This will come as no surprise to those who know me, but I have an obsessive personality. When I find something new to like, I like it with the mad, passionate intensity of a bullet train on a no-stop run across the Iowa flatlands. Everything else becomes scenery, a passing blur on the sidelines of a single-minded pursuit. Scrapbooking, computer gaming, blogging (not to mention a rather embarrassing brief love affair with X-Files fanfiction which I will not go into here)—in every case, a casual toe dipped into the water gave way to a full body plunge of thought and resources.
I haven’t been around for a while. You see, a new obsession has me in its grip. It has me scrambling over muddy embankments and poking my fingers into places I wouldn’t normally think to poke them. It has me climbing trees, scaling fences, peering under park benches, and digging around under fallen logs in search of elusive treasure. It has drawn me out from behind my computer and into explorations of unfamiliar woodlands and countryside, eyes open—as if for the first time—to all the amazing detail of the world around me.
The obsession?: Geocaching.
And it all started with a new toy.
Simply stated, geocaching is a sport that marries technology and nature. Individuals and organizations hide caches all over the world and share the locations of these caches on the internet. GPS owners can then use the latitude and longitude coordinates to find the caches. A cache is a weather-resistant container that holds, at the very least, a logbook for successful seekers to sign. Often it also contains small trinkets and prizes, known as swag, for geocachers to trade. If you take something from the cache, caching courtesy dictates that you put in something of equal or greater value. Common “treasures” include small toys, decks of cards, magnets, keychains, and dollar store finds, to name a few things. Many geocachers trade signature items, such as poker chips or buttons emblazoned with their geocaching nickname, which make great collectibles for the hardcore geocaching crowd.
I first read about geocaching in an online technical article and thought immediately of my dad, who had traveled across the country on his motorcycle using his GPSr to navigate. I emailed him a link for the website and forgot about it until he called me one Saturday a few weeks later.
“Guess what your mom and I are doing!” he challenged when I answered the phone. “I’m scared to guess,” I joked. “We’re geocaching!” he exclaimed, the excitement in his voice carrying easily across the phone lines. It was clear that they were hooked. And, as any obsessive personality can tell you, phase two of a growing obsession is all about spreading the fever to others.
A few days after Christmas, new toy in hand, we accompanied my dad on a hunt and he inducted us into the ranks of official geocachers. We found six caches that day, several of which required considerable hiking to discover. I can’t describe the elation and accomplishment I felt when we spotted our very first cache, a camoflaged army surplus ammo box, stuffed into a hollow amidst the roots of an overturned tree. We posed for proud photos of us holding the cache and sifting through the prizes inside. One surprising find that day was on the back side of a fence encircling the parking lot of a convenience store. It was a “microcache”, a tiny cache (in this case, an Altoids tin with a magnet on the back, although we’ve found other micros in 35mm film canisters or prescription pill bottles) with only a log to sign and no goodies to trade. Microcaches are common in urban areas, where concealing a larger cache would be impossible. Other cache types are multi-caches, which require you to go from cache to cache getting clues for the coordinates of the final big geocache, and puzzle caches, which ask the seeker to solve a riddle or puzzle in order to figure out the location of the cache.
The anticipation of the hunt, the exhilaration of discovery–it’s a heady brew. By the time I stepped off the plane back in Spokane, I was fully infected with the geocaching bug. It has rained every day since we returned, but neither rain, nor sleet, nor dead of night can stop a truly obsessed geocacher. I feel like I’m aware of my surroundings on a whole new level, and my appreciation for the beautiful places all around me has intensified. Also, I have to confess, there’s a certain exciting Mission: Impossible feel to all the sneaking around and deciphering clues to find the treasure. Geocachers try hard to be discreet when on the hunt, to avoid arousing the suspicions of nearby “muggles” (a name borrowed from Harry Potter books and used to refer to non-geocachers.) Part of the fun is making sure that the fun can continue for other people.
So there you have it. Geocaching is good exercise, it stretches your brain, and—once you’ve made the initial investment on the GPS unit—it’s practically free fun for one person, a couple, or the whole family.
Just don’t get arrested.