chest to be found.

My mind was a black void flickering with one single neon sign that read: It’s not here. Someone found it before I got here. It’s not here.

I slipped through the first four of the five stages of grief in ten seconds flat. I looked up and down that cliff, and grew angrier the more I looked at it. It was an outrage, a scandal. I’d been robbed. In my mind, there was no possible way the chest hadn’t been there at some point.

In my attempts to look in every single crevice just to be sure I hadn’t missed it, I slipped on a rock, bruised my butt, sliced my hand open, and then resurfaced with my hair full of burrs. I was ready to kick rocks and swear. Even the relief of learning that the chest had not been found yet later that night did very little to console me.

The rest of the week was a blur of blood and dust and smelly Camelbaks and filthy toenails. Then on the sixth day of my hunt, after dozens of unsuccessful one-kilometer starts and stops on Hidden Valley Trail, Adams Canyon Upper Falls Trail, and Adams Canyon Lower Falls Trail, the ground opened up underneath me.

Two guys coming off of Heughs this morning have a duffel and say they found the money.

Reddit was abuzz with the news that Saturday morning.

Heughs, the very first canyon I had hiked. Heughs, the canyon I had quit. Heughs, the canyon 10 minutes away from my house. I almost had to lie down and practice my 4-7-8 breathing.

It was all over.

I had nothing else to do that morning, so I decided to make the drive to the Heughs parking lot, join the procession of mourners coming down the mountain, and follow the winners’ car with my lights on out of respect for those we lost. Maybe I could beg for alms and get a $50.

Unbeknownst to me, there were a few more plot twists left in this tale. When I checked my phone at Heughs, Reddit was going wild.

“From what I know, it hasn’t been found. I looked at the.cline.fam Ig and they said they physically touched it today,” someone posted.

The mystery boys with the mystery duffel had apparently lied to everyone coming off of the trail. Reddit was speculating they were trying to throw people off of the right track.

“It has to be on Heughs,” someone posted.

There was a connection to the BST, the trailhead began in Canyon Cove, there was a tunnel of trees, and there was even a plaque of a man swinging a pickaxe right near where you’d swing north and pick your way up.

I had a second chance. It was enough to send me scrambling out of the car and straight up the trail.

In the daylight, I saw the clues I missed that first night, like the trees and the river and the fact that the BST trailhead began its ascent from the main trail one kilometer up Heughs.

The mountainside was covered in scores of people looking around rocks and trees. When I reached the plaque of the miner and started climbing, there was a group of kids stationed on the lower cliffs there, watching me with wary eyes and territorial stances.

I spent the next two hours working around them, probing that entire strip of land. I hiked all the way up to the high cliffs, looking around rocks and under the trees that were up there before remembering this was a very flip-flop unfriendly terrain and hiking back down. I brushed away leaves under trees. I crawled under bushes. I moved a few rocks and shimmied my whole chest down into holes.  

I was hyper-aware of the fact that I’d been seeing bears everywhere since The Bear incident, but right off the BST in this exact spot, there was a massive rock that looked like a bear.

The bear rock I found at Heughs Canyon

I was less and less sure this was the place as the heat of the day heightened. I tucked myself under the shade of a rock, watching new groups of people come and go, burning their hands on the rocks, staring at trees with that same intent expression, and asking me with a friendly laugh, “Did you find it?”  

“I wish,” I said back with a smile.

A picture of me, burnt to a crisp, sitting under a boulder at Heughs Canyon.

Even with the unspoken edge of competition, there was an organic camaraderie rooted there in the rocks and on the trail. We were giving helpful tips and friendly hellos to strangers after a year of not being able to get close to them. Nobody really anticipated that we’d fall right back into the throes of the pandemic just a few months later, but there in the dust in the heat of July, there was just a box full of cash and a bunch of people in Reddit forums and hiking boots bonding in their attempts to get to it first.

Two days later, soon after I finished my last hike of the hunt at Rocky Mouth Canyon, the chest was found. A cop named Andy Swanger dug it out and walked it down to the parking lot where his family was waiting for him. Where was it? Heughs Canyon.

Because of course it was.

The chest was hidden under some rocks and a dead tree in the high cliffs above the BST near a bear-shaped rock that looks more like a llama. I’ve watched the trail cam several times, and I figure at most, the chest was 200 yards away from where I was before I turned around. Apparently John is a freak when it comes to wearing flip-flops.

An image of the llama bear that was close to the treasure chest.

“When your path swings north” referred to the part of the BST where hikers got their first view of the golf course—John and David would later write that they had no idea the miner plaque even existed, one of many strange coincidences that made the hunt foggier—and the place where hikers rest referred to the homes next to the trailhead. It wasn’t Shakespearean, but it was clearly enough to get someone to the end.

I was disappointed, but with the disappointment came the relief that for the first time in a week, I could finally stop hiking.  

Almost all treasure hunting stories have a happy ending: gold coins tucked away in a pocket, enough jewels to pay off some debts, or an unbesmirched family name. I’ve been trying to find the gold coin in this one.

Maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way, like u/mytoenailfelloff and u/Sir_Poop_Dollar. Maybe it was getting to know my home a little better. Or maybe it was the ability to share a flickering moment of time in the heat of the summer when so many of us could just for a second forget what it’s like to live in unprecedented times.