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June 24, 2021

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Armchair treasure hunting has rich rewards for Vancouver couple

Treasure hunts bring couple closer together, are fun for kids

By , Columbian Features editor
3 Photos
Dustin and Diedra White of Vancouver, from left, consult with "Expedition Unknown" host Josh Gates during the Oct.
Dustin and Diedra White of Vancouver, from left, consult with "Expedition Unknown" host Josh Gates during the Oct. 2 episode about the treasure hunt outlined in the 1982 book "The Secret." (Discovery Channel) Photo Gallery

Deidra White was skeptical of her husband’s hobby.

“I was like, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” she recalled.

That is, until Dustin White won a prize. Then she started to think he was on to something. A mere nine years after they married in 2007, she joined him in his favorite pastime of armchair treasure hunting.

Think of it as a widespread scavenger hunt, or geocaching without GPS. Armchair treasure hunting involves solving riddles from the comfort of home. That’s the armchair part. Then treasure hunters put “boots on the ground,” in the lingo, to try to actually find the treasure.

The Whites, who live in Vancouver, host a podcast called “Boots and Armchairs,” and recently appeared on the Discovery Channel’s “Expedition Unknown.”

Dustin White won the Portland Rose Festival/Oregonlive treasure hunt in 2016 after participating since he was a kid. During the Rose Festival hunts, he would get up at 4 a.m. and scout likely locations before the day’s clues were posted. In 2016, he found the hidden medallion at the Eagle Creek Overlook in the Columbia River Gorge.

He used one of the airline tickets he received as a prize to travel to Pennsylvania to try to find the bamboo flute buried by Pete Bissonette, author of “Breakfast Tea & Bourbon.” The novel about a group of friends who rent an RV and head out on a treasure hunt contains clues to the whereabouts of the flute, to be redeemed for a prize. White didn’t find the flute; a Texas family uncovered it in Arkansas to win the $50,000 prize in 2017.

Dustin White first got a taste for treasure hunting when he searched for the Portland Rose Festival medallion in 1998 with a friend and the friend’s mother.

The festival launched the treasure hunt in mid-1980s. A treasure hunting subculture flourished after publication of the 1979 book “Masquerade” by Kit Williams. Paintings in the book held clues to the location of a hare made of 18-karat gold that the author hid in Britain. The first winner, who found the hare in 1982, turned out to have received inside information from Williams’ former girlfriend, creating a scandal.

Armchair treasure hunting found new vitality in the internet age. People devoted to solving the puzzles trade theories online.

One of the most notorious armchair treasure hunts is by Forrest Fenn, an art dealer and a former Air Force fighter pilot. In his self-published 2010 memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase,” a 24-verse poem offers clues as to where he said he hid a lockbox filled with $2 million worth of gold coins and gems. Fenn has told newspapers that he estimates 65,000 people have looked for the treasure.

Two men, in separate instances in 2016 and 2017, went missing while searching for the treasure in a rugged area along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Their bodies were later discovered. In 2017, the head of the New Mexico state police urged Fenn to call off the hunt, but the author refused.

The longest running hunt is outlined in the 1982 book “The Secret: A Treasure Hunt” by Byron Preiss. He hid 12 keys across North America to be redeemed for jewels, but only two have been found: one in Chicago in 1984, and one in Cleveland in 2004. Preiss died in 2005.

Archaeologist Josh Gates, host of “Expedition Unknown,” referred to “The Secret” as “the greatest puzzle you’ve never heard of.” He received so much mail about a 2016 episode on the topic, he revisited it in an episode that aired Oct. 2, in which Deidra and Dustin White appear.

“We have discovered something we call the secret of ‘The Secret,’ ” Dustin White said in the show. He and Deidra traveled to Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco for filming. It’s where they believe one of Preiss’ keys is hidden. The park plays along with the many requests it receives to dig there; “treasure rangers” escort the hunters to protect irrigation lines and tree roots from damage.

The Whites tell Gates they think the lines of the book “Giant pole/ Giant step/ To the place/ The casque is kept” refer to a wooden sculpture in the park called “Goddess of the Forest.”

After plenty of suspense and dramatic music, the Whites come up empty-handed. But they had a lot of fun with the excursion, and hosted a big party at their home in the Image neighborhood when the episode aired.

Deidra, 33, now wishes she had joined her husband in his hobby earlier. She proved her treasure-hunting chops by winning second place in the “Map of the Dead” hunt by Murray Bailey. She works as a real-estate agent with Premiere Property Group while her husband cares for their children, 8-year-old Emma and 5-year-old David.

In addition to searching for treasure, the Whites created a hunt based on the 1985 movie “The Goonies.” It culminated in Astoria, Ore., in April.

“We had a good marriage, a happy life, but doing these treasure hunts has brought us together,” said Dustin White, 37. Instead of watching TV shows together in the evenings, they solve riddles.

“In today’s world of the internet and technology, it’s easy to get caught up in that and not look up from our phones and have face-to-face conversations. But these books and treasure hunts open up that conversation,” Deidra said. “Dustin and I have a common goal.”

Their children are getting into the act, as well.

“They enjoy the trips,” Deidra said. “You see the world through a different lens.”