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Inside the World of L.A. Geocaching, a Scavenger Hunt Taking Place All Around You

Stephen O'Gara of Team Ventura Kids geocaching in South Hills Park, in Glendora
Stephen O'Gara of Team Ventura Kids geocaching in South Hills Park, in Glendora
Courtesy of Stephen O'Gara and Geocaching.com

In La La Land, the home of movie magic, we're used to our surroundings being not quite what they seem. But did you know, at this very moment, you are surrounded by thousands of tiny containers of various shapes and sizes, camouflaged in bushes, hidden in fake electrical boxes, attached by magnet to the bottoms of bar stools and perched atop stop-signs? You might need an ultra-violet light to discover the final clue to find them or wait for low tide to wade out to a cave at the beach, but they're there. That creepy guy at the bus stop who keeps looking around suspiciously might be totally nuts...or he might be a geocacher.

Geocaching is a worldwide treasure hunt that began in May 2000 when the U.S. government gave up "selective availability" and allowed civilians to use GPS devices with almost perfect accuracy for the first time. Computer consultant David Ulmer was one of many GPS enthusiasts brainstorming how this newly available technology could be used. The day after "selective availability" was lifted, Ulmer decided to hide a bucket in the woods near his home in Beavercreek, Oregon filled with prizes and post the coordinates online for anyone to find. He called it "The Great American GPS Stash Hunt" and its one rule was, "Take some stuff; leave some stuff."

Within three days, two readers had found Ulmer's bucket using personal GPS devices, and more readers had begun to hide boxes and post coordinates online. By September 2000, there were 75 caches across the country. Now there are 2 million around the world. One hundred seventeen thousand of those are in California and over 300 are within a 5 mile radius of our own 90012.

Today, Geocaching.com is the hub of all things geocache and the place to find the coordinates of caches around the world. Geocachers can use the gps on their smart phones and download an app that identifies the caches closest to them at any given time. The app provides maps, comments from fellow finders and clues. Even though the coordinates lead you to the cache's location, the real trick is is finding the camoed pillbox hanging in a nearby tree or knowing which sprinkler head is actually a hidden geocache filled with booty.

Los Angeles has become a world hotspot for geocaching, partly because of our year-round mild climate, partially because of our tech savvy population and partially because of our varied and intriguing terrain. "Whatever geocaching experience you're looking for, you can find it in L.A.," claimed real estate broker and geocacher Andy Perkins in a phone interview. "On the same day, you can be digging for boxes at the beach, grab easy urban caches through the city, then head up to the mountains or out to the desert."

Perkins has been geocaching with his wife as Team Perks since they moved to the area over ten years ago and were looking for a fun way to explore. Together, they have hidden over a hundred cashes and geocached in forty two states. Their strategy is to hide caches in beautiful or interesting spots that searchers might not have seen before. "Our area has actually become saturated with caches. All the good spots are taken," says Perkins. "So when we go four-wheeling in our jeep or hiking to a scenic spot, we hide them out there. We have some out at Vasquez Rocks where they shot a lot of Star Trek."

Inside the World of L.A. Geocaching, a Scavenger Hunt Taking Place All Around You
Courtesy of Geocaching.com & Groundspeak

Perkins and his wife are what geocacher Stephen O'Gara of Team Ventura Kids would call Green People. "I consider there to be three different groups of geocachers," says O'Gara by phone. "One is Green People who like to go hiking and do events like CITO (Cash In Trash Out) to clean up trails. Others focus on finding as many caches as they can. Then there's the techy group that's more into the programs and software." O'Gara, who began searching for geocaches with his friends on Harleys all over the southwest, admitted he fell in the second group. The Ventura Kids set a world record several years ago by finding 1,157 caches in 24 hours along the Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada. The highway's claim to fame is not only that it passes Area 51 but also that is one of the largest geocache "power trails" in the world, with 2800 caches hidden every few hundred feet.

The treasure hunt continues once you've found the cache. If the container is small (some are smaller than a screw), it may only contain the log scroll for visitors to sign. But if it is larger, it may contain geocoins, trackables or other items visitors choose to leave behind. A geocoin is a collectible item that organizations and teams leave like a calling card. Trackables are dog tags with a unique number on them that are attached to items as small as a toy car or as large as a bowling pin. When you find a trackable, you look up the number online and see where in the world it's trying to get to. When you travel closer to its destination, you hide it in a geocache for another cacher to find.

Perkins once found a trackable attached to a lockbox full of money. "A guy in England borrowed money from his flatmate long ago and decided to return it to him by geocache," explains Perkins. The box made it across the Atlantic and all the way to Los Angeles, where the friend was a professor at UCLA. "I actually worked at UCLA at the time," Perkins remembers. "I got to ring up this professor and say, 'You don't know me, but here's this really funny story.' He was quite tickled."

To become a geocacher these days, you don't even need a GPS. Groundspeak, the company that runs Geocaching.com, has developed a smartphone app that sells for $9.99 and that can immediately identify all the caches in your area and list the clues as well as other cachers' comments and lets you log your finds. Smaller amounts of caches are available through free apps as well. Whether you're walking down Sunset to the Casbah Café, hiking up Runyon, or visiting freaking Milan, I promise you there is a little box with a scroll in it just waiting for you to put your name on it.

Stephanie Carrie blogs at The Tangled Web We Watch. Follow her on Twitter at @StephanieCarrie and for more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.


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