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National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

Treasure Hunting in the Four Corners

“Hey, look at this” he whispered.

She hurried over and pressed against him as she tried to see what had gotten him so excited. They’d been rooting around on the shaded hillside through the bushes, rocks, and weeds next to the middle school, but they hadn’t discovered what they knew was hidden there. They found empty liquor bottles, cigarette butts, thorns, fast food trash, and the faded remains of somebody’s homework from math class.

Then she saw what he’d been pointing at: A condom, still in its package.

“Oh grow up and get a life,” she exclaimed, and when she pushed against him this time he lost his balance and sprawled in the dirt.

Typical antics for 14 year olds it would seem, but the couple I’m writing about was over 50. I know, because I’m still picking the stickers out of my shorts. I won’t identify the woman – she still drinks coffee with me in public – but I will say we eventually found what we’d been looking for: A plastic container, with a screw-on lid, wrapped in camo tape, cleverly hidden beneath a stack of stones on the hillside. We’d almost given up looking, but according to our information 210 other people had managed to find this canister since it was first hidden in 2005. We had her self-respect to maintain, even if mine had already been compromised.

What we found inside the container was standard loot for a geocache. Sometimes called a Stash hunt, geocaching refers to the practice of using location coordinates with a Global Positioning System (GPS) to discover what amounts to buried treasure. Actually, it’s not literally buried but cleverly concealed. And it’s not bonafide treasure either, but I’m hoping one day to be the first geocacher to appear after a Texas billionaire on a lark leaves the deed to one of his oil wells. If it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, at least the hunt will have been exciting.

A cache (pronounced so it sounds like cash, not catch) gets tucked away in some nook or cranny where people like us devote a few good hours of hiking and orienteering to discovering it. Caches can be rediscovered by anyone as long as its integrity hasn’t been compromised. Hundreds of caches have been hidden in the Four Corners region. In fact, caches can be tracked down all over the earth. Equipped only with your locality’s zipcode, you can see what treasure has been buried near your home by logging on to a geocaching internet site at <>. Of course, you’ll need a GPS unit to find it, unless you have, like a compass, an uncanny sense of direction.

The cache we eventually found on the hillside in Flagstaff contained a small logbook where I noted the date of our arrival, and a handful of objects left by other cachers, including a carabiner key chain, a hair barrette, a plastic dinosaur, somebody’s pocket change, a worn dollar bill, one necklace, two pens, a couple business cards, and a pair of sunglasses. I kept the sunglasses, because beyond the trees the sky was bright and besides, they were pretty nice shades; I left a handmade ceramic coin with the image of a face etched onto it – something designed in an art studio – to be spent on the next finder’s imagination. This may sound like pirating but I did nothing wrong; I followed the rules for all geocaches: Take something from the cache, Leave something in the cache, Write about it in the logbook. The system works on an honor code and judging from the number of caches we’ve found intact, honor is more common than previously suspected.

In two months we’ve visited over 15 caches. Some are easy to track down, just off the path, while others are more difficult because the host has left less information to help. One clue that finds its way into any listing is a set of coordinates. My home, for instance, can be found by orienteering along N 35 degrees, 12.276 feet and W 111 degrees, 39.169 feet. These numbers represent the intersection where I live, not a physical crossing of paved streets but a theoretical crossing of longitude and latitude. I prefer it when intersections stay hypothetical – they’re less dangerous to cross.

The coordinates are made possible by 24 Federal satellites designed for military use circling the earth, and it costs me nothing to access their signals except the price of my GPS, plus billions of tax dollars pulled from our pockets to get these satellites built and into orbit. A basic $100 unit can get me within 20 feet of any geocache, as long as trees or roofs aren’t blocking the satellite signals and interfering with my GPS’s ability to triangulate my position. I imagine the military can do better than 20 feet but I try to feel compassion for what they’re trying to uncover.

Geocaching has taken us to explore wilderness areas within the San Juan, Uncompahgre, and Coconino National Forests. We’ve found local caches in and around Cortez, Durango, Flagstaff, Moab, and Telluride, in places dozens of people pass by each day without noticing. You see, we are the couple who appear to have lost our marbles, stumbling and stopping to stare into our hands, getting down on all fours to grope beneath bushes, rocks, and stumps.

If you see us it’s best to walk by. Offering assistance only compounds the mystery. “No thanks,” one of us will mumble, “it’s our bearings we’ve lost.”

About David Feela

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  1. I happened to meet Mike Coltrin, author of The Hiking Guide to the Sandias, on a trail in the Sandias last spring. We hiked down the mountain together, and I learned that he is an avid geocacher. He told me that there are some caches in the Sandia wilderness. Unfortunately, I don’t have a GPS device so I can’t go find them, but it sounds like a lot of fun.

  2. Michael, the experience of meeting the cacher sounds great but you would not believe how many caches are around — even in your locale. Even in the city, the park, probably the apartment next door. A Garmin basic unit would run you just under a hundred bucks. Ebay could get you a serviceable unit for better.