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How to Be a Wizard

Russ Pitts | 22 Jan 2008 12:56
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The description of my first cache read "Ammo box hidden in the woods." The person who hid it provided clues, suggesting the cache was in a wood, near a pond, close by my house. Using the GPS one night, I determined that, yes, the coordinates were somewhere in the something-acre wood, and no, I would not be going in there at night. But I had a point of reference. I knew it was somewhere to the west of me. Returning during the daylight hours with a friend ("Never go off into the woods or remote locations without a partner," says the website, "especially when Geocaching. We don't want you focusing on your GPS unit and walking off a cliff."), I circled around to the west of the woods, and, like magic, my GPS indicated the cache was now to my east. We started walking.

Most GPS devices have an arrow indicator, suggesting the direction you should travel to get to your destination. It's less useful than you might think. A better way to find something is to simply walk and watch the distances scroll by. The distance between me and my quarry kept decreasing as we walked north, behind the woods - a good sign we were headed in the right direction. Then, suddenly, the distance began increasing. We'd established another reference point. The cache was west of a certain point and east of another. Now we had a grid.

We walked along the line between these two points, watching the distance between us and the cache melt away until the meter zeroed out. Our satellite reception was good, we were right on top of it, plus or minus 10 feet. I looked around - nothing but woods. And that's when I realized the enormity of my mistake. I had a vision in my head of following the GPS, reaching the coordinates and finding a cache. Simple, easy, wrong. The caches are hidden, else they be disturbed by muggles. Reaching the coordinates is only half of the puzzle. After that you have to find it. Wizardry indeed.

"Ammo box hidden in the woods," I recalled. Ammo boxes are metal, and green or brown - the colors of military camouflage, the better to blend into a wooded environment. I was in a wooded environment. Shit. So I was looking for a tree-colored object hidden among the trees. Or perhaps it was the color of dead leaves, which didn't improve the situation - the ground was covered with them. I was looking for a proverbial needle in a landscape covered with haystacks. Deep breath. Time to get cracking.

I looked under fallen trees, in hollow logs, under suspicious piles of leaves - nothing. I searched for a full half hour to no avail. This was going to be harder than I'd imagined. I circled around the site in slow arcs, curious to see if I was in the wrong spot, but my GPS kept leading me back to the same set of trees. It was there, I just couldn't see it.

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"It has to be right here," I said, tapping the leaf-covered ground with an outstretched toe. I heard a solid, metallic thunk. I'd found it. It was right under my nose the whole time.

Take Something, Leave Something
The official website for geocaching, calls it "an adventure game." The rules are simple: If you find a cache, take something and leave something. Or just sign the log and put it back exactly where you found it. If you're hiding a cache, they offer plenty of suggestions, but really, almost anywhere you can get to is fair game. The No. 1 rule of thumb for hiders and seekers is: Avoid muggles. It's suggested geocachers try to be stealthy about searching for a cache, lest you be observed unearthing it and spoil the game, or the cache.

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