For years, a clandestine order of treasure-seekers has recruited in Durango. More than 5 million strong, its activities though invisible to the general public have materially altered the surface of every nation on Earth.
It definitely isnt advertised, said Durangos Mark Harnly, who joined seven years ago.
Theyre not the Masons, Opus Dei or Skull & Bones:
Using GPS technology and an ebullient if labyrinthine website, these amateur sleuths scour the Earth for geocaches objects hidden by others in their order.
Its a great hobby fun alone, more fun with friends and a great family activity, said Harnly. For me, its the thrill of the hunt, seeing how its hidden. Pretty much everywhere you go, youre going to find geocaches.
Indeed, according to website geocaching.com, more than 1.5 million caches are hidden across the globe, including 20,422 in Colorado, 19,860 in London and 231 in Afghanistan.
And make no mistake: We walk among them. Within a 20-mile radius of the Durango train station, 168 caches are hidden.
As of this summer, geocachers even have tapped local government.
More from the outdoors
During the last three years, interest in Trail Trekkers a childrens hiking program offered by Durangos Parks and Recreation Department had cratered. John Robinette, supervisor of youth recreation, was flummoxed.
When I started 10 years ago, the hiking program was really popular, he said. But then last year, almost no children signed up. We had to end it. It just wasnt cost-effective.
Through seminars and literature on continuing education in parks and recreation, Robinette learned about geocaching
I bought the starter kit, went to the website, he said. We decided to offer a six-week geocaching program for kids three days a week. Three of four sessions totally filled up.
Robinette said the program had been a great success.
Kids nowadays, they want a little bit more from the outdoors, he said. Some of them had their own GPS devices. Were definitely going to offer it again next summer, and maybe this fall.
Robinette said the starter kit cost about $200.
But if you have an iPhone, theres an app for $9.99.
Eureka, unveiling the cache
Whipping out his GPS device, Robinette proposed we find a nearby geocache. Working like a compass, the GPS said we were 457 feet away, then 300.
Kids love counting down the distance, Robinette said.
But on reaching ground zero, there was no cache to be seen.
The GPS will get you there. But then you have to look for it. They have to be well-hidden, to keep the muggles away, he said, using a term from the Harry Potter series of books to refer to a person with no magical abilities.
After this reporter was unable to find it, Robinette took mercy and unveiled the cache. But he asked for a vow of silence: You cant expose the hiding place or Ill be excommunicated from the geocache community! he said.
This particular cache was rated 1/1, meaning it is supposedly easy to find and handicap-accessible.
A cache with a 5/5 rating is another matter altogether.
Jen Fonsteile, marketing manager of Groundspeak, which owns geocaching.com, said you might need special equipment to rappel down a canyon to find and open a 5/5 cache.
I heard about one cache in the Northeast, she said. Its on a rock in the middle of a river. The rivers so fast, you cant boat to it. And its magnetic. So you have to figure out a way to get it off the rock, open it and then return it.
Fonsteile said some caches emphasize deduction over physical prowess.
One guy in Seattle, he planted a cache at the bottom of a long tube, right by a body of water, she said. But the tube has all these holes in it. So you need a team of people to plug the holes as you flood the tube. Then the cache will rise to the top.
A well-stashed cache
Eric Jones, who has found 340 caches in the last four years, said there were stylistic differences between rural and urban geocaching. Locally, there had been some tricky ones dangling in trees that stumped us, he said. But in our communities, theres a lot more space to hide larger caches.
Pueblopoly, a Monopoly-themed multicache in Pueblo, is particularly creative, Jones said.
It was probably a miles hike from cache to cache, he said. Inside the third or fourth cache, there was an orange clue card. It said advance token to nearest utility. From where we were standing, you could see a power plant in the distance. The next cache was hidden there.
Jones said urban caches were typically smaller, obliging geocachers to rely on hints.
In Chicago, one cache we found was inside an Onion newspaper box. The clue was it will make you cry, he said.
There are so many types of hides, so many twisted, evil ways to go about it, said Jones. Ive found some caches, and just thought the way they were hidden thats vicious.
Jones plans to stash geocaches of his own. I have containers for about a dozen. Havent had time to put them out yet, he said.
One container, he said, was disguised to look like a log and runny dog poop.
The clue is going to be watch your step. How many people are going to pick up a pile of dog poo? Then again, some people absolutely live for this stuff, he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly refered to the company that owns geocaching.com as Geospeak. The companys actual name is Groundspeak.
Clarification: In describing the number of caches hidden worldwide, the word million was dropped in an earlier versoin of this article.