Right now, at this very moment, you are surrounded by hidden treasure. No matter where you might be in Birmingham, in all likelihood there are a number of carefully concealed containers near you. You spend your days walking blithely past these troves, oblivious to their presence and undesirous of their contents, but a small and rapidly growing population of high-tech treasure-hunters has begun to arise around the quest for their discovery.
I am speaking, for the uninitiated, of geocaching (pronounced “geo-cashing”), a global game of hide and seek that covers over a hundred countries and all seven continents, including Antarctica. There are, as I write this, over 1.2 million of these hidden containers, known as caches, on Earth, including one in the Russian section of the International Space Station that was placed by video-game designer and early space-tourist Richard Garriot. Within a 15 mile radius of downtown Birmingham there are over 1200 caches hidden. There are caches in the tops of trees, the bottom of caves and underwater. If a person can get there, it’s becoming more and more likely that there is a cache there as well.
Caches always contain a log of the people who have already found them and the larger ones often contain other goodies. You can take whatever you like, as long as you replace it with something of equal or greater value. In reality, much of the extra stuff you find in these caches (with some notable exceptions that I’ll mention later) is dime-store junk, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun to find and sift through. Anyone can place a cache, provided they follow certain guidelines, and maintain it after its placement. As prevalent as caches are becoming now, geocaching is still in relative infancy, having only recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of the very first geocache.
On May 2, 2000, the United States removed Selective Availability from the Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), enabling people to receive an un-degraded signal anywhere on the globe. As we now know, in our GPS-saturated, gadget-filled wonderland, this enabled anyone possessing a GPS receiver to pinpoint their exact location. The following day geocaching was born when Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Ore. placed the first cache in an effort to test the new GPS capability. It was a partially buried black plastic bucket containing mapping software, money and a slingshot, among other things. Back then, interest in GPS was a pretty rare hobby, but Ulmer posted the coordinates of his hidden container on a GPS-focused Usenet newsgroup, and within three days it had been found and logged twice.
Things have come a long way since the days of obscure internet forums and hefty GPS receivers that could barely be called portable. These days, everyone and their mother have GPS built into their smartphone, and it is largely for this reason that the sport of geocaching has seen such an explosion in the last few years. Cache locations are now aggregated into a central website, geocaching.com, and from there one can track all manner of statistics about the hobby. To begin a trek as a geocacher, one need only download an app and tap a few buttons. Becoming the first to find a cache is an honorarium that gets snatched up in a matter of minutes rather than days, thanks to a text alert system that lets you know the moment a new cache has published in the field.
Some caches are simple watertight containers, Tupperware or ammo boxes. The smaller caches are often magnetic key containers, film cannisters or the tiny and devious containers known as “nanos,” which are no bigger than a thumbnail. Often, however, cache owners will craft devious camouflages for their hidden troves. A quick YouTube search yielded videos of some amazing creations. One cache was a life-size phone booth which would release the cache when the correct sequence of numbers was entered into the keypad. Another looked just like a normal water faucet protruding from the exterior of a building, but when you pulled on it the entire cinderblock it was in slid out like a drawer, revealing the cache.
Many people have adopted the practice of leaving “signature items” in caches they find, and these are the true treasure of geocaching. The best of these are official “trackables,”often in the form of a coin with a tracking number, which can be given a travel goal (such as “go to Germany” or “visit all seven continents”) and then followed online. You can also make any item trackable by attaching a tag known as a “travel bug,” which can be purchased from Groundspeak, the company that operates the geocaching website.
Another great thing about geocaching is that it leads you to new places that you would have otherwise missed. I discovered a cave not 10 minutes walking distance from my house that I was unaware of, because there is a cache buried near its entrance (or so I assume, I haven’t found that little bugger yet). People often place caches in areas that have meaning to them, as evidenced by a series of local caches placed to commemorate the wedding of a geocacher. He placed caches in areas connected to the wedding, including in the church parking lot and near Levy’s jewelry store where he bought the ring.
Geocaching is also a learning experience. A cache I found outside the library in Linn Park taught me all about a ghost that supposedly roams it’s stacks, and another led me to a plaque at “The Heaviest Corner on Earth”, a promotional name for the corner of First Avenue and 20th Street, given in the early 20th century because it housed some of the largest buildings in the South on each corner.
Birmingham isn’t new to the game; in fact, geocaching events have been incorporated in the Moss Rock Festival here for a number of years. Alabama is also home to the Alabama Geocachers Association (AGA), an open group for those interested in learning more about the sport. Their website, dixiecachers.com, is an excellent resource for geocaching tips and tricks. I recently got together with a few AGA members to talk over some of the finer points of geocaching here in Birmingham.
Here’s where I should mention another of geocaching’s charming little quirks. Every participant in the game gets a nickname and is referred to by that name throughout the geocaching universe. My name is Sweet-George, and the fine people who were gracious enough to take a stranger caching with them are known as Searching4fun, January14, Smarky and Jrou111.
They are a diverse group. Searching4fun (aka Linda Reinhardsen) and January14 (Joe Fowler) are an older couple, while Smarky (aka Sandy Harris) is a wisecracking lady with a shiny red sports car and Jrou111 (aka James Rouhani) is a young man with a passion for extreme geocaching.
“There are plenty of extreme terrain caches that require special equipment,” says Jrou111, “like rock-climbing gear or repelling gear, or even the ability to winch down a tree. I [placed] one that’s about 35 feet up at the top of the tree, and very well hidden. It was actually put out because [searching4fun and january14] had hidden a cache in a pile of rocks in a tiny little container, and I couldn’t find it, so I got mad. I named my cache ‘A Dish Best Served Cold.’”
I ask them if they have any tips for any of you who might have their interest piqued enough by this article to give geocaching a try. Aside from advocating for the AGA website, January 14 has one really good tip. “When you get to the area,” he says, “within 30 feet of the cache, put the GPS down. Open up both your eyes and use your hands and eyes and look around for different possibilities or things that may seem out of place, and that’s probably the best way to actually find something. Because if you’re really attached to your GPS, if you try to get to that perfect spot, you’re gonna end up falling off a cliff.”
Speaking of falling off a cliff, Jrou111 related a story of how geocaching turned dangerous during an expedition on Red Mountain. “We were actually trying to find a cache at nighttime,” he says, “and it was about eight o’ clock at night, and we were trying to avoid taking the Vulcan Trail to get down [to the cache], because it’s a fairly decent hike. We were near NBC-13, and there’s this cliff. So we tried to approach NBC-13, and I’m in shorts and I have a flashlight and a GPS, and it’s just nothing but Red Mountain scree, it’s just loose rock, and we start walking down, and all of a sudden my feet come out from under me and I slide about 20 feet down the hill in pitch black darkness. I lose my flashlight, GPS I’m holding onto, and I just skid down the hill.”
At this point Searching4fun is quick to remind me that it’s not all midnight trips in the dangerous dark. “The good thing about geocaching is it’s every level, for anybody,” she says. “We have families that have small kids that love to go. We have older people, retired people, we have handicapped people that cache, just in this community.”
That community has been more than welcoming to me, offering their phone numbers in case I get stumped out in the field, and inviting me to their annual Dirty Santa Celebration, so don’t be afraid to join in. If you are looking for an activity that gets you out of your house, but still lets you play with your gadgets or if you like secrets and puzzles, than do yourself a favor and download the free geocaching app on your smartphone. All the major brands have one. In fact, do it now, wherever you are. I’ll bet there’s a cache nearby, just waiting for you to find it. Happy hunting!
For more information on geocaching, visit the official site at www.geocaching.com and the Alabama Geocachers Association at www.dixiecachers.com. To download the free smartphone app, visit your app store and search for “geocaching.”
Sam George is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.