As a kid I used to play treasure hunt, all by myself. I'd take a piece of notebook paper and draw an X for my starting point — the front stoop of my house — on a dead-end street. Then I'd make a series of marks, each one representing a step, guided more by a desire to fill the page than by geography or cartography.
Years later I've discovered the perfect pastime for trail followers like me, and I bought my husband a Global Positioning System. He wanted it for marking waypoints while he was hunting or taking photographs. I wanted it because I'd learned about geocaching, a worldwide hobby that involves hiding and finding small treasures.
Some believe geocaching brings crowds onto public lands. My husband and I frequent public lands anyway, so using a sport today to practice GPS technology might save us from getting lost tomorrow.
Our first geocache search was on a winter morning, unseasonably warm and windless. We set out from home slightly off course. While my husband drove, I held the GPS, which warned we were getting farther from our goal. Using data plucked from satellites, it constantly calculated our distance from the goal, how long it would take us to reach it at our present speed, and what time it would be when we got there. Eventually, we corrected our course, bounced through some Wyoming ranch country, and parked at a fishing access we'd often visited and could have found with our eyes closed.
The GPS let out a victorious chirp.
We found ourselves at the base of a tall cottonwood tree, surrounded by a broken picnic table, smashed beer bottles, blackened logs in a fire ring and the grave of someone named Snowflake. But for the life of us, we couldn't find that cache. We poked in knotholes and shook branches and wobbled on the picnic table for a better view. No cache.
Foiled for the time, we headed to another cache, which was also hidden not far from the cottonwood tree. Along the river, through several turnstile gates out onto a school section, past a pile of feathers that once was a goose, the little arrow on the GPS screen led us, and when the machine twittered and chirped again, we knew we were very near.
Sure enough, we found the purple plastic box under a canopy of sagebrush. Contents included a slightly mauled stuffed toy, a little key chain, pencils. We took a never-sharpened Bugs Bunny pencil and left a Massachusetts quarter. We added our geocaching handle to the log book, and proudly announced it was our first-ever find.
I wish I could mark waypoints in my interior life the way geocaching lets me do with the physical world. I could mark places where I'd made bad choices, and a little sound in my head would chirp and twitter if I strayed that way again.
Even more, I wish I could mark my mother's thoughts. In her late eighties and recently diagnosed with a form of dementia, she has trouble finding the names for things and for people. The piece her church choir sang on Sunday, the name of the young man her niece is about to marry: These words are still there in her mind. They just get a bit buried in the brush, or placed too high up a tree.
I want to draw on the power of satellites to track down those nouns, those pieces of language that describe who we are, where we are, and what we live for. But not even GPS gizmos, with their computers and waypoints and precision military technology, can locate every treasure. There is no decode button for life.
A few weeks ago, we returned to the cottonwood near the river. This time we spotted a knothole higher up in the tree than we thought to look before. I made a step of my hands and gave my husband a boost, and he scooted along the long limb of the cottonwood until he saw a glint of metal in the sunlight. He tossed down to me the treasure: a tiny pen with a small narrow sheet of paper rolled inside in a tight barrel. I unfurled it and added the date of our find and our team name.
Like a flag planted on the icy summit of Mount Everest, that scrawled signature announced we'd come, we'd seen and we'd conquered. If only everything in life were that simple.
Julianne Couch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Laramie, Wyoming.
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