On a powdery gray Sunday afternoon, high up on a La Jolla bluff commanding a sweeping view of miles of Pacific coastline, "kawikaturn," a self-professed fanatic of an internationally organized game called geocaching, leads me through a windswept eucalyptus grove. Gripping a hand-held global positioning system (GPS) receiver in one hand and a walking staff in the other, kawikaturn (real identity: Dave Turner from Carlsbad) is initiating me to the sport, through which devotees create unique handles and communicate with other geocachers via a special website that lists coordinates and clues for finding the estimated 102,344 geocaches hidden in 204 countries worldwide.
We are in search of "The Pitcher Plant" cache, originally hidden just west of UCSD's main campus by "Team Gingka" on July 21, 2003.
In geocaching parlance, I'm technically a "muggle" (meaning, in this context, "clueless about geocaching"), but have already been versed on some basics by another seasoned local, Vista resident Neil Cadwallader (aka NCad). NCad explained that geocaching owes its existence to the "network of satellites whose signals can be detected with GPS receivers," which then "calculate a user's location on Earth to within a few feet. Originally intended for military and other official use, the signal was deliberately degraded" to discourage use by non-government entities. The day after signal degradation was lifted in May 2000, the first geocache was established in Portland, Ore., and the great pursuit was on. Today, thousands of caches have been placed throughout San Diego County alone-and that number is continually rising.
Caches cannot be buried; otherwise, any hiding place is possible-under a bush, behind rocks or logs, underwater, up a tree. A typical container might be an element-resistant military ammo box. They can also be as small as an Altoids tin or as large as the trailer NCad once located parked off the side of a Las Vegas road. Contents vary, but usually comprise assorted odds and ends "of negligible value that geocachers are encouraged to trade."
Trinket-trading has also "inspired some geocachers to create their own personalized items to put into geocaches," NCad noted. Additionally, some caches contain special gifts for "first finders."
Seven different geocache categories include virtual caches, which obligate seekers to find not a container but a specific visual-anything from a monument to a faux fire hydrant placed out in the middle of the desert. NCad related that on a recent business trip to Washington, D.C., he located about 30, mostly virtual, caches in a small area within the National Mall.
From the start of my first hunt, it becomes apparent why the phrase "I'm not lost-I'm geocaching" is popular among fans: half the adventure can be just finding a legal parking place.
Entrusting me with the receiver, kawikaturn, who has discovered about 526 caches in almost two years, encourages me to read our position-an endeavor not so easily negotiated. But following the device's all-important red arrow towards some thick brush, we eventually land within 11 feet of the treasure.
"Sometimes it helps to kind of walk in circles," kawikaturn suggests. "When I get within 20 feet, I turn [the receiver] off. You just start thinking, "If I were hiding something, where would I hide it from muggles?'"
Then it appears: a beaten-up, clear plastic water pitcher that resembles nothing more than some trash nestled in a shrub. Looking inside, kawikaturn finds a computer game CD, toy cars, a package of plastic forks, some Mexican coins and the cache log, which indicates we are the first visitors since June 4.
After switching out a "George dollar" (specially marked so that travels can be traced online) found at another cache for one inside the pitcher, kawikaturn records our names and the date in the log. He also leaves his trademark, personalized green golf pencil and a small metal tag, imprinted with a number and a beetle-like insect, called a "travel bug."
"Most travel bugs have a goal," he explains. "The goal for this one is to go to Tokyo."
He relates that his "weirdest geocaching experience is the one I need to go to next"-one he's been putting it off because it requires walking into a Carmel Valley drainage pipe, no larger than five feet in diameter, to read a word printed on a wall inside. Equipped with knee-high galoshes and a light strapped around his head, he once attempted to enter the drain, but it "was just too deep for the galoshes.... I didn't want to go any farther."
After re-concealing the pitcher, throwing a few leaves over it for good measure, we hop back into kawikaturn's SUV (license plate "2ACACHE"), and he accesses coordinates for the next search: an 8-inch-by-2-inch cylinder located a third of a mile away.
Somewhat piqued that I haven't brought anything to trade, I am consoled by kawikaturn, who muses that, at least, having found my first cache, I am "no longer a muggle."