I’m loitering near the backdoor of a Little Rock Krispy Kreme on a bitterly cold morning. Three men I’ve just met half-circle me wearing wide, knowing grins. They’ve all been in my position before. I consult my hand-held GPS unit again. The screen says I’m right on top of it.
“Let’s see how long it takes him so we’ll know what we’re dealing with today,” says one as his smile widens.
I look around again. Nothing is obvious. Half-jokingly and half out of frustration, I kick one of the yellow concrete pillars meant to keep cars in the drive-thru. It gives way ever so slightly—the only clue that it’s not what it seems. I push it all the way over with my foot and see a plastic container secured snugly into a rectangular slot on its underside. Found it.
“Not bad. It took me forever my first time,” murmurs another as I slide out a container originally meant for leftovers, not clandestine dead drops.
We’re geocaching, a hobby that traditionally takes place in the woods, literally off the beaten path, though in recent years has spread everywhere from the jungles of Brazil to right here behind this Arkansas doughnut shop. At the hobby’s core is the goal of finding hidden “caches,” known only by their GPS coordinates, and writing your name in their logs. To me, though, it feels like a treasure hunt.
This is the first real cache I’ve found. I hand off the log book—which, as is usually the case, is nothing more than a scrolled piece of paper—so the others can sign it and rifle through the swag left behind by geocachers who’ve been here before. Mostly it’s just trinkets like plastic bracelets, rubber balls, Happy Meal toys that “cachers” trade in and out. But others, like custom-made coins, have special codes that allow you to track them as they travel around the world from cache to cache to cache. There is nothing worth taking, but then again, that’s not why we’re here.
You make your own goals in geocaching. For some people, it’s a numbers game. They want the next milestone, the next big number—hitting 1,000, 2,000, even 10,000 “finds”—or to log a cache a day for a month or a year. Others want only to find the most extreme caches, known as “five-fives” because they have the highest possible ratings for the two measurements of a cache’s difficulty: terrain and how well it’s been hidden. For a five-five, you’ll need special equipment like scuba, climbing or caving gear just to get there, and once you do, it could just be a sliver-sized container tossed into a pile of rocks.
For others, though, geocaching is just about simple discovery.
We leave the city, and its urban and suburban caches, for the Ouachita Trail to get a taste for the hobby’s wilder routes. Through breaks in the trees, we can see Pinnacle Mountain standing proudly against pale-blue winter sky. It is a trail my guides never would have found without the pastime.
“Arkansas has a lot to offer. I have had family here since before Adam, but [through geocaching] I’ve discovered places in Arkansas that I didn’t know existed that just blew my socks off,” explains Les Williams, aka Savoy, as we hike to the first cache. “I wouldn’t have known this trail goes all the way to Oklahoma if it weren’t for caching because it looks like it just goes nowhere. And the truth is, it does, because it goes to Oklahoma.”
Savoy is his caching nickname, what he writes in every log book. With nearly 2,000 finds logged, he is the most experienced cacher in my group. In fact, a cache he hid on Sugarloaf Mountain is one of the oldest in the state, and the “upsized” cache, a plastic box about the size of a small trash can, in his carport is one of the most popular in the region and has gone through several log sheets.
My other two guides are Humberto Guzman, aka El Tomate L3, who has more than 1,070 finds, and Scott Kiehn, aka LambdaPhi241, who hopes to break 500 this trip.
The first two caches we try to find along the Ouachita Trail are missing. They’ve either been lost or “muggled,” a geocaching term for when a noncacher either accidentally or intentionally destroys a cache. (Geocaching got started in earnest in 2001, the same year the first Harry Potter book was published, and almost since then cachers have called those not involved in their hobby “muggles,” after the book’s term for nonmagical people.)
“It’s all about keeping the game going,” says Humberto, “about helping each other out.” Scott slips one cache down the broken top tube of a chain-link fence off the main trail, and they set the other in the crook of a tree.
This is an example of the grassroots structure of the community. There’s no central authority. The community is self-policing, and the rules are mutually agreed upon and posted to Geocaching.com, the hobby’s de facto official website. Volunteers on the site review each cache and work with its owner to ensure that it meets these rules before allowing it to go live on the site. But that can’t stop someone from hiding a cache anywhere he or she wants. It’s a testament to the hobby’s community spirit that this is rarely done.
And as we continued our hunt that day, the rules started to make more sense, especially the three rules governing where a cache can be hidden. First, the hide has to be in a safe location and cannot be buried, even partially. This protects both humans and nature from unnecessary harm. To make sure caches aren’t confused for one another, they must be at least one-tenth of a mile apart. Finally, a cache has to be placed somewhere it has a chance of surviving for at least six months so you don’t waste time searching for something that doesn’t exist. Other than that, it is pretty much wide open. Caches range in size from “micro”—anything smaller than a 35 mm film canister—to “special,” which can be as large as a shipping container. The classic cache, however, is a .50-caliber ammo box.
The GPS leads us on. It is good to be in the forest on a workday, even if the temperature is hovering around freezing. The view of Lake Maumelle—straight up the spillway over dark-blue water—is beautiful. There are no leaves to block our view of the cloudless sky. We’re all happy it’s winter so we don’t have to worry about ticks and chiggers. The next cache is a “bison tube,” used in the muggle world most often as a key-chain pill container. Following the digital trail, we leave the real trail behind and hike up the ridge to a pair of oaks with a few rocks half buried at their base.
Like me, you may think that using a GPS makes finding caches easy. It doesn’t. At best, a GPS unit is accurate to about 3 meters, but it can be a lot less accurate. That’s hard even when the cache is fairly large. It feels nearly impossible when the cache is a micro like the bison tube we’re trying to find.
“Can you put it under a rock, or is that considered burying?” I ask.
“You can,” says Williams as he begins searching outward from the trees. I turn to follow him when Guzman calls out. He’s found it. Where? Under a rock, of course. In fact, the very rock I was looking at when I asked the question. Guzman turns the rock over to reveal a perfect little hole for hiding a micro cache. I’m disappointed in myself.
“Hey, you gave me the idea,” he says, reading my face.
“Yeah, I’m just glad we found one,” says Kiehn as we head back to the trail.
From then on we, or at least my companions, are rocking and rolling, and it’s addictive. There’s the one we find wrapped tightly in sprigs of spruce and hung in a young tree. Another is hidden in a hole in a crooked branch hanging at eye-level in an oak tree. I’m hanging back, just happy to be there, but it’s getting late. Kiehn has to pick up his two girls from day care. Real life beckons.
Guzman and Williams put their heads together and conspire as Kiehn and I catch up to them.
“OK, let’s do one more. Only this time, it’s all you, Nick. We’re not going to help until you ask us to,” says Williams.
For the second time this day, I am immediately struck by a sensation not unlike being asked to give a speech and realizing you’ve left your notes at home. That is, all eyes are now firmly on me. I pull up the geocaching app on the GPS Williams loaned me and thumb over to select the next-nearest cache. The GPS calculates things I don’t understand, and a second later draws a straight line on the screen between me and my target. I lead the way, again up the ridge that was parallel to this part of the trail, trying to follow the straight line on my screen as closely as the undergrowth allows.
When I am as close to the cache as the GPS can take me, I put it down, scan for clues and head left to a fallen tree. I should have gone right. After 10 minutes, I start to get worried and think of asking for help. But then I spot another fallen tree to the right. The guys have spotted it, too, but maintain a respectful distance.
The closer I get, the more sure I am that this is it. When I am about 15 feet away, I know exactly where it is. There is a small pile of sticks against the rotting trunk that just looks unnatural. I toss them aside, and there it is: an army-green ammo box.
As the sun falls close toward the horizon behind Pinnacle Mountain, we begin to head home. But, of course, we find enough time to log a few more finds on our way out. Real life can wait.
On the Hunt
Looking for a place to go caching? Check out Geocaching.com, the hobby’s official website, for tips, guidelines, online logbooks and, of course, the coordinates of 2,299,234 caches around the world. To get you started, here are a few treasure-hunting adventures close to home:
Arkansas State Parks: N 33° 20.205 W 092° 42.891
Each of Arkansas’ 52 state parks has an official park cache housing a clue you’ll need to find the coordinates to a secret 53rd cache hidden somewhere in the state. Learn more and download a clue sheet at Arkansasstateparks.com.
Fort Smith National Historic Site multistage cache: N 35° 23.259 W 094° 25.853
Work your way through the historic fort’s six-stage cache to collect the code needed to unlock the final, large-sized cache at the end. If you’re lucky, you may see re-enactors dressed as soldiers or volunteers firing the fort’s cannons along the way.
Arkansas Great River Road’s Power Trail: N 33° 00.290 W 091° 13.344
The scenic byway has more than 150 caches hidden at historic locations across the Arkansas Delta, as well as a 100-cache “power trail.” Those who find at least 75 caches on the road are allowed to log a special “challenge cache.”
Arkansas River Trail: N 34° 44.854 W 092° 15.692
There are approximately 100 caches stashed away along the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock over the course of the 14-mile main loop of the Arkansas River Trail. Rent bikes or bring your own, and take your family on a cycling treasure hunt.
ArkLife cache/Ouachita Trail: N 34° 52.079 W 092° 29.401
If you want to go where we went, it’s easy. The above coordinates are to a cache that we placed along the trail during our visit—and there are plenty of others out there to find, as well. Happy hunting!