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MonkeyBrad was talking with a friend one evening in 2005 about the famous “Bob”geocache series in Chicago (GCKMBQ). Bob stands for “bottles of beer,”and it’s a play on the popular “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”drinking song. The series of 99 identical caches was placed all over Chicago in 2004 and archived two years later.
MonkeyBrad and friend agreed they’d enjoy the challenge of seeing how fast they could complete the series. “We were curious so we went to the computer and found $40 fares on Southwest Airlines,”he says. “The next weekend we were on a plane.”They completed the challenge in less than eight hours.
What is it that motivates otherwise normal people to do this? It’s the same passion that inspires DE_Cryptoman,of Hewitt,TX to pick his way through the woods in the middle of the night. An insomnia sufferer,DE_Cryptoman is often awake late at night when the screeners at Geocaching.com are posting the most recent submissions. His computer is set to alert him immediately when a new cache has been approved in his area. Then he’s out of the house like a shot. He’s been known to log a first-to-find at 2 a.m.
Julie Perrine (Mrs. Captain Picard) can relate. The owner of more than 12,000 logged finds,she spends at least part of most weekends geocaching. Julie is relentless. A short day for her is 30 finds and she’s logged as many as 125 in 24 hours.
The original name of this book was Geocaching Secrets, but halfway through our research we changed the title to something we thought was more appropriate to describe the emotional commitment we found in avid geocachers. This isn’t a game,it’s a love affair. It’s an obsession.
Everyone starts geocaching more or less the same way:a friend drags them along on an outing. Most people remain casual geocachers,but a few become deeply involved in the game. To them,geocaching becomes a social circle,an exercise regimen,a journey of discovery and a tool to satisfy their innate curiosity.
When they’re not geocaching,they spend their free time planning outings or devising clever new hides. They build geocaching time into their business travel. Some organize vacations around the game. They really do. In our survey of 142 geocachers,more than 70% said they had gone on a vacation for the primary purpose of geocaching.
“Geocaching has given me an outlet to allow my imagination and creativity to flow,”says InfiniteMPG. “It’s also kind of a ‘secret society’operating under the noses of the general public. It brings back that rush of fun that we tend to lose as we grow older.”
“This sport was custom made for me,”says MonkeyBrad. “Whenever I’d travel on business,I’d wander around and try to find interesting corners of the city or oddball attractions. I later found that most caches were placed in these out-of-the-way places. It’s not what the tourism office thinks you should see;it’s what people in the community think you should see.”
Part of Geocaching’s appeal is its grounding in nature. At a time when more than 80% of the US population is packed into urban zones,caching is an escape to simplicity.
Geocachers talk of their surroundings in almost poetic terms. “The Blue Ridge Mountains cannot be matched for uninterrupted joy of life,”says Ken Alexander (Granpa Alex) of Sanford,NC. “The flora,the fauna,the bird songs,the peace;it’s almost like being in the Garden of Eden. Surely,it is closer to unblemished creation than anywhere on earth.”
In her 2006 book,Local Treasures:Geocaching across America,Margot Anne Kelley describes this visceral appeal. “Although the majority of caches are located within 100 miles of an urban center,most are in places that seem relatively natural,”she noted.
It’s ironic,yet somehow fitting in the 21st century,that we need so much technology to get us out of the house. After all,geocaching wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for computers,satellites,the Internet and sophisticated personal gadgets. We’ve managed to combine these high-tech conveniences into a game whose low-tech goal is to lead us to an ammunition can hidden in a tree trunk.
“Geocaching demonstrates that individuals who are both technologically sophisticated and environmentally engaged can and do use an extended communications network and a highly developed navigational system not to supplant a formerly physical engagement but rather explicitly to promote [it],”Kelley wrote.
There’s no question that avid geocachers tend to be geeks. They’ll be the first to admit it. Get a few of them together at a local meeting and the talk will quickly turn to the merits of one GPS versus another or whether they prefer Google Maps or Google Earth for planning geocaching runs.
Avid geocachers also tend to be restless and inquisitive. They can’t be content sitting in a hotel room;any visit to a new city is a chance to explore. In a 2003 study entitled “The Social-Psychology of a Technology Driven Outdoor Trend:Geocaching in the USA,”researchers Deborah Chavez,Ingrid Schneider and Todd Powell found the geocachers cited scenery,exercise and adventure as their most important motivators (see chart). Clearly,these are not the type of people who are inclined to lounge at the beach.
Geocaching is also a game of paradoxes. Players curse owners who subject them to the humiliation of a “did not find”while at the same time cheering their inventiveness. They risk injury and even death in extreme cases for a prize that has no practical value. They hunt their quarry cooperatively in packs even as individuals compete against each other for the find. They walk through some of the most beautiful scenery on earth with their noses buried in a satellite receiver. Geocachers are driven,competitive,inquisitive and restless. They don’t take leisurely strolls;they power-walk. Walking has to have a purpose to be fun.
“Ask me if I want to walk around the block and my answer is no. Ask me if I want to walk a mile to find a box in the woods full of stuff I don’t want and I am ready to go,”wrote Jerry &Karen Smith (Team J&K) in response to our online survey.
Source:Chavez,Schneider &Powell,The Social-Psychology of a Technology Driven Outdoor Trend,2003:
Caching with Others
Many geocachers say the game is better played with friends than alone. There’s a practical reason for this:Woods caching can be dangerous and hiding places have a nasty habit of existing out of the range of cell phone service. But there’s also a social reason. Why would you not want to discover new places and unravel mysteries with people you like? It’s not surprising that respondents to our survey said they geocachers others more than half the time.
“It gets our whole family together and gets us out doing some exercise and getting fresh air,”wrote Derby City Searchers in response to our survey. “When we all get together,there are 15 of us caching.”
Geocacher seem to naturally congregate into groups. Even when they’re not with their colleagues in the field,they’re hanging out with members of their local geoclub or even just conversing in the always-active Groundspeak forums. Some regional geocaching organizations count their membership in the thousands and organize outings often as every week.
The game is also a great equalizer. It’s enthusiasts come from all professions,economic classes and walks of life. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have or how big your house is;if you can nab that Lock &Lock in a tree before anybody else,you deserve their respect.
MonkeyBrad caches with a group that ranges in suze from four to 12 people,depending on who’s available. Any group may hunt together on any given day. ”Every person in the group I met through geocaching,”he says. “We’ve got two doctors,a couple of computer programmers,a welder,a plumber,a guy who does concert lighting,a teacher,a mailman and a hospital worker. The age range is from 7 to 66. And we have dinner once a week,whether we’re caching or not. The waitstaff thinks our dinners are a family reunion!”
“All my great and memorable finds have involved other cachers,”says Stressmaster. “The fun is being able to share the experience,the time,the camaraderie and the friendship.”
“I can literally drive from Alabama to Kansas,pull up to some guys sitting around the campfire and within minutes I’m accepted,”says Ed Manley (TheAlabamaRambler).
Part of the appeal is shared trust. Geocaching couldn’t work without it. Owners expect that visitors will take care of the containers they place,respect the contents and carefully re-hide them just as they were found. In fact,many geocachers go one step farther by notifying owners when maintenance is needed or simply making the repairs themselves.
Some geocaches have been in the field for more than eight years with hundreds of logged finds. While containers do disappear sometimes,cachers tend to chalk up that disruption to the muggles who don’t understand the game. In reality,there’s no way of knowing. Geocache owners post the coordinates of their hides on a public forum that’s visible to anyone. They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t trust that others would respect their work.
Geocachers seem to instinctively cluster into groups that share an unspoken bond. Even though they know each other’s names,many prefer to refer to call each other by their handles. We’ve met Blackstone Val,a legendary eastern Massachusetts geocacher,several times and still can’t remember his last name. We’re also friendly with Michael Babcock,who’s a legendary FTF hunter,but why call him Mike when Etherbunny is more fun?
And if you’re in a strange city for a day and need someone to pal around with,contact the local geocaching society. Mrs. Captain Picard did that one weekend in Toronto.
She and four business colleagues arrived on a Sunday morning. Mrs. Captain Picard wasn’t about to subject her fellow travelers,who weren’t geocachers,to a day of waiting in the car for her,so before leaving Texas,she looked up the Toronto caching group,alerted them of her arrival,and asked if anyone wanted to pick her up at the airport for a day of caching.
The community responded in less than 20 minutes,and when Mrs. Captain Picard landed at Pearson International Airport,there was a car waiting. “Hi,I’m Julie,”she said,climbing in. “I’m Dan,”the driver responded. And off they went.
“Now,you may be thinking,‘What on Earth was she thinking? A single woman in a strange city;this guy could have been anyone!”she laughs. But she knew Dan was okay. He was a geocacher.
Callout:Voices of Experience
“When you plan to cache in a new town while you’re on vacation,write ahead and find cachers who can give you advance information. Tell them exactly what type of caching experience you’re going for,how much time you have,whether you have transportation or not,if you’re in it for the numbers or just want THE ONE cache you shouldn’t miss. That’s a great way to plan ahead,plus local cachers may offer to take you places or show you things that will blow you away. ”
–Mrs. Captain Picard
Inveterate puzzle cacher Jim Wellington (pghlooking) sums it up nicely:“I can go anywhere in the US and I’ll have friends to hang out with and have fun.”But the talk isn’t just about the game. “I have a friend in California I met through geocaching and we talk three times a week,”he says. “We spend more time talking about friends and family than anything else.”
In order to make the most of group geocaching,veterans recommend you fine-tune your outing to the needs and expectations of the members. Many hard-core players belong to several groups that favor different experiences. Dgreno has the “obsessed”circle that goes on 10-day cross-country binge trips and also what he calls the “Death march hiking group”that will trek 15 miles into the woods to snag one ammo box.
“If you’re going with a group,make sure everyone has the same goal for the trip,”he advises. “If someone wants to try to get the most caches possible and another person wants to be a tourist between finds,your group could see some friction. Better to hash these things out when the pressure’s not on.”
His tip for making caching with partners or groups more fun:Get other people a GPSr. Having a navigation device involves the finder more directly in the game and has the practical benefit of helping verify readings.
Geocaching is a healthy and inexpensive way to get the whole family outdoors,energized and pulling together toward a common goal. Many cachers told us delightful stories about how the opportunity for adventure had pried their kids away from video screens and out into the woods.
OzGuff said his most memorable caching experience was “in Australia,when three generations climbed to the top of Mount Beerburrum in the Glasshouse Mountains to find a cache. And the view was amazing! My wife,kids,dad,sister (and her family) had a great time!”
Geocaching has special appeal to kids because of the fantasy factor (it’s the closest they’ll get to a real search for pirate treasure),gadget appeal and the chance to find some really cool toys. Time and again,cachers of all experience levels told us that the game had reconnected them with children who had previously seemed lost in a video haze. It was almost like transplanting a computer game to the woods:Everyone got something out of the experience. For gamers who don’t want to part with their fantasy,specialized games like Wherigo duplicate the experience in the great outdoors,with the GPSr substituting for the game controller.
Thrifty-chick’s daughter suffers from attention deficit disorder and has trouble concentrating on anything. “When we started geocaching,I just figured I would be the one finding the caches,and that the children would pick out the prizes and sign the log book,”she saysBut she was delighted to find that the game unlocked powers of concentration in her daughter that she never knew existed. “I’ve never seen her looked harder or more carefully for anything,”she says. “She wants to succeed so much that we rarely register a DNF. We come back later and try again.”
And the power of concentration is paying off in other ways. “Her teacher told me she asked my daughter if she could find the error in her paper,”she adds. “My daughter studied her paper,saying ‘Give me a moment;I know it’s there in plain sight.’Geocaching is helping her to approach life issues in the right way!”
Think of Your Health
After spending a day geocaching in our home area of eastern Massachusetts,we frequently download the track logs from our GPS to find we’ve walked six to eight miles,usually over hilly terrain. The experience is equivalent to a vigorous two-hour workout at the gym,yet somehow we barely seem to notice. Exercise isn’t an ordeal when it’s fun,and in the pursuit of an ammo can,we often forget that we’re tired and sweaty or haven’t eaten all day.
Geocaching is great exercise. Time and time again the veterans we interviewed brought up the health benefits of the game. Monkeybrad says it helped him lose 150 pounds and quit smoking. TheAlabamaRambler says Geocaching pulled him back from the brink of suicide,break a debilitating painkiller habit and rediscover his health. In our travels to various Geocaching groups and events,we met many seniors who said geocaching had reinvigorated them and given them a reason to “get up off the couch.”That phrase seems to resonate with this group;in 142 responses to our survey,10 people mentioned getting “off the couch”as a significant benefit of the game.
What,exactly,is the Joy of Geocaching? We’ll let the respondents to our survey sum it up. Here are some of our favorite comments from the many they submitted:
“I find geocaching to be very good for my mental health. It allows me to gather my thoughts,relieve stress,get exercise and learn about new places and things that I would never think of or even consider going to without geocaching!
“Cachers are some of the most creative and smart people we’ve ever met. Just when you think you’ve seen every way possible to hide a cache,someone will do something totally unexpected,tricky and devious.
“It’s like being in school again,we’ve learned about light wave lengths,Morse code,stars,Caesar ciphers,computer languages and Latin all so we could hunt for a cache.
“Most geocachers are people I never would have met otherwise because we come from such diverse backgrounds. Most are generous,caring,interesting people who would do anything for you or for geocaching.
“It’s about the journey and the friends you meet along the way. We laugh from the moment the day begins,until we separate at the end of the day
“We’ve adopted a very large circle of friends through Geocaching. Some we’ve never physically met.
“After a while,when you’ve done a number of caches by a certain cacher,you begin to understand how he likes to set up a cache,as well as how he might try to fool you.
“Caching is a great leveler…you can be caching with a bank president or a ditch digger…it doesn’t matter
“It stirs a passion in me that no other hobby has before. It has dimensions of camaraderie,competition,mental stimulation,fitness,and creativity that I’ve never found elsewhere.
“We’re doing a lot more as a family now. Instead of doing yard work around the house on weekends,you’ll find us on trails,on lakes,on our bikes or discovering unique aspects of our community.
“I feel the weight of the world lifting from me when I’m tramping thru the woods.
“We find places we would never have found/seen otherwise. Did you know that there is a pet cemetery on Catalina Island? I know now.”
Sidebar:Till Cache Do Us Part
No story was more sadly heartwarming than the one told to us by Kathy Markham about her parents,Ben and Grace Johnson (Ben &Grace) of Louisville,KY.
Ben took up geocaching at the age of 70. At a time when many people fear the loss of their social circle,Ben and Grace found a new one among geocachers. Ben loved to regale members of the local Geocaching club with his stories and the game was a perfect excuse to get outside with friends and breathe a little fresh air. They knew way more about Louisville than I did,”Kathy says. “They cached in every corner of the city. When we traveled together,we always looked up caches to find. We cached in Aruba,Alaska,Panama and places they would never have seen otherwise.”
Sadly,Ben was stricken with lung cancer at the age of 72. As his health deteriorated,he continued to go to local meetings of InKy,a loose confederation of Southern Indiana and Louisville geocachers. “They were a great support group for him,”Kathy remembers. Ben became thin and weak,but he still managed to summon the strength to get out of the house to cache now and then. He knew he was dying,but the hope of reaching the milestone of 1,000 caches found was one of the incentives he had to keep going.
He wouldn’t get there on his own. In May,2008,Ben Johnson suffered a stroke that put him in the hospital. He had logged his 967th geocache just two days earlier,but he was still 33 short of his goal. Friends and family knew he would never leave the hospital.
“One thousand is a big deal in the club,”Kathy says. “So their friends decided they had to get him to get him there.”Members fanned out and gathered 33 caches,which they brought to the hospital. “My mom signed all the logs,”Kathy remembers. “She cried and cried because it was such a wonderful thing to do.”Ben logged his 1,000th cache on June 3,2008. He died two days later.
But that wasn’t the end. After the funeral,members of Inky presented Grace with an ammunition box they had painted gold and labeled “Ben &Grace’s 1,000 cache.”(GC1CZHM). It’s hidden in the cemetery where Ben Johnson is buried. “Without geocaching,my dad probably would have sat at home and been depressed,”Kathy says. “Geocaching got him out of the house and doing things.”