Treasure hunting in the 21st century

 

  • Notebook
  • Pens
  • Hat
  • Phone
  • Water bottle (with water)
  • Trail Mix
  • Trinkets for trade

So, it’s not your typical hiking checklist, but this wasn’t going to be a typical trek; I was about to embark on a treasure hunt. Thanks to the unorthodox phenomenon that is Geocaching, gone are the days when only pirates could pursue hidden booty. Now, by simply downloading the Geocaching app to a smartphone, even land lovers can join in on the adventure.

By using the GPS on your phone, the app detects if there are any geocaches (containers of tradable knickknacks) in close proximity. Click on one, and a compass will point you in the right direction while displaying, in feet, approximately how far away the cache is.

It was a beautiful fall morning and I was headed to Mt. Hope Cemetery to track down a few; the app showed six on the premises. I decided to start on the southwest end of the cemetery, where there was a singular cache, and then work my way north and slightly east, where the rest hid among the older graves.

My adventure pack, a miniature red backpack that would struggle to hold a Merriam-Webster Dictionary, was loaded with the above items and ready for action. It was 11am. The sun made an appearance for this excursion and greeted me with a balmy 58-degree caress to the face as I walked out the door. Perfect.

I hopped into my little Toyota Yaris and pulled out my phone. Something urged me to turn on some disco. Good disco, like geocaching, is an under appreciated delight; I shuffled the playlist dedicated to the genre that I have saved on my phone. Do You Wanna Funk by Sylvester came on. Dancing and singing along with probably too much vigor for safe driving, I made my way to the University of Rochester campus.

It was a Saturday, so it was easy to find a parking spot by Goergen Hall that was close to the cache.  I walked towards the brick path that led to the cemetery, opened the app on my phone and bloop! I was instantly notified that I was in close proximity of it. “Your GPS is only accurate to approximately 30 feet. Start looking around for the geocache,” the app reminded me.

I was looking for a cache named ‘Mount Hope Secret ZAP!” hidden by the user NancyDrewandJoe. Its description read as follows:

camo-ed pill bottle (original yellow container went missing, if you see it, just throw it out, or contact CO, please)

ZAP! No, nothing to do with electricity, this cache is near a Zombie Access Point! If you see a secret passageway through the Mt Hope Cemetery fence, then you know you’re getting close… winter summer or Halloween duck right down and squeeze between the missing bars and do not fear BUT! There might be some zombies near. We can’t be sure, but folks have said through these bars pass, each night, un-dead! so find this cache in daylight hours or you might be next pushing up flowers for sure as cabooses follow trains I hear that Zombies feast on Brains!

I was already familiar with this passageway; it’s a convenient exit for my morning runs. A steel bar was missing completely while the two adjacent ones were slightly bent. A body (undead or living) could pass through with ease and the well-trodden earth was evidence that many had.

Just as I snuck through, a voice came from behind.

“Beautiful day for a walk in the graveyard, ay?” A tall man holding a bicycle tire stood on the opposite side of the fence. He seemed to be heading towards campus, though what he was going to do there with a lone bicycle tire was besides me.

“Uh… yeah, yeah it is.” I replied, surprised by his address.

He paused to notice my pack, looked at it questioningly for a moment and then went on to lament about how he would have loved to go for a walk, if only he didn’t have to get back to work so soon. And he walked away.

I had thought about telling him what I was actually doing. I’ll admit I looked a little suspicious, carrying more than would be necessary for a stroll through the cemetery. But for some reason, I decided against it.

He’s probably a muggle, I thought to myself, wouldn’t understand if I told him.

There it was: my first inkling that there was an us and a them. In the realm of geocaching, a muggle is a non-geocacher. On various forums, encounters with these clueless others have been described as uncomfortable and awkward, so much so that some geocachers would give up on looking for a cache if there were too many muggles wandering about.

Although my interaction with Bicycle Tire Man was a slightly painful one, it wasn’t enough to justify aborting the mission. However, once I actually started looking for the cache (which was only 15 feet away according to my phone), I realized how strange I must have looked. There I was, a young girl scrounging around the bushes suspiciously. It was obvious I was not there to take a walk, nor was I Instagramming photos of the foliage like most other millennials. If I were a passerby, I would have been weary about this crazy girl’s intentions. But, I was having fun and continued to examine my surroundings:

A tree. Could it be stuck in one of those nooks or crevices? I stood on my tiptoes, jumped, and circled the tree in a complete 360 – anything to get a new perspective. To no avail.

A guardrail. Maybe it’s hidden somewhere in there? I bent over the rail to get a good look at its backside. A few years ago I went geocaching with a group of friends and one of the containers we found was secured by a magnet to the inside of a guardrail. I figured it was likely NancyDrewandJoe could have had a similar idea, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

What if it’s just lying on the ground under some leaves? I started kicking the fallen leaves that piled against the fence. Nothing. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled along the length of the fence. After about 40 feet, I was sufficiently frustrated having found nothing. Pulling out my phone, I checked the Activity log.

“My friend and I stupidly spent an hour on our hands and knees looking for this one, but we eventually came to our senses and found it haha,” wrote SometimesBianca. Well, that would have been helpful about fifteen minutes ago, I thought.

I put my phone away and eyeballed the fence. A bush had swallowed a small portion of it, creating dark pockets that would perfectly conceal a pill bottle sized cache. I scanned the bush slowly and there it was, covered in camo duct tape and zip-tied to the fence.

I eagerly opened the container and took out its contents: a rolled up strip of paper that served as a logbook and a smiley face magnet in a tiny Ziploc bag. I unrolled the logbook and scanned the names and dates of those who had found the cache before me. The first find was made back in May and the last was just two days before. I signed and dated the log and stuck the magnet in my backpack, replacing it with a brown piece of Martha’s Vineyard sea glass. I stuffed the contents back in the pill bottle and secured it once again to the fence.

I walked away, grinning a stupid smile some might have found unsettling if they happened to pass by. Elated in both gait and determination, I felt unstoppable as I headed northward onto my next target, a cache called “Home Sweet Home” located in the older, more hilly, section of the graveyard.

After about 15 minutes of walking, my phone buzzed to notify me that I was getting close.  I re-read the cache description to get an idea of where it might be hiding:

On the side of a hill, that is too steep to be “utilized”, this cache has a 180 degree shield against muggles.

Very traditional cache: both container and means of hiding/camouflaging. Big enough for tradables and trackables.

Trackables were something I hadn’t encountered before, but a quick reference to the “Glossary of Geocaching Terms” I had saved on my phone informed me that they are “game pieces… etched with a unique code that can be used to log its movements on Geocaching.com as it travels in the real world.” I assumed the cache would have to be much larger than the one I had just found in order to accommodate such an item, and made the presumption that it would be an easier find.

I surveyed the area for a “too steep to be ‘utilized’” hill. To the northwest, there seemed to be just that. It even had a small stone wall, approximately 12 feet wide by 7 feet tall, built into it; a perfect “180 degree shield against muggles.”

I put my phone away so I could have my hands free. My canvas skate shoes had little, if any, tread and I would need some help from the saplings to keep my balance.

Despite the dead leaves that coated the ground like a slip-n-slide, I made it up without much of a struggle. Dusting a few yellow and brown leaves from my hair, I eyeballed the wall and fingered a few stones, to see if I could jostle any out of place and reveal a secret geocache chamber. To my disappointment, there was no such thing.

Next, I tried kicking the leaves away from the base of the wall. Nothing. Kicked them away at the bases of trees. Nothing. Tapped where they seemed to pile up for no reason. Crunch. Nothing. Nothing but leaves; the damned things were everywhere.

I gave into my frustration and decided to check the Activity log. I told myself before I headed out that morning that I wouldn’t open any photo links that might contain location spoilers. That, in my mind, was cheating. But it was getting colder and although the elation of my recent find had worn off, the determination hadn’t. I wasn’t going home until I found “Home Sweet Home”, even if that meant I had to sneak a peek at some pictures.

The first was from the perspective of looking up at a tree. Its leaves were sparing and golden, probably taken on a similar fall day. I walked to a few trees that seemed roughly the same size and looked up. They were all the same to me and there weren’t any caches in sight.

The next photo was of the cache itself, a metal, army green container about the size of a shoebox. The only context that could help determine the location was its placement on a fallen log. There were no such logs around me, but as I scanned the area, I saw a handful about 50 feet away on a slightly less steep section of the hill.

I galloped down to them, out of eagerness, but also to get my body temperature up. The shade of the woods was much colder than I expected. I searched around each one, scooting away the leaves, lifting some of them up. Why is this so difficult? It’s the size of a freaking shoebox?!

The number of fallen logs seemed to grow. They were everywhere and each one I checked turned into disappointment. In the distance the bells of Rush Rhees Library chimed, alerting me that it was two o’clock. Three hours of being outside was taking a toll on my exposed hands and damp feet.

You can try again another day, I told myself as I turned back towards the path. I took one last look back and scanned a few of the logs and that’s when I spotted it, a shimmer of green from beneath those blasted leaves.

“Oh my God, finally!” I ran to it with delight. The box was rusted with age and I struggled to pry the thing open. A battered sticker on the outside read:

Official Geocache

PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB!

This is an official game.

Inside was an array of treasures: 2 bubble dispensers, a car freshener (grapefruit scented), a Mt. Hope walking guide, a Brighton sports pass, and a bumper sticker for Juan and Maria’s Empanada Stop (“I’m not just addicted… I’m REALLY ADDICTED!” it said).

Stored in a plastic bag was a journal that served as the logbook. I wrote in my name and the date, then flipped through the pages to see who else had found it. On September 23rd, 2012, Ray Dovins wrote, “Had as hard of a time opening the cache as I did finding it.” Word, Ray, word.

I returned the journal and placed the box as I had found it, leaning against the log and covered in leaves.

On the walk back to my car I felt, once again, immensely satisfied. I had come to Mt. Hope on a secret mission; one only a small community knew existed. As I approached the hole in the fence where my adventure had started, another UR student crawled through to take a picture of the flaming red maple. He was standing right in front of where the first cache I found was hiding, totally oblivious.

“Beautiful day for a walk, am I right?” he asked me.

I looked at the cache and then back at him.

“Yeah,” I said with a grin. “It really is perfect.”

 

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