“Wait!” warns Pier Paolo Perrone in a loud whisper as I reach for a shiny clue at the base of a deep-purple plum tree.
He nods toward a gray-haired couple walking past with yoga mats before explaining, “we have to wait for the ‘muggles’ to be out of sight.”
Perrone and his wife, Stefanie Weber, are “geocaching,” participating in an international treasure hunt with Northwest roots.
They’ve traveled to Seattle from Germany to attend Saturday’s geocaching block party in Fremont. It’s a celebration of “International Geocaching Day” and one of the largest gatherings of geocachers in the world.
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They’ve also graciously agreed to transition me from hopeless “muggle,” a term borrowed from Harry Potter to describe the uninitiated, to savvy cacher.
Geocachers use GPS (either on their phones or through a tracker) to locate hidden treasure. Once at the correct coordinates, players are guided to camouflaged caches via cryptic hints.
The caches range from simple containers with logbooks to high-concept finds that can involve puzzles or riddles.
Much of the game is organized through the Fremont-based company, Geocaching.com(formerly Groundspeak), which runs a website and smartphone apps where caches are publicized, tracked and logged.
And while the first cache was buried in Oregon thirteen years ago, today it’s a global game.
There are more than 2 million active players around the world and geocaches hidden in almost every country.
The most robust geocaching communities are in wealthier countries with high smartphone use. But there are 304 active geocaches in Afghanistan, 64 in Cuba and 23 in Myanmar. There’s even 11 in Syria.
The international popularity of the game means it’s also helping to create a new culture and community of geocaching travelers.
Perrone (geocaching name Napoleone1972) and Weber (aka purplepeopleeater82) have geocached in China, the Czech Republic and even The Vatican. They say geocaching ensures they find cool, under-the-radar spots.
Here in Seattle, geocaching has guided them to pocket parks on Queen Anne and to coffee with a view at the Columbia Tower Starbucks.
“Wherever we do it, we feel we’re home” Weber says.
My friend Sara Stogner says a geocaching adventure in Thailand introduced her to a group of motorcycle taxi drivers who ended up joining in (even locating some tools for the job) as she and a travel companion snagged a geocache magnetized to the underside of a freeway overpass in Bangkok.
“I’d rather look at a geocache map than a travel guide,” she says, explaining it encouraged her to explore unlikely places and meet new people.
To many enthusiasts, geocaching is more than a game. It’s also an opportunity to reveal hidden histories, crowdsource stories and encourage interaction with the world.
Weber, who is a teacher, says it has lots of educational applications. A recent geocache she found revealed that a train station she had visited her entire life was also used to gather and transport Jews to concentration camps during World War II.
“I’m 31 years old and I never knew about this until I went one step further because of a geocache,” she said.
“Every location has a story; it just hasn’t been told,” explains Geocaching.com co-founder and “godfather” of the game Jeremy Irish. He anticipates that the future of the game lies in more experiential and story-based geocaching.
My first geocaching experience didn’t reveal any hidden history. But it was pretty cool.
It was part of a special geocaching tour of Fremont put together in anticipation of this weekend’s festivities.
I don’t want to spoil the fun with too many hints (there are already a few in the first paragraph of this column) but I will say the smell of chocolate was in the air. … Good luck muggles!
Check out the geocaching block party, complete with food trucks, from 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, at Solstice Plaza, 837 N. 34th St., Seattle.
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SeaStute