If on a recent weekday afternoon you saw an otherwise sane-seeming thirtysomething woman running her hands along a chain-link fence in the parking lot of Philippe the Original or thrashing around in the woods of Griffith Park above the Greek Theatre, that was me. Contrary to appearances, I was neither on drugs nor hiding a dead body; I was just geocaching.
The American geocache — or GPS-enabled treasure hunt — craze began in 2000 when decent GPS technology became more accessible to the masses. The first cachers were a few computer geeks in — where else? — the Pacific Northwest, hiding things in nature, logging the coordinates, and challenging one another to find them. There are now more than 1.6 million caches hidden all over the world — in cities and remote areas, in trees and in buildings, even one on the International Space Station and another so far below the ocean surface that its seekers need scuba gear.
Los Angeles and San Francisco have evolved into major hubs for the hobby. There are 100,000 geocaches in California and 18,000 within 50 miles of L.A., according to Eric Schudiske, public relations manager for Groundspeak, the Seattle-based company that runs Geocaching.com.
Usually at the cache site there is a logbook to sign, and sometimes trinkets that can be swapped, but caches rarely have value beyond the thrill of the find, which you can tally on your geocaching.com profile page.
“Most of the caches take you to places you’ve never been before or you didn’t even know existed,” says Jeff Jost, 52, of West Hills. The retired Web designer, who has more than 7,300 finds and dozens of hides to his credit, says he especially enjoys meeting with friends to do “power runs,” like the Santa Monica Mountains stretch in which hikers can find hundreds of caches in a row.
“I’m devoted to this thing now,” Jost says. “I’m a junkie.”
Some caches are traditional — often straightforward “park and grabs,” for which you drive or walk to the coordinates and find a physical cache; others are virtual and require a player to visit a certain place and send in proof they were there (although virtuals are being phased out on geocaching.com and transferred over to the sister site waymarking.com); other caches require you to solve a puzzle either at home or in the field; “multis” take you from the coordinates to the cache via hints or puzzles.
John Marquez, a 55-year-old maintenance supervisor who grew up on Olvera Street and lives in Rialto, tends to put his caches near interesting restaurants and inside lamppost bases, which in L.A. have an easily accessible secret compartment.
Hiders can be diabolically creative; they might make a fake log, paint it to blend in, and stash it in the woods. They might craft a fake panel for an existing public sign. Or they might create an elaborate multi-part puzzle like the revered Dragonfly Scroll, a cryptic cache hidden near L.A. that requires downloading “parchments” and cracking several codes.
As hobbies go, it’s pretty cheap. A basic membership on geocaching.com is free, but most serious geocachers opt for the $30-per-year premium membership. Either way, the site provides coordinates that let a player use any GPS-enabled device (apps for the iPhone or Blackberry are about $10) like a high-tech compass.
You can hunt alone or as part of a group. Reality-TV editor Molly Shock last year created “Trouble in Tinseltown,” which via a fake tabloid called Hush Hush sent cachers to Old Hollywood landmarks to find 15 hidden caches and solve a murder mystery. From 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. March 31, the San Fernando Valley Geocachers are hosting a “geocaching photo scavenger hunt and road rally.” Where? Why, at N 34° 14.551 W 118° 33.407, of course.
In case you can’t tell, some people take caching seriously. Some set goals, such as to find one cache a day for 365 days (or 366, as local cacher Craig Oakford, hider of a Leap Day cache, is quick to point out). Others try to find a cache in every state or to find every one of the 81 combinations of cache rankings on a half-point scale of 1-5 for difficulty (how hard it is to find) and terrain (how hard it is to get to) or to be the first to find a cache (“FTF” in geocache parlance).
Others are just into racking up the big numbers. Elin Carlson, a Northridge-based opera singer with more than 27,000 finds to her credit (she is ranked 24th in the world for number of finds — down from No. 3, she says, because work interfered), says L.A. is especially good for caching. “You find more geocaches in places where there’s good weather,” Carlson says. “Geocaching in the snow is really, really hard.”
I had never heard of the phenomenon until my friend, actress Lili Taylor, showed me the app on her phone. She says she loves it, “because anywhere you go in the world you might find a geocache. It’s a great way to get outside, a fun thing to do with kids and friends. When I find the geocache and look at the log I have a deeper sense of sharing the world with others.”
I downloaded the CacheSense app for my Blackberry. Now whenever I’m stuck somewhere, I hit “nearest caches” and marvel at how many are within a few blocks. I’ve found three geocaches in three states: a magnetized capsule hidden under a railing overlooking the East River in New York City; a Tupperware container of trinkets in a stone wall by a lighthouse in Kauai, Hawaii; and a virtual cache at Los Angeles’ Avila Adobe.
And I have tried and failed to find many others. I lack traits that cachers say are necessary: patience, persistence and a good sense of direction — also, indifference to appearances. When I was trolling around Philippe’s and Griffith Park, I imagined that passersby — “muggles,” as they are geekily called on the Geocaching.com message boards — merely saw a terrible parent. My 5-year-old son spent one L.A. search whining that he needed a straw for his Olvera Street snow cone and another picking up empty liquor bottles in the woods, saying, “Is this it?”
Taking my son to stare at a parking lot fence for 10 solid minutes trying to spot a film canister felt like a low for me as a mother. Taylor sympathetically said she’d once bored her toddler daughter literally to tears while “searching on my hands and knees for what was supposedly the easiest cache.” Still stumped, she dropped her daughter off with her husband and went back out to search some more. And …?
“Never found it.”
I never found the one at Griffith Park, either. When I later asked the cache hider where it was, he said it was an easy “lamppost cache” in the picnic area. My son and I had trekked up a steep hill in the opposite direction and explored the forest for a solid hour. While there, we marveled over a tree with lightning scars, saw an amazing view of the city and even locked eyes with a coyote.
This, I realized in that moment, is my kind of game: even in losing, you win.