“That just sounds like organized littering” is the response my wife gave when I was trying to explain the ins and outs of a newfound hobby, geocaching.
She’s right. At the base level, at least.
From the outside, these caches are little more than small collections of meaningless junk that get stowed under park benches and in light poles and inside hollowed out logs, in tupperware and old prescription bottles and Altoids tins. But packed with stickers or dollar-store toys or sometimes, nothing at all but a log sheet to sign, these little treasures are part of a world-wide scavenger hunt thats been running since 2,000, which is when technology finally allowed regular people access to GPS. The found knicknacks are part of the games honor system: if you take something, you’re supposed to leave something at least as good, but preferably better.
Up to a few weeks ago, I had only ever been geocaching once before, with a coworker while at a conference in San Francisco. Wandering back to our hotel from the day’s event, he asked if I minded if we find a nearby cache and since I had no idea what was involved, I agreed, and he fired up the app on his phone and we went hunting.
We found three caches that night, one behind a loose brick in a wall, one near a statue on the pier, and one in a magnetized Altoids tin stuck to the bottom of a sculpture.
Even after what one could consider a successful night, I can’t say I was really even interested in it. It seemed like a good way to get lost, or go searching for something you may not want to find. Growing up with a family involved in the legal system, I could easily envision some miscreant planting a cache and then doing harm to those who go looking for it.
Fast forward a few years to a month ago when I was having lunch with another coworker who was fairly heavily-involved with the game, and he asked the same question: want to go try a nearby cache? It was sprinkling out, which we don’t get much of in Phoenix, so I was all for staying outside and away from the office.
Following the GPS in his geocaching app, we wandered into a courtyard in a nearby office complex and read the tip again: “Look for ‘wet kryptonite,’ Superman probably wouldn’t venture this close.”
Expecting more of a challenge on the “wet kryptonite” part, since the everything was already wet, but the giant crystalline fountain with the green patina was easy to spot. The tricky part, was, in fact, searching the fountain without being spotted by the others in the courtyard who *weren’t* searching the fountain, but just trying to eat their lunch or have a smoke outside and stay dry.
It was at this moment I was told that we need to be careful about being spotted by the “Muggles,” or the normal people who were not in the game. The term Muggles was given to the regular people in the Harry Potter series – the unenlightened ones without any special magical powers.
I admit, at this point, my interest in this as an activity really took a hit, as I wanted nothing to do with a Harry Potter-themed hobby.
Unable to find anything in or near the fountain without drawing too much attention to ourselves, we decided to take a second and direct our attention somewhere other than the fountain, and seek shelter from the drizzle. Standing under a nearby tree, we scanned the courtyard, looking for anything that didn’t belong, other than ourselves, obviously.
When we entered the courtyard, I was immediately drawn to a big metal staircase, and directed my search there. My thought was, if there’s a better than normal chance that the cache (keeping in mind we still don’t know what we’re looking for) was affixed to its location with a magnet, a steel staircase would be a pretty good place to start looking.
It was then that I noticed something out of place…or rather, out of position. Paying closer attention to the lighting on the stairs, I noticed that only one of the lamps on our side of the staircase had a ballast that went through the I-beam. Thinking that was odd, I told my friend about the find. He went up the stairs, and as subtly as he could, reached around the beam and pulled the cache down.
This particular tin was very small, about two inches around, and maybe only an inch deep, but it was packed with pieces of paper, stickers, small maps and notes. Borrowing my pen to sign the log, my friend then had to figure out a way to get the cache back into the hidden-in-plain-sight location, and then we escaped the courtyard without being suspicous enough to have the police called on us.
Geocaching in Arizona
I certainly haven’t become a hardcore geocacher, but having found about 20 items on my own I do enjoy it. Once it gets cooler in Phoenix I could envision going on some more of the hunts. It’s a fun way to get some relatively low-impact excercise, as most of the caches are more easily accessible on foot or by bicycle, and, for the most part, free. The trade-equal/trade-up aspect is purely voluntary, as most of the interaction happens online. You find the cache on your own, sign the phyiscal log in the cache, and then log the find in the app on your phone or on your account.
The amount of effort those who hide the caches put in to make sure they don’t get accidentally found (Muggled) is, in some cases, amazing. I’ve found caches smaller than a dime J.B. Welded to the back of a rock that barely have room for the shred of paper that serves as the log, to ceramic lawn decorations, fake spare key rocks, and even a small cache in a fake asparagus stalk. By far, most of the caches are magnetized key holders or small tupperware containers, favored for being strong and waterproof. Geocaching in Arizona seems to be an exercise in durability.
The fun part of this game, for me, is that it forces you to look, to really look, at your surroundings. A lamp post doesn’t just hold up the light, a bus stop could hold more than just a place to sit, and that road sign can be doing more than directing drivers to a turn lane. In this case, the journey really is more important than the destination. And I finally found something I can do with some of those old MicroMachines that are still on my bookcase.