Thursday, November 20, 2003
It is a beautiful September day on Del Monte Beach. Across the bay, the Santa Cruz Mountains look like shadows in the afternoon sun. It is the kind of scene I could ponder all day long if I didn''t have some serious adventure to attend to.
Brushing the sand from my legs, I get up and turn on my handheld Global Positioning System unit, a piece of technology--about the size of a cellular phone--that uses signals from satellites to tell a person where he is. On the unit''s screen, a map of my surroundings pops up like a quick sketch showing the major roads and natural features around me. A small box under the map on the unit tells me that I am only 146 feet from hidden treasure.
While two women approach from the Del Monte Beach Hotel, I put the GPS unit to my ear and pretend like it''s a cell phone.
"No, I can''t do a nine o'' clock, but I could meet you at ten," I say as the women pass by. They don''t suspect a thing.
About 10 feet from the Monterey Recreation Trail, I place my GPS on the ground and start frantically digging in the dunes, until I spot a pedestrian walking towards me. Hoping that the gentleman did not see me, I stare out into the bay at a group of sailboats circling around like a school of sharks. After the speed walker passes by, I plunge my hands into the cool sand and feel an object buried about a foot.
When I pull the object out of the sand, I see that it is a large plastic container with a screw top and a label announcing that this is the "Good Friday" geocache. Though the plastic container is filled with useless trinkets like a Harry Potter trading card, a pack of Play-Doh and a bar of soap from a Motel 6, I feel like a treasure hunter pulling a chest of gold from the heaving seas.
A geocache, in the simplest terms, is a place on Earth where something has been hidden. Geocaching is the name of a sport where individuals hide these things and post hints about where they''re located, and others try and locate the geocaches. Geocaching is like a good old-fashioned scavenger hunt, except that you use high-tech gadgetry.
The hunter starts by going online to www.geocaching.com, where he or she is able to find the coordinates of geocaches in his or her area. Then, using a GPS unit, the hunter wanders through the woods or city streets of his area looking for the exact location of the cache.
Ford''s Hoard: Dave Ford compares Global Positioning System units.
Most GPS units become obsolete when the hunter gets within 20 feet of the geocache. Then the hunter is forced to rely on hints in encrypted code from the Website, or plain old instinct.
The only equipment needed to start hunting is access to the Internet and a GPS unit. Until 1996, GPS units were super-secret spy stuff, reserved for use by the United States Department of Defense because of their powerful navigational capacity. Now, any Joe or Jane can purchase a basic unit for about $100.
In 2000, two satellites were added to the skies, making civilian GPS units more accurate. A few days later, an Oregon man named Mike Teague tested the new powers of his GPS by finding a container of items hidden by a friend of his named Dave Ulmer, near Portland. Excited by his find, Teague created his own Website and geocaching was born.
Later that year, Jeremy Irish helped Teague redesign the Website and renamed it Geocaching.com. The Website (which bears the slogan "The Sport Where You Are the Search Engine") is where most people go to find the coordinates of geocaches in their area.
A traditional geocache is a container-- such as an old ammo box or a small Tupperware container-- filled with a journal and an assortment of usually worthless trinkets. The rule is that when a hunter takes an item, he or she must donate a replacement article to the stash. Since the prizes in most geocaches are things like pencil erasers and old pennies, enthusiasts quickly learn that the biggest reward is the satisfaction gained by finding a cache.
But not all geocaches are caches. One type of cache--known as a "virtual cache"--skips the whole cache idea entirely. A virtual cache is nothing more than a location and its coordinates. Since there is no physical cache, with a logbook and silly prizes, a virtual cache often includes instructions from the individual who posted the coordinates on Geocaching.com--tasks that prove the hunter has found the spot. One virtual cache in Pacific Grove asks visitors to write a poem about the discovered location and take a photograph of the spot.
A "multi-cache" is a cache that involves two or more locations. Instead of retrieving a box of prizes at the first location, hunters find hints leading them to another location.
Socializing with other geocachers requires some work. A geocachers'' party is known, in the quasi-scientific parlance, as an "event cache." Directions to the event, of course, are posted by planners as coordinates on Geocaching.com.
Not long ago, a group of about 15 local geocachers came together in Veteran''s Memorial Park for an event cache. While sharing a picnic lunch, the attendees swapped geocaching stories before hiding a geocache called "Bark Bark."
Our county is chocked full of interesting geocaches, which the uninitiated pass by every day. Using geocaching.com, I discovered that there were 95 caches within a 10-mile radius of my apartment in New Monterey.
The caches are as varied as Monterey County''s landscape. One popular cache is located right on Monterey''s Municipal Wharf. Another, in southern Big Sur can be found only after a grueling two-hour hike. One cache, called the Greater Monterey Peninsula Rapid Transit Moving Cache, is a two-by-five-inch magnetic card that is constantly moving to different iron-based objects in public areas within 10 miles of downtown Monterey.
Other caches in our area instruct hunters to follow a certain theme when leaving items in the hidden containers. There is a Pez cache, a maps cache, a buttons cache and a cache filled with items related to surfing. There are also a handful of caches that instruct visitors to take a photo of themselves with a disposable camera.
For beginning geocachers, one of the most exciting aspects of the sport is discovering that they have been walking past geocaches on a daily basis and they were totally oblivious to the burgeoning subculture.
Within 300 feet of the Last Leg geocache, hidden in Jacks Peak Park, local geocachers Dave Ford and Will Signorelli start to jog. Shoving each other like excited children, the two head into the woods, leaving me behind. A few seconds later, Signorelli discovers the cache under a fallen tree.
Signorelli was the first of the longtime friends to discover geocaching. The Marina native purchased a GPS unit after reading an article about the sport. For Signorelli, who enjoys flying remote controlled airplanes and riding in a kite buggy on local beaches, geocaching sounded like a good excuse to add a GPS unit to his collection of high-tech toys.
At first, Ford thought that geocaching sounded like a stupid idea. But one day this past spring, Signorelli convinced Ford to try and find a geocache located near Ford''s home in Moss Landing. "He [Signorelli] just sat around and watched me and laughed," Ford says.
Even though Ford says there was nothing special about his first cache, he quickly surpassed Signorelli in geocache finds. "It started out as a challenge against my buddy, but then it became good exercise and fun to do," he says. "I reached 100 [finds] in a few months."
One of the reasons that Ford was able to rack up so many finds so fast is that he is self-employed--he owns a tile resurfacing company, Perma Ceram. When Ford is traveling around the county for jobs in his white work van, he consults a large notebook full of printouts to find geocaches in the area. "I''ll be driving down the road, and if I see one, I''ll just stop," he says.
In addition to keeping his GPS unit and a notebook in his van, Ford has a backpack filled with a label maker, a handful of Ziplock bags, a few spare batteries, a walkie talkie, a geocaching patch, and an assortment of trade items to place in caches. Since GPS units are known to devour batteries, Ford says, he has to purchase bargain packs of 48 AAs on a monthly basis.
Earlier in the day after finding a cache called Cache de Canyon, Ford had shown me his equipment while doing a little maintenance on the container and its contents. He spent about 10 minutes improving the cache by putting a sticker and label on the ammo box and replacing a Ziplock bag.
Before leaving Cache de Canyon to find Last Leg, we each made a small entry in the logbook. Like a lot of other geocachers, Ford and Signorelli marked their entry with a personalized rubber stamp.
Ford found the cache after only 10 minutes of searching. While I was taking in a view of Carmel Valley, he took off on a rough path and headed into the woods to the right of the path. A few seconds later, he announced he had found the ammo box under a pile of sticks.
"You just have to look for telltale signs like something just doesn''t look right," he said. "How did these sticks all fall in the same stack?"
Spend a day with these two guys and you will hear a lot of stories about geocaching. While we sort through some of the items in the Last Leg container, also an ammo box, the two tell me about a multi-cache they found in Fort Ord, a yarn that won them the best geocaching story award at this summer''s event cache. Apparently, coordinates from Geocaching.com led the duo to an old settler''s graveyard. Then Ford and Signorelli were instructed to add the dates on the tombstones to find the hidden container. As it grew dark, the two became spooked and headed back to their vehicle. Somehow on the walk back, Ford found a little path leading directly to the cache.
They also talk about other geocachers they have met while searching for caches. They tell me about someone called Iron Chef, a former UCSC student who used to steal spoons from the school cafeteria and leave them in caches. Another cacher frequently mentioned is Betsy Plunkett, a 60-year-old retired schoolteacher who is reputed to find local geocaches just minutes after they have been posted on geocaching.com.
Far and Away(left): Dave Ford looks on while Will Signorelli points toward newly discovered hidden treasure. Holed On(right): Will Signorelli searches for the Zoom-Zoom geocache.
Plunkettfound out about the sport in a science magazine while teaching a class at Lagunita School. Now, along with her husband and golden retriever, she has found 146 geocaches. Of the finds, Plunkett found 20 before anyone else did.
Plunkett has a simple explanation for her speedy finds.
"I''m retired, and I have time on my hand to check the Website and see when they come up," she says.
While walking back to my truck from the Last Leg cache, Signorelli tells me about his dream job. He tells me that if he had an office job, he would place a cache outside his office window so he could watch geocachers hunting for the container all day long.
For Signorelli and others, geocaching is just a reason to explore their surroundings. "I found a lot of places I didn''t know existed," he says.
For me, geocaching brought back a flood of childhood memories.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a treasure hunter when I grew up. I would spend all of my time during my family''s annual weeklong trip to the Outer Banks, No. Carolina, digging for pirate treasure. Being a couple of years older than my brother, I was able to coerce him into spending his whole vacation toiling for me in the hot southern sun.
I remember one hole that we dug under our vacation house. While other kids were playing in the surf, my brother and I fought clouds of biting flies and dug a huge pit right under our rental. My parents would come visit in the afternoon with our black Labrador, Flip. My dad would put his cocktail in the sand and dig in our hole until he got bored a few minutes later. Somehow, my brother and I never got bored of digging. It was probably because we knew there would a chest full of gold doubloons just a few feet further.
By the time I entered high school, my dreams of becoming a treasure hunter started to fade away. I basically forgot about my dream until a month ago when I found my first geocache on Del Monte Beach.
During a phone interview with Jeremy Irish, the president of Groundspeak, the company that runs geocaching.com, the soft-spoken Seattle resident tells me that he got into geocaching for the same reason I did.
"I got excited about the idea of going out and finding treasure," he says.
Irish says that he expected GPS enthusiasts to embrace the sport, but he was surprised when families started to geocache. Currently, there are 8,940 people who have accounts with Geocaching.com. Irish estimates that there are probably another 10,000 people who enjoy the sport but don''t have accounts with his company.
According to geocaching.com, there are 73,504 active caches in 188 countries. The number is increasing daily; there have been 6,000 new caches hidden over the last two months. There is a geocache hidden near the town of Charikar in Afghanistan, where a retired Special Forces Warrant Officer found an Operation Enduring Freedom patch on Oct. 29. In Iraq, our troops are geocaching in the war-torn country. Geocaching.com shows that there are five caches hidden in the country, including three on American-held airbases.
Cache Money: Dave Ford holds up one piece of the LZ multicache.
Even in the most remote places in the world, people are enjoying the sport. In Antarctica, there are eight geocaches with names like Penguin Post Office and Seal Splash.
With the ranks of geocachers swelling, some small towns believe that geocaching could help boost tourism. In Spearman, Texas, the chamber of commerce is preparing to hide caches at town sites with historical significance. The caches will contain trinkets, postcards and coupons for local businesses.
Even though there are a large number of caches in our area, the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce has not implemented a similar program. "At this time, we are not participating in any geocasting, or is it geocaching?" says Brenda Roncarati, the president of the Chamber. "It sounds interesting. We are always looking for something outside the box."
With so many people poking around under bridges and buildings, the sport could start to alarm local law enforcement during these times of heightened security. While looking for the Zoom Zoom cache, hidden near a highway underpass in Sand City, Signorelli, Ford and I aroused the suspicions of a police officer driving by in a cruiser. After Ford explained the sport to the officer, the policeman gave us a cold stare and muttered "it just looks kind of funky" before returning to his vehicle.
This May, Sue McCloud, the mayor of Carmel, discovered a geocache while walking her dog on Scenic and Eighth Street. Having never heard of the new sport, McCloud promptly called the police about the suspicious olive green ammo box tucked in a bush. "It got my attention, shall we say," she says. "It was something I didn''t think I should touch."
Police officer Chris Johnson responded to the call and noticed geocaching.com written on the box. Johnson waited for dispatch to investigate the Website before opening the container. "After September 11, everyone is a little different about packages," he says. "I guarantee if the box was near a public building, the bomb squad would have been there."
After opening the container, Johnson followed the instructions in the cache and got another officer to take his picture in front of his cruiser with a disposable camera found in the ammo box. He also ended up placing a business card in the cache before sending it back to Geocaching.com.
McCloud, who was a CIA operative for 31 years, was not fazed by the unusual find. The mayor admits that the sport sounds interesting. "It wouldn''t turn me off," she says. "It''s sort of like finding a letter in a bottle."