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When Pigs Fly

A journey into the world of geocaching

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On a wide-open stretch of Highway 71 in central Louisiana, I was in hot pursuit of "When Pigs Fly." It seemed that using hard directions instead of a global positioning system (GPS) would qualify as cheating, but I would later find out that MapQuest just was not as much fun as following an arrow directing you from a satellite in outer space.

A few miles after crossing the Atchafalaya River atop a steep, double-arched metal bridge, I spotted some cows and horses. Still no flying pigs. I had to detour through Cheneyville after I encountered the annual Louisiana Corn Festival on Main Street in Bunkie.

When I arrived at the Logan Honey Farms sandwich shop in Alexandria, the store's hog-themed decor with matching wallpaper and a crowd of about 30 people confirmed I was in the right place. The gathering offered a rare chance to eat cake, drink sweet tea and socialize with folks who participate in the worldwide phenomenon of geocaching.

This sport, game, activity -- depending on how you define it -- is like a modern-day treasure hunt that combines the old-fashioned thrill of searching for hidden containers, known as caches, with GPS devices, a satellite mapping technology declassified by the U.S. Department of Defense that now commonly serves as a digital map in civilian boats and automobiles.

Geocachers use the handheld GPS devices to search for the hidden caches in just about any place imaginable -- from urban settings to locations deep in the wilderness -- creating individualized treasure hunts all over the world. Each cache is hidden by a fellow geocacher, who then provides a set of longitude and latitude coordinates on the geocaching Web site that other users can put on their handheld GPS devices and begin their search.

The game was popularized in 2000 by a couple of Web developers in Seattle who discovered the cache-hiding adventures of a few technically advanced outdoor enthusiasts already familiar with the GPS technology. Now there are more than a million participants spread over just about every continent in the world. Taking time off from their day jobs, the group of Web developers created the geocaching Web site to make the game more accessible by connecting users and their caches to one another. That eventually led to the juggernaut that is www.geocaching.com and represents one of the few successful attempts during the second Internet bubble -- most often dubbed Web 2.0 for other user-generated sites like MySpace and YouTube -- to use an existing technology blended with real-life experiences in a new and user-friendly way.

When I met Gerald Massey from Shreveport at the second annual central Louisiana Geocachers Meetup, he did not exactly look like the cutting-edge, Internet hip geocacher I had expected him to be. The 71-year-old retired train station laborer was decked in denim overalls with a Pro Bass Shop hat.

Massey started geocaching two years ago when the folks at his local Wal-Mart explained the many uses of the seemingly strange GPS device that had piqued his curiosity. "I had no idea what they were talking about," says Massey, who was interested enough to buy one because the starting price was only around $100. "But I was getting pretty close to retirement age, I'm a full-fledged old fart, you see, and it was about that time that I went on the Internet to investigate geocaching."

Based on an introductory search the Web site performed when he signed up, Massey found that there were caches hidden all around him, including several close to his house. It was to become his new retirement hobby.

It turns out a lot of retirees have flocked to the game, in addition to families, college students and outdoor enthusiasts. Brenda Dean, the person who lured me to the meetup when she told me about the flying pigs, was the event organizer. She described herself as a die-hard geocacher who has turned it into a family activity with her 6-year-old daughter Abigail.

"Nobody really knows about it," says Dean. "It promotes exercise, it promotes family time, it promotes logic. You go out there with your family and you have to work together to find [the hidden cache]."

For Dean, who grew up playing in the woods near the Andirondack mountains in New York, it's all about the thrill of the hunt and racking up "finds," the total of caches she ferrets out, a number that gets posted online under her geocaching alias, Sequoia2.

Caches can be camouflaged and cleverly blended into whatever landscape they are hidden and can be as big as a box or as small as a nail. The degrees of difficulty can vary greatly because the people who hide the caches fashion their own containers, which include such things as faux pinecones or fake dog poop, tiny magnets attached to the underside of bridges or street signs, and can even be buried on the bottom of the ocean.

Unlike old-fashioned treasure hunts however, what's inside the caches is usually of little value. Normally there's a logbook for people to sign and date and some sort of tradable trinket, like the one that Dean wears around her neck. People often leave their own coins, trinkets or small collectibles in the cache they find as a trade for something they take out, which eventually will be put into another cache. The geocaching Web site also has its own version of collectibles called "travel bugs," which users can track online with a barcode to see where each one ends up as it travels around the globe.

Despite the novelty of geocaching, it's hard to put a finger on exactly what keeps this unusual club of adventurers hooked. "Well, that's hard to explain," says Dean, who spends just about every free moment she has geocaching. I suggested a demonstration might help answer the question. It was time to find "When Pigs Fly," a cache Dean had hidden somewhere in the parking lot in front of the sandwich shop. Steve Normand, a 35-year-old X-ray technician from Marksville, led the way with the coordinates already loaded into the GPS that dangled from his neck. A small crew followed us outside as Normand zigzagged to the direction of the arrow on his screen. After turning to face the building, he scanned the parking lot landscape for clues.

In geocaching, the GPS is only helpful up to a point. Then, the human element must take over the hunt. Normand seized upon an outdoor dining table and examined it with the help of a few others who had joined in the search. They turned the table upside down and peered down its legs. Just as they were about to abandon it, a little girl no older than 6 blurted out, "It's right there!" She pointed to what looked like a screw on the underside of the table. Normand plucked it off, holding it in between his fingers to examine the find. He unraveled what looked like a long screw but was in fact a tiny container attached to a magnet that had a small piece of paper rolled inside it. Crammed signatures of all of those who came before us lined the tiny scroll. Normand pulled out a pen to add his name, than held it up for everyone to see. A relieved smile brightened his face.

The crowd's attention then turned to me, seeking to gauge my reaction and whether I was a new convert to their club. I shamefully hid my disappointment. It was novel, it was quirky and even a little exciting, but I was unconvinced that it could be a fulfilling hobby for long.

So when I sat back down with Massey, I listened intently as he told me about a side spin-off of geocaching called "waymarking." Instead of finding a hidden cache with your GPS, you find a point of interest -- a town statue or a Civil War site that's not widely known. People post pictures of these points of interest online, along with their coordinates and perhaps some trivia, for other people to go see in person.

"There must be about 500 different categories, and I'm into about 30 of them," says Massey. He's particularly fascinated with old bridges and churches, which he drives all over the state to see. "I found a technique on churches. If you want to know where the churches are, you go to the heart of town and find the City Hall and the courthouse. You drive four to five blocks in either direction and that's where your churches are going to be. I don't want just any church, not just a box and a steeple. I want something with class." The old man's passion intrigued me, but it seemed like a niche interest, not a worldwide phenomenon with more than a million participants.

After we ate the last few pieces of cake, I said goodbye and thanked Dean, Massey and a few others who remained. "You'll probably pass around 500 caches on your way back," Dean said.

I put the top down on my car as I drove back down Highway 71. As I passed through Cheneyville, a town that couldn't have had more than a water tower and a general store, I saw a sign I hadn't noticed before that read "Town Hall," with an arrow pointing to the left. Encouraged by the adventurous spirit of the day, I decided to test the old man's theory on churches. Families sitting on their porches outside wooden shacks fanned themselves and stared as I crept down the narrow, tree-lined road. Any signs of a town hall seemed to be getting farther away, not closer. At the end of the road, the landscape broke open to plowed farmland. Then I peered to my left and did a double take. A magnificent white, three-story medieval castle-looking structure sat boldly amid stretches of open land on the opposite side of a bayou. The castle was, in fact, an Episcopal Church.

Standing under a giant oak tree that must have been several hundred years old, I snapped photos of the pristine church. The brown bayou in front of me was completely still. Grass ruffling beneath my feet was the only sound. It felt like I was the only person in the world that had ever seen this beautiful church.

The old man was right. In fact, they all were. The same thing that brought me to this church compels Gerald Massey to travel all over the state looking for bridges and prompts Brenda Dean to rush home from work and scoop up her daughter to go caching each day before the sun goes down. To be able to go online and research what interests you, knowing that you will be able to inject yourself into those moments time and time again is undeniable. While it's not exactly pigs flying, it is pretty special.

Robert Benoit from Lafayette (left) and Gerald Massey and a - fellow geocacher check their GPS systems before looking for - a hidden treasure in a parking lot in Alexandria. - SAM WINSTON
  • Sam Winston
  • Robert Benoit from Lafayette (left) and Gerald Massey and a fellow geocacher check their GPS systems before looking for a hidden treasure in a parking lot in Alexandria.
Steve Normand of Marksville leads fellow geocachers to a - metal table where he believes the cache is hidden. - SAM WINSTON
  • Sam Winston
  • Steve Normand of Marksville leads fellow geocachers to a metal table where he believes the cache is hidden.

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