The fledgling outdoor adventure sport celebrates its birthday
I stared down over the edge of the cliff above Black's Beach, wishing I'd brought a mountain goat. The pass to the bottom was narrow and rocky, but my handheld GPS told me I had no choice. What I was looking for, a small box, was a half-mile ahead and 300 feet down. So, over the cliff I went.
The first time I'd done something like this was about five years ago, in West Virginia. Some state tourism officials called me and asked if I'd like to try something called "geocaching," a sort of hiking, treasure hunting and technology hybrid that uses GPS coordinates to locate hidden "caches" all over the world.
It all started nine years ago this May 1, when the U.S. government turned off the selective availability of its Global Positioning System satellites orbiting earth. That gave civilians with GPS devices the ability to pinpoint small objects, like a hidden container, within just a few feet for the first time ever. One enterprising guy in Portland got an idea. On May 3, he hid a black bucket with a few trinkets in it in the woods outside his home and marked the coordinates with his GPS device. He posted them online and three days later, it'd been found twice, giving birth to what would eventually be known as geocaching.
Today, there are around 64,000 geocaches hidden in California, and 16,000 of those are within 100 miles of San Diego. I decided I'd try and find a few, then write about it. It's not as easy as it sounds.
My first attempt, cache number GC1F44E, took two hours to find — and it was marked as "easy" on geocaching.com. But a friend and I spent an entire afternoon pacing back and forth under the Rio Vista trolley stop in Mission Valley, looking for a tiny box hidden somewhere along the bike path. We quickly found that the problem with most GPS devices is that they're, at best, accurate only to within about 10 feet. Depending on things such as clouds, trees or, say, the trolley tracks high above you, accuracy can easily drop to 50 or even 100 feet. That leaves just you and your wits to locate the cache. From what I gathered reading online, some people seem to have a preternatural ability to find these things. My friend and I, not so much.
So, we cheated. We read the hint on geocaching.com that told us to look for the "orange dot" on the sidewalk, then move 2 feet to our right. This particular sidewalk just happened to have orange dots about every 10 feet, but no matter. After a process of trial and error — and error — we found the cache just under a bush, covered with some leaves and branches.
"That's it?" my friend asked as we opened the army-green box. He was right; it was a bit anticlimactic. Geocaching bills itself as a treasure hunt, but the caches don't really contain anything of value, just a logbook and maybe a few trinkets.
I wanted a bigger challenge. So I went back online and got the coordinates for a cache near Black's beach, a place I'd only seen in news reports about lifeguards rescuing people from the cliffs. Standing at the top, overlooking the water, I could see why. I followed the compass on my GPS and slowly made my way down the treacherous path — too slowly, I could tell, for the man and his friend behind me. They'd been on my heels for about 50 feet, and all I could think was that if one of them fell, they were going to take me down with them.
I stepped to the side to let them pass, then continued on my way, pausing for just a few moments to take in the view. I could see why other geocachers rated this hike highly, though was confused by the mere 2.5-difficulty rating the terrain received. I couldn't imagine what a trail on the top of the scale looked like.
By the time I made it to the beach, and then the half-mile north to where the cache was hidden deep in a crevice, I was winded and hot from the sun. I climbed my way through the crack in the cliffs, pushing the thought of snakes and the occasional "what am I doing" out of my mind as I rummaged around thorny bushes looking for what was described online as a small camo-colored container.
After about a half-hour, I was tempted to give up. But then I spotted it, peeking out from behind a rock. I retrieved the box from its hiding spot and found the usuals inside: a logbook, a few small toys, a postcard, a key chain. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just like the others, there was no treasure, nothing even remotely exciting. Still, I had a sense of accomplishment.
I thought about that as I walked back, trying to keep my mind on anything but the unclothed sunbathers around me, wondering what it is about geocaching that keeps me and thousands of others across the world coming back. The thrill of the hunt? The satisfaction of a task completed? Maybe it was just the sense of being on a mission, or an excuse to get outside. The Black's Beach cache had allowed me to see parts of San Diego I probably never would've seen by my own accord. Whatever it was, it made me happy and I decided I didn't really need to know why.
I arrived at the base of the trail that had brought me down to the beach. I looked up — way up — to the top. I muttered a curse word under my breath, then promised myself that next time I'd stick to the caches in less-remote locations, like the one hidden at the monument in Little Italy or those along the trolley.
Last time I checked, there were about a dozen. At my rate, that'll keep me busy for weeks.