Recently I hiked Mount Margaret in the Red Feather Lakes area northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado. This region of forests, meadows, and castellated rocks will be in the upcoming book, Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range. On the way home I passed a trailhead not on my list. Pulling a U-turn, I decided it was time for a “collateral” hike and set off on Granite Ridge Trail.
Three exquisite miles later, it was getting to be time to turn around. But first I wanted to bushwhack up the ridge for views of the Mummy Range. Some say these peaks, when seen from the southeast, resemble a giant gauze-wrapped cadaver. I was north of them but that didn’t matter. “I’ll climb to THAT rock,” I decided, and scrambled toward a prominent boulder. Famous last words! Laughing through heaving breaths, I continued from one false summit to the next. The Mummies looked magnificent, and being so far off-trail, I felt like I was the first human to view them from this perspective.
My illusion was promptly shattered. On top of the highest rock was a pile of stones – a cairn. Nestled in the cairn was a plastic bottle. I’d arrived at an official summit! I prepared to sign the log.
Then I realized what I’d stumbled upon: a geocache. My knowledge of this hobby/sport was vague, but I knew it had a community with an established etiquette. As an uninitiate, I replaced the contents without signing. I was heartened that the most recent visit had been over a year ago – indeed I was off the beaten path.
The first documented geocache was placed in Oregon in 2000, days after President Clinton signed an order to turn off “Selective Ability.” This system intentionally put errors in the Global Positioning System to make users never sure where they were within 50 meters. After turning it off, the pastime of geocaching blossomed. Millions of caches now dot the landscape in over 200 countries.
A traditional cache contains a logbook, a pencil, and a trinket. The owner posts its coordinates and other details online, and folks are invited to find it, sign the log, and record their exploits on the internet. They may take the trinket and leave something similar if they wish. If a geocache is vandalized or stolen it is said to be “muggled.” This is in reference to the Harry Potter books, which grew in popularity alongside geocaching (people not familiar with the sport are called “muggles”).
I came down from the ridge, glad I had not disturbed the cache, not knowing that would have been muggling. After I got home I decided to investigate. I signed up for free on Geocaching.com and received a surprise. When I entered the coordinates of my cache, the site returned 183 results! Twelve other caches were listed within a mile!
This had been going on all around me: an invisible, parallel world. No longer in the dark, my mind began to race. Should I embrace geocaching, make it a part of the book? Create 101 new caches along the Front Range? Make it a game to play, part of the hikes? The sport tied in so well with what I was doing.
I decided to leave it alone. Geocaching is something readers can overlay if they wish. My personal choice, when hiking, is to be unplugged. I’ve never been big on gear, or on making hiking complicated in any way. The trail is enough of a device for me. I feel sad when I am out there soaking it all in, and somebody walks by staring into their device.
In truth, geocaching can be considered littering, a violation of “leave-no-trace.” And it encourages going off-trail. But it’s all in good fun, and when done right promotes awareness and care of the environment. Part of geocaching’s ethic is CITO – “Cache In, Trash Out.” Participants are encouraged to leave places better than they found them. It’s a superb means to get outside and go somewhere new, and the hide-and-seek element appeals to the child in everyone. What a great way to spice up a hike for kids: “Let’s go find the cache!”
“What about myself?” I wondered. “To cache or not to cache?”
Everything in moderation! I’m going hiking tomorrow. I’ll pick up some trinkets at the dollar store, and visit a cache or two, and come home and make my entries online. And be a muggle no more!