Geocaching: Muggles in a Land of Secrets

April 5, 2012 § 7 Comments

I walk past secrets everyday.

Usually this is vague – secret thoughts and plots, pirate gold, childhood memories, government initiatives, food not on the menu.  This week, the secrets were tangible. Physical, occasionally edible secrets, waiting everywhere!

The excitement came on quite suddenly. I was lazing about in my enormous leopard print bathrobe, trying to remember if I had eaten or if it really counted as afternoon yet.  My roommate and her boyfriend, properly responsible, were shuffling things on kitchen counters.

He looked up from the clatter.  “We’re going Geocaching.  Get some clothes on.”

I broke for my room, swung around, and remembered I had forgotten my boyfriend.  I called out to him: “Get dressed, now!  Geocaching!”

He gave me a bemused, I’m-halfway-out-the-door look, cigarette balanced on the edge of his smile, and finished stepping outside.  I abandoned him and tumbled up the stairs.

A few months ago H, my stop-motion animation and strange junk store buddy, had mentioned geocaching.  We were sitting around the dinner table late at night, new friends and he in a new city and all of us with nothing to do.  I was scratching out a list, noting the missing key ingredient for each rejected plan.  If I came across plywood, or concrete, or a videocamera later I’d remember we needed it.  “Geocaching?”

He grinned at us.  “It looks sweet.  You go out into the woods with a GPS and find boxes of stuff other people hid.  I looked the Portland area up online and it looks like there’s a lot out in the woods.”

I wrote down, daylight.

When months later my roommate mentioned her boyfriend was planning to take her out geocaching, I made it pretty clear that I was coming.  Still, I in no way expected it to be so sudden.  The selective joys of unemployment, right?  I tore through my drawers, looking for something woods-worthy and adventuresome.  Somehow I came out in red spandex tights and a green leather miniskirt, topped with a shirt with diamond decals in the shape of a leopard face with eyes lying uncomfortably close to the actual location of my nipples.  I dug around for a hat Bid left in my room that always reminded me of Swedish climbers.

I re-appeared, breathless and proud.  “Adventure time!”  (Sidenote: Go watch Adventure time.)

My roommate’s boyfriend glanced critically at our dramatic poses and bright colors.  “You’re not supposed to stick out.  You’re in disguise, from the Muggles, you’re like blending in so no-one even knows you’re there.”

“What’s a Muggle?” My roommate called from the kitchen, prompting a re-screening of every clueless thing she’s ever said about fantasy literature.  “Dumbledore…that’s one of the buildings, right?”  I called back.

“Geocachers call people who aren’t ‘in the know’ Muggles, like in Harry Potter,” he added.

We set out.  Meaning, we pranced down the front steps and milled about in the driveway, trying to pretend we knew where we were supposed to go.  Our guide pulled out his smartphone.

“All you need is a phone with GPS, and this app.  And you let it load your location, and” – he tapped it – “it tells you what’s nearby.”  Magic little dots appeared all over the screen.

“…Those are all nearby?”

“Yeah, let’s set it to, say, a mile.  Ok, so it rotates as you walk, like a compass.  Uhm….that way.”

And That Way it was.

There was a bounty of little dots all around us.  We chose from them at random.  The first directed us to an exciting patch of sidewalk.  The description read ‘micro’.  We peeked under bushes and roots and clumps of dirt.

“You’re never supposed to dig for them,” he said as we started to glare at the cache-less earth, and roll up our sleeves. “But the clue says, ‘Silver’.”

“I’ve got it!”  my boyfriend cried, hunched over next to the nearby building.  He was scrabbling at a plastic box-lid, buried in the ground.  It looked…municipal.  But he held up a small, shining metal image of the Virgin and Christ, lying nested in the dirt near it.  “Silver.”

The lid finally popped up.  Inside: a lot of mud, a valve, and some piping.  Whoops.  Anything of note would have long ago sunk into the muck.  We clapped it shut and tried to pretend we weren’t water-supply cutoff terrorists.  Which we aren’t.

It started to rain.  My roommate wanted to go home, where the rain could not follow, and at least pick up another hoodie.  We stood around on the sidewalk and shrugged our shoulders against the wet.  “Let’s—“

“Found it.” I hadn’t even realized our guide was still looking.  But in his hand lay a small capsule, the size of the top segment on my pinkie finger. We shielded it from the weather, uncapped it, and used an unbent paperclip to extract the tiny scroll wedged inside.  Along it ran what I could only assume was a list of others who had visited, tiny marks that might pass as initials and dates.  Our guide made another few scratches, and before I could see how they denoted us, was rolling the tiny paper back up and out of the rain.

Our guide found the goods for our next location up in a tree, on a little pulley.  The can was full of candy, mouldy erasers, and little trinkets – and other booklet to mark our passing.  I packed gifts I had brought into the can, and we hoisted it back heavier.

Sweet victory (photo belongs to L.A.)

Giddy with success, the sun back up in the sky, we pointed the phone in another direction.

Half a mile later we were up against a loose stone wall.  “There’s no size listed,” our guide said, “but it can’t be very big if it’s hidden here.  It says to watch out – lots of muggles – act casual.”

Acting casual involved crawling around on the sidewalk peering in the crevice between every stone, and occasionally removing top ones and looking under them.  The procurement of a flashlight didn’t help appearances.  Groups of nearby employees left work and walked past us, clearly wondering if they should report us.  “It’s a scavenger hunt,” I yearned to say, “there’s a clue on this wall.” Or are there perhaps geocachers here searching all the time, and neighbors are accustomed to the fact that hiding in plain daylight, on a open street, while doing an unusual activity was impossible?  Do they take photos from their windows of the daily contortionists? Can you bend over and peer into a wall while not drawing attention?  “I’m sorry, sir, my pet gecko has escaped, and I believe he has sought refuge in one of these crevices.”

I've lost my gecko, I usually keep it in this packpack.

What felt like half an hour passed me from excitement to frustration.  Not being able to find it didn’t make any sense.  It had to be right here, and nothing tricky to it – nothing but a wall with tiny caves between each stone.   The looks we were getting were increasingly worse, as we tightened our faces and glared, half-upside down, into every little nook.  A gentleman walked past, and for once, smiled.

“I’ve been looking for that one for about a year.  Never found it,” he reflected, without breaking stride – and was gone.

We stayed frozen, shocked, in our strange poses.  Finally, “Shit.  It’s not here.  It’s been stolen.  It’s not real.”  I kicked at the wall.

Our guide turned back to the phone.  “Yeah, well, we’ll know if anyone’s seen it…logs…Someone found it yesterday.”

I did the math.  The chances that it was stolen, of all days, yesterday, were low enough to double back around and put the chances we were just dumbfucks who couldn’t find it at 98%.

We never found it.

“Two out of three, that’s not bad, that’s not bad,” our guide soothed.  “Nearby, there’s one that you have to solve like a puzzle to find, the clues tell you the coordinates, but you need internet to look stuff up—“


We set off a different way.

Our final stop was outside a house on a pleasant residential street.  “Are you sure this is right?”

“It says the geocache is on someone’s property but accessible from the sidewalk.”

Someone had stashed a tupperware of poetry on the side of their own driveway.  The logbook was larger than the others, and stretched back years.  All sorts of papers had been left, alongside the odd trinkets.  One was a temporary tattoo in the shape of a heart, reading TRIMET: Born to Ride.  I grinned and swapped it for a photograph from the 1940’s, taken with others years ago from a pile of trash a landlord left out, with an impromptu poem about our day scrawled on the back.  A few houses down, a family was moving a few things back and forth into their house, and a middle-school girl was frozen on the steps, watching us with abandon.  Five minutes later, she was still ogling.

My boyfriend waved as we put the box back and set off.  “We’re geocaching – hunting for treasure!” he informed her.  She was too shy to wave back, but still fascinated, watched us leave.  Our guide scoffed.  “You can’t talk to Muggles.  They’ll disrupt the cache.”

How does anyone find out about geocaching, I had to wonder?

But everyone seems to.  The next day, when I told my Dad, he informed me it was a popular urban sport he’d enjoyed some with friends.  I talked to some women I was working on social media for, and they clapped their hands and said they had friends who had visited and taken them – friends who had geocached in every state, who made their own tokens to distribute to caches, and who had been in Oregon just to visit a geocaching conference, and hence taken them to temporary caches made just for the conference.  What!

We wandered home along flowering Portland streets, finally drawn by a giant wall mural reading DONUTS with an arrow to a just-closed donut shop, where a man with a painted portrait of himself as a saint on the wall behind him served us day-after specials with a unique Portland brand of nonchalance.  We soaked in the paintings of rubber chickens in various conundrums on the walls – “by Dingo and Olive, they’re sweet, remember, I pointed them out of their tall clown bikes yesterday?”  I’m trying to introduce my boyfriend to Portland, but Portland does a damn good job of it all by itself.

Now, as I walk everyday past the tender spot where I know little messages and trinkets are hid, I try not to look at them.  I want to press my fingers against the hiding places and remember they’re there, to experience hidden treasure every day.  I keep my fingers to myself.  The reminder is enough!

Look for the people bent over, contorted, poking their nose where there should be nothing but old cigarette butts and leaves.  Running their hands over worn surfaces, like children who’ve mislaid a secret latch or magic portal.  They look away from you, pretending to be ordinary, pretending you can’t see the box they’re pulling where there was nothing before.  They’re young, old, your neighbors, hoodlums, adventurers, joggers, seeing messages you’ve passed every day and never laid your eyes on.

So I’m telling you, Muggles  –

– It’s everywhere.

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§ 7 Responses to Geocaching: Muggles in a Land of Secrets

  • Alex N. says:

    My father really enjoyed Geocaching. There are quite a few of them around here, and I have at least one box full of random doodads and things that he picked up at dollar stores to swap into the caches when he found them.

  • AndrewGills says:

    I’m a sometimes geocacher. It’s really good fun. I’ve been out this morning but had no real luck. I’ve only found about 22 caches since I started 2 years ago but mostly because I get into it for a few days then forget. This time I hope to be more consistent 🙂 Have a big day of caching planned tomorrow 🙂

  • Lisa says:

    The key to not standing out is not blending in but being average. Bring a dog. Pretend the dog took a shit. Bring a kid. Pretend the kid lost it’s pacifier. Bring a friend. Pretend she lost her favorite Moocard.

  • thatoneguybeau says:

    Very nicely put! Wish I could recite it when someone asks bout Geo caching. Thanks for this

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