When I opened the well-hidden Altoids box on a sunny afternoon not too long ago, I immediately morphed from a “muggle” to a “cacher” in the global treasure hunt known as geocaching. With their hand-held GPS units, specific geographic coordinates, and clues downloaded from Internet sites devoted to their adventurous hobby, cachers call non-geocaching civilians muggles, a reference to the non-magical characters from the Harry Potter saga. On that fateful Saturday, I’d crossed the invisible line and entered their growing worldwide community.
The high-tech scavenger hunt known as geocaching-“geo” for Earth and “caching” for the container or stash-was made possible in 2000 when the international Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite network was opened up to allow for on-the-ground digital readings that were accurate up to three meters. Since then, the game’s been embraced by gadget lovers and outdoor enthusiasts, and today, there are more than 650,000 caches hidden on every continent (including Antarctica) and in more than 100 countries.
To join the fun, I explored the bus stops and backwoods of Santa Barbara with two geocaching veterans. First, we scouted out locations listed on geocaching.com. Even with a GPS, latitude and longitude coordinates, and clues specific to the uniquely named location, there remains an art to the grab and find, particularly since the caches themselves are carefully camouflaged. What’s inside the cache-in my case of the Altoids box, it was just buttons, seashells, coins, a pencil, and a notebook-isn’t nearly as important as the thrill of the hunt. The trophy for the treasure is marking the notebook in the cache and checking off the online visitor record. These Web logs provide an online forum where people chat about the hide and seek.
My own geocaching experience proved that not all caches are easy to find. After finding the Altoids box in a hollowed-out structure by the side of a road, we logged another cache called “The End” at literally the end of a road. Our day’s next destination, called “Campanile Bell,” eluded us. But even without the find, we were rewarded with a great view, a spectacular vantage point I would have otherwise never visited if it weren’t for the game.
The popularity of geocaching comes from the joy of being outdoors with a purpose and the process of being directed to go somewhere off-and sometimes on-the beaten path. People gather together the family for geocaching at family reunions or look for an exotic log-in on a vacation. Along with the sense of camaraderie, there’s an emphasis placed on environmental stewardship with the motto, “Cache In, Trash Out.”
The seekers also do the hiding. Enthusiasts-including GeoBigDog, the nickname of someone who’s hidden hundreds of Santa Barbara caches-told me that they’re always walking the streets, beaches, or trails to scope out cache sites. Now, while going around town, I wonder if there are caches behind a stop sign, hidden in a traffic light, or even tucked beneath my seat at a coffee shop. Once placed somewhere on the grounds of a Milpas Street fast food joint, near the entryway to the Arlington Theatre, on top of La Cumbre Peak, amid the boats on the waterfront, or at the bottom of a lake, the hider names the cache, records its existence on the Internet, and then watches the emails from seekers flurry in, especially from that hardcore group who compete to be the first to uncover a cache’s location.
Yet whether we’re the first or the hundredth finder, we all experience the excitement of uncovering something hidden, particularly in a natural setting. I felt it opening that Altoids tin, after which I recorded it by my geocaching login name (Mighty Pen) along with my caching guide (Mowbo). It’s an excuse to get outside and solve a puzzle anywhere on the planet, but more importantly, to find that sense of exploration in our own backyards. For myself, I know I’ll never look at Santa Barbara the same way again, knowing that more than 2,500 caches are hidden in the 93103 zip code alone.
For more info, see geocaching.com.