The Shadowy Subculture Of Geocaching

Shadowy-Subculture-Of-Geocaching

She lures me into an HH Gregg parking lot on the outskirts of town, with no mention of intent or what lies ahead. Frantically consulting a GPS device on her phone, she directs me to turn this way and that, as I progressively slow further and further down and she pinpoints our mysterious destination, apparently, to a single parking space behind the store. Before I’ve even had time to shut the engine off, she is out of the car and frantically running her hands along the backside of a guardrail separating us from this giant ravine.

And this, friends and neighbors, is my introduction into the shadowy subculture of geocaching.

Newly initiated but a quick study of the pastime herself, my wife, Erin, gives me a rapid-fire rundown as I assist in her search. The heady buzz of having descrambled a clue for her has already made me a receptive audience – the hint was “cintagem,” which I somehow instantly converted into “magnetic” – and eager to learn more. People the world over, it seems, are stashing tiny little boxes with a rolled up log sheet and a pen, leaving clues online and coordinates as to its whereabouts. Many of these containers contain little trinkets that past explorers have left behind, and the rules of the game are that you can leave one yourself, take one as a souvenir, or even move one onto the next location and post online where it has been. All fascinating, fascinating stuff, and the thought running through my head while we’re doing this is: how have I not heard of geocaching before?

As it turns out, we can indirectly thank President Clinton for this. Until May 1, 2000, GPS coordinates were considered classified information, blocked from civilians by the US Department of Defense. On that date, he announced that the scramblers would be shut off, and two days later the first geocache was laid. Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon, is considered the game’s Abner Doubleday – or make that its James Naismith, as his invention has never been in doubt – setting that initial treasure into place and posting its coordinates online. A man named Mike Teague becomes its Sir Edmund Hillary, then, by extension, the first person to find it, and 2 million active geocaches later, here we are.

But many of you must be asking, what is a geocache? The best I have managed, in describing it to the uninitiated, is equating it to a digital scavenger hunt. Ullmer’s initial stash was a buried bucket filled with computer games, books, coins, a slingshot, and other random junk, yet I’m not sure that even a pilgrimage to this virtual Bethlehem (now designated with an Original Stash Tribute Plaque, as his historic black bucket is long since history) would necessarily fill in the blanks.

What’s the point? is the general skeptic’s cry, and to that I have no answer. You go online to one of the prominent geocaching sites, you find your current GPS coordinates. They reveal some vague clues about tiny plastic containers which are hidden in your vicinity, and your mission now becomes to find them without attracting the attention of or being noticed by the casual passerby. Simple enough. These containers you are seeking are mostly small, by necessity waterproof, and without question camouflaged in some fashion. At the very least, you sign your name on a scroll rolled up within the container – because otherwise, I agree, there is no point – and add another tally mark to your online alter ego’s running total.

Such are the basics, but, given the human capacity for endless invention – hinted at too by what Ullmer had in mind with his debut treasure – it was inevitable that variations and additions to the official rules would soon take root. A good half of the caches we have found are large enough to contain an assortment of bizarre yet essentially worthless trinkets, tradition being that you will take one item yourself, but only if leaving something of equal or greater value. One of my first logs, for instance, was underneath a foot bridge in the heart of Asheville, and I came away with someone’s white ribbon for finishing 3rd in a long ago swim meet; I don’t remember what we left, but it seems it might have been a sticker. Behind a car wash in Mooresville, after crawling through some thorny bushes – and being spotted by a fellow gamer, spraying off his truck, who knew what we were up to and signed the scroll himself – we came away with Jon Bon Jovi’s Blaze Of Glory CD, traded out for a disc of my home recordings. Fair enough, I say.

Other advancements over time have brought the inclusion of trackable objects, which is a terrific idea, but also virtual caches, an irredeemably dumb one. With virtual caches, there is nothing to find, the requirement is that you will find the GPS coordinates, then text the person who initially placed the cache with some sort of clue that proves you were there – call me a technophobe, but this smacks to me of trying too hard to give that which doesn’t need improving a hypermodern twist. On the flipside of the souvenir coin, trackables are tiny registered objects (often referred to as “hitchhikers”) which are placed pursuant of a specific purpose, for example, that whoever put it there wants it to end up in a particular country, to race another object to one particular cache a few states away, or some other goal along these lines. So your job is to scoop it up, log that item, and move it a little further along its route, dropping it at the next appropriate cache you find.

Multicaches ratchet the excitement up a notch or two. My wife and I spent an afternoon chasing one such find around Lake Norman State Park, all 1300 plus acres of it, an odyssey that involves being given only the beginning GPS coordinate for a whole series of them, as you are expected to piece together some clue that will lead you to the next, and the next, and the next, your prize of the log book and whatever other little treasures may await lying ahead somewhere at the final stage. Of course, a primary hazard that potentially looms before any intrepid geocacher, the fruitless quest toward a bounty that has been misplaced or stolen – to quote insiders’ jargon, the item has been “muggled” – becomes all the more painful should it occur at the end of a multicache as opposed to the more traditional. Though this fate fortunately did not befall us that day at Lake Norman, it is going to occur from time to time, which is why any seasoned veteran would recommend checking the date an object was last found before you disembark, and also why being surreptitious and aware of the casual onlooker is a must.

Which touches upon another finer point to be found with this sport, game, whatever you want to call it, the ability for aficionados to place caches themselves. Canisters, meant to be hidden in some capacity, range from, most commonly, vitamin bottles wrapped in camouflage, to more ambitious offerings such as the giant metal ammunition tub we found at one location. You might be surprised to learn that at virtually every Cracker Barrel restaurant in America, there is a magnetic key holder clipped outside the building with one of these trademark scrolls inside (note: places of business, in particular gigantic corporate conglomerations, tend to frown upon the presence of these, especially the already much reviled Wal-Mart). If you were to take a gander at one of the many websites specializing in geocache containers, you would encounter other like the assortment of fake rocks to be placed upon a forest floor, or a hollowed out bolt to shove inside some post, which further up the ante in making the hunter’s job all the more challenging. My wife and I, for instance, searched an eternity in the park behind our house until discovering our cash was hidden inside a phony piece of cork that had been jammed seamlessly into a fallen log. At the ridiculous end of the other extreme, there’s a jeep in the woods behind PNC Arena in Raleigh – where the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team plays – which is the geocache, and typically piled up with a mountain of goodies, there’s one you can scuba dive down to at the bottom of Lake Norman, even a cache hidden in Antarctica.

As perhaps best illustrated by that jeep in Raleigh, though, I do have concerns about what impact our pastime is having on the environment. Though in general I would consider this a perfectly harmless activity, and we even recently introduced our six year old daughter to this highly amusing diversion, and, true, that disabled vehicle had been deteriorating in the woods for eons before geocachers claimed it, to traipse through a forest behind the Iredell County History Museum, citing one actual experience of ours, through areas that ostensibly should appear undisturbed by man, it’s often disconcerting to find a Hansel and Gretel-esque trail of Mountain Dew cans and potato chip bags leading the way. But sadly enough, you could never encourage people to spend more time outdoors in any capacity without this being the case.

Some states such as South Carolina an Virginia have already introduced measures limiting or outlawing geocache activities. Law enforcement officials probably wish the fad would die off completely, for the canisters are occasionally mistaken, which the hilarious-in-retrospect evacuation of Disneyland has demonstrated, as explosive devices. I fear the noose may tighten further with heightened visibility (though initially attempting to maintain a wall of secrecy most sites now allow you to sync your finds with a Facebook profile), and wholeheartedly stand behind the “earth caching” or “Cache-In-Trash-Out” movements which encourage participants to clear up some litter, hopefully performing a little public relations repair in the process. It also happens to be a completely free activity, a not insignificant draw in these cash strapped times.

On balance, I would say that any activity which pulls us off our couches without harming anyone else is probably a good thing – get some fresh air, a little exercise, see parts of even our own hometowns that we otherwise wouldn’t. Just use your head out there, don’t throw candy wrappers or beer cans around, and circle the block once or twice, maybe, if you see any cops. And if you happen to bump into the knowing soul who indicates with a wink that he’s hip, just tell him “TFTC,” that you haven’t caught any “traveling bugs,” and that “xtforce” sent you.

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