Saturday, June 10, 2006


We have been going up into the Black Hills for long and short hikes in search of containers hidden by folks that contain at least a log book to record your find and perhaps other small treasures. We locate these with a small electronic gismo called a GPS that we can set to a certain set of coordinates (latitude and longitude) These, and other information about the cache are given on a website that serves this new hobby. You can go here to read about it.

Some history. Satellite navigation has been possible for some time, using stationary ones that send back a radio signal. The parents of this were the ground system of radio beams that made a grid called Loran, for Long Range Navigation. Our little hand held gismo must see at least three of these satellites to triangulate and do the fancy navigational math once know only to sailors. These satellites have been up there doing this for quite a few years, but the gumment feared that the Enemy would use it to bomb things or find things or something, so the satellites were trained to send slightly bogus encoded signals, that deviated by a certain constantly variable amount.. The military, of course, had the key to them and could use them, but not us. Surveyors, duly licensed, could go and sign up for the code of the day to do their work, the rest of the world couldn’t use them. President Clinton decided that the satellite system was not a threat and on May 1, 2000 undid the codes for all to use, at least for latitude and longitude, the altitude still is coded. It didn’t take the orienteering crowd long to switch from their compasses and geodetic survey maps to GPS . The first documented placement of a cache with GPS assistance took place on May 3, 2000, by Dave Ulmer of Beaver Creek, Oregon, and soon the idea of hiding and sharing the location on line was borrowed from another hobby called letter boxing. This was a sort of world wide scavenger hunt to find letterboxes from hints and clues rather than from lat/long coordinates. The letterboxes have a log book and the players have one too, and rubber stamps are used to record visits. Mr. Ulmer is an interesting person, he rebuilt a Buick transmission without a manual when 14, and must have already had some sort of GPS to be so quick to plant the first cache after the deviations were undone. He later had second thoughts about what he had started, fearing that cache sites would become trampled places in the pristine woods. I haven’t seen that yet

All sorts of people do this, from families with kids, to the over-the-hill gang like us. The information on each cache includes directions, hazards (poison ivy, cliff) how hard the hike is and how hard to find the cache is. There may also be some hints or clues to help you out. Some of these are real puzzles, requiring that you find a series of clues to solve it and some are just high up and hard to get to. People tend to keep score of how many they have found, and hidden.

Another amusing aspect of this is a travel bug. This is often a toy that has a metal dogtag on it with the website of the owner. If you find a travel bug you report where and then you move it to another cache and tell about that too. The other stuff in a cache is more aimed at kids, small toys etc, so just finding it and entering yourself into the log is the real prize. The caches range in size from a large box in more or less plain site to micro caches which are no more than a tiny reel of paper you can unwind to enter your name and the date in small letters.

The best hiding jobs are in plain sight if you are paying attention, and invisible to the casual observer. One that we found was on a white fence, inside a block of white painted wood so it looked like part of the fence, a block added to brace a post. Only by looking for an anomaly would you find it. The mind game of putting yourself in the head of the hider is the best part. It is a little like a parallel universe from the Sci Fi world. Most people have no idea that these things are hidden everywhere, only those in the know see this alternate world. Another type is a virtual cache: there is one at Devils Tower in WY that is a National site so we can’t hide a real box. Instead, the website has a picture of one side of the tower and there is a sign that you must gather information from an interpretive sign there. Then you email the photo of yourself in the right place and the info to “claim” the find. There are folks who have found thousands of these caches and hidden as many.

I have mixed feelings about hiking, in the past hikes have been too long or too fast, and since I am a little afraid of heights, hiking often seemed like torture leading to terror followed by more torture and worse the next day when the muscles began to complain. The Black Hills are lovely though and having the fun of the hunt for the cache at the end of the hike has made us head for the hills every nice weekend that we are not working.

We took the Airstream out for a long weekend, and went to Devils Tower in WY. It was very good to take the old girl out for a spin, and she behaved very well. The green hills with pine trees that are the Black Hills gave way pretty soon to the kind of flatter, dry and mostly treeless country that I am very familiar with from my many summers with Ellen in WY and MT. It is not a gentle landscape, but it is wild and free and empty, the wind blows, the sun bakes the thin grasses, an occasional rock breaks out on a hill. Where there are creeks, the rocks are more exposed, and sometimes a line of cliffs will appear, mostly a dusty pale brown. Devils Tower is another matter altogether. It is a vertical pile of volcanic rock that never made it to the surface, cooling underground so quickly that it formed regular strips of rocks, some 6 sided, some 7 and on up. It was hidden until erosion moved the sandy sea bottom earth away from it, leaving an 800 foot high monument of vertically scored rock. It is flat across the top, and reminds me of a giant rock colored tree stump, or perhaps the broken tipped canine tooth of a monster bear. The area around it has more trees, more like the Black Hills and the lovely Belle Fourche river runs by its foot, the ancient remover of the covering dirt.

Native Americans revere this spooky unnatural place: one story has children playing when the brother turns into a bear and attacks his sisters who run in terror. The girls are called by a tree spirit to stand on a stump, which then grows 800 feet up into the sky and saves them. The bear-brother rears on his hind legs, gouging great claw marks on the sides of the rock as he tries to get his sisters. The tower was known as Bear Lodge until the 1800’s when an early surveyor renamed it on his map. One story is that the local NA’s gave him that name hoping that the white folks would be scared away and leave this magic place alone. Fat Chance. There was even a plan to grind it up for gravel. We get to hike around the base of it. Looking up every 10 steps to marvel ( and to take yet another picture). This tower is a world class and world famous rock climbing site, 5,000 people a year go up and down the vertical sides with ropes. In deference to the NA religious observances, climbing is discouraged during the month of June, although we did see one couple who may have come from far away and didn’t know the rules. Or maybe don’t care. There are offerings wrapped in red cloth and hung in the trees.

Like many other places that are holy to someone, this place hums with some nameless pre Christian power that is not diluted by hordes of tourists ( stop bus, pile out, take pictures, shop at gift store, back in bus all in 25 minutes) nor earnest explanations of the geology and flora and fauna of the area by the rangers, nor by the equally earnest rustic architecture of the CCC corps buildings. We stayed at the NP campground just by the river, with the tower looking down on us through the trees. On the banks of the river, a herd of horses grazes in the knee high lush grass, with the cotton wood trees along the water and the tower in the background. There are no hookups, so the Airstream gets to strut her stuff as a boondocking expert. And the tower looms its impossible shape in the last blue purple light of a long June day.