Our Greatest Father/Son Conquest

After the smoke cleared from my divorce in 2002, I lived about 1/2 mile down the road from my former spouse and two kids, who were then 9 (Ben) and 13 (Karen).  Despite the fact that The Ex and I didn’t agree on a whole lot, we buried the hatchet when it came to the kids.   I spent a lot of time with them.  Every summer from 2003 to 2010, Ben and I went on a road trip somewhere for a couple of weeks.  In 2005, we discovered geocaching and we were hooked.

In June of 2006, we headed off to Yellowstone. We did it right, staying at the Old Faithful Lodge.  Afterwards we went up to Bozeman, Montana to do some back country geocaching.  It was all day trips.  We both love to go out and get dirty and nasty – as long as we can clean up in our air conditioned hotel room when we’re done.  After 20 years in the Marines, I’ll never spend another night in the field.  But anyway, on with the story…

Old Faithful

Ben at Old Faithful. We did Yellowstone right.

In one of our searches, we came up with a geocache called the Trolls Cache.  It was halfway between Bozeman and Livingston way back in the Gallatin National Forest.  On the day we went after it, it hadn’t been found in two years.

We headed for it in early afternoon.  It seemed like we drove forever on a series of dirt roads that got progressively worse and worse.  Our Magellan SporTrak Map GPS finally got us to a point that had ground zero about 300 yards to our right  – across a stream and up a steep mountain. Off we went.  We walked and walked and walked. Most of it was uphill.  The area had been lumbered out years before, so there was thick new growth and lots of ankle-breaking flotsam and jetsam on the ground.  It was hot, slow going.  Like idiots, we didn’t take any water because we figured it would be a short jaunt.  We also found out later that this is prime grizzly habitat and we had nothing for bear defense.

At some point I turned around and realized that I couldn’t see the car anymore and the sun was below the ridgeline.  Shadows were getting deep and dark fast.  We were about 50 yards away from Ground Zero when I told him we had to back off.  It wasn’t safe.  So we made our way back down the mountain thinking now we know why no one has found it in two years.  We drove out of the forest after dark.

Making the Find

I was still surveying the top of the hill on our second attempt when Ben made a beeline for this geo-beacon. The camera just happened to be at the right place at the right time to record the find.

Back at the hotel, we were bummed out.  We decided to take another shot at it.  We fired up Google Earth and got out the Delorme Montana Gazetteer.  We found what looked like an old road, maybe a lumber trail, that led up to the cache.  It would be a walk along the ridgeline instead of going up the mountain.  The next day, we were off in early morning with a map, GatorAde, lunch and bear spray.

GZ at Trolls Cache

Ben opens the prize at Ground Zero.

The rental car company would have had a cow if they had seen the roads, rocks and stream crossings we negotiated with their AWD Murano.  But we found the trail and parked about 1/2 mile from the cache.  Twenty minutes later, we were on top of the mountain and Ben made the find in short order.  It was an ammo box in great condition.

After high fives and some trash talking, we celebrated by sitting on a stump, drinking GatorAde, eating lunch and soaking up the gorgeous and rugged panorama that was present at Ground Zero.

View from GZ

The view from Ground Zero. We took it in while eating lunch. The haze in the background is smoke from a distant forest fire.

This was the toughest geocache he and I have ever gotten. We learned some hard lessons on this one.  For me, the biggest one was I’m not a Marine anymore.  I don’t have to get hurt or killed to find a cache.  Ben, who was 13 at the time, was tough and had his game face on the whole time.  I asked him how many of his buddies had found an ammo box in the Montana wilderness lately.  He got a confidence builder and a crash course in real world decision making which he never forgot. 

Six years later, the kid is grown up and off to college,  but we still laugh and shake our heads over the Trolls Cache.

Cheers …. Boris and Ben (Natasha wasn’t around yet)

The Bat Cave – Ruby, AZ

This is the long abandoned Montana Mine in Ruby, Arizona, a ghost town about 75 miles south of Tucson and five miles from the Mexican border. Starting in 1877, a succession of owners spent 40 years carving out a meager existence mining gold and hoping to strike it rich. None of them did and by the early 1920’s, Ruby and its mine were on the verge of becoming a footnote in Arizona history. Then in 1926, a mining corporation from Joplin, MO came in and converted it into a successful lead mine. During the Great Depression, Ruby was a full fledged boomtown. At its peak in the 1930’s, it covered 400 acres and had 1,200 people, 300 of whom were miners. Mining went on 24×7 with an average wage of $3 a day. When the mine closed in 1940, the town died.

The mine was dug into a ridgeline called Eggshell Hill overlooking Ruby. There was a single shaft that went down almost 1,000 feet and nine levels of subterranean tunnels, along with secondary shafts in many directions. There were so many that the entire hill became unstable to the point where several decades ago, a portion of the southeast end of it collapsed. This exposed a cross-section of the mine – just like someone sliced off the end of the hill so you could see inside.

I call it The Bat Cave. From May to September, it’s the home of an estimated 200,000 Mexican free-tailed bats. They swarm at dusk and dawn, blackening the sky above Ruby for almost five minutes. Biologists estimate they eat several tons of bugs every night.

Collapsed Mine

You can clearly see the honeycomb of shafts and levels of the Montana Mine. They keep going down into the darkness but the edge was too unstable to risk a closer look. I was already past the warning sign. With binoculars and proper light, you can see timbers, hopper cars, wooden ladders and railroad track. This is where the Mexican freetail bats swarm in and out of from May to September.

I was never much of a photographer but have become increasingly interested in it as we continue our adventures in retirement. As such, I’ve always got a camera with me primed and ready. You never know when you’ll run into the mythical “Place That Nobody Knows About and Few Have Seen.” This one definitely qualifies.

Collapsed Mine

Here’s a closeup of the top of the cave in. You get a much better view of the remnants in the shafts. With binoculars and some favorable light, you can see even more.

Almost all of my pictures are done on the move and on the fly, with little planning and setup time. You come upon some great shots but grabbing them can be challenging. Neither of these pictures really do the area justice. It’s a massive cave in and it goes down into the blackness almost 1,000 feet. There’s a single strand of rusty barbed wire fence around the top and a warning sign – both of which I ignored. Anything for the shot.

I took both pictures with a Nikon D3100 on automatic settings, an 18-270mm lens and a circular polarizer. It was about 4:00 PM in January and the light/shadows were not helpful. In the original photos, the mine area is pitch black and the sunny slopes are almost whiteouts. I edited them in Picasa to bring out as much detail as I could. By altering the light and saturating the color, they came out pretty well. If we go back, I’ll try a series of shots for an HDR photo.

Ruby is a fascinating place. If you like ghost towns, you’ll love Ruby. You can read all about it on our website.

Here’s another recent blog posting about Ruby that you might like.

To the batcave … Boris and Natasha

Benchmark Hunting

Spring is just around the corner and soon the geo-hunt season will be in full swing. Here is an alternative to geocaching that offers some variety and fun for your quests.

Benchmark disk

A metal benchmark disk. This one is at Battery Cooper near Fort Pickens at the entrance to the harbor of Pensacola, FL.

Geocaching gets all the press these days but there are other stashing games and some of them have been around longer than geocaches. This little disk is a benchmark. Basically it is a survey point that was used in the days before GPS. Surveyors and map makers established these as verified accurate positions using both a physical description and latitude/longitude. Benchmarks come in various forms and have been around for over 200 years. Church steeples and water tanks are often used as benchmarks. Every benchmark has a detailed written description somewhere in the halls of government. These descriptions tell exactly where to find the benchmark, how to get there, what it looks like and what’s nearby. Then along came GPS, which altered the whole structure of benchmarks and gave us something else to hunt.

Geocaching dot com has compiled thousands of benchmarks along with their descriptions and GPS coordinates. You can hunt for them just like a geocache. Keep these things in mind. 1) You may find yourself looking for a BM that’s no longer there 2) It may be on private property, in the middle of terrible terrain or otherwise inaccessible. 3) If you are running up the numbers for your geocache count, benchmarks don’t count towards the total. 4) GPS positions can be off, so you have to also rely on the detailed physical description. Nevertheless, benchmark hunting is challenging and fun. We do it as a diversion and an add on. It also has the advantage of giving you things to hunt where geocaches are not allowed, such as the national parks. Most bridges have benchmarks. So do lookouts, tunnels, peaks, monuments and other assorted structures and features. To log a benchmark, take a picture of it and log it in your geocaching dot com account.

Good hunting… Boris and Natasha

Munzee – Geocaching with QR Codes

The evolution of the geolocation stashing game continues as technology advances. First, there was letterboxing. Created in Scotland in the 1850’s, it involved hiding a box somewhere then providing written clues on how/where to find it. It was 150 years before the next generation appeared – geocaching in 2000 – enabled by the Internet and GPS. Both of these activities involved finding a container and signing something in it. Now even that simple task has been rendered obsolete by techology.

Say “hello” to Munzee. It’s the latest entry into the geo-game realm.

In letterboxing, you need a compass. In geocaching, you need a GPS device. In Munzee, you need a smart phone with the Munzee app.

A Munzee

This is a Munzee. It’s a registered QR code on a sticker, a magnet or a tag. When you find it, you scan the code with your smart phone Munzee app, digitally signing and recording the find. How cool is that? You can make your own Munzees to put out there through the web site or you can buy them from Munzee, all ready to go. We ordered 50 stickers. It cost $17.50. No sign or guardrail is safe now.

The word Munzee comes from the German word “mûnze” (moon’-za) which means coin. Originally conceived using coins for game pieces, it evolved away from that but the name stuck.

Munzee has only been around since 2011. It’s the brain child of a group of hobby geeks in Dallas, TX. They originally thought of the idea in 2008 but QR technology wasn’t ready for prime time yet. Now apparently, it is.

Munzee on a sign

Munzee sticker on the back of a sign. You’ll also find them hanging from things or as magnets on metal. Whatever form it takes, the QR code will always look like this.

In many respects, Munzee is like geocaching (although none of the developers had ever geocached before). It uses GPS to place and track down the munzees. The entire gaming environment is run by a central web entity – munzee (dot) com. It does, however, have its own language. Munzees aren’t hidden – they’re deployed. Munzees aren’t found – they’re captured. People who play the game are called munzers. People who don’t hunt munzees are muggles. Munzers find deployed pieces on the Munzee web site, then track them down with the Munzee app on their smart phone. The capture is done through the app, which opens the QR reader for you.

Munzee capture

Natasha captures a munzee.

Although the parallels are obvious, so are the differences. Munzees can be hidden anywhere. A word of advice – Be careful and selective about your munzee hunting locations. People have deployed munzees helter skelter everywhere including very public locations and private property. The world being what it is today, people get understandably nervous when they see someone snooping around with a cell phone and taking pictures. It can be very suspicious looking. We had an encounter several years back with the manager of a Cousins sub shop who wanted to know what the f— we were doing in “his” parking lot. If you stick to parks, ball fields and outlying areas, you’ll be fine. Rest areas on the interstate highways are hotbeds of munzees. We haven’t been to one yet that didn’t have some. It’s a great way to stretch your legs.

Also be aware that munzees have a high casualty rate. They get scraped off, painted over, bleached out by the sun and various other fates. If you go for one and it’s not there, don’t take it personally. There’s lots more where that came from.

Munzee in a geocache

Some geocaches have munzees in them – a twofer.

The entire Munzee environment was designed with an eye towards competition and rewards. Munzers rack up points. Families, teams and corporations have had Munzee competitions. Businesses have seized on Munzees as a way to market themselves. Unlike a geocache, a Munzee can easily be put inside a business, which will bring munzers inside. Restaurants put them on menus. Boutiques put them on shelves. Some businesses offer discounts or deals for getting Munzee points at their establishment. Munzee has opened up a whole new world of possibilities previously unheard of in geo-games. Or, you can just go out and have a good time with it, which is what we do.

Consistent Internet connectivity is crucial to munzers. The game is played in real time. That’s why you won’t find any back country munzees – yet.

Munzee on a fence.

Coming soon to a fence post near you?

One other thing – Munzee is free, initially. You don’t pay anything for membership or the app. So if you are content to walk around and scan the occasional QR code for five points each, it’s free.

However, some people take this real seriously. There are different kinds of Munzees and different ways to capture or deploy them if you are so inclined. They all have one thing in common – they cost money. If you get serious about points or set up teams or get involved in contests, you can spend all the money you want.

So that’s Munzee in a nutshell. We just stumbled on to it five years ago. As soon as we tried it, we were hooked. It’s a natural extension of geocaching with some new twists. Now we do both. When we visit with our grandkids, the first thing they ask is “Can we go munzee hunting”? They get to run all around and use a smartphone. How can you resist?

Munz on … Boris and Natasha

Hot Springs – Big Bend National Park

Hot Springs - Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is full of surprises and this is one of them. In the far southeast corner of the park, a geothermal spring bubbles up from the bottom of the Rio Grande River. A relic of the area’s ancient volcanic past, it is crystal clear, laden with healthy minerals and is a constant 105 degrees – about the same temp as a hot tub. In 1909, an entrepeneur named J.O. Langford built a bathhouse to corral the springs and opened a health resort. Besides the bath house, it had a store, a cafe, a post office and cabins that rented for $1.25 a night. People came from all over the world to soak in its healing waters and there are all kinds of stories of people being made well from just about everything. In 1916, Langford had to abandon his operation because of the Pancho Villa raids. After 10 years of border violence, Langford returned in 1927 and started over, making things bigger and better. He sold the operation to the state of Texas in 1942, which donated it to the National Park Service. The NPS ran the resort as a concession until 1952, when it was abandoned for good. However, the springs and the foundation of the bath house are still open to the public. You can soak in it all you want (although you can’t do it naked like the old days). If you get hot, you can hop into the Rio Grande to cool off, then climb back in. It is the most popular destination in the park. In addition to the springs, you can explore the ruins of the old resort facilities. There’s also a geocache there, so how could we resist? The yellow arrow points to the spring. The water in the enclosure is all spring water. It flows into the river over the outside wall.

Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is just amazing. This enormous crevice is Santa Elena Canyon. The orange dot in the foreground is the lovely Natasha getting us credit for the virtual geocache located here. The canyon is contained in an escarpment that rises 1500 feet and was once the bottom of a primordial inland sea. The Rio Grande River carved out this channel millions of years later. Texas is on the right; Mexico on the left. Santa Elena Canyon runs to the northwest about eight miles. You wouldn’t know it to look at it now, but this section of the Rio Grande, which is flowing towards you, wasn’t navigated successfully until 1885, when the Texas Rangers pulled it off. All that showed up from previous attempts were planks and splinters. You can hike about 3/4 of a mile into the canyon. At the end of that, the walls go completely vertical right out of the water and the canyon is only 30 feet wide. We made the hike and were not disappointed. And much to our surprise, we had the place to ourselves.

Vintage Vanilla, Albany, TX

Vintage Vanilla, Albany, TX

We found a cool little town named Albany about 30 miles north of Abilene, TX. Had a bite to eat at this 1907 drug store and soda fountain that’s still going strong. Very cool place and very nice people working there. It’s right on Main St. You can’t miss it. There are a dozen geocaches in town and lots more in the surrounding area. Once again, geocaching took us to a place we never would have seen otherwise.