'Geocaching' gives new meaning to playing hide and seek

Straddling my bicycle and scanning my surroundings, I decided to approach who I assumed was the treasure-keeper and asked, "Does 'the geocache flies at midnight' mean anything to you?"

??"Does the geo-what fly where?" he asked, looking quizzically into my eyes.

I thought maybe this was a test, but after an awkward moment of staring at each other, the man I questioned said that he truly had no idea what I was talking about.

And really, who would? My journey was an unusual one. I was on a hunt to locate a hidden treasure, called a "cache," using the GPS feature on my cell phone.

Geocaching has been embraced worldwide with hundreds of people participating everyday. It involves using a GPS unit to locate hidden containers, or "caches," that have been placed by other geocachers in what could basically be called a high-tech treasure hunt.

The first instance of geocaching took place on May 3, 2000 when Dave Ulmer hid a bucket full of books, food, money and more in the woods just outside of Portland, Oregon. Today thousands of caches can be found all over the world in trees, underwater in swimming holes, and most likely within a mile of your front door.

Last week, I scoured the official geocaching website, geocaching.com, trying to find one of these hidden caches near campus. I settled on one titled "Lord of the Rings" and took to the streets in hopes of a rousing afternoon adventure.

After pedaling my way down to the general vicinity of the listed coordinates, I ended up on The Strand bicycle path. I took off my backpack and rooted for all of the components necessary in a typical geocaching toolkit: a GPS unit, a pen, some trinkets to trade and notes containing clues from the cache's profile.

Although many caches are simple to locate such as park-and-grabs others take quite a bit of sleuthing and even multiple attempts.

Robert Newell, a treasure hunter with over 9,000 notches in his geocaching belt, said that sometimes the hobby forces you to think outside of the box. He told the story of one daunting hunt in a park with his wife, a fellow geocacher.

"We were sure we had looked everywhere it could be, but after we had left I started to think," he said. "This round picnic table was set in concrete and I thought maybe it could be lifted up."?

They returned to the park and successfully lifted the 100 pound table up, exposing the illusive cache hidden in an underground pipe.

Although the cache I was in search of did not require any physical exertion, it did require that I approach the "operatives" at the cache's hiding place and state, "The geocache flies at midnight" to receive my prize.

I had almost given up, but the sympathetic man who I first encountered ended up unexpectedly helping me. As I paced the area, he approached to tell me that the location I was searching was not the only one of it's kind in the area. Soon after, my feet hit the pedals and I took off with new insight.

A few more clues finally led me to my prize. As I lifted the top off the official geocache box labeled "Top Secret," an abundance of children's toys, jewelry, five years' worth of logbooks, and "travel bugs" were revealed.

Travel bugs are track-able hitchhiking tags that look similar to dog tags. They each carry a code that can be looked up online. Once behind the computer, a geocacher can view all the locations the travel bug has visited.

The caption on the travel bug I found explained its unique history.

"I belong to a married couple who are both disabled," it said. "Their dream has always been to see more of the world but it is very difficult for them to travel. Therefore, they have sent me in their place, with a mission to see all of the wonderful places they cannot visit."

This bug will be traveling with me to New Orleans this summer.

Geocaching can be personally rewarding after you make it through awkward conversations with strangers who, unknowingly, are wandering oh-so-close to the cache site. However, what I found most significant is the vicarious experience the global geocaching community can provide for those unable to go on the adventure themselves.