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Cache Ninja won't tell me his name. But he has agreed to take me on "a cache hunt" for the most obscure treasure in Manhattan. There's only one problem: we need a boat, a small boat.
We're playing a new game called geocaching, a high-tech treasure hunt that begins with clues placed on the Internet and ends with real-life pursuits, assisted by handheld Global Positioning System gadgets that reveal your exact location on earth, in latitude and longitude. Standing at 40-44.379 N, 74-00.146 W, or the North Village Delicatessen on the corner of 14th Street and 7th Avenue, we read the following clue:
"You can walk to where you are standing directly OVER the cache, but you cannot access the cache, or see it unless you bring a small boat, or are prepared to swim."
Ninja punches the coordinates of the cache40-44.491 N, 74-0.67 Winto his $100, waterproof Magellan 310. "[Geocaching] is a fractured, postmodern, Internet kind of thing," he says. "It's a community that's online, then becomes tangible in the real world. But if I met another cacher, it would just be awkward. It's about minimal contact. We never use the phone because we all have our own personalities and characters."
Players gather online at Geocaching.com, the slick, user-friendly Web site that has brought together some 6000 people in over 20 countries, most of them looking for stashes containing utterly worthless items. There's no money involved, just little Tupperware boxes filled with crapkitschy gizmos, the small trinkets left on your dresser. Cachers leave a logbook for hunters and try to hold everyone to a single standard: If you take something from the cache, you must leave something in return.
Walking in the cold, toward the abandoned docks and fishing piers on the Hudson River, we watch as the Magellan tracks our progress toward this legendary cache. The wind has picked up, and my nose is dripping, but nobody has a handkerchief. Ninja says New York's skyscrapers make for poor GPS reception, one reason why geocaching in Manhattan is difficult; another is that secure, tamper-proof hiding spots are rare.
Less than thirty feet away now, we peer at the icicles hanging from underneath empty Pier 49, with complete disregard for the original crux of the clue: the fucking boat. The cache is somewhere under the pier, and there is no way to get to it.
Two kayakers pass us by, their paddles slapping the water. "Hey! Over here!" we yelp, frantically waving our hands like we're drowning. "Help!" No response. They paddle away. Mission aborted.
"Don't feel bad," Ninja says. "It's more realistic this way."
He shows us a clue for another cache uptown. It reads: "I have hidden a cache in New York, in the northern section of Riverside Park. . . . It is hidden in the crux of four medium-size trees covered in bark with two sticks forming an 'X.' "
The concept of this game is not new. In 1854, "letterboxing" developed on the English moors when, so the story goes, a Victorian gentleman randomly placed his calling card in a bottle, then stuck it somewhere in a muddy bank and waited for someone to stumble upon it. Even today, letterboxers hide containers and offer clues that lead to their exact location. Players use compasses and record the unique stamp of each box in passport-looking notebooks.
Last May, President Clinton took the game to a new level, when he signed a bill that granted full public access to the GPS system. For years, GPS users had found their handheld gadgets weak and inaccurate, leaving them 300 feet from an exact position. Now that distance is about 30 feet. That same day, a self-confessed gadget geek from Oregon had an idea. He stashed a slingshot, a can of beans, and a few CD-ROMs in the woods. Then he posted the coordinates on a mailing list for GPS users. The age of geocaching had begun.
"I don't want to play the armchair sociologist," says Jeremy Irish, the Seattle-based webmaster of Geocaching.com, "but we're a goal-driven society, and geocaching takes advantage of that."
The future of geocaching, to Irish, is in appealing to a broad portion of the public. League games and teams with different colored jerseys seem like realistic possibilities to Irish, as do corporate sponsors that can hide real booty. "There's a fine line [for] protecting the essence of the sport," he says. "I like the Web site with no advertisements on it. But if the site can't raise enough money to support one guy, then it becomes hard to take the game to the next level."
In Riverside Park, off the fringe of the northern woods, we walk down empty paths, past tennis courts covered in snow. My nose is really running now, in embarrassing amounts. When I excuse myself from the group for a hefty farmer blow, I see four trees of the same girth, and resting between their trunks are two broken logs, in the form of an "X." There are fresh footprints in the snow, leading directly past the cache. Ninja offers me the "honor." Swiping twigs and bark aside, I can see the blue top of a Rubbermaid box.