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  • December 3rd, 2017


By Joel M. Vance

When I was wee a few years ago (okay, quite a few years ago) we played games like kick the can and hide and seek. Add a few years and we began to play games like hearts and cribbage. A few more years our game became canoodling in the family car with the playmates of yesteryear, although those of a different gender.
Now, a new game has entered the fray. Perhaps not as much fun as the hysteria of kick the can or canoodling but even so a game that has gripped the Intercontinental masses like nothing since the inexplicable mania for collecting pet rocks (if anyone still is interested in that phenomenon, I have 40 acres of prime material which anyone is welcome to, especially those rocks that infest my garden plot)
The new game is called geocaching, and those caught in the throes of it are as addicted as anyone entrapped by heroin or any other hard narcotic. Those most addicted to geocaching are every bit as helpless to kick the habit as someone strung out on speed. But, unlike crack cocaine, geocaching is good for you and may even lead to improved mental and physical health.
Our daughter, Carrie, a lovely lady of maturity, a retired high school English teacher, and a person of rare intelligence and the mother of two handsome grown boys, introduced me to geocaching, after which experience, and a couple of days of intensive recovery, mostly consisting of long naps and periods of incipient weeping, I resolved to, unless lashed with bull whips and barbed wire, leave geocaching as strictly alone as if it were a particularly venomous serpent.
Geocaching usually involves some physical exertion and Carrie raced into a lifelong fascination with fitness by such extreme avocations as marathon running. When I was young I used to run from our home in Mexico, Missouri, to my job at the Mexico Evening Ledger, almost always in the dark. I would speed through the nights like the god Mercury, past sleeping homes and shuttered businesses, arriving at my desk sweaty but fit. Now, I am elderly and the appeal of running distance or otherwise, has waned to the vanishing point.
My wife, Marty, and I have to take some responsibility for Carrie’s obsession with strenuous outdoor activity, including geocaching. When she was about a week old, during the worst snow winter we have had in modern times, we took her for a checkup, and Marty slipped getting out of the car and launched Carrie, swaddled in many layers of baby clothing, into a three-foot snowdrift. Whether this left some lasting impression on her barely formed psyche, is anyone’s guess, but since then she has been infatuated with the outdoors.
Geocaching is the electronic age’s answer to the use of maps which have been around for centuries. It took global positioning satellites to make the reading of maps obsolete and create geocaching. Once Magellan and them old guys looked at a map and said “I reckon we ought to go there.” Now folks peer nearsightedly at a miniscule screen on a handheld gadget that sometimes even talks to you. Magellan would have screamed in terror and thrown the device overboard and summoned an exorcist, not a bad idea.
The idea of geocaching is that someone hides an object, posts coordinates to it, and you use a handheld GPS, that gadget I spoke of, to find that hidden object. After which your reward is that you can leap in the air and shout Eureka! Or something equally silly, and brag to your friends and fellow cachers that you did it.
My history with maps is a checkered one, littered with wrong turns and backtracks. Once, on a blistering hot day in northern Wisconsin, on the trail of a supposedly pristine fishing spot, never visited by competing anglers, I traced a route from a remote County highway down a railroad track to the location of a small lake, presumably brimming with trophy pike, walleyes, and other desirable game fish. It was a considerable hike, on the order of the Bataan death march, and I made the mistake of wearing chest waders, in case I needed to delve into those icy waters in search of the monster fish of my fever dream. Soon, the interior of the waders was drenched in sweat and I began to slosh, drowning in my own salty effusion. I continued to stumble down the rail bed toward my mystery lake, becoming more and more miserable, and then, down the rails toward me came a sidecar with three burly trainmen astride it.
As they pulled even with me, one shouted, “goin’ fishin’ Har de har har!” And they continued on reveling in the cool breeze generated by their speed. Finally, I came to my cherished goal only to behold a lake transformed by what we laughingly call progress. There was a parking lot crammed with cars, a beach populated with squalling kids, and the lake itself which contained an armada of fishing boats. That was symptomatic of my experiences with maps which goes a long way toward explaining why I never got involved either with treasure hunts or orienteering. Now has come geocaching
Back in the 1960s it was an event comparable to spotting a UFO when you saw a satellite drift overhead in the night sky. Kind of like Superman: “it’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a satellite!” That was the beginning. A few years later, nations began launching satellites for purposes which they did not disclose to the general public. The ability to photograph a license plate in a Moscow parking lot from thousands of feet up was a well kept secret, as was the secret that a comparable Russian satellite was photographing license plates in a Washington DC parking lot. Our spy agencies learned an awful lot about the parking habits of the other side, but the ability to watch Oprah on a cell phone was still a long way away.
The Russians whupped up on us by launching the first satellite to orbit the earth in 1957, named Sputnik. 1960 saw the first weather satellite and the Russians again were first to put a man in orbit in 1961. A year later the first communication satellite went into orbit, presaging today’s cell phone and Internet. But it wasn’t until 1994 that GPS came into existence with the first of 24 geosynchronous satellites that link everyone on earth with everyone else. Today there are more than 1000 satellites zipping around overhead and making geocaching science fiction reality.
Geocaching dates to 2000 when Bill Clinton released 24 satellites that made GPS far more effective and available to the general public. It took only weeks for geocaching to become an electronic hula hoop enveloping the world. Now you could place an object in some sort of container ( think Tupperware), hide it somewhere and post the coordinates on a central Internet location (geocaching.com) and encourage people to treasure hunt for the container and either add further objects or take something from the container as a trophy and then brag about how many geocaches you have discovered—it’s like bird watching without a lifetime list and without birds.
On May 3,2000, a computer guy named Dave Ulmer, wanted to test the accuracy by hiding a navigational target in the woods. He called the idea the “Great American GPS Stash Hunt” and posted it in an internet GPS users’ group. The idea was simple: Hide a container out in the woods and note the coordinates with a GPS unit. He stuck a black bucket, in the woods Portland with a logbook and pencil, and put the coordinates on the internet.
Within three days, two different readers read about his stash on the internet, used their own GPS receivers to find the container, and shared their experiences online. By September 25, coincidentally my birthday, the idea had become geocaching.com and the idea had exploded into a worldwide mania.
Our daughter, Carrie, got into geocaching by joining a hiking club after she and her husband, Ron, moved to Colorado. A fellow hiker had geocached with her late husband and told Carrie how she left tiny mementos about her husband in each cache that she visited. Soon, Carrie had invested in a handheld GPS and had joined the premium version of geocaching which features clues to locating otherwise difficult caches.
I followed her on one outing to recover an unknown object which her GPS told her was only feet from the top of a hill. It led us further and further down the slope until we were at the bottom of an eminence not seen this side of Nepal. The problem with going down a mountain is that you have to go back up when where you want to be is at the top. And we didn’t find the object at the bottom.
Satellites trembled in their orbit, possibly realigned by my swearing. Subsequently, I went on two other cacherthons with Carrie, one of which involved an arduous hike around a large lake, the other to the far side of an obscure cemetery where the cache was located next to a rude gravestone that may date to Neolithic times. After the second hike I felt as if I dated to Neolithic times myself and took to bed for a long nap.
Carrie currently is involved in helping a Swedish geocacher realize an esoteric ambition, a project like building replicas of the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks. The Swede cached a toy bear named Bjorn which now has made two trans- Atlantic voyages and since settling in the United States has touched down in several states with the eventual goal of being cached in every state in the US before being returned to its owner and originator in Sweden. Carrie cached Bjorn under a bridge at a nature center in central Missouri and posted her find with the coordinates and dared other cachers to find him if they could. Presumably a fellow cacher would recover Bjorn from his troll-like resting place and carry him to yet another state on his Odyssey. (Four days later someone visiting from Texas retrieved Bjorn and now he is en route to the Lone Star State.)
Geocaching probably would be even more addictive if the rewards were more substantial, like finding Captain Kidd’s buried treasure. But the fun is in the finding, not the return. One geocacher has logged more than 8000 “finds” which seems more a full-time occupation than a hobby. Obviously, geocaching has the potential to grab you by the throat and not let go.
The urge to geocache is irresistible and I find myself visiting geocaching.com where I find that for 50 to 100 bucks I can get a starter kit and for a few bucks more I can become a premium member. Perhaps I too will give in to the desire to find things of no value whatsoever and clamber into other abysses. Maybe I will launch my own toy bear on a worldwide Odyssey.
I think I will name him Bjorn To Run……

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