I’m lying on my back, looking up at the sky. My knee feels broken. I’m not sure if I can get up. I’m suddenly glad for the downward slope of the railroad embankment; if I’d collapsed on the tracks, I might have been run over. And that would definitely have ended the day on the wrong note.

To my right is a Tupperware graveyard; vessels of food and water set out by well-meaning office workers to feed an army of vagrant cats. A gray tabby looks at me curiously, sniffs and continues eating. I’m not dead yet, she must be thinking, not yet food. To my left: woods. Behind me are the railroad tracks I’ve just crossed in search of my third geocache of the day. The cache I’m now certain I’ll never find. The cache that broke me.

The signal from my GPS led into a parking garage, then behind a suburban office building, and then up onto the railroad tracks. Then, perhaps misreading the signal, I thought I might be headed to the elementary school even further south, but I realized my mistake and headed back. Now the signal seems to be coming from a flat, open area to the west, just down the hill from the tracks, down the hill from where I lie motionless, immobile and broken.

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I should give it up. I should go home, ice the knee and thank the deity nothing more serious befell me on this adventure, but I’m too intrigued to call it quits. There’s something about geocaching that awakens a primordial instinct, a deeply repressed longing to explore. Memories return of lazy summer days staring at pictures of pirate maps, wishing you could find an old piece of parchment with an “X” on it; wishing that “X” took you somewhere new and secret; wishing you’d find, under the “X,” a hidden treasure, left there for you by some other adventurer willing to share, tying you into his secret world with a slender thread only you and he can see, invisible to the rest of the world.

As a child that dream fades quickly. No one really hides treasure for you to find, you realize. And if you try to hide it yourself, you’d already know where it was. If you’re lucky enough to have children to play with, making maps soon gets tedious. They’re either too easy or too hard, and either way, the TV always seems far more interesting to your erstwhile fellow explorers. Perhaps there’s a lesson there. Perhaps they know treasure hunting is hard work. Perhaps they’re the smart ones.

Nevertheless, if you’re like me, you’ve harbored a secret desire to revisit those piratical dreams, scouring the hidden places, Conrad’s white places on the map, to find the treasure only you know is there. If only someone would hide something and then provide a map.

Enter: geocaching.

The Invisible Thread
To the geocacher, the world you can see is just the beginning. A cache could be found in practically every thicket, behind every structure or even down the hall from your office. Their world is webbed with invisible threads, tying them to the caches they’ve found, the caches they’ve hidden for others to find and the one’s they’re sure are there but haven’t yet discovered.

In geocaching parlance, people who don’t geocache are called “muggles,” a reference from the Harry Potter novels to people who don’t use magic. It’s an apt allusion. The ability to walk into the woods and, in a matter of minutes, find a capsule no larger than your thumb must involve magic. And if you adhere to Clarke’s law that advanced technology effectively is magic, then geocachers, tracking hidden objects using satellite locators, really are wizards.

When I first heard about geocaching, I was a muggle. I didn’t want to be a muggle. I wanted to be a wizard. So I bought a hand-held GPS unit for just over $100, created an account at geocaching.com, entered my ZIP code, wrote down the coordinates of a few caches near my house and went caching. I figured, at the very least, I could increase my number to one. Worst case, I’d fail miserably, but still have an interesting story to tell.

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.

The “geo” in geocaching stands for geography and “cache” refers to the traditional practice of hiding containers filled with provisions and supplies in the wilderness. Hiding provisions in geocaches is heavily discouraged, however, lest your cache get eaten by a hungry bear. Animals, apparently, don’t respect the rules.

From geocaching.com:

The location of a cache demonstrates the founder’s skill and possibly even daring. A cache located on the side of a rocky cliff accessible only by rock climbing equipment may be hard to find. An underwater cache may only be accessed by scuba. Other caches may require long difficult hiking, orienteering, and special equipment to get to. Caches may be located in cities both above and below ground, inside and outside buildings.

The skillful placement of a small logbook in an urban environment may be quite challenging to find even with the accuracy of a GPS. That little logbook may have a hundred dollar bill in it or a map to greater treasure. It could even contain clues or riddles to solve that may lead to other caches. Rich people could have fun with their money by making lucrative caches that could be better than winning the lottery when you find it. Just hope that the person that found the cache just before you left a real big prize!

Prizes can be metaphorical, as in the thrill of finding the cache and signing the log, or tangible, like money. Some caches are smaller than pill bottles, containing only a piece of paper on which to put your name, telling the world you’re wizardly enough to find it. Others are big boxes full of toys. Take something, leave something. If you’re lucky, there’s money.

Often the thrill of caching boils down to finding a cleverly placed cache in a place you would have never expected to look and realizing someone has been there before you, was thinking about you and left something. Like finding a note in a bottle, or a message from Boo Radley in the old tree. When you look at the log and realize someone else found the cache before you, last month, last week or yesterday, you feel as if you’re not alone. You see the invisible threads.

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Take something, leave something. Sometimes, all you take is a warm lump in your throat and what you leave is your mark.

“X” Marks The Spot
The cats continue their meal, but keep half an ear cocked in my direction – in case I do expire. My companion helps me to my feet, and we move on. After another dead end, I track the coordinates to an open space and start looking around for the cache. It’s not there. Nothing’s there, in fact. I ponder going home. Being a wizard might be too hard for me.

When I say “open space,” I mean “open space.” I’m standing in the middle of an empty parking lot, and as far as I can tell, there’s nowhere a cache could be hidden. Just a few metal lampposts and an old cargo truck. I check the truck, even though it’s silly. (Cars make bad hiding spots. Cars move.) My companion thrashes the shrubbery around the lot, even though the GPS says they’re 100 feet off the mark. She finds nothing. I check the coordinates again, but they’re right, I’m reading them right and we’re right where we need to be. But the cache isn’t. I’m tired, dirty, hobbled and frustrated, I decide to call it quits and walk back to the car.

My companion urges me on. She asks me where the GPS says we should be, and I point her to the exact parking space where it zeros out, right next to a lamppost. She walks, and, shamed, I follow. But still, there’s nothing there. I lean against the lamp post and something moves. Something’s loose in the base of the seemingly solid piece of metal. I pull at it and it lifts up, revealing the cache. Whoever hid it there was a mad genius.

When I return to the website I find that half a dozen people tried to find this cache and failed. I am not among them. I’m now a wizard.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.

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