Geocaching with smartphones in SLO County

Let your smartphone lead you on a search for hidden caches — and discover SLO County’s great outdoors along the way

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJune 24, 2012 

Standing outside F. McLintocks restaurant in Shell Beach, Tribune photographer Joe Johnston stares at his iPhone and shakes his head.

“Dude, it’s supposed to be, like, right here.”

According to his iPhone app, the treasure we’re looking for is located somewhere near the big wooden cowboy. But when we look — in vegetation around the statue, in holes under the sidewalk or under the lights that illuminate the cowboy—a stiff fellow named Clint — we find nothing.

Just as we’re about to give up, though, a man pulls into the parking lot, exits his truck and walks toward us.

“How long you been looking?” he asks.

“About 10 minutes,” Joe says, surprised the man seems to know what we’re doing.

He gives us a major clue, and we find what we’ve been hunting for: an Altoids tin someone calling themselves MartianRabbit had hidden there in 2006.

“Have you found this yourself?” I ask the mystery man.

“No, I just love to see people look for it.”

Turns out, the geocaching community — a group of high-tech treasure hunters using GPS technology — is pretty big. So big that the mystery man — actually a McLintocks maintenance worker—has seen numerous hunters come to this location, looking for the same Altoids tin.

While Joe and I have completed a series of stories on local road trips, this time he suggested a different kind of jaunt — one that entailed a treasure hunt. While the idea intrigued me, it left me with one nagging question:

What should I leave behind?

According to geocaching rules, if you take a hidden treasure, you should also leave something behind. Which meant I had to leave something that would be interesting for other treasure hunters — and, better yet, readers of this story.

The answer came to me when I spotted a piece of correspondence on my desk.

How it started

Geocaching began on May 2, 2000, when the U.S. government unscrambled data streaming from its global satellite system, allowing citizens the opportunity to receive more precise signals. The next day a computer consultant named Dave Ulmer tested the accuracy of the new GPS technology by hiding a bucket of goodies — videos, books, software — in the woods near Beavercreek, Oregon. After sharing the coordinates of his stash online, two different readers were able to track them down using GPS receivers.

That fall, was created to invite more cachers. (The name comes from the prefix “geo,” meaning “Earth,” and “cache,” referring to a place to store things.) Later, geocaching was made even easier with the advent of apps that allow people to use their phones as precise tracking devices.

When a cacher hides a treasure, they mark the coordinates and leave hints on a site such as People who find the caches are then asked to leave comments on the site.

The hobby is popular enough that several books — including “Geocaching for Dummies” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Geocaching” — are now available. And an episode of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” centered on a geocacher-turned-murder suspect.

Though premium (aka, for a fee) apps are available, we used the free app, which reveals the three caches nearest you at all times. Since there are hundreds of hidden treasures in the county, there was no shortage.

One of the first caches that showed up on Joe’s iPhone took us to Wilmar Street in Pismo Beach. Following a spot on the map, we briefly looked around the small parking lot at the end of the street, but since there were people in the neighborhood — referred to as “muggles” in the caching world — we felt uncomfortable.

“People are gonna think we’re terrorists,” Joe said.

Having read that police are sometimes called on suspicious-looking cachers, we decided to head to less populated public places.

Off to a slow start

After our next find — at Damon Garcia Park in San Luis Obispo — I began to get a little disappointed. First of all, the two containers we’d found were very small. And the items in them were, well, kind of weak.

At McLintocks, the “treasures” included a small plastic safety pin, a stub for a movie called “The Eagle” and a plastic toy tire. At Damon Garcia Park, we found a film canister containing two tiny plastic frogs.

Cachers will tell you it’s not about the treasures — it’s about the hunt. But still — a safety pin?

Come on.

I’d actually made some effort to come up with something interesting. Problem was, it wasn’t going to fit in a film canister.

Each cache comes with a log, and Joe signed ours “Von Burner,” a nickname he gave to me (unfairly, I might add) while surfing, and we moved on, looking for bigger containers. (The app will tell you the size of the containers.)

Not all caches are easy to find, though. We came up empty during hunts near Islay Hill and at a business park near the airport in San Luis Obispo. So we decided to venture further out.

One of the purposes of this hunt, after all, was to make it a road trip — to see stuff along the way. But as we were headed for the countryside, the GPS told us there was a good-sized cache hidden at the Madonna Inn.

Seemed like a perfect place for my drop-off.

We walked around the parking lot for several minutes, again feeling a little self-conscious. Then, finally, Joe waved me over.

“I found it,” he said.

Not far from a large boulder, tucked under a lid with the words “Irrigation Control Valve,” was a good-sized ammo box containing a host of items, including toy cars, plastic vampire teeth and crayons.

Now it would include one more item.

Clever contribution

Last fall, I interviewed a man named Steve Howell, who lives in Morro Bay. Howell not only collects postcards — he has more than 800,000 — but he also sends around 2,000 cards a year.

Some of the recipients are friends and family members, others are relative strangers he wants to surprise with a postcard. Since I wrote about him, he’s sent me several postcards — one which I happened to notice on my desk while brainstorming cache ideas.

With Howell in mind, I bought a postcard featuring Pismo Pier and a stamp. When we found the Madonna Inn ammo box, I put the card in a plastic sandwich bag, along with the story I wrote about Howell, a pen and a message: “Please write a note on this postcard and send it to Steve Howell.” Then I signed it “Not Steve.”

I thought it was a fun way to connect two stories.

In the car, Joe said, “High five, bro!” and we celebrated our find. But we weren’t finished. Because I had two other cache items — a CD containing a collection of songs I thought would be good for driving (including “Roam” by the B-52s, “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson and “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys) and another postcard, this one addressed to me, here at The Tribune.

When we were done, we drove down scenic Turri Road in Morro Bay, where we concluded that the real treasures weren’t in the caches — they were here, in the beauty of the landscape. But it was the caches that brought us out here.

See more photos from Pat and Joe's treasure hunt »

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