There may be no such thing as going for a relaxing walk in the woods with Sabrina Jones. A few seconds after parking at a trailhead in Pocahontas State Park, she sprang from her Subaru wielding a GPS and a purple folder. We weren't going for a hike — we were going to work.
"I'm an anal person," she said, flipping through the contents of the folder, a neatly organized and stapled set of papers containing the coordinates and a description of our first destination: an intersection of latitude and longitude lines somewhere out there in the forest. Where those lines crossed, a cache of unknown contents had been hidden, and with the help of her hand-held GPS unit, we were going to find it.
Jones is a local expert in the "sport" of geocaching, a sort of high-tech treasure hunt using GPS, computers, and sometimes puzzles and encrypted code to locate stashed goodies hidden all over the planet. Caches often have "first finders" prizes in them — coins, gift certificates and all sorts of oddball trinkets — and caches aren't always tucked away in the woods. They can be found in parks and urban environments, shopping-mall parking lots, streambeds, trees, and on rocky mountaintops, sometimes in plain sight.
At about 10 in the morning, we headed out, me with the folder tucked under my arm and Jones doing her best to explain this arcane endeavor. She had already downloaded the coordinates from her home computer to her GPS directly, and she tapped a few buttons that brought the GPS arrow to life.
Jones has long, curly hair and a rugged yet feminine vibe, and in mittens and a fleece-lined corduroy jacket, she looks much younger than her 49 years. As is customary in the geocaching community, Jones has an online handle. She's known as "Ice Frog." She works the night shift as a pharmacist at Walgreens and gets off at 8 a.m., just in time to drag her kids out of bed and out to the trails.
Ten years ago, there was virtually no such thing as geocaching. Then, in May 2000, the Clinton administration removed the encryption from the Global Positioning System, a series of coordinated satellites run by the Department of Defense, that allowed anyone to pinpoint their exact location on the globe with an accuracy of 10 to 20 meters, a luxury previously only available to the military. Almost overnight, geocaching was born.
Geocaching could be said to have two participating parties. There are the folks who hide the caches and the many thousands of others who find them, sometimes over and over again. Once hidden, a cache's coordinates are posted online (Geocach
ing.com is one site), where anyone can log on and start the hunt. Caches are given difficulty ratings, and once found, geocachers sign their name in a logbook usually enclosed in the cache before restoring the cache to its hiding place and moving on to the next find.
"One star is easy," said Jones. "Five means it's really something special. You might have to use a boat, or it's on a mountaintop." Some locations are further complicated with encrypted messages or a series of clues that require multiple stops and solved riddles along the way. More than 600,000 caches have been stashed around the globe to date, in dozens of countries.
Jones recalls one find that required taking a canoe out to an island in the middle of a lake. Once she'd located the cache, she retrieved the logbook then slapped her forehead: She had no pen. She made do, mixing duck poop with a bit of berry juice — then she scribbled her name in the log with the concoction, using a goose feather. A year later, after a friend found the same cache, Jones wondered aloud if her poopy scrawl was still legible. "Yup," said the friend, "just like you wrote it yesterday."
As we walked, the leaves were falling, and the air was thick with the earthy whiff of soil and decay. Less than a mile down the trail, Jones' GPS started chirping. I looked down — the needle was insisting we take a sharp left, off the path and directly across a small stream.
"Of course, right in the water," Jones said, before skipping across the crick in two hops. We were instantly climbing — "bushwhacking" in geocaching parlance — blindly following Jones's GPS to our exact destination.
As the number of feet to the target dropped to zero on our readout, there before us was an otherwise unassuming tree, with a suddenly conspicuous gaping hole at the base of its trunk. I kneeled and fished in the hole, removing logs that, one after the other, seemed purposefully vertically stacked. I pulled out six or seven until there in the damp dark appeared an old green case — the cache! — covered in dirt. It was oddly exhilarating to find this thing, something only a few of us, with the right equipment and a bit of inside information, would ever know was there. It was enough to make you want to race back to your computer, in search of the next one.