When I go hiking, sometimes I see a couple loitering around a boulder looking suspicious. I used to think they were looking for a place to take a dump, but it turns out they were Geocaching. What’s geocaching, you might ask, and how is it pronounced? It is the hobby of seeking out hidden containers in the woods, using an overpriced gadget that has since been replaced by an iPhone app. The container is anything from a surplus ammo can to a waterproof plastic box, and treasures unheard of are held inside. And like geoduck, it is pronounced gooey-kaching, for the amount of money you’ll spend on a GPS to get into this amusing hobby, for which they are now awarding a Boy Scout badge.
Milky and I got into geocaching while hiking the wilds of northern New Jersey and seeking out strange locations depicted in Weird NJ magazine before a bunch of teenagers could burn it down, or cause such a nuisance that police officers began patrolling them to rake in lucrative trespassing fines. We both bought Magellan GPS units that are now horribly uncool and obsolete, despite still working fine. The new ones have the internet, so you can download new caches while you’re sitting in a port-a-potty near the Appalachian trail. Maybe there’s a cache in the toilet? As we would learn, this wasn’t that unlikely. You locate nearby geocaches by looking them up on Geocaching.com, where cache planters will post hints and coordinates to the nearby area. After that, it’s a treasure hunt fit for a pirate with an annoying, clumsy device instead of a cool map. And instead of doubloons and blunderbusses for the treasure, you usually find toys from gumball machines and Happy Meals. The real treasure is the logbook, where you record your precious victory and sickening internet neologisms such as “TFTC” (thanks for the cache) and “RMcDMMAAC” (Ronald McDonald molested me as a child).
Our first geocache was a puzzler in a Bloomfield cemetery that tried to teach you some World War 2 history, by making you find the grave marker of a veteran awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and then using his birth date as coordinates. This was fun, until I located what should have been the spot, got frustrated and grumbly, and began kicking the tree stump in hopes that the treasure of the Sierra Madre would fall out. Milky instead looked inside the large stump and found the cache, a plastic waterproof case, suspended inside. He didn’t even have a GPS at that point, which infuriated me. I had been betrayed by technology! The Happy Meal toys were rightfully his! Once he got his own GPS, I had to resort to giving him incorrect coordinates to get a fighting chance, as he was as crafty as a bloodhound in sniffing out these hidden coffers of treasures. And he still holds that against me.
Our next puzzle was a series of caches hidden in the parks of Nutley, our hometown. Best known as the butt of Futurama jokes, and the hellhole from whence decorating demon Martha Stewart sprang in a puff of brimstone and potpourri, it’s the kind of place that if you walk with electronic devices looking under the bridges that span its many babbling brooks, it’s likely someone will report you as a terrorist. Just try to explain geocaching to a small town cop, a few years after 9/11. Luckily we never saw the inside of the local jail, but our behavior elicited a many stares and awkward questions from dog walkers and parents who wanted to make sure we weren’t trying to blow up the Mud Hole, the affectionate local name for Mill’s Pond. Which when seen up close, looks like an open sewer populated with carp, turtles, and enough geese to cover the county with green poop, which they do nightly.
The problem with caches in populated areas is the chance that the average person will find your Tupperware container full of Happy Meal toys and a logbook, and mistaking this treasure for garbage, toss it in a trash can. So, many urban geocachers place what they call “micros” in tiny 35mm film canisters or prescription bottles everywhere from cracks in a building to behind false bolts in telephone poles. We tired of the constant subterfuge required to keep kids from hanging around until you’re done and tossing the cache- and the precious logbook where you record your victory- into a storm drain. So we opted for caches near hiking trails, because I thought it would be fun to mix hiking and geocaching, to get some exercise for the feet and the brain, by solving puzzles deep in the Jersey woods. Maybe the treasures would be greater than little plastic soldiers and battered Matchbox cars, and the odd Where’s George? dollar that Milky would inevitably pocket.
Instead of combining two activities into one, this ended up making our “hikes” consist of a drive to the parking lot closest to the caches, hiking as directly as possible toward it, and then stumbling around the woods for a half hour or so before we gave up and went to the nearest diner for pizza burgers. Oh, we found some caches. Many actually led us to interesting areas we might not have discovered while hiking, otherwise. Master New Jersey explorer and cacher Brian Sniatkowski stumped us many times with his deviously hidden treasures, but he also shared peaceful and interesting spots in the woods with us. Oh, how we cursed “briansnat” as he’s known on the internet, for hiding his ammo cans and film canisters with such cunning! I think we found one, total. And when we cracked it open, we found… Happy Meal toys! But as they say, the real treasure is in the journey. At least the Boy Scouts will get a colorful badge at the end of their journey. Maybe they’ll leave it in a cache? I sincerely doubt it.
© 2010 Thomas Pluck.