Our reporter heads up to Frenchman Lake with a GPS device to hunt down elusive geocache stashes
Our adventure started on the internet. Wanting to visit Frenchman Lake and eager to convince this newspaper to pay for my weekend gallivanting, I looked up the Plumas County tourist website and found a mysterious reference to something called “geocaching.”
It turns out GPS enthusiasts all over the world like to buy surplus ammunition cans, fill them with everything from recipes to pins to pocket change, and hide the whole thing in a bush. These geocachers then head to geocaching.com and provide super precise GPS coordinates so that others can find their little treasures. I quickly gathered my friends Tyler Maggert, a 27-year-old engineering student, and Gina Akao, a 30-year-old expert in institutional analysis. We found a GPS handset and filled Maggert’s four-by-four truck with enough notepads, cameras, random electronics and loose-leaf paper to drown a giraffe.
We headed north on 395 past Stead, past Cold Springs and past the California border. The powder green sage and brown crackling grass stretched out like miles of weathered, broken glass from valley floor to mountain top. This was the sort of land that kills the foolish and the unlucky, the sort of land where the fresh air and bright sun desiccate cattle bones and suck the moisture from nocturnal toads—quintessentially high desert. A quick turn west at Hallelujah Junction, and we emerged into a landscape of endless dark green pastures where evergreen forests dripped down the basalt hills like cold molasses. It felt like switching the radio from Motorhead to Vivaldi.
Geocaching.com called our first target “Frenchman Overlook.” This brings me to my first observation. Lakes are a pain in the butt for satellite-assisted treasure hunts. We discovered this problem after observing that GPS locaters are big on telling you where things are as the crow flies, even if the crow flies over a body of water several hundred feet deep.
After many false turns we popped out of the forest onto a small peninsula. A mere nine-tenths of a mile separated us from our quarry, a boat launch on the opposite shore. I suggested a swim, but my cohorts balked. I insulted their courage, but still they would not budge. In a most dignified manner, I impersonated an agitated hen, but alas, we tasted bitter defeat on this first quest. Akao, forever seeking to improve morale, took this opportunity to mock my navigation skills and Maggert’s off-roading fortitude.
“You realize if we never find a geocache, I’m totally making fun of you,” she said.
The atmosphere grew grim and our steely determination manifested itself first in Maggert’s driving. His inner Mario Andretti, long hidden beneath a perverse love of handlebar mustaches and near mullet hairstyles, burst forth in a flurry of powerslides. The truck danced along the narrow trails like a drunken mule on ice skates.
“I’m not going fast, it’s only 45 mph,” he said as we slid towards the embankment.
At this point, we left the immediate lakeside and set off up the dirt trails leading to our second objective, the “Crystal Stash.” The GPS once more pointed us as the crow flies and, as a result, we discovered at least 9,000 logging roads that dead end a few hundred feet into the forest. Sweat poured from my brow, Maggert grit his teeth, and Akao prepared more of her poison witticisms. We would not fall. We would never yield. No obstacle could stand in our way—except for a nice view, or interesting bugs, or an ancient logging device of uncertain function that somebody had left to rot under the pines. Maggert made some snide remark about my “geocaching with ADD.”
By then I had completely forgotten my navigation duties and settled into a routine of pointing out every possible distraction. We thus found the geocache completely by accident when I spotted a fantastic vantage point near the summit of Crystal Peak. It was only after everyone had left the truck and wandered into the brush that I looked at the GPS and said, “Hey, look at this. We’re only 200 feet away.”
And what a vantage point. We found the ammo can on a rocky outcropping mere feet from a sheer cliff face overlooking hundreds of square miles of pasture, watershed and forest. Dozens of species of plant bloomed and filled the air with the scents of sage and cinnamon. When I faced the horizon from atop that cliff, I thought, “This must be why the Greeks put their gods on a mountain top.”
The rules of geocaching say that if you take something, you must replace it with another thing of equal value. We took copies of three recipes and left behind pocket change, a bottle of water and the calling card for a taxi service based in Seoul. We then lost the GPS satellite signal, and I grew annoyed.
Sitting on the top of a high mountain, we were close to space and should not be without a signal. Maggert called me a “techno-tard.” I fought back by christening myself “the ultimate travel accessory.” Maggert and Akao responded by mocking the way I hold out my pinkie when taking a picture. It was not going well at all, and so I retreated to the truck.
Heart of Dixie
We had but one more target, Dixie Peak, home of a geocache monument to a fallen geocacher known as GeoJeepette. We got lost many more times, causing Maggert to remark that the GPS was “infatuated with those damned crows.” Still, it was not more than an hour before we found the appropriate road and headed up the snowy ravines of the Dixie Valley.
Here we discovered another brutal mountain crowned with cutting volcanic rock and cliffs of the certain-death variety. The weather had turned as well, from cool and sunny to cold and overcast. The sun struck Dixie Peak through streams of iron gray storm clouds. Above the cache, which included a very nice enamel picture of the late GeoJeepette, we discovered an amazing device. We believed it measures the movements of different tectonic plates. We also found a habitation clinging to the rock face where, we speculate, scientists come a few times a year to conduct geological studies. Away from this, we climbed the sharp rocks and discovered another divinity-level view of surrounding valleys.
It’s hard to describe the feeling I got standing there, seemingly on top of the world. I’d suffered dozens of scratches and cuts throughout this adventure. I was sweaty and covered in both pollen and dust. But in spite of this, when I raised my arms and breathed deep I had never felt so clean. Fitting then, that GeoJeepette’s friends chose to memorialize here in that place.
We came down that mountain tired and thirsty. Akao had wrapped herself in blankets and Maggert kept referencing Red Bull. Yet, I’m sure we all took to our beds well satisfied that night.