Cache Me If You Can

Courtesy Karen Heywood McKinley

You probably wouldn’t give us a second look: a mother and daughter strolling through campus on a cloudless Stanford spring day. Two generations of alumnae enjoying an afternoon on the Farm.

But today, we are not your typical alums. Incognito, we blend in with students, staff and visitors as we make our way across campus. Our mission requires stealth: we have come seeking hidden treasure.

We begin our hunt near the Cantor Arts Center—Andy Goldsworthy’s serpentine Stone River sculpture is our first landmark. Small electronic gadgets concealed in our palms beep to give us guidance. We steal among bikes, cars and sightseers, careful not to attract attention. We peer among trees, rocks, shrubbery. Suddenly, it catches our eye....

What is this high-tech, undercover treasure hunt? It’s called “geocaching.”

Using only hand-held global positioning systems and an Internet site devoted to the hobby (, players like us follow satellite coordinates and online clues—and move among the uninitiated—to find hidden containers all over the world, including at Stanford.

Caches may be tiny—35 mm film canisters, for example—with only room for a visitors’ log; others are bigger, with kitschy or collectible items for trading. According to geocaching guidelines, they’ve been placed carefully, without harm to the landscape. If you’ve done it right, your cache never should be seen by a non-geocacher. Some are easy-to-find “cache-and-dashes”; others require ingenuity and perseverance to locate, whether nestled among tree roots, tucked into squirrel holes, stowed behind posts or even suspended off bridges.

Geocaching has been gathering momentum since its inception in 2000. For many enthusiasts it’s a weekend hobby; for some a competitive sport. More than 300,000 caches exist in 222 countries, hidden by “owners” who place the containers, maintain their contents and write the corresponding online clues.

More than 300 caches are located within five miles of Stanford. About two dozen of those are on campus, nestled in the shadows of red tile roofs, beneath palm trees, in the Foothills, among sculptures and statuary.

Geocachers come to find Stanford’s caches nearly every day. Some make a quick grab or two while they’re visiting for another reason; others make dedicated trips. Chances are, unless you’re geocaching yourself, you’d never know they were in your midst.

At our first find near Stone River—revealing exactly where would betray a fundamental tenet of the game—the geocache is a small, well-camouflaged Tupperware container. Like most caches, it contains a log book (cachers must document their find in person as well as on the corresponding web page) and tradable tchotchkes. My mother, Carolyn Cox Heywood, ’72, MA ’72, an avid but amateur cacher (she’s found 215) leaves a magnetic tic-tac-toe game and takes a Canadian coin. I leave a California quarter and take a moose finger puppet. We consult our GPS devices. Good news: another cache awaits us just a short walk away.

With only coordinates and often purposely sparse web clues, a geocacher never knows exactly what she’ll find at a geocache site. (Clues like “Don’t get ‘stumped,’” or “Pay attention to where you sit” may or may not assist the observant cacher’s quest.) But while the caches and their contents can be intriguing, the true rewards are the places the search takes you.

“Prickly Garden,” our next Stanford cache site, is a case in point. Although the cache is cleverly hidden in the Arboretum, its star attraction—and indeed, its inspiration—is a magnificent and little-known 30,000-square-foot cactus garden several paces off. Commissioned by the Stanfords in the mid-1880s, it fell into neglect during the 1920s, and has been slowly renovated by volunteers since 1998.

We find caches hidden in or near the Papua New Guinea sculpture garden near Roble Hall, near the Red Barn and at the site of a former Ohlone village.

A cache near Maya Lin’s Timetable sculpture in the Science and Engineering Quad requires math skills and close attention to the installation’s details. And to find “Leland’s Curios,” players must visit four objets d’art and use numbers found there to complete coordinate sets leading to the container.

“It’s a great way to spend a couple hours on a bike ride on campus,” says cache owner Mark Stein, MS ’84, who created it to introduce geocachers to some of Stanford’s lesser-known art offerings. (Want to know which? Break out your GPS.)

Not every cache ends with a physical container. “Virtual caches” require players to solve puzzles or answer questions to earn the find. One such cache at Rodin’s Gates of Hell asks you to unscramble an anagram using information at the coordinates, and e-mail your answer for credit.

Geocachers at Stanford include students, staff and faculty. PHD candidate Teresa Miller, MS ’02, who caches under the name “PrincessIchi,” has found nearly 700 geocaches and hidden several of her own in grad-student haven Escondido Village. Tom Cramer, ’94, associate director for digital library systems and services, owns 26 caches (including four on campus), has found more than 1,200 and keeps a list of 1,000 nearest unfound caches handy in his Palm. “E-T Explorers”—computer science professors Alex Aiken and Jennifer Widom and their kids, Tim, 11, and Emily, 9—own four campus-area caches.

Then there’s Dave Sprecher, a.k.a. “Nurse Dave,” patient-care manager at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. He and his wife, Becky, who met in a geocaching-themed Internet chat room, turned their 2004 wedding into an “event geocache.”

“The geocaching community . . . had become our community of friends. So instead of inviting everyone to our wedding, we thought we might as well make it [a cache],” says Sprecher, who has more than 1,500 finds. As with all geocaches, the couple posted coordinates for their Saratoga, Calif., wedding on, and welcomed any cacher to attend and earn credit for the find. Many of the guests were cachers, who slipped away for a quick cache or two in the park where the wedding was held. And then the newlyweds embarked on a geocaching honeymoon in San Francisco.

No matter your level of intensity, geocaching changes the way you experience the world, says Gigi Hallinger Placone, ’79, who caches as “Stanford Gal” and recently logged her 1,500th find during a campus visit. “[Caching] makes you more observant of your surroundings,” she says. “It brings me the joy of appreciating what’s around me.”

KAREN HEYWOOD MCKINLEY, ’97, MA ’97, is assistant director of marketing and outreach, and alumni coordinator in the Office of Undergraduate Admission.