Stationary Objects

I was stopped not so long ago for the 5th time in the past 9 months by a cop in the greater Charlotte region. In each instance I sit behind the wheel accused of an identical crime, this being – scofflaws and hooligans beware! – the unholy, unimaginably heinous act of…driving around with a Stationary Object In Violation Of The Law.

To put this into context, let me explain that I am talking about a motor vehicle violation. Four of these five stops have resulted in my being issued a ticket in the amount of $215 apiece. But I haven’t suffered a speeding ticket in 18 years of driving, and no DUIs, no other offenses outside of one debatable at fault accident in 2000. A couple minor mixups involving the current insurance laws. That’s it. Yet this driving around with a Stationary Object In Violation Of The Law, now, this is some serious business.

So what am I talking about, specifically? This would be the matter of the all-important Vehicle Registration. Yes. In this state, the Vehicle Registration is tied in with the Yearly Inspection, the dog and pony show that has determined, thanks to some mysterious, faulty switch in my car’s mainframe for a year and a half now, that my Check Engine light will randomly flash on, though I can’t establish why, and therefore I am to be denied passing the Yearly Inspection.

Never mind that I have receipts from three different mechanics who can’t quite figure out what’s going on, here. It might possibly be related to a computer chip known as the Powertrain Control Module, but even they couldn’t guarantee shelling out $1500 for the chip would solve this problem. Never mind that I, living in central Iredell County, have been driving to downtown Charlotte for work five days a week for almost two years now with this infernal Check Engine light on, though it doesn’t seem to affect the operation of said vehicle in any measurable way, shape, or form. The car that is functioning fine otherwise, aside from this annoying orange light and the matter of the $215 tickets.

My objections to this nonsense flow out in two primary directions. The first of these is the one most folks would probably latch onto immediately, that being the fact that I hardly ever see anyone being pulled over in the Charlotte region for any reason whatsoever. I actually sent a “tip” to the police department’s website shortly before this began that they could sit and nail people all day long doing a good 20 MPH above the speed limit on I-77 northbound between exits 19 and 28, netting enough speeding tickets in a month to pay an officer’s yearly salary. But in the past 9 months, the only person I’ve seen pulled over along this stretch, despite driving amongst countless idiots who’ve ridden bumpers at 90 and executed triple double lane changes back and forth, from left lanes over the exit ramp and back again, all in the space of a quarter mile…has been me, for the unthinkable act of this expired registration.

Which brings us to the second point. I refuse to believe, until confronted with evidence otherwise, that even the most out of control driver in Charlotte has been issued 4 tickets in the last 9 months. Where are you, sir, and if you exist, could you please step forward? I would be highly charitable to describe the average driver in this region as anything above extremely bad, but the police never seem to pull anyone over. So what are we really talking about? Why has this Expired Registration attracted so much attention, more by far than your garden variety, doing 90 in a 65 speeder?

The reason is, on the surface, that this is a Stationary Object. We can all appreciate the thought process here: “durp? Merp! A merp durp durp!” And by now everyone has seen that guy making the talk show rounds, turned down for the police department as a result of scoring too highly on his IQ test. But these considerations are by and large not even what I’m talking about. Common sense would, after all, seem to indicate you’re much more likely to stumble across a broken window than to witness someone breaking it. No, the real issue at hand is a philosophical one.

We have now reached a point where your average trooper doesn’t care about some jackass zipping past him doing 80 in a 65. These same dudes who are pulling me over for expired registration were, chances are, sitting right there observing as countless impatient morons flew by, and didn’t consider it a big deal. Might even go as far as to say that hassling a fellow over a little excessive throttle is akin to nitpicking, almost like a nagging mother and therefore nothing with which any self-respecting officer would concern himself. Whereas, see, once you get into a past due registration, now you’re talking about a blatant disregard for official government paperwork, son.

As a society, we’ve reached the point where certain hot button topics closely resemble emoticons, or cave paintings or totem carvings, in that they have become such weighted symbols, that their simple appearance extends hysteria far beyond the ground that any rational discussion could cover. You’re probably never going to see a campaign for Drinker’s Rights gain much traction, or the raising of the legal blood alcohol level anytime soon, and this is surely all for the best; but at the same time, I don’t get why that topic induces such frothing at the mouth, even if the perpetrator in question is ten miles from the nearest vehicle (or on a tractor, or bicycle, or in the drive thru at McDonald’s) to the extent he’s incurring massive fines and jail time and his life is basically ruined before he’s technically caused any harm to anyone…and yet any nimrod can weave in and out of lanes at breakneck speeds, riding everyone’s ass, slamming his brakes when an abrupt course shift requires it, flying up exit ramps with an eye to divebombing back into the general population, but the worst he is ever going to acquire is a figurative slap on the wrist and tiny fine. It’s because no one has conjured a catchphrase to describe this phenomenon, no zealot has stepped forth to create a movement. So nothing happens to him until after he causes the 12 car pileup. But of course by then he and everyone else affected would be a Stationary Object.

We get so numb that we fail to even stop and consider what these nuances even mean anymore, or feel helpless to combat them when we do. What is a car registration, anyway? What purpose does this serve, apart from lining the DMV’s coffers? The license plate announces to the world specifically which vehicle you are driving, and the VIN is there if the need arises to dig a little deeper. Anyone with the power to run your plates, safe to say, can pull up any and all relevant information right along with it. A valid driver’s license indicates that I am personally fit and entitled to be behind the wheel. In many states, this one included, you are required to have your car inspected on a yearly basis (another fee, of course) in order to certify it is road ready, and to top it off we here in the Carolinas also must cough up an annual sales tax, on our paid off jalopies of decreasing value. Still we wander like zombies to the bureau’s window, or click buttons in a stupor online, and fork over our hard earned cash for The Registration, a ceremony replete with flags and a brass section. Nothing must trump The Registration, even if those entrusted with protecting and serving us are the only ones capable of grasping the true significance of The Registration, an arcane tradition far beyond the understanding of us simple folk.

If only we private citizens – the ones allegedly in charge, ha – were able to return the favor for traffic related Stationary Objects that we found unacceptable, to set tickets floating upstream, so to speak, in a two way torrent. One recent trip from Charlotte to Asheville was especially maddening, though illustrating in perfect fully rounded fashion much of what I mean. I’m already resigned long past the point of railing against the traffic situation around Charlotte itself (shorthand version: jackass mayor pushes a pointless downtown trolley through that nobody else wants, citing a “budget surplus,” earns himself a pretty hysterical Secretary of Transportation appointment for the one thing at which he was absolutely the least qualified; trolley naturally runs over budget, as lawmakers now cite a “budget deficit” for actual roads that people use, and approve toll lanes to pay for these; meanwhile gridlock appears more atrocious by the day), yet the drive beyond this point represents a flawless microcosm for all that we find maddening.

Even allowing for the inevitable afternoon crash that had traffic plugged up for ten miles along I-85 (surely caused by one of those lane weaving numbskulls inspired by having read How To Drive Like An Impatient A-Hole and Arrive at the Same Time Anyway shortly before taking the wheel) and forced a diversion to some state route, my trusty little map app was still touting an arrival time three hours distant, and yet it still took almost five. Much of this was due to a puzzling stretch along the mountainous wilderness of I-26, where we are first treated to a single digital sign bearing the legend CONGESTN AHEAD, and nothing more, as traffic creeps to a virtual standstill. An hour later we are still wondering what this is all about, in the absence of any additional explanation. Finally, within eyesight of a spot where the interstate closes down to a single lane, there is at last one orange sign with the familiar wordless image advising us of such, the two black squiggles of a straight line, then another curved one merging in its direction.

Would it not have made much more sense, considering that there is apparently no budget for further signage, to switch the two existent ones? And can we not collectively fine whoever is in charge of this idiocy?

But I believe I glimpse the root problem, and can offer a simple solution before the dialectic devolves into a riot. The only reasonable explanation is that whomever is responsible for these decisions must not be a motorist him or herself. Nothing else makes sense. And so perhaps we should appoint fellow drivers, people who have actually been behind the wheel of an automobile, to posts requiring these monumental verdicts. If doubting these claims, consider this beauty of a sequence as we approach Asheville:

 

  1. Sign posted that “Max Safe Speed” is 50 MPH
  2. A couple of those orange signs with squiggly lines indicating that the lanes are about to zigzag.
  3. The first definitive sign announcing that we are nearing interstate 40…in half a mile
  4. Followed by a sign explaining that interstate 40 westbound was in fact to be accessed via the left hand lane.

 

As any motorist can plainly see, massive brake slams soon ruled this region. Bebopping clowns with no regard for any of these advisories may have in fact skated through better than any of us, well versed in these antics. If you did happen to induce a fatal collision, though, well then naturally this would have been your fault, and not that of those posting such stupid Stationary Objects. But even if guilty of such, be glad you weren’t doing 7 MPH drunk on a riding lawnmower along the shoulder…or driving around with The Registration out of date, in which case you’d have some serious infractions for which you must atone.

 

 

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That Which Is Much Less Exciting Than It Appears To Be

Our reactions to various stimuli are often difficult to explain, whether in scientific or layman’s terms. Nonetheless, a few key phrases, or even solitary words, have been drilled into our heads with sufficient regularity over the years to bring a near universal smile to our collective faces. So much so that we seldom examine any of them; if asked, you would probably give each a kneejerk thumbs up without a second thought. But while all of the following are probably good things (as opposed to bad things, to paraphrase Harvey Keitel’s character in Reservoir Dogs), I would argue none of them are ever great things, as counterintuitive a point as this may seem.

1. Class Action Lawsuits

We’ve all received a few of these letters over the years. Stating that a major corporation with which we formerly did business was found guilty of some offense that had completely escaped us, and that as a result, the 12 people on the planet that this applies to, of which you are one, are entitled to split up a $79 billion prize pool. No action is required. Eight years later, you receive a check for $63. Possibly with one free credit report score thrown in for good measure.

2. Guacamole

And the intense expression of a guacamole enthusiast is not exactly foreign to us, either. While a few years ago I did actually experience an epiphany related to this topic, when it occurred to me that I don’t hate guacamole, but I don’t love it, either, yet kind of generally assumed that I did, primarily because a highly vocal segment of the population won’t shut up about it, the major strikes against guacamole are that it possesses a forceful, distinctive flavor which is nonetheless actually quite bland when you really think about it – regardless of how the recipe is doctored.

Just don’t waste your time getting into this discussion with a hardcore aficionado, particularly one who has made the guacamole. I can speak from a recent experience, sighing with exasperation when pressed to sample some, telling its creator, “everyone always raves about their own guacamole, but it always tastes…exact…ly…the…same….”

“No dude, trust me, I dumped a cement mixer full of ghost peppers into this batch, it’s spicy!” he replied, or something to that effect, for this is always the reply, a blank check of a line you will hear every time, the assurance that, no dude, they added ______ and therefore the recipe is _____ beyond compare.

Followed by that person making the intense, guacamole-sharing face, as you try it, you know the one, where the eyebrows are raised, and pupils on the brink of popping out of socket, an insistent anxious nod accompanied by a broad smile.

Followed by me shrugging and reiterating, again, that I don’t know what to tell you. It tastes like guacamole.

3. Aphrodisiacs

I chalk this one up to a type of attribution error. Someone got laid, a miracle in itself, and then in retracing every moment of his/her day leading up to the statistically improbable deed, became convinced that this tiny little prop plied upon the date in question was responsible for the entire wild conquest. I’ve heard this kind of thinking referred to as McDonald’s Logic in some circles: whatever theory it is you’re trying to promote, if you polled all of your test subjects in the survey group, chances are a high percentage of them have eaten at McDonald’s. Therefore, you could easily argue  that eating at McDonald’s is the reason event happened (or shopping at Walmart, or driving a car, or watching tv, or any other extremely popular phenomenon). Sheer nonsense.

What set me off on this train of thought was having a very attractive girl at work the other day tell me with total adamant sincerity that mustard is a well known aphrodisiac. Mustard! No person in the entire history of humankind has ever had sex as a result of mustard. Or chocolate. Or oysters. Or strawberries. Just give it a rest, people. It either is or isn’t going to happen for you. Alcohol might work, although I don’t think this really counts. Not the way that mustard purportedly does.

4. Cruise Control

If you’re driving the wilds of Montana at 2 in the morning on a Wednesday, I have no doubt that cruise control might seem like a nifty invention. For the rest of us, however, not so much.

My wife and I recently experienced a ten hour drive from New York City to the tepid heart of North Carolina on a sunny, non-holiday Sunday early morning to late afternoon. This trek is interesting in that you cruise through 7 different states in a relatively short time frame, covering every demographic range from Amish looking back country to major thoroughfares. Regardless of the particulars, however, despite being bumper to bumper at no point beyond NYC, my rubber stamp on this trip would conclude what I’ve long felt, that cruise control is essentially a complete waste of time.

You dive into this enterprise with such lofty expectations. Things are going to open up in the wilderness, you can then punch in a speed about 5 MPH above the posted limit and mindlessly zip along. The only problem with this scenario is that much of the interstate system is still 2 laned, which translates as either being stuck in the right hand one, slogging along at 55 or worse behind a semi, or in the left, having some nimrod inches from your tail no matter how fast you are going, making seizure inspired faces as if you are doing something wrong. So the dance becomes getting out of their way, and gliding over to the right hand lane, letting a long stream of cars pass you, then flooring your gas pedal as you boldly reenter the left until the next idiot is on your bumper and you pass the following 18 wheeler, repeat this process anew. The addition of extra lanes in the middle does little to alleviate this situation, too, because the bebopping maniacs seem to regard these as their personal passing channels, become highly impatient and irate if you are clogging these up anywhere shy of the speed of sound.

On a side note, this is why I’m highly skeptical of reports about robotically controlled cars becoming the next hot fad. People in general are far too impatient to give up that control, settle on a fixed speed, and are visibly getting worse by the day.

5. North Carolina Wines

Okay, this might be stretching things a bit. I’ve actually never heard anyone say anything nice about a single North Carolina wine, outside of persons selling said wine. But there are a ton of these wineries around, and a number of them have been in business for decades, which would imply that somebody is buying these varietals. I guess what I’m really hoping for is that an NC winery owner will view this and suffer a serious rethink, or that a traveler revises the ol’ tour itinerary as a result. Do be afraid. Yes, you will most likely find the beverage drinkable. No, you will probably not be raving about the experience in retrospect – and it has nothing to do with hangovers, I’m talking pure flavor, here.

Traffic Curiosities

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Stop-Sign-In-Middle-Of-Street

Statesville, NC’s infamous stop sign that is nowhere near an intersection

It occurred to me recently, while driving,  that there are a number of peculiarities you see pretty much every day – often more than once – without ever paying much attention to them. Most of these are neither as dangerous nor annoying as the standard grievances everyone complains about, the rubbernecking, tailgating, and texting. But because we file these away without a thought, when you actually stop to examine them, they seem all the more bizarre:

1. The Right Angled Left Turn

This head scratcher makes the top of the list due to its prevalence. Chances are the next time you happen to be sitting in a left hand turn lane, you’re going to have front row seats for this wondrous phenomenon. Even better, if you occupy the second car in this lane, you’re going to get to experience it first hand – the driver ahead of you, feeling as if he is accomplishing something major, inches a little further out into the middle of the intersection with every oncoming vehicle, impatiently awaiting his golden opportunity to turn left. By the time this happens, he is making a 90 degree turn, and meanwhile you, though in theory behind him, are casually cutting your own arc…but have to stop and wait for him, ostensibly the “lead” car, to catch up to you.

2. Brakeslam                  Turn Signal

I know I know I know – it’s been a long time since you took driver’s ed. But if you can, try to cast your mind back to that misty epoch and recall the various reasons, you were taught, a responsible driver might use his or her turn signal. Handy if stopped at an intersection with no turn lane, to make those facing you on the other side aware of your intentions, sure; a great idea when approaching a turn, so that those behind you have time to prepare, definitely; but not, I repeat not, worth much in this situation after you have already slammed on your freaking brakes. At this point, there’s no need to bother. You have already announced to the world you have some serious mental defects, and none of us particularly care how or why this came to be. It’s the equivalent of standing on a tall hill with a megaphone and shouting, “I’M A MORON! I’M A MORON!” over and over again, but waiting until the entire 7 billion or so citizens of the planet are gathered below you before elaborating.

3. Yield Sign Red Light Combo

Maybe it’s a local thing, but I swear that, while nowhere near as odd as my hometown’s infamous stop-sign-nowhere-near-an-intersection (see above), during my daily commute there are something like four or five spots that feature both a yield sign and a traffic light. What is the intended purpose of this peculiar combination? Do I have a green light or don’t I? If it’s red, wouldn’t that imply I can either come to a complete stop and then turn right, or sit and wait if needing to continue driving straight? What about when the light is yellow? Doesn’t this mean the exact same thing as a yield sign? Or is it meant to reinforce the yellow? Is there an epidemic dietary deficiency in this locale causing people to turn a blind eye to this particular shade?

4. The Impatient Slowpoke

I considered leaving this one off the list because, as we were going to press here, a sudden revelation struck me, causing me to see this spectacle in a brand new light. I think I get it now. By this I am speaking of the daily irritation whereby this dude insists upon whipping right out into a pinhole sized opening directly in front of you…and then puttering along subsequently a good ten miles an hour below the speed limit. See, the deal with this is, they didn’t actually whip out in front of you, it only appears as such. In reality, this person has spent a good twenty minutes struggling to make it through this one turn. Nonetheless, though I now consider this mystery solved, it’s of such epic aggravation that I had felt it required inclusion.

5. Unnecessary Lane Changer Man

Similar to point number 2, the last minute brakeslam of death, this one I suppose is potentially dangerous, though far more often ends up being an exercise in extreme dorkiness. A good example is my drive to work last week where this dude flies onto the interstate via exit 19, sails past a number of us in the right hand lane, executes a triple lane change, zooms forward, then reverses course and breaks right back across the same three lanes…before getting off at exit 18…where he is the last car in a long line waiting at a red light when we all pass that exit. Perhaps he wishes to show of his car, maybe that’s the purpose. The only problem is, I couldn’t tell you the color of this vehicle now, much less the make and model. Certainly not the identity of the guy driving. Or if it even was a guy driving. And yet you see this sort of thing constantly.

Have Mercy, Baby, On A Poor Girl Like Steve

Classic rock is officially now boring. It probably has been for quite some time, yet it occurred to me today, while flipping the FM dial past a perfectly acceptable Van Halen track that I always would have settled upon before, that all surprises have been bled from this music. This isn’t to suggest that the Led Zeppelins and Pink Floyds aren’t still gods in my eyes, only that the days of listening to this music 24/7 are long gone – and that the songs I’ve always hated are all the more excruciating now (seriously, how is it that I still hear ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down every goddamn day? Are this many people burning up the radio station hotlines to request it? Really?).

But don’t despair. These thoughts reminded me of a number of diversions my colleagues and I have developed over the years to make such music much more interesting, or at the very least tolerable. If nothing else, the following should renew your appreciation for these dinosaurs ye have forsaken, and make the next cookout where someone is rockin’ these rad tunes an altogether different occasion:

1. Lovin’

This beauty was discovered purely by accident one afternoon whilst Matt and I were still employed as meat cutters, cranking these gems on a tinny transistor in the back room where we brandished knives. Bachman Turner Overdrive, possibly the worst band ever, was at that moment infesting our eardrums with You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, the absolute nadir of their putrid catalog. During one spot where Randy B is warbling about this mysterious concept of “lovin,” I instead blurt out, “…any pussy is good pussy, mmm hmm, woo hoo…” and just like that, a fresh new pastime is born.

For the rest of the day and many thereafter, we are obsessed with listening – not actively looking up online, say, which would be cheating – for any spot in any song where the word lovin’ is used as a noun. While when used as a verb, it doesn’t really make sense (think of the Scorps and Still Pussy You, for example), we discover countless examples where this simple switch fits perfectly and causes the song in question to shine with an altogether brighter light. It helps too, of course, that what these guys are actually singing about is pussy, not “lovin,” when you get right down to it.

Though many highlights are discovered, my personal two way tie for first place comes down to 38 Special lamenting “good pussy gone bad” and Huey Lewis boasting about “hot pussy every night.”

2. Crash

I can’t take credit for this gem. You need at least one great drinking game to go along with this music, and a long forgotten friend, some fifteen years ago, introduced the undisputed king into our lives one night while we were all knocking back sodas at a favorite neighborhood bar. The object is to take a drink of your beer every time a cymbal crash sounds out on the jukebox (or Muzak, or whatever happens to be playing), which seems much tamer in practice than it is in actuality. Somewhere around the 3rd or 4th song, let’s just say you start…questioning some things, to put it mildly. Particularly as, if your buddies are anything like mine, all parties involved are tripping over themselves to spin an ever more wicked cut.

Expert Tip: there is no more maniacal song to foist upon someone than CCR’s version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine. Don’t even bother searching for it. It doesn’t exist. For that reason alone, this game, while also known as Nice Job, Crash, it more commonly referred to as either Grapevine, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, or I’ll Bet You’re Wondering How I Knew ‘Bout Your Plans To Make Me Crash.

3. Moustaches Per Capita

More a companion piece ideal for when hanging out bored and/or half wasted, listening to classic rock while either everyone is huddled around a computer screen, trolling the internet, or sprawled around a couch, shouting out band names that one or more persons is pulling up on a smart phone. This baby in fact traces its roots yet again to a day on the job where Dan and I this time were flipping through some hilarious 1970s music guide, and he proposed we tried to figure out which group had a highest percentage of moustaches. Though it surely exists, in that particular book we found no evidence of a 100%, although the Doobs scored pretty damn high and helped us kill a good half hour.

4. Steve

Okay, one insight I’m taking away from writing this is that we clearly do more screwing around while on the job than I ever realized. But whatever the case, Steve, sort of the yin to Lovin’s yang, sits at the polar opposite from that particular pursuit, in that you will not be searching for opportunities to play; at some point, you will struggle in futility to shut down your mind from thinking about it.

Steve originated, once again in our meat cutting days, at the hands of this hapless idiot who manned the counter. He was never involved in the composition of these parodies, he was merely the subject. It began one day with Victor cranking up Pina Colada in the backroom and declaring, “…I was tired of my lady…so I went to Steve…,” which soon sparked a full blown phenomenon. Even our district merchandiser got in the mix. Unlike lovin, words that rhyme with Steve are found everywhere, and you soon discover that often merely the correct syllabic window allows you to make a make a perfectly hilarious and logical substitution.

Soon, the craze extends to all manner of song, not just classic rock. To cite some actual examples belted out over top of a buzzing bandsaw, Steve can magically transform Gary Puckett and the Union Gap into edgy performers again (“young Steve, get out of my mind….you’re much toooooooooooo young, Steve”), or make Lifehouse sound interesting and cryptic (“I can’t keep my eyes off of you…and Steve…and all other people…”), it can add another whole layer of sadness to Connie Francis’s ancient tearjerkers (“where the boys are…someone waits for Steve”). Occasionally, it can express a basic truism that perhaps we have not considered before, such as when Toto point out that Steve isn’t always on tieEEEahHAHAeeAYEEiHIhime.

Do with this information what you will. Perhaps reading this will spark up your own creative means for approaching these songs from a slightly different angle (such as my wife and I and our more scholarly – ahem – recent searches for tunes that include the word “perhaps,” without using it in the title. So Cake is eliminated, as far as we know, meaning thus far we’re stuck on Blues Traveler and the Thompson Twins). Now if someone could just figure out a way to make Bruce Springsteen palatable, we’d really be on a roll.

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.

Dynamite River

One summer our family piles into the car for an extended vacation with my Aunt Jackie and Uncle Rob, the most adventure seeking, outdoors oriented couple in our extended bloodline. Rob in particular is a complete maniac who, aside from more standard fare like taking us hiking up mountains, or boating and water skiing, had taught my brother and me how to snorkel dive – including a lesson on slipping underwater, that you block the tube with your tongue and then blow the water out upon surfacing – and the fine art of jumping from cliffs, though neither of us were as brave as the triple-backflip-from-thirty-feet-up type maneuvers that Rob routinely busted out.  He had also led all of us on a camping expedition deep into some native woods once, where our site was ravaged by bears in the middle of the night while we huddled inside our tents, listening with rapt attention, the adults occasionally risking a glance outside.

But by far the most notorious of our adventures with these two would be this hot August afternoon, when they decide to take us inner tubing down their favorite mountain river, a horseshoe shaped affair that ends not too far away from where it began. Jackie drops off five individuals and six tubes – the last having been saddled with a duct-taped cooler full of beer, stocked and modified by the two adult males in this party – as she then takes off in their SUV  to meet us at the rendezvous point. The sky is nearly cloudless and the water high, a perfect setting for this idyllic country ride.

You can probably guess what happens next. A freakish ocean of grey and then black sails into view overhead, blotting out the sun. A wind kicks up, the air perceptibly becomes much cooler and, worst of all, flashes of lightning and peals of thunder reveal themselves a little more closely than perhaps we would have preferred. Mom is freaking but Dad and Rob, who are both, it should be noted, pretty much half crocked at this point, remain nonplussed by this sudden rain and nature’s pyrotechnics. Later claiming they only said so to avoid a mass panic, these two are in fact telling us that in cases of lightning, “the water is the safest place to be.”

Mom isn’t buying this nonsense and climbs out of the river. She starts hopping alongside the bank barefoot, negotiating the rocks, briers, and general overgrowth which is, as a rule, not especially conducive to travelling sans shoes. Upon seeing this, I decide this seems like about the best idea  I have ever heard, and join her in navigating that shoreline. My little brother, meanwhile, appears torn, but apparently decides to trust that the men know what they’re talking about, and remains in the water with them.

After walking what feels like the distance of the Appalachian Trail and back, we eventually encounter a dilapidated shack of a house, where this disheveled old coot is sitting upon his back porch, which faces the water,  rocking in a chair. Frantic to exit this mountain pronto, we ask him if there’s any quicker way off of this river.

“Nooooooo,” he cackles, “not unless you got a stick a dyn-ee-mite!”

Needless to say, nobody thought to pack that in the cooler this morning. But just as suddenly as it blew in, the storm mysteriously passes, at last, without any casualties. By the time we arrive at the pick up spot to a waiting Jackie, the sky looks like it had when we first arrived, as though nothing ever happened – although we all have such a chill in our bones that upon arriving back at their house, we make Rob build a blazing fire just to dry us out.

Classic Stereotypes

Some of this seems like material a standup comedian might have covered at some point, and if so I apologize. I’m not trying to steal anyone’s observations here. But it recently occurred to me that there are certain patterns one runs into repeatedly out there in the retail universe, too many to dismiss as mere coincidence:

1. Express Checkout Line Cashier: is always slower than an IV drip of molasses. In fact, she would appear to be the slowest cashier on the floor – a real head scratcher, unless maybe the store manager figures to balance things out by putting faster cashiers on the longer lines. Actually, I suppose you couldn’t have the slowest cashiers on the normal lines, because that would be an ever bigger disaster. So this one sort of makes sense, except it completely defeats the purpose.

2. Guitar Store Employee: I won’t remark here on this demographic’s basic personality template (i.e. unrelenting smugness), but would like to take this opportunity to note their incredible telepathy. As in, how they always know what you really want, but – befitting their pomposity – will always do the complete opposite. If you’re just browsing, somehow you have 8 employees hovering over your every move; when you genuinely need something, however, you can’t find anyone.

3. Electronics Store Salesman: Completely incapable of muttering the phrase “I don’t know.” To do so sends them into serious convulsions. Instead, attempting to avoid this, they will recommend some weird and unnecessary piece of equipment with utter conviction, which you will take home and only then discover is of no use to you whatsoever. This subset would almost make sense, if such a stance were taken with sales commissions in mind. But their mental foibles extend to 99 cent fuses and $2.49 cords just as much as higher end items, plus you are going to turn right around and come back to speak with a more knowledgeable employee anyway, as you return the junk they sold you, which only makes them look all the more idiotic.

4. TV Weathermen: Always complete fruitcakes. Why? What is the connection? I must be missing something here.