Written by Bob Woelk Tuesday, 07 September 2010 13:39
I’ve never been much of a fan of global positioning systems (GPS). Two years ago, my wife and I were directed to an open field in the middle of a rainstorm while trying to find a motel in North Carolina. The woman at the front desk said, “Oh, yeah. Lots of people run into that problem. It’s wrong in the system.”
Then, this year, my daughter followed her new navigation system down a road with a bridge out and was advised to take a 12-mile detour away from a main highway only to find the motel she was seeking just off the interstate.
During the ensuing rerouting, she hit a pothole and ruined a brand new tire. All in all, she lost an hour and $75 on her trip back to college in Virginia.
I have heard others discuss the shortcomings of GPS. It seems to me, either you can trust such a device totally, or you can’t trust it at all.
I choose to place my confidence in the extraordinary navigational skills of my partner and co-pilot—my wife Kathy, thank you very much. Put a good paper map in her hands, and we are set to go.
So, when Kathy suggested we engage in an activity on Labor Day weekend that relied almost exclusively on GPS navigation for its success, I was a bit taken aback.
But, I soon found out this was a completely different kind of challenge than simply traveling from point A to point B; it was a popular form of scavenger hunt known as geocaching.
According to the self-proclaimed official Web site, geocaching.com, “Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices.
“The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online. Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment.”
A good commercial, to be sure, but it all still seemed a little “geeky” to me. However, since my wife had already searched the Web for a number of sites, which seemed like the bulk of the heavy lifting, I agreed to give it a try.
Though we were not always successful in finding the designated cache, we covered more than 200 miles of little-known central and north-central Kansas and, I must admit, had a pretty good time to boot.
First, I need to explain that we were not using a standard in-car navigation system. To be successful at the game, a geocacher needs a portable device. The Garmin Forerunner I use for long-distance running allows me to program in specific coordinates, then pinpoint the exact spot using a compass. It is even capable of telling the user how many feet he or she is from the desired location.
My Forerunner proved to be amazingly accurate, assuming the person who placed the cache noted the proper location and assuming the item had not been moved.
So, we took off Sunday morning on our scavenger hunt. My wife is an excellent trip planner as well, so she had called ahead for a carry-out picnic lunch from the Brookeville Hotel in Abilene. Talk about a reward for a morning’s work.
Anyhow, our first stop was the Johannestal Cemetery between Hillsboro and Durham. There we found the tiny plastic vial that contained a few sheets of paper. We recorded our login name and the date, then put the container back for the next player. We were one for one on the day.
Actually, we had looked for three other “treasures” the evening before, two in local cemeteries and one at Marion Lake. We were only successful in locating one cache out of the three. So, finding that first morning trophy helped boost our optimism for the day.
Our second search led us to Tampa and a virtual cache: a limestone Santa Fe Trail marker in a cemetery just north of town. Many of the prizes can be found in cemeteries, presumably because they are always open to the public and relatively undisturbed.
Besides, we know they are extremely popular places; people are dying to get in. Rimshot, please.
We plotted our next destination into the GPS unit. It was the Mt. Carmel Cemetery, located between Tampa and Carlton. This was one of my favorite stops of the day. The geocache was located in a tree at the far end of the burial grounds. The items were dry and secure in an ammunition box with a large sticker on the side.
The gentleman who hid it there, we discovered, was responsible for placing a number of caches on our route for the day, including the next stop, an old piece of farm machinery in the town of Carlton. The ammo box was placed near a sign that reads: “On this spot in 1986, nothing happened.”
Carlton seems like a berg where nothing happens a lot. I mean that in a good way.
After succeeding in all of our morning hunts, we headed to Abilene, where lunch was waiting. We hung on to our paper plates and napkins while dining in the city park, then hunted for treasure of a chocolate variety at the Russell Stover’s outlet store near I-70.
From there, it was off to Bennington. This, apparently, was another virtual cache, the Bulldog sign located on the east end of town. There was also a clue to another spot in the park near the high school.
I must go on the record here in expressing my opinion that virtual geocaching is not nearly as much fun as finding a tangible item to pop open and empty onto the ground.
From Bennington, we headed farther west toward Tescott, where the prize was dropped in a void among four branches of an evergreen tree in the Franklin Cemetery. That pill bottle, again placed by our friend from the Marion County area, was the most difficult to find and extract. We had to use a stick to pry the cache loose before we could open the lid and log the find.
Our final destination of the day was Lincoln, where a clue led us to a gravestone of a traveling salesman named Jacobs. It was crafted in the shape of a suitcase with the words, “Here is where he stoped last,” carved on the side. I hope he was better at selling than the marker maker was at spelling.
We had one more stop before heading back toward Salina and a supper of Cozy Inn sliders. Our prolific geocache gamer had left a Coleman water jug strategically hidden in a pile of rocks near the river on the west edge of town. Inside was a large stash of objects, including a pen and a paper log for marking our discovery.
So, how would I assess our adventure in terms of other hobbies I have pursued? First, the activity is cheap. Other than the cost of fuel, there is no charge to participate. All a person needs is a computer and some sort of portable GPS device that allows longitude and latitude input.
Secondl, if the weather is good—we encountered a bit more wind and heat than would have been ideal—there is no better way to see small-town Kansas. I had not been to Bennington since I ran track and cross-country meets there in my high school days. I don’t believe I have ever set foot in Tescott or Lincoln.
On the way home, we drove right through the heart of the hills dotted with wind turbines west of Salina on I-70. We enjoyed meals from two of Eight Dining Wonders of Kansas.
And, finally, our trip was a great bonding time for my wife and me. I could see this working well as a family adventure. It only took a day to knock off nearly 10 geocaching sites.
Those parents whose kids like scavenger hunts will love this activity. It is educational, environmental and physical. Most of all, it’s good, clean, legal fun. And, those types of activities are becoming harder and harder to find.