‘X’ marks the spot

The other day a friend of mine called me. We had just gotten hiking boots for a class trip to Yosemite our Environmental Science teacher had arranged, and she wanted to go hiking to break them in. I glanced outside — it was a beautiful day and I couldn’t think of a better excuse to avoid my homework. “Sure,” I said. “What did you have in mind?”
Geocaching is a sort of gigantic game of international treasure hunting. With more than 700,000 “caches” in more than 100 countries, geocaching Web sites like have reached more than 1 million members since 2000 and continue to grow at an unbelievably high rate. And as of last Tuesday, I was its newest member.
It’s a relatively simple process. You sign up for a free account on www.geocaching. com (or other smaller Web sites), type in your area code, and choose from one of the hundreds of registered caches nearby. You enter its coordinates into any GPS unit, and go out and get your Thoreau on. Sound simple? Not in our case. We wandered up and down Carlsbad Village Drive for hours, tromping through Hosp Grove’s trails. We actually passed right by our target cache without realizing it, and ended up coming back a few days later before we finally discovered our object: a plastic Tupperware box chock full of odds and ends, including an old Canadian coin, one army man, and a cultish “Doan is My Copilot” bumper sticker. We finally signed our names on the logbook inside, put the cache back in its place, and dragged our sorry selves home, slightly red around the ears.
Geocaching exploded onto the scene in late 2000 when the U.S. military released the Global Positioning System to the general public. Tech junkies were beside themselves. But when an Oregon man went hiking and recorded his coordinates to challenge his friends to find the stashed “treasure” he had left behind, a social phenomenon had begun that would entice gizmo gurus and nature nerds alike. The word “cache” originates from French, and refers to a hiding place someone would use to temporarily store items. An alternative (and quite possibly more telling) definition of cache refers to the memory cache in computer storage that is used to quickly retrieve frequently used information. Your Web browser, for example, stores images on disk so you don’t have to retrieve the same image every time you visit similar pages.
Now for the record, I would just like to say that I have lived in Carlsbad for the past 12 years. And I never would have realized how poorly I know the area until my friend took me geocaching. While we wondered over bridges and through the bushes, we discovered beautiful meadows, hidden trails — and once, a man relieving himself while on a run. Oops. Mostly though, it just felt good to be in the fresh air and happily forget about college applications, scholarships and school, inhale, and quietly put things in perspective.
Geocaching does have its drawbacks, however. For instance, there have been several times when the general public stumbles upon a cache, reported the small plastic container as suspicious, and said cache has been investigated and sometimes blown up by police bomb squads. But the most interesting thing about it is that there are literally geocachers all over the world — that regardless of one’s native country, race, religion or background, thousands of people seem to have found a common interest in, well, exploring. So regardless of whether you harbor romantic notions of the sweet simplicity of laboring through streams, climbing across mountains, or generally turning down the road less traveled — one thing is for sure: at least geocaching is getting those tech-obsessed computer nerds to see the light of day.