Waypoints of the heart

  • A GPS unit uses data from a satellite to home in on a geocache in the Ames Monument east of Laramie, Wyoming

    R.K. Hansen/Horse Creek Studio
  • Cached objects

    R.K. Hansen/Horse Creek Studio
  • A hole in a cottonwood contains a small cache

    R.K. Hansen/Horse Creek Studio

As a kid, I used to play treasure hunt, all by myself. I’d take a piece of wide-ruled 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. When the paper resembled the convoluted treasure maps of pirates on Saturday morning cartoons, I’d set out, traveling in dizzy circles. I’d wind up in the middle of a neighbor’s driveway, or at the base of a nearby tulip tree, where I might pick up a rock, or find an interesting bug. It didn’t really matter where I went or what I found: I’d followed the map and gotten somewhere, an adventurous explorer driven by a self-imposed sense of purpose.

Now I’ve discovered the perfect pastime for people like me. For Christmas, I bought my husband the Garmin eTrex GPS unit he’d been drooling over. 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.

Our first geocache outing was on a recent winter morning, unseasonably warm and windless. On a Web site devoted to the hobby, we selected a few caches near our Wyoming home, and my husband plotted the waypoints. We accidentally set out slightly off course, a few miles east of where we should have been. While my husband drove, I held the GPS, which plainly told us we were getting farther from our goal. Using data plucked from satellites, it constantly calculated our distance from the cache, 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 ranch country, and parked at the fishing access we’d often visited and probably could have found with our eyes closed. The GPS let out a small, victorious chirp.

Ocean in view. O the joy. That’s what my great-ancestor William Clark wrote the day he, Meriwether Lewis, and the rest of the Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific. A GPS wouldn’t have helped them get there sooner, but it might have helped them make maps for the journey back home. Historians would be delighted if Lewis had set a waypoint for the place he cached his iron boat, which unfortunately behaved in water exactly the way you’d expect: It sank. I envy Clark and other explorers for being able to map a new path, to expose and develop their every undreamt-of day as it dawned. By the time I came along, the dead-end street of my childhood had already been plotted and platted. So my job was to make a map of my imaginings, to give them order and shape and see where they led. Eventually, they led me out of my Midwestern suburb, and to the comparative frontier of Wyoming.

On this particular day, my imaginings combined with the GPS to lead me to the base of a big cottonwood tree, which was surrounded by a broken picnic table, smashed beer bottles, blackened logs in a fire ring, and the grave of someone named Snowflake, presumably a cat. The GPS twittered; we knew we were at the correct spot. But for the life of us, we couldn’t find the cache. We poked in knotholes and shook branches and wobbled on the picnic table for a better view. No cache. The owners had left an encrypted clue on the Web site. To decode the message, one could enlist the help of someone like Sherlock Holmes. Or one could simply click the Decode button on the Web site, which is what we did. Unscrambled, the letters read "I was high when I placed this."

For a person who loves order and purpose, the unwavering locating and decoding of geocaching is like finding a rubric for the universe. To be told where I am, and even more importantly, where I am not, is balm for my mind and spirit. And to decode a mystery in an instant is to feel a swell of revelation. But there’s no decode button for life. Most of the time, one has to muddle through on instinct and luck. In this case, we concluded the cache must have been lost or stolen. We didn’t think anyone would really climb high up the tree to place a cache, risking a broken neck or serious injury by falling onto the collage of broken glass below.

Undaunted, we headed to another cache, which was also hidden near the river, not far from the cottonwood tree. Along the river, through several turnstile gates out onto a school section, past a pile of feathers that was once a goose, we followed the little arrow on the GPS screen, and when the machine chirped again, we knew we were very near. Sure enough, we found a purple plastic box under a canopy of sagebrush. I took a photograph of my husband holding the GPS and the cache box, as if it were a 20-inch rainbow trout and he a successful fisherman with his gear. In the cache were lots of little treasures — 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 (Horse Creek) to the log book, and proudly announced it was our first-ever find. We carefully returned the cache to its sagebrush nest and made our way back to the car, pausing to make one last search of the tall cottonwood. We still couldn’t see the cache, though we saw four people approaching, obviously on the same mission. Later, we read on Geocaching.com that they had found the cache, and that a 66-year-old had done the tree climbing. A bit ashamed, we resolved to return.

I wish I could mark waypoints in my interior life the way geocaching lets me do in the physical world. I could mark places where I’d made bad choices, and I’d hear a twitter in my head if I strayed that way again. Boyfriends who should not have been boyfriends, jobs I should never have taken: They could be represented in my subconscious by little electronic triangles, to be avoided next time around. Even more, I wish I could mark my mother’s thoughts. In her late 80s and recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, 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 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.

A few weeks later, we returned to the river, and to the tall cottonwood. We spotted a knothole in the tree, above where we’d looked during the first visit. I made a step of my hands and gave my husband a boost, and he scampered along the long limb of the cottonwood until he saw a glint of metal in the sunlight. He tossed 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 that we’d come, we’d seen, and we’d conquered. If only everything were that simple.

Julianne Couch finds her home in Laramie, Wyoming, where she lives with her husband and their animal family and teaches at the University of Wyoming.

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