Forrest Fenn in his vault assembling Sitting Bull's original pipe.
Forrest Fenn in his vault assembling Sitting Bull's original pipe. (Photo: Courtesy Forrest Fenn))

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO - Sacha Johnston, a single mother and real estate agent, is scouring the landscape of the Black Canyon Campground north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in search of a hidden treasure.

The area, 13 kilometers north of Santa Fe in the Rocky Mountains, is considered, according to Johnston, the starting point in the hunt for the hidden treasure.

Treasure Hunter Sacha Johnston at the Black Canyon Campground. (VOA/Penelope Poulou)

The "treasure map" consists of nine clues in a poem written by wealthy art collector and entrepreneur Forrest Fenn.

Fenn says he hid the treasure years ago, and since writing "The Thrill of the Chase," a book about his life and the treasure, its lore has become wildly popular, attracting about 350,000 treasure hunters worldwide.

The treasure is believed to be hidden anywhere between northern New Mexico and the state of Montana.

Many believe the treasure is real, while others think it’s a hoax. Johnston keeps searching.

“When I started the treasure hunt, I was a stay-at-home mom with a baby," she said. "Since then, I have become an expert in Southwestern history. I can tell you the direction based on the location of the sun, and I have become more in tune with nature. And so, I found it to be an incredibly rewarding experience. So, that drives me. But on another level, I think I've made progress in figuring out the clues of Forrest Fenn’s poem, so that also drives me to keep going.”

WATCH: Fenn's poem

A life as legendary as a treasure

Forrest Fenn stands in front of an original 19th century cart he had placed on the old Santa Fe trail running through his property. (VOA/Penelope Poulou)

Fenn’s Santa Fe estate is an elegant, understated adobe surrounded by a carefully planned garden. A running creek and the Old Santa Fe trail run through it.

Inside, the house feels more like a sanctuary filled with priceless art collections that Fenn has amassed during his lifetime. The wealthy art collector and entrepreneur is as much a legend himself as his hidden treasure.

A fishing guide at Yellowstone National Park since the age of nine, he proudly displays one of his favorite items — a small arrowhead he found as a boy at the national park. A decorated war fighter pilot, he volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1968, where he says he flew 328 combat missions in 340 days and cheated death numerous times.

"I crash-landed one time. ... I was shot down, ejected from an F-100 in Laos," he said.

Forrest Fenn has kept a piece of his F100 downed in Laos. (Courtesy - Forrest Fenn)

And then there was the cancer diagnosis he received in 1988.

Told he only had six months to live, Fenn says he found a beautiful bronze box and filled it with gold coins, gold nuggets, emeralds "as large as hen eggs," and other precious stones and jewelry.

"If I was going to die, I was just going to give other people the same opportunity that I’ve had," he said.

But Fenn beat cancer and ended up hiding the box in 2010 when the U.S. recession was in full swing.

"I wanted to give people hope and something to look forward to. Maybe there is a pot of gold at the end of your rainbow if you go out and look for it," he said with a glint in his eye.

Truth or Myth?

"It is not in a dangerous place," Fenn said about the spot where he hid the treasure.

His longtime friend, Marc Howard, has been looking for the hidden booty for nine years. Regarding the nine clues, Howard says they are not as straightforward as they seem.

"It’s not easy, and there is always more to what Forrest says than meets the eye," he said. "I’m a goldsmith. I would love to have a supply of gold that I didn’t have to pay $1,500 an ounce for."

Howard says he believes the treasure is hidden on public land.

"Forrest considers the public land to be the land of the American people," he said. 

WATCH: Treasure hunters in the Rocky Mountains

But finding a treasure on public land incurs taxes and carries with it a whole host of other concerns. So, Howard says, it is unlikely that the finder will announce his find.

Even though the lack of tangible proof of the treasure’s whereabouts has some questioning its existence, Howard says it’s valid.

"This is his legacy," he said. "I know people that saw it before it (was buried)," he adds. "Several people that I’ve talked to had seen it in (Fenn’s) vault before he placed it. It was jaw-dropping!"

The treasure hunt is believed to have caused tourism to soar in Santa Fe.

"The city gave me a proclamation because the occupancy rate and the motels in Santa Fe were up 6% two years in a row," Fenn said.

The search for the treasure has also claimed lives. Six people have fallen to their deaths looking for the coveted box. Fenn insists it is lack of preparedness and misreading the clues that can put treasure hunters in harm’s way.

"I would urge people to know where you're going and let somebody know that you're going in there," he advised. "Take some water. Take some food. Take your cellphone. Take a GPS. You know, the mountains can be terribly unforgiving to those who don't respect what they are and what they can do."

Does Fenn believe people are close to finding it?

"It is possible my treasure chest could be found this afternoon, or it could be 100 years or 500 years. Who knows?" he said.

Johnston is not deterred. For her, the thrill of the hunt is as important as the idea of the treasure.

"I don't need other people to believe that Forrest Fenn hid treasure, and I don't need them to believe that it can be found. I need to believe that, and it doesn't matter to me if I never find a treasure because I go out there with that same excitement and that same zest for life every single time. I'm OK with looking for a hidden treasure, even if it's not there."