Cache as Cache Can

Scott attempts geocaching without the trendy gadgetry

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click to enlarge UNDER WHICH TREE? Finding caches isn't always - as easy as it looks on paper. - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
UNDER WHICH TREE? Finding caches isn't always as easy as it looks on paper.

Expect the tech-trendy treasure hunt known as geocaching to make some definite inroads into the American pop-culture consciousness in the coming months. The practice has recently garnered considerable media coverage; it's only a matter of time before geocaching is the crux of a short-lived reality show, Discovery Channel special, or episode of Gilmore Girls. The same things that make it so ephemerally infectious right now will undoubtedly make it look silly when VH-1's I Love The '00s: 2004 finally rolls around, but mark my words: For a little while, geocaching will be the Internet generation's Rubik's Cube. When your friends answer their cell phones, they'll be doing it. Your older relatives will bring it up at dinner, having heard the word on Oprah, and you'll have to explain exactly what the hell it is.

A primer: Basically, geocaching involves using a handheld GPS device to guide one to a place where someone else has stashed a tiny treasure, or discovered a breathtaking view, or left the latest in a series of scavenger hunt-style riddles. GPS is short for Global Positioning System, a technology that utilizes satellites in orbit to pinpoint an exact location on the surface of the Earth, give or take 10 feet or so. Originally quite expensive, GPS is now used by everyone from recreational fishermen to automobile manufacturers (OnStar, etc.), and you can pick up a handheld device for a little over $100. Participants go to websites like www.geocaching.com, and find the coordinates of caches in the area of their choice. (There are several websites dedicated to geocaching that furnish coordinates, and innumerable caches stashed around the globe.) Then they're off, relying on the posted clues and coordinates to get them close. Once in the immediate area, it's a matter of experience, wits, eyesight and threshold for frustration.

Caches can be natural vistas or steps in a larger hunt, but most often they're small, hidden receptacles (a 35 mm film canister, an ammo box, Tupperware) containing a few trinkets and a logbook. Geocachers are expected to take a trinket, leave one of their own, and sign the logbook.

The attraction should be obvious. We're a culture that grew up on Blackbeard's treasure, The Hardy Boys, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The tech-y accoutrements are only shiny updates to a classic desire, but scratch any geek and you'll find a treasure hunter of sorts, and vice versa — Indiana Jones was a history professor, for the love of God. You're never going in search of the Holy Grail, but if you've got a couple of hours and a cool new toy, you can catch a little of that vibe.

And do you really need the gadgetry, anyway?

Sure, if you're planning to hike into the Ozarks in search of a prize about the size of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. But many urban caches are placed in parks or other tamed public areas, and the online descriptions might get you almost as close to the "X" as the GPS coordinates themselves, provided you know the area.

As a person who has not only spent years delivering pizzas and furniture (both of wildly varying quality) to locations on both sides of the Bay, but also has seen The Goonies, like, 50 times, I felt confident I could find a couple of caches in my hometown without any aid from the heavens. Besides, the whole thing was probably dreamed up by a corporation that manufactures navigational equipment anyway, right? I could assuage my inner Holmes while simultaneously sticking it to The Man.

I chose two caches, one near downtown St. Pete's Yacht Basin, and one around the Port of Tampa, not far from Ybor City and the Planet offices. The online descriptions of the caches left me absolutely sure I would find them. They were a bit coy, but come on! I knew exactly where they were talking about.

So I headed down to the water's edge, right by Bayfront Center, between the boats and Alfred Whitted Airport. I found the park mentioned. I found the parking lot mentioned. I found the edge of the parking lot to which the clues referred.

And I found out exactly how big a 100-foot-square section of the world really is, when you're looking for something that fits easily into the front pocket of your jeans.

Forty-five minutes and three encounters with swarming hives of angry fire ants later, I was a sweaty, brambled mess. The guy fishing from the railed sea wall undoubtedly thought I was crazy, stomping through the sharp, dry shrubbery, scraping away wet dirt and broken glass with my bare hands. I knew I was in the right spot; maybe not 100% sure, no, but pretty sure, and anyway, how was I supposed to check? By consulting my, what, my compass? By considering the length of shadow thrown by the position of the sun, multiplied by the number of cubits in a hectare?

I conceded Round One to the technological wonders of the age, and headed across the bridge.

The second cache, I knew, would be a breeze. A smaller immediate area, mostly paved. The clues specifically said the micro-cache was buried at the foot of a pine tree; it also mentioned proximity to both a pond and a well-known tourist destination. When I got there, however, I realized that saying the treasure was buried at the foot of a pine tree, here, was like saying that I could find it at a Grateful Dead show — right next to the guy wearing a tie-dyed shirt who smells like pot.

The entire landscape was pine trees, their many trunks surrounded by inches of fir needles. I scoped as many as I could without raising either the curiosity of the foot pedestrians or the ire of parking lot security, but would need at least a conspicuous half a day to check them all.

Technology: 2. Scott's innately masculine assertion that geographical/directional aids are for elderly women and tanker captains: 0.

I did get a bit of that buzz, though, out in the sun, searching for treasure, feeling gleefully like I was doing something both secret and somehow anti-authoritarian. But, in true male fashion, I'm going to try it a few more times without forking over the GPS money before I inevitably buckle and immerse myself in the trend, at least for a couple of months.

So if you're out with your dog or kids at Vinoy Park or somewhere, and you see a dirty guy with long, tangled hair on his knees in front of a stand of bushes, crying and mumbling softly about how "it's got to be here, I know it, it's got to be here," bring me a bottle of water or something, would you?

Then again, a couple of months from now, it could be anybody.

Contact Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or [email protected].

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