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J. Mitch Hopper writes about his favorite hobby in “Games People Play,” a funny account of a trip to the West that nearly ended in disaster.

Mitch HopperI’m not a particularly brave man. While it’s true, I do undertake some activities with uncertain outcomes, I always make sure there is a large margin for error and always have a parachute, spare air, or a secret safety door within arm’s reach. I’ll never scale the Eiger, penetrate the Lusitania or wear blackface for a Klan rally. I left all those risky behaviors behind at 25. My body is older now. My knees are weak, my blood is more sugar than red cells, and my heart is in serious need of a cholesterol purge. Still, I savor the unexpected, the nearly dangerous, the almost foolhardy. Along comes geocaching.

At first blush, geocaching sounds like the silliest sport yet devised by an increasingly technocratic society. Part Internet search, part satellite tracking, and part woods tromping, geocaching is sometimes known as high-tech hide and seek. The game is simple. First I log onto a Web site where a simple background check makes fairly sure that I am an actual person with a trackable e-mail account. No money changes hands. Once a recognized member I choose an avatar — a secret name — by which I am now known to other geocachers. The secret name lets me remain anonymous. I can log in any time I wish and play the game. Now, about the game; here is where it gets a little weird.

You may not realize it, but each time you drive to work or travel around the city, county or state, you are passing secret hidden stashes. These stashes are anything from small 16mm film canisters to large green surplus ammunition cases. In them are a logbook and perhaps a few trinkets to trade. In fact, right now there are 160,000 hidden caches in 214 countries. The largest number are, of course, here in the U.S.

Here’s how it works.

I place a secret cache in a waterproof box in a hole in a tree stump a few hundred feet off a hiking trail in some state park or conservation area. I register the cache with an identifying name like “I’m Stumped” and log the latitude and longitude using any of the popular and highly accurate hand-held Global Position Satellite locators, or GPSs. In addition, I may mention something interesting about the area. That’s it. The geocache is placed.

Now, you, searcher, log onto the Web site and see that a new cache has been placed at such and such coordinates and off you go. A short hike with your GPS locator and there it is. You open it, write your name in the logbook and maybe trade a trinket or two. Later, when you get home, you log onto the Web site and add an entry that indicates that you found it and lets you make a comment or two. That’s all there is to it. Sounds absolutely boring, eh? Well, this is where it gets interesting.

There are several different sorts of caches. One is for the kids. It is always easily found and never far from a parking lot. It lets this sport stay family oriented. The kids get to find something in the outdoors and come back with a whistle or a key-fob from Key West.

Another type is for the puzzle masters. The cache is cleverly hidden and must be found by applying a bit of brain power. A cache named “Rock Me Baby” will have the same accurate GPS coordinates as any other cache but you have to figure out that one of the rocks on the ground is actually made of fiberglass and hinged to hide the contents. These can get very devious. A recent cache I found was hidden 10 feet up and disguised to look like a bird’s nest.

Some caches are virtual. That means there is no physical thing to find, just a place. It requires some feedback with the cache owner via the secure e-mail connection the geocaching Web site provides. The cache may be a museum, a statue, or a place in a state or federal park where hiding items is prohibited. You may need to take a picture or report some detail to prove you were there. These sorts of caches are not common and are not particularly favored by the geocaching crowd.

The final common type — my personal favorite — is a cache placed in a location you would never normally go to and generally will involve some degree of difficulty in getting there. A favorite trick is to place such a cache near an unmapped road near the convolutions of a river or stream. You follow the published roads on your map while watching your GPS locator. After fording the stream two or three times you finally get to the cache only to find the unmapped road nearby. But rather than being mad for missing an easy drive-in, I revel in the chase that has left me muddy, thorn-scratched, frostbitten, and tired — but the sights I was shown along the way make the outing a delight. It is just as likely that a long hike in the outback will deliver me safely to the cache where I am greeted by an unusually beautiful view — one I would not have seen any other way. Now and then, however, the search for difficult caches can turn . . . well, unsettling.

Recently, my wife and I were in Las Vegas for a yearly convention. This time, I paid little attention to the work of life and concentrated on the fun of life. We geocached all over southwestern Nevada and southeastern California. Most of the caches were in the high desert or Death Valley and taxed the small rental car more suited to mall parking lots than remote desert roads. We found many of the geocaches and also witnessed a million desert cactus blooms, several desert tortoises, abandoned nuclear testing grounds and a town called Rhyolite, abandoned in 1911 but still standing there in the desert sun. For the most part, these were not hard finds but made us drive back-trails in the desert without the aid of an SUV.

On our last day, I decided to drive up into the Spring Mountain range west of Las Vegas and look for some Alpine caches. Those not familiar with the area would be surprised how quickly the hot desert becomes Colorado-like ski mountains. One foot in fire, the other in ice. I had three specific caches in mind. The first two were not particularly hard to find, but the spectacular, breathtaking views from the snowy ridges up to the ski slopes of Mt. Charleston were more than enough compensation for three-dollar gas and a week of living out of a smelly suitcase.

Mt. CharlestonThe third and final cache, however, nearly screwed the pooch! We should have quit while we were ahead.
“Griffith Peak Trailhead Cache” is located at 36 degrees 13.215 minutes north by 115 degrees 35.974 minutes west at approximately 8,000 feet on Griffith Peak, less than five miles from the summit of Mt. Charleston; a popular Nevada ski area. The published information about the cache indicated that it was a standard ammunition case with all the standard cache contents. The owner indicated that it wasn’t a particularly hard cache to find but a high-clearance vehicle might be preferable. Well, to me a high-clearance vehicle translates roughly into economy rental car, so off we went. Leaving the Nevada highway at 5,000 feet, I knew we were in for a 3,000 foot climb. I had printed out a basic map from my home software so I was pretty sure of where I was and the GPS locator knew right down to 12 feet where it was.

In Nevada, any road that isn’t a paved highway is merely a graded flatness in the rocks but this road leading into the Toiyabe National Forest started off pretty well maintained. We traveled a few miles on a relatively good surface only occasionally swerving to miss a rock whose only mission in life was to puncture my oil-pan. The GPS indicated that we were going nearly straight up like a rocket. By 20 minutes into the ascent, the good road soon changed its mind and had gotten ugly. Now off the approach and moving up to the Griffith Peak summit, the road was barely a car-width wide and the blocking boulders had gotten bigger. My wife had to get out and move several out of the way so we could pass. Our speed had dropped to a crawl. We had to position the car every few yards to get across deep ruts carved into the road by the winter snow-melt run off. The ruts got deeper and closer together and the incline increased substantially. Since there simply was no room to turn around with the mountain on one side and a 100-foot drop on the other, and since neither of us had a lick of sense, we decided to keep going. The GPS was indicating that we were now five miles away; now four; now three; now two. We had given up screwing up our faces each time the undercarriage dragged across mountain rock. I was intent on staying as close to the mountain wall as possible while my wife kept her eye glued to the ever-decreasing width of the road and the ever-increasing depth of the drop.

At one mile from the cache, we were getting euphoric at the sights of the high Alpine view and the smell of the fir trees. We hadn’t noticed that the snow on the mountain side was getting thicker and older and was beginning to have the consistency of cement. The road continued to get narrower. However, I was not so euphoric that I missed the unmistakable smell of something seriously wrong with our rental car — the car we had only recently named “Surefoot”.

So, there we were. Seventy-five hundred feet up the Toiyabe forest road on Griffith Peak with all the grandeur of the snowcapped Charleston Mountain in front of us and a steaming, boiling, beeping mess of a car with its hood up behind. What to do, what to do?

First, I did what everyone in my position should do. I released a primal scream and a torrent of obscenities at the car rental company for not configuring our economy rental with snow treads and a diesel engine. The primal scream did the most good. Next, I shifted into Boy Scout mode. Since we had long since left any cell phone coverage behind in the valley, I wasted no time in thinking about how I could use the phone’s battery to start a fire. We had plenty of water and enough snacks in the car to last a week, so survival was not the issue. Our plane was scheduled to depart for home in about eight hours, so I figured we’d be missed within the week and a simple search of the entire state of Nevada would have us home in a year or so. I had neglected to tell anyone exactly where we were going. I never know until I’m on my way anyway.

Without a plan and with a seriously unhappy car, we did the only thing good geocachers in this position could do. We started out to find the cache on foot. Now irony stepped in with both boots.

Less than 50 feet from where our dead car lay, the trail, passing as a road, made a sharp left behind a stand of fir trees to continue up the mountain side. From that point on, the road was covered with four feet of snow-pack. It was completely impassable. We found the remnants of a campfire at the edge of the road that appeared to be a couple of months old and we both realized that it had been some time since we had seen any tire tracks so it was apparent that help was not about to simply wander by.
Can’t walk up and can’t drive down. Hmmm. How to pass the time? What to do to get our minds off the idiotic situation we were in? Use your imagination.

About an hour later we were figuring out how many bottles of water we could each carry and how many Corn Curdlies and Potato Poopies it takes to keep two people alive as we prepared to walk back down the road to civilization. However, the car had quit bubbling and fuming so I decided to try to get it running just enough to get turned around. Perhaps then we could coast downhill. Lady luck followed irony and stepped in herself. The radiator was not punctured after all. The car was not deceased, it was simply exhausted. With my wife out in front to help me get the front tires as close to the road edge as possible and using the rear bumper to subtly tell me when I had backed into the mountain, I backed and filled a dozen times until the car was facing downhill. Keeping it in neutral most of the time and riding the brakes hard, we limped and bucked and dragged and bottomed and lurched and scraped all the way back down Griffith Peak. By the time we got to the highway, the engine had quit smelling but the brakes had taken on that warm cherry glow. We had to wait again for the new heat to dissipate.

But, don’t misunderstand me. Our near death, lost in the wilderness experience, an experience that would have pushed our rental care insurance to its limits, was anything but a disappointment. It was absolutely, positively the best failed cache find ever!

After arriving home, I logged onto the geocaching Web site and looked again at the entry for the Griffith Peak Trailhead Cache. The first warning I should have noticed was that no one had found it since September of last year — eight months previous. The other revelation came from my mapping software. A different and easier road would have taken us closer to the cache — but from the other side of the mountain! We had used the route they implied only idiots with a Jeep should try.

One last note: When I returned the rental car at the Las Vegas airport, I was asked how it performed. I told them the shocks felt a little soft. –© 2009 J. Mitch Hopper

Mitch Hopper is a writer and audiovisual professional who lives in Rochester, Illinois. E-mail him at

Written by writer. Edited by editor.

July 25, 2009 at 1:30 pm

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