by Kenneth Todd Ruiz
photography by Adam Omernik
It can’t be far now. With the press of a button, the digital map glowing on the fist-sized device morphs into a virtual compass. An oversized arrow careens counter-clockwise, then uncertainly retraces its arc. It is the right location—global coordinate N 34° 05.302 W 117° 41.042, to be obnoxiously specific—but nothing is there. An empty parking lot. Although the GPSMAP 60CS has brought Jim Brooks this far, it falls short of producing his quarry. Rain begins to fall. With his free hand, he pulls a personal digital assistant from his pocket and dials up his mission profile.
“The Winged Horse” is near, and Brooks entertains no thought of abandoning his pursuit. Time to engage his mind and solve the riddle. “This place is bustin’ out,” Brooks reads aloud from the description of his target. To the east, a white slab of concrete describes one of many similar structures in an austere industrial landscape. Protruding from its far side, a comically-oversized racecar is frozen in time as it explodes from the wall.
“Bustin’ out” indeed: Brooks knows he’s getting warmer.
Punching in another command, he decodes another encrypted clue. “Stepping stones will lead you,” augers the Palm Pilot. The hunt is back on.
Brooks isn’t infiltrating the volcanic base of an Ian Fleming supervillain. He’s in the 5500 block of Moreno Boulevard in Montclair, indulging in his weekend hobby. Some watch the big game. Others shop. The sport of choice for this 34-year-old supervisor of the University of La Verne’s mail center? Geocaching (pronounced: geo-cashing).
At its essence, geocaching is a global, high-tech scavenger hunt played daily by people around the world. A human network. Yet there is no group to join, and no membership fees to pay.
Understanding the draw of geocaching is simple. Start with semi-adventuresome souls with Gen-X attention spans, add discontent with overtly consumer-oriented entertainment, tether them to the global information grid and give them free access to billions of dollars worth of U.S. military satellites. Oh, and enough nifty gadgetry to make Bond feel slightly inadequate.
Although the caching elite may spend hundreds or more on fancy devices, the only tool needed is a global positioning system, which can be picked up for as little as $80. GPS receivers are modern analogues to the sextants peered through by mariners for hundreds of years. But the celestial bodies once used to triangulate a ship’s position at sea have been replaced by artificial constellations of satellites fired into orbit by the Pentagon—a secret cold war defense project that ended up another hand-me-down technology for the masses, much like the Internet itself.
The community’s nexus on the Web, Geocaching.com is where players grab the coordinates and clues to the hidden stashes. The site can give users locations near their front yard or anywhere in the world. Although some are located along trails or in out-of-the-way areas, most are spread across the cityscape. It could be a candy tin magnetically attached to the bottom of a newspaper rack, a lunch box crammed inside the base of a traffic light or a film canister concealed within a hollowed-out pine cone. It all depends on the imagination and deviousness of the player hiding it. With 143,593 caches throughout the world as of February, Geocaching.com reports 118 of them can be found within five miles of ULV. And new ones are added every day by experienced players.
“There are quite a few in north La Verne,” Brooks asserts.
There are even more than two dozen caches hidden in Iraq and Afghanistan, though unsurprisingly, all appear to be secured on military bases. Splashed across the top of the Al Tahreer cache just west of Baghdad is this warning: “This cache is in a war zone. Mortars and rockets impact near it. Do not post logs that give any references to what is around it; this might help the rocketeers aim a little better.”
One soldier posted a comment about a cache located in Camp Victory: “Found the cache on a nice day trip over to Camp Victory for some sight seeing. It was a nice location away from everything going on around it. Took along four guys from my unit on their first caching adventure ever. Took the CJTF-7 travel bug and left an OIF coin. Thanks for the cache. It was nice to get to keep caching while deployed. Good job.”
Most people likely pass several caches daily without knowing it. Cachers do not play openly in public and tend to limit discussion of geocaching with the uninitiated. But they are just normal folks. A neighbor might be one of them. Or a coworker, barber, butcher, priest or tax auditor.
By day, Aimee Ganser is a mild-mannered field inspector for Los Angeles County’s Weights & Measures Department. She ensures that gasoline pumps deliver exactly the amount of fuel indicated. She verifies that scales and meters are properly calibrated and supermarket scanners are not padding profits by overcharging. But on weekends—or any free time, really—Ganser transforms into Terra Girl, a player whose ambition can be encompassed by: Gotta’ cache them all.
It cannot be far now. Still seeking “The Winged Horse” cache, Brooks notes the name on a sign at the front of the building, “Pegasus.” Mythic steed of Perseus. The horse with wings. Next, he spots a series of round stones leading around the side, as prophesied by the Palm Pilot. But Brooks is spooked. A sport utility vehicle has entered the parking lot.
“Look out,” Brooks warns. “Muggle.”
The first rule of geocaching is: You don’t let people see you geocache. Not because it is a guarded secret but because of those not in on it, the nefarious “Muggles.” Curiosity killed the cache.
Once the Muggle has moved on, Brooks moves quickly to secure his prize. He eyes a horizontal drainage pipe, and, before long, his fingers have pried from beneath it a heart-shaped Altoids tin labeled “The LOVE Tin.” Inside, he fishes out an eclectic collection of artifacts. Three butterfly-and dragonfly-shaped erasers, a “Royal Line Fingerbowl” handiwipe and a tiny rubber blood pressure meter that could only be used to diagnose Barbie. Ready to fulfill the “take something, leave something” golden rule of geocaching, Brooks fishes out of his pockets a toy jeep, finger massager, plastic cow and khoosh ball, rounded out by a little geocaching irony: a plastic Cracker Jack compass. He selects the cow to go with the animal theme of the cache, swapping it for the handiwipe. He also reviews a small paper log sheet to see who else has visited before him. Dutifully, he adds his own entry, an act he will later repeat on the Web site’s activity record for the cache.
“This is a pretty cool one, actually,” Brooks acknowledges. “But they’ve all been really cool.” He hasn’t been caching long, and admits that he has had mixed success. “I’ve looked for about 20, but only found fewer than 10,” he concedes. He describes how one hidden in La Verne confounded his best efforts, and knowing he was so close sent him into a cache-rage. “This one was in a hallowed-out tree with bark covering the hole,” he recalls, impressed by the hider’s attention to detail. “I was pissed. I started throwing a hissy-fit and one of the broken pieces fell away exposing a corner of a pink Tupperware container. I guess temper tantrums still work.” He escapes from the rainfall back into his classic Mercedes, turns up the Robert Palmer and punches the coordinates for his next target into his GPS.
Terra Girl is a seasoned pro, having logged her first find on Geocaching.com July 14, 2002. Finding it hidden at the trail head off Glendora Mountain Road, she would be the last as it was destroyed two months later in the Williams Fire. But Terra was undeterred and during the next two years, she played furiously.
In October of 2004, she captured cache No. 1,000, gaining vaunted status as a new member of the “Kilo Club.” Refusing to bleed any momentum, she topped 1,500 four months later. In fact, Terra’s extensive plundering of the Inland community forced her, like any hungry predator, to travel farther in search of fresh hunting grounds.
With “caching buddy” Mike Pacholik, Terra picks her way through the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena on a soggy November morning. Following an intuition she says has been honed by experience, she zeroes in on an elusive stash.
“You learn to pick up on certain signs,” Terra says. “Like if there’s a worn path where people have been going, or [the plants have] been disturbed.”
Terra—having eluded a veritable army of Muggles gathered for a little league game—is now halfway up the canyon’s east wall, peering into a dark tunnel beneath the 110 Freeway. Strewn litter suggests the spot is popular with transients.
“A lot of cachers team up to cache together,” Terra explains. “It’s not very safe for a single woman to be out roaming around by herself.”
Then they spot it. Camouflaged among the ivy and sagebrush by its olive drab case, an Army ammunition box, weathered from prolonged exposure.
After a final scan for Muggles, they secure the payload and free its secrets. It’s the richest find yet for the day, containing a water pistol, plastic spider ring, hacky sack, Bass beer opener, black and red Chinese notebook, bouncy ball, assorted plastic animals, a slinky and more. Terra Girl adds her signature item and namesake: a handmade terra cotta tile fired with the geocaching logo. They look the items over, but have grown inured to the tchochkes.
It’s about more than gadget envy and collecting novelty bling, these cachers insist. Brooks, Terra, Pacholik and other cachers contend the sport should not be dismissed as geeks with toys. While the gee-whiz technology may be an initial attraction for some, the novelty wears off, and the real draw takes hold.
“There’s so many families out doing it,” Brooks tells. “You have two kids; it gives you something to do as a family besides watch TV.” With most leisure time consumed by the passive, inactive entertainment of television, movies and video games, many families and couples embrace the social, mental and physical engagement of geocaching. “And you don’t have to spend a ton of money,” Brooks adds.
“My favorite caches are the history monuments, or ones that take me somewhere new,” he says. “If you’re traveling, you can find a bunch on the way and see things you would have missed. One took me to this mountain vista that was just incredible.”
If the players are, as the Web site claims, human search engines, then caching is a way of “bookmarking” those rare, chance sights, sites and experiences for others to discover.
The cachers are a human extension of the Internet, reconnecting people to their physical world. A living database of interesting things that most people would never find or notice in their daily grind. A historic plaque overgrown with weeds. A forgotten Pony Express depot. The perfect picnic spot or a compelling work of art.
Arriving at another set of coordinates back in Pasadena, team Terra/Pacholik quickly locate the cache, but it’s nothing unusual or special. They spend more time checking out the reason the cache was placed there. The treat for them is a 1938 art deco fountain that is actually part of the cooling system for the adjacent Department of Water and Power facility.
Brooks, Terra, Pacholik and other cachers make it clear the appeal is broader than the geek set. While the gee-whiz technology may be an initial attraction for some, the novelty eventually wears off—but most keep on geocaching.
Player “Marsfun” found the fountain cache a month after Terra and Pacholik and shares his simple appreciation on the Web site:
“We’ve driven past this fountain for years but never took the time to stop and look up close. Thanks.”