A few months ago while wasting time on-line, I stumbled onto a link for www.geocaching.com . I had heard a little about the game but until I visited the web site I never realized how far-flung and popular it has become. Geocaching is simply this: you take a handheld GPS, plug in latitude and longitude coordinates you find on the geocaching website, hike until the GPS tells you you’ve reached the coordinates and then look for a Tupperware container (or, for a microcache, a 35 mm film case or an Altoid tin) with a log book and all kinds of goofy trinkets. The geocaching credo is that you must sign the log book, take something from the cache only if you leave something, and log your visit on the website when you return home. Within 30 miles of my home there are 131 caches hidden on hiking trails, in parks or in downtown flower boxes. I never knew! There are caches all over the world and, as with just about anything these days - e.g. pinball machines - there is a whole Internet culture of true believers out there.
The first step was to get a GPS. We used to have one but we sold it with our sailboat a couple of years ago. I hinted around for a month or so, but finally had to take matters into my own hands. A nice man at LL Bean gave me a lengthy tutorial on handhelds to the annoyance of other customers lurking around the counter and trying to catch his eye. I decided on a Garmin GPSmap 76. It’s a little slicker than I had intended but it has a mapping display, you can import detailed topographical maps from your computer and, at one-third off before the end of August, it was a real deal. Small handhelds suitable for geocaching can be had for about 99 bucks.
With GPS in hand and the manual glanced through, I returned to the website and found the coordinates for a cache at Salt Bay Farm, a nearby preserve on the Damariscotta River. On our way to the cache we stopped downtown at Waltz’s Drugstore to pick up our weekend guest, our friend Tracy. She was coming in on the afternoon bus from Boston and didn’t yet know she was going geocaching. It came as a bit of a surprise, but she was her ever-game self. We got smoothies and ice coffees at the book store café and were off.
The Salt Bay Farm cache is a multi-cache. You punch in the coordinates for the first cache, a film case in a ziplock baggie. Inside are lots of tiny slips of paper with the lat/long for the real cache. I made a little mistake putting in the second set of coordinates and was relieved of the GPS by the males in our party but we found our way and returned home with a heart-shaped nightlight on which is printed “Maine Injury Prevention Program 1-800-698-3624.” We left two plastic woodland animals and signed the log book.
By the morning of Labor Day the luster of the first geocaching find had worn off for three of my four partners and only Tracy and I set off for a local preserve called Dodge Point. Good conversation, stunning scenery along the river, three turtles sunning themselves on logs, cookies and apples, and a successful GPS experience made it a lovely few hours. We signed the log, left a dinosaur pencil and an algae fossil and took a brass belt buckle that reads:
“Most Improved Average
League (ABC) Award
American Bowling Congress.”
Wow. Where else could you find something that special to put on top of your computer monitor. No where, I tell you.
In a spirit of hospitality and generosity, I offered it to Tracy but she didn’t seem to want it.
Hiking and treasure-hunting. What a great combo!
So yesterday when I suggested to my boys that they go geocaching with me at some local sites, it was hard to understand why they turned me down. Scott was working on a project he needed to finish by Monday and the boys, fresh from their first soccer practice, wanted to hang out at home.
With coordinates for two local caches printed out, one on either side of the Damariscotta River, I headed a mile or so down the road to the Lincoln County News parking lot. I am ashamed to admit that I have lived in this part of Maine for 17 years and have never seen the ancient oyster shell middens that lie along the banks of the Damariscotta River.
For more than 1000 years Native Americans gathered each winter and early spring on these banks to harvest oysters, hunt, fish and feast.. Before tons of the shells were mined to provide calcium for chicken feed in the late 1880s, the middens measured 30 feet thick and stretched as far as a half-mile along both shores of the Damariscotta River. Enough still remain to give you an idea of the wonder of 1000 years of oyster feasting. Both sides of the river are now protected historic sites.
So with treasure in mind and GPS ready, I started my hike. The display read that I was exactly one mile from my destination. At one point along the trail I came upon an enormous rock at the edge of the bay. I climbed up and took in the view. What a great place to eat lunch or to smooch someone you love. A bit hard and bumpy for anything else. I drank some water and moved on with my quest.
Finally I came to the shore near the middens. The tidal Damariscotta River continuously laps at a beach of crushed oyster shells and the banks are tall with compressed shells that dating tells us are at least 2,200 years old. The Native Americans ate oysters here until the river changed and allowed the water to become more saline and therefore host to snails and other oyster predators. The age of the oyster passed at the turn of the first millennium AD, but here was the proof of their abundance.
My GPS told me that I was within 450 feet of the cache but the problem was it was also telling me to cross the river to get there. I walked up and down the shore and it became obvious that four satellites 30 miles above me were not wrong. I was wrong.
And then it dawned on me. I had been following the lat and long for the second cache, the one stashed on the other set of oyster heaps across the river, instead of the one I should have been looking for. I had punched in the wrong coordinates. Dumb dumb dumb. Suddenly I was glad to be alone.
Quickly I sat on a rock and keyed in the right coordinates. My destination was only .27 miles away. I was almost there. I bid farewell to the oyster shells and headed along the trail. As I walked back inland, I saw a wide field along to my left just off the trail. I stood at the edge of the meadow that gently sloped to the water just down river from where I’d been at the middens. It was a beautiful September day, blue sky, sparkling water, green grass with fading wildflowers, dragonflies and the hum of insects. I felt sorry to be alone then. What a transcendent place. What a place of places. I wanted to stand among other people in quiet.
But I’m not alone, I thought.
In the His Dark Materials trilogy, the writer Philip Pullman creates a wonderful conceit about humans and their souls. The world he introduces in the first volume, The Golden Compass, is very much like our world except that humans have their souls outside their bodies and call them dæmons. They take the shape of an animal and can talk and comfort and consult and commiserate.
Children who have not reached puberty have the best deal, their dæmons can change shape at will. If his human needs warmth, she can turn into an ermine and wrap around his neck. If her human needs her to be tiny in order to spy on someone, she can become a moth, or perhaps a wildcat to protect him. After puberty the dæmons settle on a form that is often like the personality of their humans, but they remain life-long companions who share thoughts and heartaches and joys.
When Lyra, the main character from that world meets Will, a boy from our world, she says,
“You, your dæmon en’t separate from you. It’s you. A part of you. You’re apart of each other. En’t there anyone in your world like us? Are they all like you, with their dæmons all hidden away?”
That is what I thought about as I stood in that perfect place, alone but not alone. My dæmon, my soul was with me…somehow separate, somehow inside, somehow knowing. Somehow the mysterious Spirit of God was involved, some Spirit of Truth that fades in and out of focus on these dark and confusing days that comprise our world.
So I wasn’t alone, I was among those I love who can be where I am but don’t have to be, among the thousands of people who feasted nearby over ten centuries, among the dragonflies and insects and squirrels scurrying through the trees. We are not alone and, as I stood there, that sinking in was the treasure to find, beyond any belt buckle or nightlight I could imagine. But it turns out that if I’d been smarter, I wouldn’t have found such a treasure at all.
As I walked back to the trail I soon discovered that I should have backtracked from the middens, not gone on ahead. I had really overshot the geocache in my quest for the coordinates across the river. I found it a little while later hidden under the big rock I had stopped by early in the hike. I took a Czech beer mat, left a Jurassic Park flip book and turned off the GPS. I may not be a brilliant geocacher, but I don’t need it to find my way home.
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