In the early days of the pandemic, John Maxim and David Cline, quite to their surprise, looked in their bank accounts to discover COVID-19 stimulus checks deposited by their Uncle Sam.

Feeling like the money “ought to go to people who really need it,” Cline had an idea what to do with the unexpected loot: Cash the checks, put the money in a chest, hide it in the forest and let people search for it.

In June 2020, the friends stuffed $5,000 in cash and silver coins into a wooden box, lugged it up a trailhead above Sandy and buried the treasure in a hole.

They then wrote a complicated poem about where it was and posted it on their Instagram accounts.

They had no idea how much attention they’d get, if any. “We joked that in two months we’d come back and dig it up ourselves because no one would really care,” remembers John.

But holy moly were they wrong.

Four days and 8 million impressions on Instagram later, the treasure was found.

“We seriously underestimated the brilliance of people,” says David. Not to mention the enthusiasm.

What they didn’t underestimate was how much they’d enjoy doing it.

“We’re just kids at heart,” David explains — he’s 33, John is 43. Both have fashioned successful careers in real estate, to the point “that we have the means to do really cool things that we would like to do ourselves.”

For some that might be a trip to Hawaii, say, or restoring old Mustangs, or buying courtside Jazz tickets.

For these guys, it’s hiding treasure.

Inspired by their first effort, they put together a second hunt a year later, in June 2021, expanding the pot to $10,000. They came up with more elaborate clues they thought would take a summer to figure out. They underestimated yet again. This one was found in 17 days and attracted national and even international attention once the European tabloids caught wind of it.

That led to a third hunt in September 2021, this one a scavenger-style search complete with QR codes. It was worth $20,000. John and David put in half the money while a sponsor, the Kokonut Island Grill in Salt Lake City, put in the rest.

Their new website — utahtreasurehunts.com — crashed every day the first four days it was up. In less than a month, it generated 3 million hits.

And yes, they have plans for a new hunt this spring or summer. They’re keeping their cards close to the vest — it’s gotten to the point that they have to wear disguises and use a borrowed car to bury the treasure — about the details. When everything’s ready, they’ll announce it on their website and Instagram accounts, which have ballooned to more than 25,000 followers each.

The question they get asked all the time, of course, is why they keep at it? Why would a pair of committed capitalists choose to pour their own money — to date they estimate they’ve spent about $40,000 — into a game that makes others rich? Is there an ulterior motive, a hidden agenda, does it aid their real estate work?

“Getting more followers doesn’t really help our businesses,” says John. “That’s not why we’re doing it.

“It’s just really fun for us and it has a very positive impact on the people who do it.”

The feedback they’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive and gratifying.

There was the parent who wrote, “My teenager doesn’t even talk to me anymore and now he’s dragging me outside to go on hikes so we can find your treasure.” There was the woman with terminal cancer who said she and her sister spent three precious weeks together looking for treasure.

Or the married couple who told them, “We couldn’t find anything to do together; now we’re more in love than ever.” Or the businessman isolated at home by the pandemic, who said, “I hadn’t been out in months, now I have all these friends.”

People have told them they’ve gone hiking and rediscovered the mountains for the first time in years. Families have sent them photos bragging how much weight they’ve lost.

“I can’t believe how many people have said, ‘I was suicidal and then I found your hunt,’” says John. “They didn’t have any reason to live and then they found this. It just blows you away.”

Both men are a bit stunned at what they have wrought.

“We didn’t set out to do any of it,” says David. “We were just screwing around doing something we enjoyed and all that stuff, it just happened. It’s one of the amazing side effects. It’s probably the funnest way to give back we could have ever thought of.”

And it’s why they plan to keep going.

“As long as it stays positive, fun, safe and free, that’s the goal,” says John. “Because really, there’s nothing better than seeing thousands of people trying to solve your puzzle.”