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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008

Treasure Hunt

Risking bear encounters, gullywashers and rock slides
to retrieve... a toy car? Welcome to the world of geocaching.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

"Hell, maybe we'll find Steve Fossett today!" Brad Johnson says with a laugh, Fossett being the record-setting aviator who disappeared last September. After numerous unsuccessful searches for his aircraft, the famous millionaire adventurer was declared dead five months later.

searching for a geocache
Veteran geocacher Brad Johnson gestures toward one of the caches, demonstrating how the GPS will guide the search.

Bouncing along on a dirt road somewhere past Gila, Johnson and I are passing our drive time by sharing colorful hiking stories and local lore. He pipes up with a story of local Forest Service workers who found the wreckage of an old plane in the mountains nearby earlier this year, the aircraft's two occupants' very decomposed bodies still strapped into the small plane. Such wrecks are more common than you'd think, I've heard — often drug-runners and gold smugglers who crash into New Mexico mountainsides.

"More likely we'll just find toy cars and plastic dinosaurs," Johnson says. "I did leave a Jerry Garcia tie at this spot four years ago. I wonder who got that!"

We are going geocaching, an outdoor game that's part treasure hunt, part test of navigational expertise, part hiking adventure. Armed with their quarry's coordinates and a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit, explorers go out into the wild to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, stashed by other hikers. As the geocaching Web site (www.geocaching.com) explains it, "Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online. Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment."

The hobby is growing in popularity, with New Mexico State Parks getting into the act for its 75th anniversary this year, enticing visitors with caches hidden at all 34 parks. There are more than 643,000 active geocaches hidden around the world.

Our goal today is to complete the rather rigorous hike to the Turkey Creek Hot Springs cache, with a GPS lesson for me in the bargain. Johnson established this cache, listed as GC10KB5, a few years ago. It's one of 12 caches in the area. The trek should take us a good couple of hours, Johnson estimates, and will involve three river crossings and slogging four or five times through shallow branches of Turkey Creek.

Along the way, we'll stop at a smaller cache he's named "Crystal Canyon," for its litter of purple-and-green fluorite crystals, flushed out in the tailings from an old mine. Johnson figures it will be a good opportunity for my initiation to GPS.

"It's not a tough hike and the cache is easy to find," he says. Looking skyward, he adds, "And if those clouds get worse, it may be the only chance we'll have today to see an actual cache."

Washouts, gullies and still-moist arroyos along our route cause us to look to the sky with concern. "Storms haven't been hitting until late afternoon. We should be okay," Johnson says, sounding more hopeful than confident.

Johnson allows that he hasn't been back to the Turkey Creek site since his son was born — about four years. He's kept an eye on the site from a distance, tracking visitor activity reported online as part of the global geocaching game.

"I read that the original box I'd left the cache in had degraded and someone replaced it with a sturdier box. We'll get to read their comments in the log there; there's a paper log book at the site." He pauses and a boyish smile comes to his face. "I'm looking forward to seeing this site again."

As I drive, Johnson describes how we'll use his GPS to find the geocache sites. New to this kind of instrumentation, I ask a lot of questions about what it can and cannot tell us, how to use the coordinates to find our way. I'm a little nervous not to have a trusty old-fashioned map along. Johnson reassures me that the information logged into his device will be all we'll need. The GPS will tell us how far away our treasure lies and in what direction. All we have to do is find and navigate the trails that take us there.

"Of course, the GPS gives you distance as the crow flies," he says. "We'll cover a lot more ground than that implies, maybe twice as much, maybe more."

We pass through a currently dry arroyo. "We'll have to think about this one on the way home," Johnson says, looking skyward again. "It's good we've got your high clearance," he adds, theorizing that his minivan would have done a nose-plant at this last ditch.

We travel a good while on the washboard-rough dirt road before, at Johnson's sudden instruction, I pull onto a gravel area marked by a signpost, the top number of which is all but obliterated by buckshot. I decide it's a good thing we're relying on the GPS and Johnson's memory of the place, as this sign doesn't tell us much.

We pause to admire the views — purple mountains above, brilliant red Indian Paintbrush wildflowers at our feet. Johnson gets out the GPS unit and shows me how he pulls up the coordinates for my "practice site," the nearby Crystal Canyon cache. He punches a few buttons and gets a read on how far we are from our treasure.

We descend into a rock-studded ravine. The GPS says we're just a quarter-mile from the cache, but we dilly-dally in the ditch a bit. Johnson picks up some lovely purple and green fluorite crystals and hands them to me. He cracks a large rock on a nearby boulder, revealing brilliant facets inside.

"Souvenirs," he says with a smile. I happily tuck them into one of my cargo pockets. "This is part of why we (he and his wife, Shari) decided to hide a cache here. It's a fun place to come back to and just poke around and pick up pretty rocks."

Johnson says he also relies on landmarks to recognize sites, and points out the partial body of a rusted-out truck. The entrails of an unfortunate rabbit rest on the path before us.

"Okay, there are carnivores around," Johnson says, pulling out a sizeable hunting knife. "I'm regretting leaving that gun home now." I instinctively touch my belt to confirm the presence of my mace can.

Ahead of us is a small cave-like opening.

"Abandoned mine," Johnson says. "Wanna explore?" Not knowing my horror of confined spaces, perhaps he thinks I look like I'm actually game for such an adventure. He stops me with a playful block with his forearm. "Helllll no!" Putting on his best Wise Daddy voice, he says, "Never go into an abandoned mine, kids." He laughs, then adds, "Well, some people do. But they're just nuts."

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