Thomas…a Follow-up



This is a follow-up to Cynthia’s original story about searching with Thomas that can be found HERE.

The Hunt…Searching for Fenn’s Treasure*

Last month, Dal posted my story about Thomas, a 10-yr old boy and his family from Arizona who allowed me to film a couple of their searches  for a documentary I was making about Forrest and the massive appeal of his treasure hunt to those of all ages.  I just finished adding the final touches, and uploaded it to Vimeo for anyone who is interested in watching three separate search parties in the remote (and not so remote) wilderness of northern New Mexico, as well as an interview with Forrest.

I got the idea for making my own documentary after being interviewed by two professional companies also making documentaries about Fenn and the searchers. I felt like my contribution was boring…all talk, not even about my particular solutions to the poem, and not on-location actually searching. I felt I could do better…and that I could add some pizzazz…a wow factor. I came up with a preliminary story and sent it to Forrest for his approval, and asked him if he’d allow me to interview him in his home like the pros, to give it some legitimacy. He said yes…

I had never shot a video before but had taken thousands of photos…I thought “how hard can this be?” (As Dal is reading this, I bet he is rolling on the floor laughing his butt off since he is a professional videographer, I think.) After ff approved the “script” and agreed to the interview, my arrogance surpassed my confidence, and off to the store I went to buy a GoPro camera (the palm-sized ones that athletes attach to their bikes, surf boards, etc.) and all the accessories. My budget was zero when it came to paying anyone to help, but I was lucky to have a few people  agree to let me film their searches for the documentary.

My partner agreed to help as the cinematographer (cameraperson) which was a tremendous help since I only had one camera (the GoPro) and didn’t want to film every scene Les Stroud-like (Survivorman). By the middle of June we had all the gear we thought we needed and started practicing at home, not to mention spending oodles of hours watching YouTube videos on how to make a movie, top ten mistakes of new film makers, etc. (I don’t know why anyone goes to college anymore because you can learn everything on YouTube… Or so we thought.)

We got up at 4:00 am some days just to drive to the areas in Taos Canyon to shoot my search scenes..I wanted to be there and hike up the canyons before any clouds moved in…even though I was a first time movie-maker, I was aware of continuity between scenes and wanted to get everything right. (By the way, Dal, what is the difference between a “movie” and a “video”? When strangers would happen upon us while we were “filming” which I know is an incorrect term since we were shooting a digital movie/video, I always preferred telling them we were shooting a movie, not a video. When I hear the word “video”, I think MTV…when I hear the word “movie”, I think Hollywood or Sundance.)

We even practiced “interviewing Forrest”… a lot. This was in the midst of the real media madness at his home, and I knew it would be tough to get an “appointment”. I knew there would be no “do-overs”…if we made a mistake, we’d have to live with the footage and audio we got. The night before the interview, I didn’t sleep a wink…I was so nervous…I couldn’t pronounce any words more than a syllable

without stammering. I couldn’t even remember the questions I had decided upon to ask him, so I wrote them all down.

The 50-min drive to his home was spent in silence…I kept going over the questions in my head…practicing “quietly” not to stumble over the words. I wondered to myself if I should have had a drink (alcohol!) before leaving my house…I wondered which would sound worse…me stammering  from the jitters or me slurring my words from too much booze. Too late…we were at his front door. As always, Forrest greeted us with a smile and graciously escorted us into his office. He worked on some emails as we “set up”. Then we chatted…by the time the camera was ready to roll, I was okay, mostly. Forrest was, and is, such a pro when it comes to being interviewed. He knew where to sit for the best lighting, and how to turn the statue on the stand beside his chair just right for the best composition. Within an hour, we were done, and heading home. As much as I always enjoy seeing Forrest and chatting, this time I felt such a sense of relief to be leaving…I couldn’t wait to get home, and watch the interview…

Weeks seemed to pass rapidly…we spent most of July following Thomas and his family, following Frank, and re-shooting a lot of my scenes in Taos Canyon. Then it came time to “make the movie”…holy cow, if you’ve never edited a movie, video, whatever, you can’t imagine how tedious it is to look at 500 video clips worth hours of footage and try to edit segments to make a “movie” less than 50 mins long. All along, my idea was to make a documentary/docu-drama “short” to submit to the Sundance Film Festival, and their rule for a short is less than 50 mins.  Everybody’s footage got cut drastically, including Forrest.

The final version of this movie/documentary/video is about 44 mins long. We learned a lot, we made some major mistakes which had to be fixed, our shotgun mic went bad part way through Thomas’ search so we had to improvise and record the sound on my cell phone (which is quite obvious when you watch this)…but mostly we had FUN. If watching this makes any of you smile, then I accomplished what I set out to do…to entertain as well as to inform.

I hope you enjoy my MOVIE (don’t like the word video)…here is the link.


PS: Several days ago, I uploaded a preliminary rough copy to Vimeo so Forrest and the people in it could view it and approve it before I put the link out there to the people on this blog. If you are one of the 50 people who have watched this in the past few days, this link will take you to the new and improved version which includes a few new short clips.





I was first introduced to 10-yr old Thomas from Arizona through an email that Forrest sent me a couple months ago. Forrest knew I was spending the summer months making a movie about Fenn treasure hunters, and suggested I “talk” to Thomas and his moms since they had a trip to New Mexico planned in July. We exchanged emails…they were excited at the prospect of being part of a movie project.

We planned to meet at my campsite in Red River Monday evening July 6th to get acquainted and eliminate any jitters they might be experiencing before the first on-location shoot at Elizabethtown the next morning. But something freaky happened Sat July 4th in Santa Fe. My partner Michelle and I decided to attend the annual 4th of July pancake breakfast and festivities on the plaza that morning. The weather was perfect…we arrived early thinking we’d beat the crowd. Ha! By 8 am the plaza was buzzing with hundreds of cheerful folks already enjoying their full plates of pancakes, sliced ham, and whole strawberries (nice touch…the strawberries, that is!) Vendors lined the sidewalks, and the car show filled two long blocks with vintage automobiles of almost every make and model. A band seated on a stage on the plaza played patriotic music that was piped throughout the entire area so everyone could enjoy the music, regardless where they strolled. What an event!


Packard photo for my dad

After an hour or so, we made our way from the plaza to Cathedral Park beside Saint Francis of Assisi Cathedral where we decided to shoot a quick monolog I wanted for my movie. It was short and sweet so we quickly made our way to the gate on the east side towards our car. Standing on the sidewalk just outside this gate were two golden retrievers, patiently waiting for…whatever dogs wait for. Being the big-dog lover that I am, I went to them immediately. When I raised my eyes to the people on the other end of their leashes, I recognized Thomas and his moms Tracie and Molly from a picture of their family they had attached to an email. I called them each by name, to which Molly glared at me and said in a questionable tone, “who the hell are you?” I laughed…I realized at that moment I had never sent my picture to them since I never deemed it purposeful. What a coincidence for us to run into each other so unexpectedly! The stars and planets must have aligned at that moment, and we all agreed this connection was meant to be.

02 03

Fast forward to Tuesday morning…we all met at the B20 Elizabethtown Road turnoff from Hwy 38 and drove a few hundred yards to a place we could pull off the dirt road and park. From there we gathered our dogs and nonchalantly strolled up the hill to the grassy area where old rusty automobiles filled a tire-strewn gully. The herd of grazing goats stared at us disgustedly and moved across the road to a safer location where they could keep an eye on us and our dogs. Unbeknownst to me, Google Earth shows this patch of old rusty cars, and this was Thomas’ primary place today to search for Fenn’s treasure chest. Curiously, I asked him “why here?”

He explained “As a serious poet, I love to write poetry so I took a different view this year. I looked at the clues and the end rhymes…there are nine pairs that have nine matching endings. I am thinking ghost towns, and the Taos area.” Hmmm, I am thinking to myself…I love to hear others’ solves to the poem, and this one is new to me (not Elizabethtown but the rusty cars.)

Thomas and Tracie went from jalopy to jalopy looking inside and outside and beneath these heaps of rusting old metal…I followed, trying to stay out of their way but capture some of the audio and still photographs for later, while Michelle carried the tripod and camera through the tall wet clumps of grass and weeds, trying to keep up as best she could with an enthusiastic 10- yr old and like-wise mom leading the way. Molly was kept busy trying to control two equally enthusiastic Goldens on leashes, who didn’t give a crap about Fenn’s treasure but did care about the horse and goat manure. My Weimaraner Molly was the lucky one…she was free to
run and go where she pleased and eat what was tasty…I was sure she’d throw-up animal manure later (like on my sleeping bag) but she never did.

04 05“I’ve done it tired and now I’m weak…”

06After thoroughly searching the rusty cars and tires, Thomas and Molly picked their way through the ruins that were still barely standing along Elizabethtown Road.


From there, we all jumped into our cars and drove the short distance up another hillside to the Elizabethtown Cemetery…we all spent awhile looking for Elizabeth Brown’s grave site. Now we all know Forrest has stated the treasure is not hidden in a grave yard, but some folks, I think, have used her grave site as “home of Brown”, and “put in” somewhere below the cemetery.

08 09As we neared the end of our search for Elizabeth Brown’s grave, we came upon this one, where the memorial was permanently ensconced inside a hollowed out tree stump. Molly (with dog Greta) is explaining how this could relate to the picture of the tree stumps and the man with the axe, and the crescent shaped moon on page 146 in the epilogue of TTOTC. Is this an example of “…in the wood”? Is this how Forrest hid and preserved the treasure chest? There is a plexiglass cover mounted on top this hollowed out log which cannot be easily removed. It would protect the chest fairly well from the elements but the chest could still get wet from condensation. Hmmm, we all wondered…we gathered at the cars to decide what was next on the day’s agenda. About that time it started to rain, so we decided to call it a day, and resume the treasure hunt the next day in Cimarron Canyon.

To my delight, this morning’s treasure hunt began mid-way down Cimarron Canyon at Clear Creek Trail…a popular search area but one that I had not yet experienced. The storm clouds had moved out and a clean, crisp air permeated our nostrils as we followed the sometimes- narrow but clearly visible trail through the dense forest, along the swollen creek. I didn’t ask Thomas specifically why here…it made sense. Over the past five years, hundreds, if not thousands, of footsteps have pounded this same trail. I did catch on pretty quickly that we were here to look in rotten tree stumps or holes in the ground or rock crevices…maybe even behind waterfalls if we found any.

10 1112Thomas’ expression in the above photo says it all…we don’t know what Molly thought she saw “move” in that hole she is poking, but whatever it was made her scream!

We made our way across narrow bridges…

13 14…and over steep narrow sections of trail.


After a mile or so up the trail, Thomas decided Forrest would not have carried 20 or 22 pounds any farther. After all, he had practiced carrying a 20-lb bag of ice the day before so he understood carrying that amount of weight. We agreed it was a good place to turn around.

Towards the end of the trail before reaching the parking area, we (Michelle and I) asked them if they’d sit and share some of their thoughts on Forrest and the treasure chest…what would they do with it if they find it and if they’d welcome the ensuing media attention. Thoughtfully, one by one, they each gave us their answers…


Sadly, the morning and our final treasure hunt with Thomas and his family were over…they had to go back to Taos to get ready for their drive home to Arizona, and we had to go back to Red River to get ready for our drive home to Rio Rancho. What a fun few days we had together… and what a wonderful new friendship was forged.

Thomas seemed mature beyond his years…I don’t know any other young boys who started writing poetry at 7, and who’s favorite subject is language arts. His knowledge of Fenn’s poem and TTOTC equalled most adults’, and he is determined not to be swayed by the blogs so he can keep his solutions “pure”. But he still is a 10-yr old boy…finding sticks to poke in holes and crevices in the woods, poking his finger up his nose when we were filming, laughing his head off when Durango lifted his leg and relieved himself on the tombstone of a young child we adults had just declared “sacred, one that should be respected.”

Just prior to departing ways, I asked his mom if I could “borrow” Thomas…for two years. My thinking is that with his brains and “pure” thinking and the fact I own a vehicle and have a driver’s license, together we could find this thing…

July 9, 2015

Thomas’ poem for Forrest

Breathe in, Breathe out,
Breathe in war, Breathe out peace,
Breathe in weapons, Breathe out crayons,
Breathe in sickness, Breath out cures.
Breathe in bombs, Breathe out butterflies.
Breathe in fire, Breathe out fireflies.
Breathe in war, Breathe out peace.

Thomas Miller-Culler July 1, 2015

Cynthia wrote a follow-up to this story and has a link to the movie she created HERE.