A guided tour into the hidden world of Santa Cruz geocachers
As worldwide phenomenons go, geocaching has remained remarkably ambiguous. Of the people who have heard of it, or think they may have heard of it, fewer still could actually tell you what the sport entails. What makes this really surprising is that geocaches aren’t necessarily hidden away in the lonely reaches of Nisene Marks, Wilder Ranch, or other remote areas (though some certainly are); they’re everywhere. Many are right in the city—underfoot, overhead, or in plain view.
“You can drive anywhere and be like, ‘oh yeah, there’s one there, and there…’” says Pam Baldwin (a.k.a. Evil Cow Pie) who has hidden more than 380 caches and found almost 3,100.
Steven Stone (a.k.a. Dark Zen), who has hidden more than 200 caches in the area and found nearly 1,000, nods in agreement, “[after geocaching] you just look at your environment in a totally different way.”
They aren’t kidding. In the four or so hours we spend together, the didactic duo finds more than 10 caches without ever leaving the city limits. But what is a cache, exactly, and how did this global game of hide-and-seek come to be?
Geocaching is similar to the 150-year-old (and equally esoteric) game of letterboxing, in which players used familiar references to landmarks, usually derived from popular stories, to hide and seek boxes in which postcards and letters would be placed. The game originated on the moors of Dartmoor, England in 1854. Geocaching resembles a modernized version of this, using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates and clues in lieu of landmarks and cultural stories, and hiding assorted knick-knacks instead of letters and postcards.
“The GPS system was originally a military system, obviously, and Bill Clinton was the guy who de-classified that—turned it over to the public in general,” says Stone, who seems to have near encyclopedic knowledge of all things geocaching. “Literally within weeks after that, some guy had the idea ‘why don’t I go out into the woods and bury a container with a bunch of cool stuff in it and post it on some alt-net website’… and it was found within two days. It literally exploded after that.”
“That was 10 years ago,” adds Baldwin. Since then—May 3, 2000, to be exact—there have been more than a million geocaches hidden and found in 100 countries and on all seven continents, including Antarctica (not to mention more than 16,000 within a 20-mile radius of Downtown Santa Cruz). There’s even a cache left by an astronaut on the space station, according to Stone, though “no one’s found it yet,” he admits with a laugh.
The game can be played without a GPS in more urban areas by using Google Earth, but the more rural or remote caches do require one. As for where to find one, cachers say that hand-held GPS gadgets can be found almost anywhere that sells GPSs for cars. They are also available online at Amazon and Ebay, starting at around $200. An iPhone can be used as a GPS as well (“There’s an app for that”).
It may seem that in geocaching the GPS is really doing all the work, but really it can only get you so close—usually within 20 or so feet of the cache itself. From there you have to scout the area and use the clue (sometimes requiring decoding beforehand) supplied by the hider if you have to. “They want us to use our brains, not just be told exactly where it is,” says Baldwin.
The caches themselves range in size, shape and color, from bolt-looking magnetic “nanos” to ammunition cases, to huge Tupperware-like containers. Once a seeker has signed the log inside the cache with their alias (i.e. Evil Cow Pie or Dark Zen) they can go to geocaching.com and log the find on their profile where it will be recorded and tallied. The current record is held by “Alamo,” from Alamo, Texas, naturally, with 45,152 finds.
It seems hard to believe that such a high number of caches exist in our town without anyone unknowingly stumbling across them, but cache hiders have gotten better and better at hiding things deviously or sometimes so obviously that our eyes will pass right over them without a second glance.
“Someone who’s not a geocacher stumbling upon it will usually take it and it kind of ruins the fantasy,” says Stone. Cachers, with a hint of self-efacement, refer to non-cachers as “muggles,” a term borrowed from the Harry Potter series, which rose to popularity at the same time, that is used to describe the non-wizarding community. “The key is to hide it really well,” Stone adds. “So the further you get from civilization, the bigger the caches get.”
And the bigger the caches get, the more room there is for hiding things, or “swag” (to borrow Baldwin’s term), inside them. The swag is usually cheap or fun little things (we found a fake sheriff’s badge, a hot wheel, and a plastic dinosaur on our expedition) but can also be useful things like ponchos or first aid kits in some of the more hard-to-reach areas. The idea is that if you take something from a cache you have to leave something in its place, but other than that and a few preventative restrictions (it is a family game, after all), anything goes.
Another innovation of the game is travel bugs, which are swag with tracking numbers that can be entered on the geocaching website to report their movement from one cache to the next. “I have one that I put out here and it moved from Germany to Norway yesterday,” says Baldwin.
This kind of international connection is far from uncommon. “There’s a place out in Nisene Marks called White’s Lagoon that’s way out in the middle of Nisene—you gotta plan pretty much a whole day to get out to it,” says Stone. “We put one out there in the middle of nowhere and the first person to find it was from Sweden.”
“If you don’t hide, the sport dies,” adds Baldwin. “You have to keep expanding.” This isn’t always easy in an area already saturated with caches (they have to be 500 feet apart to avoid coordinate confusion) and there are, of course, some places where one shouldn’t hide a cache: it’s prohibited to hide any kind of package near schools or power plants and under bridges. However, harmless geocaches have fallen under suspicion, even of SWAT teams. “We had a local cacher who that happened to,” remembers Stone. “He had a cache on the UC [Santa Cruz] grounds and they sent the bomb squad in and blew it up.” Following the sport’s guidelines and marking any packages that might arouse suspicion with geocaching stickers became especially important for local participants after the incident.
Geocaching in general is a very loosely organized sport. This doesn’t mean they don’t try to give back to the community that makes up the landscape of their never-ending game. “There are events that are called CITOs–‘cache in, trash out.’ We [did] one Sept. 25 at Natural Bridges that was a beach cleanup,” says Baldwin. She says that maintaining the beauty of the outdoor world is integral to fully enjoying geocaching in any area.
Geocaching seems all well and good … but what’s the point?
Baldwin answers the question from a mother’s perspective: “To get [the kids] out. That’s the main thing. Get the kids off their video games and get them outside.”
Stone agrees. “I think the underlying philosophy is just to create a family sport that brings people together,” he says. “A lot of people have these secret places that they know about that no one else knows about and they’ll put a cache there to bring other people to it. It’s an instant way to find where the cool spots are.”
In a society ever more entrenched in the annals of cyberspace, ever more content to live vicariously through a computer screen, geocaching is a merger of high-tech gadgetry with real-life nature.