Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Treasure Hunting

Last week Mr. Thel and I were given a gift certificate to REI from a group of amazing people that I work with. (The calm, helpful staff on Bloody Thursday are all completely real, and some of the nicest people I've ever known.) We were really excited, but decided to wait until after the wedding before deciding what to buy with the gift certificate.

Yeah, that determination lasted about 36 hours. Saturday morning Mr. Thel said, "Wanna go to REI?" and off we went.

We bought a couple of useful things, things we actually needed for our upcoming trip to Glacier National Park. New jacket, sunglasses. And then we drifted into the more frivolous sections of the store, looking at stuff we totally didn't need. Stuff we never would have looked at twice if it weren't for this nice little gift certificate burning a hole in our pocket...

We probably would have held out, you know, if it weren't for the week-long sale they've got going on. As it was, the sale price on one little Global Positioning System unit was too tempting to resist. For almost a year Mr. Thel has been looking at them online, gazing longingly into the GPS case every time we went to any sporting or camping goods store. So we got one on sale on Saturday, thanks to the generosity of my work friends.

And then we went geocaching. Do you know about geocaching? Neither did I. It's just treasure hunting for grownups, apparently. As geocaching.com puts it, "The basic idea is to have individuals and organizations set up caches all over the world and share the locations of these caches on the internet. GPS users can then use the location coordinates to find the caches."

It sounds deceptively easy. We had found a couple of caches last year without a GPS unit, by looking at the maps available at the geocaching website. But we took our new toy to Discovery Park on Sunday and found out just how challenging it can be. Having been to Discovery Park countless times, we had picked two caches within the park to find. (Oh yes, there is a geocache hidden closer than you think. They are all around you.)

It was so much more fun than I had expected. After we entered the coordinates of the cache, the GPS displayed the distance and direction to it. I got ridiculously excited to watch the distance diminish as we neared the cache, especially when the display flashed "You are within 100 feet of landmark!" 60 feet...45 feet...30 feet...whoops, 50 feet, turn south... We got lucky on the first one, finding it wasn't far from my very favorite spot in the park. Still, it was down a little side trail I'd never trod before, and we were tickled to find two small metal bug sculptures in a secluded spot back in the woods near the cache.

Alas, our beginners' luck was not to hold. We headed down the trail that we estimated would lead toward the next cache. It looked like it would be down at the North Beach, and sure enough, the GPS did its cheerful countdown as we strode down the beach--right up until the "go this way" arrow swung around and pointed straight into the cliff. Sixty feet that way, but a hundred feet above us. We climbed back up the trail and headed back in the right direction, determined to find this cache too. We found the right trail to the bluff's edge easily enough. Unfortunately, just as we got within 100 feet of it again, a wedding party streamed out of the cultural center next to the bluff, heading straight at us to pose for pictures in front of the view. We figured they probably didn't want two sweaty hikers poking around in the background of their wedding pictures and slunk away, defeated.

It was so much fun, though, for someone like me who used to make up her own elaborate treasure maps, or sketch actual maps of our property. When Mr. Thel first described this hobby I thought it was a kind of race, that someone would hide a cool prize and post its location, and the first people to find it would get to keep it. I pictured people hovering in front of their computers, waiting eagerly for a new prize location to be posted, then rushing out to try to claim it.

But of course, the point wasn't the cheesy little prizes in the box at the end. It's all about paying attention to the direction your trail is heading. It's about looking hard at the scenery around you and adjusting your route when you find you're off course. It's about chuckling over the mystery with other seekers, and getting that little bubble of glee when you know you're on the right track.

It's all about the journey. And that, I like.