Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Same old story?

Some time back....a looong time back!....I shared our discovery of a new and enjoyable pastime my husband and I discovered. Geocaching. Indeed, we have discovered that it has been an enjoyable way to spend time together, exploring places tucked away that only the locals know, hiking the highs and lows of a place and meeting many fine folks who share our passion for discovering a sense of place. We've paddled rivers and lakes, freeclimbed rocky outcrops and snowshoed miles into the middle of a frozen swamp, always in search of a container with a piece of paper to sign and prove we were here.


The beauty of this pastime is its great diversity. For us, discovery and adventure are the appeal, but there are many other kinds of hidden treasures we find along the way. For families with small children, caches are often hidden in city parks near playgrounds. Not our favorite, but with grandkids, they will have renewed appeal. Many are hidden in completely nondescript spots....Walmart parking lots, dead end guardrails and the like. These appeal to those folks who have mobility issues but might want to find things, too.

Little did we realize almost four years ago, when we found the first geocache hidden along our neighborhood bike trail that it would be just the first of several thousand finds. Nor did we realize we'd be drawn to the challenges placed, challenges that required us to pursue those rare caches that require time, effort and sometimes dogged persistence to locate. Those have always been our favorites, and we've had to travel as much as 300 miles from home to locate those rare few.

I discovered an excellent photoessay book, Local Treasures: Geocaching Across America, by Margot Anne Kelley, herself a geocacher. In it, along with sharing her stories of her own caching adventures, accompanied by photos, she details the unique intersection of technology and the real world this hobby brings together. Drawing upon the work of Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone in America, she describes how people playing in the virtual world of the geocaching website come together as members of a community in the real world. They organize events, campouts, community clean up gatherings and informal get-togethers to seek out certain geocaches.

This is where the "same old story" enters into place. When real people come together....all kinds of contentious behavior sets in. What could be controversial about going out into the world with a handheld navigational device, looking for a box and signing the paper contained therein, then telling your story on the website? Sounds simple, right? There are absolutely no prizes awarded. The entire concept is based on sharing your own discoveries with the rest of the geocaching community, either in the form of placing your own hidden treasures or sharing your story when you find the treasures hidden by others. Simplicity itself, it would seem.

Not so. As we've played the game and read the comments posted by other players, either on a cache page or on an internet bulletin board, or even face to face, it's clear that human beings behave like....well, human beings.

People cheat. They lie. They fudge the rules, maybe by getting help solving a puzzle. We've done the latter.

People disagree. Does it count if a group was out caching and only one member of the group climbed the tree? We've done this, too, but for every tree we did not climb, we can point to at least as many trees where we were the ones to climb and throw the cache down for others to sign.

People do all of these things, and for what? Bragging rights to some nebulous "honor" that, when shared outside the community, is often met with a puzzled expression or the question...."what do you get?"

What do we get? For us, even as we go after challenges, trying to follow the intent of the challenge as presented, we still get....time together, with each other and with friends. The chance to discover new places. The opportunity to have a bit of an adventure along the way. Encounters with a pair of wolves. A moment to stop and enjoy the beauty of nature in front of us. All these things and many more are what we get from following an arrow on a handheld navigational device.


One more thing we get? It's something we never really expected, starting out four years ago, but unlimited opportunities to watch human nature in action, even as that human nature interacts with nature.

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