The World’s Biggest Treasure Hunt
On November 11, 2011, I drove east on the Long Island Expressway. I had never driven outside of my home state of Texas, as evidenced by my white-knuckled grip of the steering wheel. I was on my way to meet a group of people who are part of one of the largest worldwide organizations — over four million strong — that you have probably never heard of. My destination was an unsuspecting chain restaurant in Carle Place, New York, a small town located in western Long Island.
Upon arriving, I entered the building looking for Marilyn, the event ogranizer. The back of the restaurant was packed with people from all walks of life: mothers clutching infants, comfortable retirees, war veterans, and talkative groups of teenage boys. The disparate group had come together to celebrate their love of geocaching (pronounced geo-CASHing), a global treasure hunt that has grown exponentially in the past decade. Millions of treasures, or caches as they are called, are hidden across the world, with their GPS coordinates documented in a database on geocaching.com. Avid geocachers use GPS-enabled devices such as smartphones to locate caches, eventually logging their discovery on the website. I had heard about geocaching in 2007, and had only just discovered that there were thriving communities of geocachers a short drive from where I live in Brooklyn.
Weaving between tables, I saw no sign of an event leader, so I approached the table and asked a seated couple if Marilyn was around. “She’s late to her own event!” exclaimed the seated woman. The couple, who introduced themselves as Sue and Sean from northern New Jersey, invited me to join them. They were accompanied by a plastic toy rat named Templeton, who sat in the middle of the table with a curious dog tag attached to his neck. Lying on the table to Sue’s left was a palm-sized golden disc with astrological markings and a compass-like dial. I recognized it as sort of ancient map to the stars — Columbus used one when he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to discover North America.
As we spoke, several young kids approached and asked to photograph Templeton and his dog tag. When I asked why the toy rat was so popular, Sue explained, “He’s a discoverable. He stays with us, but others can discover him and log his number.” In geocaching, a discoverable is any item tagged with a number. Cachers photograph or write down the number so that they can later input it into the geocaching website, and document the discovery on their profile. Geocaching isn’t simply a system of hidden treasures — it’s an interconnected web of objects and people, in which everything has its own dedicated webpage, a sort of digital guestbook that has been signed by geocachers all of the world. Even transportation gets in on the action. “Sometimes, if you look carefully, you’ll see cars with geocaching bumping stickers. It will have a number on it that is trackable.”
Geocaching went from communal hobby to global phenomenon thanks in part to Bill Clinton. In May of 2000, the former president ended selective availability, an intentional scrambling of satellite signals that prevented enemies from using GPS signals for military reasons. Once Clinton flipped the switch, any citizen with a personal GPS device immediately noticed a signal that was ten times stronger. Such increased accuracy catapulted geocaching into the future. An early group of geocaching enthusiasts formed Groundspeak, the company now responsible for running geocaching.com, the portal through which the vast majority of geocaching activity is accessed. When the site launched on September 2, 2000, there were only 75 documented caches around the world. Today, there are over a million.
With the launch of Groundspeak’s geocaching phone app, the activity is more accesible than ever. At the mere touch of a screen, your phone will display every cache hidden with a mile radius of your location. The app provides GPS coordinates, maps and hints to assist you in your hunt. Often cleverly hidden from plain sight, as to avoid interference with pedestrians (or Muggles, as geocachers call them), caches take the form of containers that always hold a log sheet and often, a few trinkets. Sometimes it might be a sterling silver coin, imprinted with a trackable number. Other times it might just be a cheap, children’s toy. In many ways it almost doesn’t matter — the treasure is usually less important to geocachers than the hunt itself. ”The cache isn’t always a box under a log,” warned Sean, yelling over the din of geocachers who had packed that restaurant to capacity. Treequest, a New Jersey-based gecacher is known for designing incredible containers for his caches, often involving a high degree of ingenuity for the seeker: complex puzzles, pulley systems, levers, and other simple physics experiments are par for the course.
As the night wore on, the more I talked to the geocachers, the more I realized I was surrounded by naturally curious people, history buffs who take pride in learning about their surroundings. ”We went to Niagra Falls, and of course we went to all the tourist spots,” Sue said. “But because we went caching, we saw beautiful sites that we otherwise would’ve missed.” As Sue spoke, a fellow friend and geocacher named Barbara joined us. When I asked everyone at the table if the proliferation of smartphones had changed geocaching, everyone laughed, exchanging knowing glances with each other. “Well, it’s certainly brought more people out,” explained Barbara. “That’s good for us, because more people means more caches will be hidden. That means more for us to discover.” Though he had the geocaching app on his phone, Sean pulled a GPS device from his pocket and set it on the table, explaining that the old-school method is still tried and true.
As we continued talking, Marilyn arrived. She set up camp a few tables away, and was barely seated before a swarm of people formed a line to her right. The cachers were eager to get their hands on a commerative coin that Marilyn had custom-made especially for the event, each was, of course, trackable. “Oh, Marilyn is wild,” laughed Sue. “It’s almost impossible to find a cache around here that Marilyn hasn’t gotten to first.” They weren’t kidding. When I finally pulled myself away to thank Marilyn for organizing the event, she laughed off the jokes about her reputation, but I later discovered she had found 9,111 caches to date, a feat that requires multiple years of active hunting. “There are a few I haven’t found yet in [Brooklyn's] Prospect Park,” she told me. “So I’d be glad to take you caching!” We shook hands, and I said my goodbyes to Sean and Sue, who told me that I should try to get to New Jersey for their annual Caching in the Snow event.
Inspired by Sean, Sue and the rest of the geocachers at the Long Island meeting, I returned home and downloaded the geocaching iPhone app. Standing in the heart of lower Manhattan, I fired up the app, holding little hope that there were many caches hidden in the city, where hordes of pedestrians make it difficult to inconspicuously hide an object. Yet much to my surprise, there were several caches. With frosty breath and a wool scarf wrapped around my neck, I scurried over to the corner of 23rd and 8th with the help of the phone app. Once the app informed me that I had reached the location, my beginner’s nerves set in. How would I know where to look?
Trying to perform a covert search while avoiding the gaze of a few cops who stood nearby, I set to scouring the corner. The phone app only gave one hint: “In and up, about waist level.” After only a few minutes, I found the cache — a small container, magnetized to the underside of a piece of infrastructure. I opened the container, signed my name to the log sheet, and quickly placed the cache in its hiding spot, ensuring that NYPD’s finest were preoccupied. As I skipped away from the corner, I realized I was hooked; not only does geocaching get you into the great outdoors, it provides a whole new means of perceiving your surroundings. In the process of uncovering caches, I’m discovering my city in a whole new light. No longer is it just Manhattan, it is now a treasure-laden island, filled with tiny discoveries — a secret society that anyone can be in on.