“Forrest inspires me”, Katya readily admits. “I wish I had been given teachers like him in school. He has a way of sparking my mind, making me thirsty for knowledge and making the chore of education so much fun.”
As a fellow searcher, I have to admire the resolve of a person who gives up the swaying coconut palms, soft ocean breezes and warm hammock life in Hawaii for the relative discomfort of snakes, pointy rocks and permanent ice in the mountains north of Santa Fe. Katya is a self-labeled eccentric. “I am addicted to adventure.” she tells me. She is a hot-air balloon pilot and ran her own expedition company a few years back. She also lived on a sailboat in San Francisco, tended a gallery on Canyon Road in Santa Fe has been a singer/songwriter, jewelry artist and still works in film production in Hawaii.
The search started for Katya back in the early months of 2013 when she left Hawaii to attend the wedding of a friend in Santa Fe. Her friend just happened to have a copy of The Thrill of the Chase on her bookshelves and suggested that Katya might like to read it…short stories, easy to digest, authored by Forrest Fenn. Katya was immediately attracted to the book because she had met Forrest twenty or so years earlier when she lived in Santa Fe and worked at the Morning Star Gallery on Canyon Rd. Forrest frequently dropped in to chat with the owners and see what was new on their walls. “I remembered how everybody respected and admired him.” Katya pointed out. Her friend didn’t say much about the treasure and Katya’s initial interest in the book was simply because it was by someone she knew and admired and the stories were short and would be easy to read in bed just before falling asleep.
“I didn’t sleep for days after getting my hands on that book.”, Katya said. “Every morning I couldn’t wait for my friend to wake up so I could dart into the kitchen and say ‘I know where the treasure is.’”. She was hooked. Having background on Forrest meant that she never doubted the treasure was for real. Forrest’s reputation was beyond reservation. Katya dropped everything in her life cancelled her flight back to Hawaii and the hunt became her full-time focus.
Katya stayed in Santa Fe for a time, but by July she had moved to Angel Fire in the Sangre de Cristo mountains east of Taos and landed a job there so she could be close to the area she was convinced the treasure was hidden. She begged friends with cars to take her to Forrest’s book signings and talks at Moby Dickens in Taos and Collected Works in Santa Fe. “He has the best poker face.”, she points out. Katya watched Forrest’s reactions closely when hard questions came up from audience members, looking for any signs of agreement or rejection. Nothing was there. No concern. No disdain. No confirmation.”Forrest doesn’t give up anything.”
From Angel Fire she convinced girlfriends to drive her to her search area but finally rented a car and started sleeping in it so she wouldn’t have to waste time driving to and from where she wanted to look. In the summer, searching was easy. If there was daylight, Katya was on the hunt and when it was dark she did research. 4 to 5 trips a week. “I don’t just hop around. When I pick a spot, I comb it.” She soon had a partner to search with. A friend who matched Katya’s own zealous and adventurous spirit.
Katya made over 52 treks back into the hinterlands by December 1st. On one trip with her partner they pushed the envelope a tad too far and ran afoul of both the New Mexico Parks and State Wildlife officials-
“We were just out searching very intently on this “not public” land. I’m in the zone, you know? My partner is in the water with a video camera I am on the side watching what she is shooting on a monitor. I was oblivious to everything around me…and all of a sudden there were these two guys directly in front of me. They scared the heck out of me. ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ I yelled…and then I noticed they were carrying guns and wearing badges and I know we’re in trouble. Geeze!” The officials interrogated Katya and her partner for “a couple of hours” about what she was doing beyond the “no trespassing” signs and on the wrong side of the fence. In the end they let her go and also provided advice on how to further her search… legally…so things eventually worked out in her favor.
Katya admits that she loves mysteries and history. She grew up in Miami and adored western movies as a little girl…cowboy and Indian fare. This combination along with professional admiration for Forrest and a love of adventure brought her into the search. The perfect storm of inducement. Although she has a part-time film industry career, friends, and a home in Hawaii, she has sacrificed her savings and given everything up to pursue the mystery of the poem. The lure of Fenn’s hidden treasure is overpowering. The thrill of the chase is hypnotic.
It was during a trip in August, a cooling late afternoon. Blue shadows had moved into her canyon stealing the sunny New Mexico warmth. Katya was solo and quietly headed back out of the woods along a small New Mexico trout stream when she experienced a life changing event that both focused and frightened her. An event that would raise the neck hairs of even the most seasoned hiker out in the wild lands, alone and fully involved in the chase. A searcher’s worst nightmare.
“I will not give up. I feel close.” These are Katya’s thoughts as she heads back, empty handed, after a day of searching in her area. She is moving quickly along a dimly lit trail toward her car. “The first sign of trouble was a very loud scream, followed by more screams. It was terrifying. Someone was in desperate trouble.” Katya describes the terrible sounds she heard that afternoon as clearly a woman, a very terrified woman screaming for help. “I picked up my pace and headed toward the noise because someone was hurting and maybe I could help. All of a sudden this mama deer comes bolting down the path right at me…boing, boing, boing toward the river and the screaming is still going on. As the deer runs past me I can hear her panting and snorting and I can see fear in her eyes. Then I see a baby deer behind mama, running right at me down the same path toward the river. The mama deer stops and starts running back and forth and I thought: Do deer make that screaming sound? That is so weird and it’s really loud. Then I turn back toward the screaming and see with stunned surprise on the same trail..maybe twenty feet right in front..a massive mountain lion. The lion stops. Our eyes lock for what seems like a minute. It’s huge muscular body is blocking the trail…my only way out of the canyon. I knew not to run. The only defense I have is a can of bear spray. I grabbed for it and then I just froze. My heart was beating out of control. The lion looked at me for a split second longer and then dodged into a bush right next to the trail and stayed there. I couldn’t see it but I knew it was there. I also knew the only way out was on the trail past that bush…just a few feet from the lion. I had no choice. I didn’t want to head back into the wild. I wanted to get to my car. Past that lion was my only escape. I pulled up my hoody. Tried to look big as a bear. I started chanting in a very low voice. I held onto my bear spray and I just marched really, really importantly past that bush. It let me pass and I’m here to tell you that story today.”
By mid-December Katya’s resolve is still, somehow, strong. In her canyon “It’s dark. It’s icy. I’m slipping. I’m falling. I’m exhausted. I can’t even walk across the river anymore. The rocks are iced over. I’m alone because no one will go out there with me in this weather. I don’t care. I can’t stop.”
It’s not easy, Katya is not independently wealthy and making the trek from the middle of the Pacific to New Mexico is not a “loose-change” adventure. This winter she returned to Hawaii for a few weeks of film work, replenished her need for salty air, sandy beaches and greenbacks. But she has to return to New Mexico soon. “When you’re hooked on the puzzle of the poem, nothing can stand in your way long, not oceans and not lions”…her’s is the face of honest commitment.
In spite of her efforts Katya understands it may not be her that finds Forrest’s treasure. She has these words for her fellow searchers-
“I think it’s most important to be open to all the amazing little treasures along the way in your search. I have found a greater treasure within myself, the events, and the gems of lovely beings along the journey in pursuit of TTOTC.”