Cris Dotson with his two Forrest Fenn treasure journals | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Cris P. Dotson is a fisherman, an artist and once was a singer in Nashville. By day, he manages real estate properties. He has a wife, a dog and is remodeling a two-story house in a wooded area in Shepherdsville. He’s also a treasure hunter, and he’s spent the past five years analyzing clues related to a treasure chest hidden by the eccentric millionaire art dealer and author Forrest Fenn.

He’s not alone. Four people have died searching for the treasure, which Fenn famously hid somewhere in the Rocky Mountains nearly a decade ago.

Since then, Fenn has written several books containing hidden clues within his words, as well as a cryptic poem many feel holds the key to finding the stash.

Forrest Fenn

Dotson believes he’s closer than anyone has been before.

“I know I am,” he tells Insider. “I can just feel it.”

Dotson, 44, says he’s followed Fenn’s advice to study the first book, 2010’s “The Thrill of the Chase,” and separately study the poem contained within, which reportedly has nine clues to finding the treasure.

He reads them one after another. He studies maps, he reads books on decoding mysteries.

But he’s done something further that he believes many haven’t.

“I’ve listened to him,” Dotson says. “That’s why I think I’m so close.”

By that he means he’s figured out that Fenn hides clues in ordinary words, and Dotson feels that over the years Fenn has dropped more clues, not just in subsequent books, but while also doing innumerable interviews. Because Dotson has paid close attention to how Fenn uses his words — not just to what he says on the surface — he believes he’s narrowed down the location of the treasure to within a mile.

Fenn’s treasure is said to be worth more than $3 million. | Courtesy

“Maybe even a quarter-mile,” Dotson says.

Obviously, he isn’t saying where that area might be, but he’s planning a trip to the Rockies this summer — and isn’t disclosing an exact time frame for the trip, either — to take his shot at putting the mystery to rest once and for all and claiming the chest worth an estimated $3 million or more.

Dotson takes the quest quite seriously. And who wouldn’t, if a chest filled with gold chunks, gold coins, ancient jewelry, gemstones and more were at stake?

Ask him a question about Fenn or his treasure, and Dotson answers it without flinching, oftentimes displaying his passion for the quest by diving into depths of detail.

He also spends hours listening to podcasts and interviews and watching shows dedicated to Fenn. One show he obsesses over is a video talk show of sorts called “A Gypsy’s Kiss,” featuring hosts Toby Younis and Shelley Carney, who discuss all things Forrest Fenn.

Dotson not only watches, he takes notes in his Fenn journals. He analyzes.

“I learn from their mistakes,” he says.

When Dotson first spoke to Insider about his quest, he noted the Fenn mystery is “Indiana Jones-type stuff,” and he’s right. He says some 350,000 people have searched for it and failed, and countless others follow the story in hopes of finding just the right clue that will lead them to where it is hidden.

Last year, a Pennsylvania man broke into Fenn’s home with an ax, hoping to find the treasure inside. The Fenn legend has created a widespread obsession.

But Dotson’s tale is a bit more personal than most. The back story to the treasure is that Fenn decided to place many of the valuables he’d collected over the course of his life into an ancient chest after he was diagnosed with cancer. His plan was to drop the clues, hide the treasure and then take his own life before cancer could do it for him.

But he never got that far, because he surprisingly beat the disease. With that, he decided to hide the treasure and continue dropping clues, first by way of the book and poem.

The tools of a treasure hunter | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Dotson had long followed the story, read all the books, etc., but had never, as he put it, “gotten serious” about finding Fenn’s treasure. Fast-forward to last November, when Dotson suffered a massive heart attack a week before Thanksgiving, requiring four stents in his heart, along with a lot of recovery time.

He found himself spending long hours at home, bored out of his mind. Then one day, while doing some dusting, he came across his Fenn books, and a light went on: The time to get serious had arrived. The heart attack scare had been a sign.

And so for the past six months or so, he has lived, breathed and eaten Forrest Fenn and the treasure. He’s read all the books over and over, and the first book and poem more times than he can count. He digs on websites, blogs, Facebook groups and message boards.

In a rare light moment, Dotson says, “It gets tough because you have to live your life and function. And have mental health.” He laughs after saying it, rare laughter when the subject of Fenn is at hand.

He quickly turns serious again and admits his hobby has become an obsession, saying he feels like “a mad scientist that is close to finding a cure for cancer.”

Many have suggested the treasure story is a hoax, perhaps one the eccentric Fenn created to sell books. Ask his opinion on that, and Dotson will tell you immediately that Fenn donates all the proceeds from book sales to cancer charities. He doesn’t need the money.

But even if it were to be exposed as a hoax, or if someone finds the treasure before he does and the massive search comes to an end, Dotson says it has been worth it because of the way the Fenn story has captivated and inspired so many people. This was part of Fenn’s intent — it gets people excited about doing something besides watching TV or staring into their phones.

Dotson has pored over books, blogs and message boards as part of his search. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

And it has brought Dotson back from a dark place last year after the heart attack.

“The treasure has become more of a hope chest to me,” Dotson says. “And as Forrest has, I hope I can inspire people of all ages to get out and discover this world and its opportunities and their dreams.”

Perhaps the clincher as to why Dotson believes he is so close is when he sent an email to Fenn — who rarely answers — a couple of months ago, telling him he is close and planned to make the trip to search for the treasure in April.

This time, Fenn answered. He wrote, “Wait until summer Chris [sic]” and signed it, simply, “f.”

For Dotson, it’s another clue as to how the treasure is hidden. The snow-covered Rocky Mountains are nearing the time of spring melt-off, and he believes the treasure could be hidden in or around a place that is under snow or perhaps under water for much of the year.

Summer is coming. If Dotson has, indeed, cracked Fenn’s code, his wait is about to be over. If not, he vows to go back to the drawing board.

“I’m pretty confident I’m going to find it,” he says, “but if I don’t, I will keep studying and try to go again before fall comes. I’m positive that this is a seasonal search.”

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Kevin Gibson
Kevin Gibson tackles the 3Rs — retail, restaurants, real estate — plus, economic development. He loves bacon, loathes cucumbers and once interviewed Yoko Ono. Check out his books, “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft” and “100 Things to do in Louisville Before You Die.” He has won numerous awards for his work but doesn’t know where most of them are now. In his spare time, he plays in a band called the Uncommon Houseflies. Email Kevin at [email protected]