Nathan Sheets, president of Nature Nate’s honey company, met Dallas real estate developer Jeff Blackard in 1999 at a fundraising event at Park City Club. “I had just come from a meeting where I was going over some blueprints, and Nathan walked up to me and said, ‘Dude, you have ink all over your face,’” Blackard recalls. After he got cleaned up, he and Sheets struck up a conversation and have been fast friends ever since. They’ve gone on countless mission trips together, all over the world. “If you know Nathan, everything is an adventure,” Blackard says.
Once, they were in Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia) with a billionaire from Boise named Jerry. “Nathan comes over to us with a map and says, ‘I read an article in National Geographic. Right here on this map is where the Ark of the Covenant is.’”
Caught up in Sheets’ enthusiasm, Blackard and the billionaire agreed to go with him in an old van he had rounded up to look for the Biblical artifact. It supposedly was in a monastery on an island in Lake Tana, in a secluded northern area of Ethiopia. “We were driving through the middle of nowhere, and the few people you did see all had big guns,” Blackard says. At one point, the van careened down a steep mile-long trail on the Blue Nile gorge.
“The brakes were smoking, and we all thought we were going to go over the side of the cliff,” says Sheets.
After a 15-hour journey, the men arrived. They found lodging in a small guest house and the next morning arranged for a boat to take them to the island. “The billionaire and I are up at the front of the monastery, and Nathan is behind us with my video camera, filming us. He says, ‘What are you going to do if you find the Ark of the Covenant?’ And Jerry says, ‘Well, we’ll just have to get it out of here. We’ll have to hire a jet or a helicopter.’ We were just playing around.”
The monks took the men to a huge round building in the middle of the monastery, which is surrounded by tall walls. “There’s an old guy with a World War II-era rifle standing guard, and there are four big doors with ancient locks on them, leading to a room in the center of the building,” Sheets says. “They unlock them, and we go inside to find another room in the center of that. It goes all the way up to the ceiling, probably 50 feet in the air. There are four more doors, all painted with angels and other Biblical icons. And there are all of these artifacts, thrones and crowns. The monks told us the Ark of the Covenant was inside. I felt like Indiana Jones; it was unbelievable. Jerry offered to give them a million dollars to open the door, but they wouldn’t do it.”
After a while, the three men made their way back to the boat. A gaggle of kids came over to them. “They have these ancient books, and they offered to sell them to us,” Sheets says. “They’re hundreds of years old—the real thing. Jeff and I each bought a small book and Jerry bought a small one and a very large book that was covered in lambskin for like $800.”
When the three attempted to board a plane at an airport in Bahir Dar, workers found the historic book in Jerry’s luggage. The police confiscated everything, put the travelers in the back of a pickup truck, took them to the police station, and charged them with stealing state-owned antiquities. Suddenly, Blackard remembered the video-taped jokes about taking the Ark of the Covenant. “I just kept thinking about how I didn’t want to spend my life in prison, and how much I wanted to go home,” he says.
After some grilling, the police released the three men, who chartered a plane to Nairobi and eventually made their way back to the states. Sheets was somehow able to keep the small book he bought. “It’s sitting on a shelf at home,” he says.