Part One of a Two Part Story
The excitement and allure of a treasure hunt have been a part of our culture for many years, thanks to iconic characters such as Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, and Jack Sparrow. To this day, buried treasure continues to captivate our imagination and fuel desires for adventure. It was this spirit that led my brothers and I to bury a treasure and leave behind a map. This is our story.
For 30 years, my three brothers and I have shared a love of backpacking in America’s great Wilderness Areas of the western United States. Our annual treks West have become a cherished tradition in our family. Although we hail from the flatlands of central Illinois, I discovered the beauty of the mountains during my college years in Flagstaff, AZ. I was instantly drawn smitten and began exploring the wilds of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado with nothing but a wool blanket and my wholly inadequate “Boy Scout” pack.
In 1980, I convinced my brothers to join me on a backpacking trip to Vermejo Park Ranch in northern New Mexico, where I was working as a forester. It was there that they too became enchanted by the rugged beauty of the wilderness. From then on, our annual treks to the mountains became a tradition. Each year, we set out on a one- or two-week journey to explore a new Wilderness Area, creating memories and stories that will last a lifetime. From our countless adventures, we have endured injuries, weathered violent storms, and shared endless campfire debates that have strengthened our bond as brothers.
But in 1996, while backpacking in the remote Weminuche Wilderness of southern Colorado, my brothers and I pondered over how we could inspire young children to cherish the outdoors and the breathtaking wilderness areas like we did. So, we came up with a plan to create “The Tully Brothers’ Treasure Hunt.” After much planning we finally buried a treasure in the Popo Agie Wilderness Area in 1997 and worked out what would become a multi-decade hunt for a real treasure. We were careful to pack it with a generous bounty, wanting our descendants to have sufficient incentive to put out the effort and expense to find it.
To make the treasure hunt more engaging, we decided to create a puzzle for our children to solve that would take a minimum of 10 years. Our first step was to take a USGS 7½” topo map of the buried treasure location and had it made into thirteen jigsaw puzzles, one for each child. To make the hunt more challenging, we included a riddle on the front of the jigsaw map that would help identify the precise location of the buried treasure once standing in the Wilderness. The riddle reads:
We added multiple “X’s” to the map and compass bearings, which the treasure hunters would need to study carefully to figure out how to use the “X’s” and other markings to find the treasure which was buried under a special rock on the side of an indescript mountainside.
We introduced the treasure hunt to our kids at Christmas in 1997. Each child received the jigsaw border pieces and a few others. Each puzzle was mounted inside a picture frame so they could preserve these important mementos for many years into the future. We held back several important “key” pieces and over the next ten years, we gave each child more pieces of the map on their birthdays and at Christmas. Then by 2007, when the youngest child turned 18 and was old enough to handle a rigorous backpacking trip with their cousins, we ensured each child had the entire jigsaw map, all the key pieces, and all needed information to decipher the provided clues to what was a sizable treasure.
An important criterion of our plan was to ensure our kids would have to work together to find the treasure. If we just gave each of them a map, the older kids could just go out and find it before the younger kids could spell “map”. Any one of them could have found the treasure without telling the others. So, we created a multi-faceted challenge where several pieces of each of the 13 jigsaw maps had unique codes written on them. The treasure could not be found without all the kids realizing that all these different codes from all 13 jigsaw maps had to be combined to ultimately solve the riddle. This, in fact, would be the final key to finding the treasure. They were never told the purpose of those coded pieces and could not understand their relevance until after they had dug up the buried treasure in the Wilderness.
This made the treasure hunt much more challenging and rewarding. It forced our kids to work together and communicate with each other to succeed. It also taught them the importance of teamwork and cooperation. Over the years we enjoyed hearing our kids discuss the map and speculate why the coded pieces were important. We enjoyed encouraging the speculation but were careful never to reveal their purpose.
We also needed to provide an incentive for our children (& the parents of the younger kids in 1997) to protect the map puzzles over time from loss or destruction. So we made a rule: each child’s share in the ultimate riches would be proportional to the number of puzzle pieces they can produce when the treasure is found. Thus, tt was imperative they protect their map puzzles in case the treasure is ever discovered so they can get their share, whether or not they participated in the adventure of the hike.
So, in 1997 when we introduced the Tully Brothers’ Treasure Hunt to our kids, nieces, and nephews, we also provided them each with a letter explaining the adventure:
Until 2019, no backpacking attempts to retrieve the treasure had been made. Should our children not have sufficient wilderness skills or the compulsion to “hunt the treasure” then we are content that it remains where it lies hidden forever. But our hope, in the end, is that our children and their young families trek off into the wilderness together and eventually understand that that “family” is the real treasure and that what they have in each other is worth far more and is far more exciting than any buried treasure in the Popo Agie.