#807: The Wizarding World of a Little Black Box

June 23rd, 2017

The muggles were loitering by the House of Blues.

It wasn’t just that they were loitering. They had somehow chosen to loiter — OK, not so much loiter as talk and bond and say goodbye after a dinner well-spent with loved ones — in the exact spot I needed to be. Of all the spots in River North the two late-middle-aged white couples could have chosen to  stand, they picked the one spot where the hints, clues, GPS coordinates and cracked code had told me to go.

Damn muggles.

Last night, I engaged in one of the stupidest and most fun of my array of stupid, fun hobbies: geocaching. That is when you go to a website where people listed the GPS coordinates for little boxes they hid around the city. You go to those coordinates, maybe follow a clue or two left on the website, find the little box (“cache”), open it and — wait for it — write down your code name and the date on the little piece of paper inside.

I know. I am that frickin’ cool. Lemmy is giving me the “rock on” salute from hell right now.

To stay true to the spirit of the game, I won’t say where exactly the House of Blues cache is, nor the other I found last night or the one that I think I would have found if that security guard in the black polo weren’t giving me the stinkeye. The point is not to get caught doing it, not so much for fear of punishment but because it’s fun to have a secret others don’t. It’s fun to nerd up a hobby, even if the worst that would happen is a cop tells you you’re an idiot and tosses out the box.

Hence the term “muggles” for unaware passersby. It’s the Harry Potter word for non-witches, for people who walk by a magical world every day and don’t see.

Some include elaborate clues and riddles to get you to the hidden box — in one case, a friend and I had to notice that a nearby bar was palindromic in both name and street address to get to the next location.

Others just send you to a beach and tell you the prettiest time of day to take a photo.

It’s an addictive  hobby I never have enough time for. I try to get at least one when I travel. I’ve logged caches in Norway and Denmark, and have made unsuccessful runs in Turkey and Azerbaijan. Whether or not you find the container, canister or big plastic crate filled with toys others left for future travelers in the hollow of a tree in a downstate park, it’s letting strangers guide you to sections of the world they want you to see.

I’ve let strangers take me to hidden collegiate courtyards and the last crumbling bits of pre-Roman walls from geocaching, not to mention more alleys, grates and disgusting, disgusting fences than I ever knew existed. You’ll never know how gross a fence can be until you run your hand along it in the middle of the night looking for a little magnetic box.

I might pass the strangers every day. That’s the fun. Everyone’s anonymous. Everyone has code names. The participants in the game are as hidden as the prize.

Eventually, the couples made their goodbyes. I was able to walk by and snatch the cache looking, if a bit clumsy, at least not like a man playing a nerdy internet hide-and-seek with strangers.

By a… nearby famous venue, I cracked open the little black box, about the size and form of a key case — I think it might have been one. I opened it up and pulled out a frail paper list filled with the code names and recent dates of the people I had been playing with without knowing.

Someone else had been there that day. I looked around at the strolling, post-dinner passersby and wondered who was a muggle and who was my friend.

Visit geocaching.com

Some GPS coordinates for historic Chicago sites

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