Monday, October 19, 2009

Pastime Review - Geocaching

There's an old saying that says children should be kept in a barrel and fed through a hole until they turn 17. My mother always said that when they turn 17, you should plug the hole. After spending most of an afternoon wandering around in the car with two teenagers and a GPS unit, I tend to agree. Only, I think my mother got the age wrong - the hole should be plugged as soon as they learn to talk.

We were doing this new-fangled thing called geocaching. It's got virtually nothing to do with making your kids cooperate, and is basically an exercise in using a GPS device. It's quite a bit more involved than just following your in-dash navigation unit, though.

The way this works, one person takes a thing and hides it, then he goes on the geocaching website and posts the GPS coordinates for wherever he put it. Then other people go to that site and see the coordinates, and they tap them into their GPS unit, and they go find it.

Now, I'm not going to lie - this does sound a little retarded. When I think of activities that I would enjoy, 'going somewhere' doesn't top out the list, especially when that 'somewhere' is a shrub in the middle of the city that is enjoying regular use a homeless man's toilet. At a glance this has all the appeal of trying to find your buddy's upstairs bathroom when you're over for dinner and his dopey kid is bogarting the guest crapper.

Happily, I tried geocaching anyway, and it turned out to be an awful lot of fun. For starters, I saw parts of my neighborhood that I didn't even know existed. The first cache we hunted up was less than a mile from my house, so we walked. We crossed a creek on stepping stones, skirted a tiny graveyard, ducked through a hole in a chain-link fence, and strolled around an incredibly small park with a wild thicket growing behind it. And the coolest thing is, I didn't know any of those existed before we left.

Now, it's not all a bed of roses. GPS isn't perfect, and at that first site, something was messing with the satellite signal. It's one thing to know we're within three feet of the thing we're hunting - I can commit to a little digging around if I know I'm close. But there's no way I'm hunting through all the underbrush within 100 feet of where the GPS says I should be standing just because the freaking satellites keep sending me to the wrong place. The walk was fun, but it's ultimately frustrating to do all that work and be standing where you're supposed to be standing, just to be told five seconds later that you have apparently stapled your ass to the underside of a passing military helicopter, and are whisking north faster than you could drive.

That irritation nearly made my kid decide it was all a waste. He's 14, so he can go from happy to emo in 3.6 seconds. Take note, kids - sulking on the couch because your GPS unit wandered around like a bum on a Night Train bender is not the best way to encourage your parents to spend time with you. It may be a good way to encourage them to advance the clock on the hole-plugging, though.

Maybe if I was just playing around with this geocaching thing, I would have let my son's adolescent petulance keep from trying it again. But I wanted an article, and so far, the article could be called 'walking around' and would be about as interesting as instructions on a shampoo bottle. So my wife and daughter jumped in, and they looked up a couple more sites, and we went off again (but this time we took the car, because no freaking way was I walking across the city with my bonehead son, my ditzy daughter and my wife with her torn ACL).

And now we saw how much fun it is to find the cache. The first one was a plastic box stowed deep inside some shrubbery behind the Little League ballpark, and inside there was a baseball to sign, and a little army man with a dogtag that told us to move him to a new place and log where we found him (we didn't do that. It was our first time. We weren't even sure we could find another cache). There's all kinds of cool stuff you can put in these geocaches - geo coins to commemorate finding the hidden treasure, ledgers to sign to show you found them, and even party invitations. They might be big enough to hold a bag full of baseball cards (so you could 'trade' with the bag), or they might be smaller than a film canister, like the one we found stuck on a bridge over a culvert in the park.

We're total rookies. There are people who are way better at this than we are, and who hunt caches the way I play games. These people love to challenge each other, so they might hide them in really obscure spots with clues that make Riddler look like a third-grader with a joke book. You can find them in the middle of the city, or under a log in the middle of the desert. You might even have a series of caches, so that the first one tells you how to find the second, and the second tells you how to find the third, and the third tells you how to find the lost afternoon you spent driving around and crawling through bushes. There are a wide variety of games that serious geocachers play, and I just scratched the surface.

I'll probably do it again, even with my family. Hell, listening to bickering kids builds character. Plus it was fun, and it might be cool to have our own little coin or token that we stick in the caches when we find them. We could put a little logo on the token, and be known all over as Team Flamers.

On second thought, maybe we'll skip the tokens.


Great way to get out of the house and get some exercise
An entertaining treasure hunt
Fun for the whole family
Actually go outside - that yellow thing in the sky? It's the sun

GPS can be unreliable, especially if there's interference from nearby stuff


Stefan Hansson said...

Nice review and funny as usual! I do relate to your story when I am out with my two sons :D

Geocaching is a nice way to get out of the house!

Thanks for your informative and funny blog!
/Stefan (Sweden)

Wind Lane said...

Just found out from my parents that when they were in college (late 60's) people did the same thing...with C.B. radios. :-)

Anonymous said...

very cool story, sounds like a lot of fun. I would say put a Heroscape figure in the caches?

Team Flamers - kinda has a ring to it lol!


Matt Drake said...

You know, a traveling Drake would be sweet!