So we were on the hunt again. Charles and I had not been geocaching for a long time, and I decided it was the best way to spend an afternoon off work, to which he replied, “Okay,” in his signature shrug and half-smile. Our first geocaching adventure was nearly nine years prior to this. We had found a few by the Love’s truck stop in Jackson and more by some historical landmarks around town. At the time I saw this as a simple act, two friends doing something random together just because. I took for granted that what we were doing was exploring a city in a completely unique way. It wasn’t until I moved back to Jackson that I realized I had to rediscover it all over again, and to do this I should start the way I began originally: by going on adventures with an old friend. Let me explain.
First, a bit about geocaching. Simply put, it is an interactive treasure hunt. All around the world right now (and very likely in whatever city you read this from) there are caches hidden based on GPS coordinates. To find them, an app was introduced. This allows the seeker to locate the nearest spots and to receive its location as well as (mostly) helpful hints from the hider of the cache. It also enables the seeker to read logs from folks who have found it, or attempted to find it, before them. Caches come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a small film canister strategically placed in a parking lot with a simple paper log to be signed by the finder, all the way up to an army surplus box hidden in the woods with treasures waiting inside. For these, the protocol is to bring an object to trade with what is already in the box to keep the game going. The latter caches are generally in more secluded areas and can be more difficult to find; the greater the hunt, the better the reward.
Now, a bit about our friendship. I met Charles in 2007 on my first day at Starbucks. I was intimidated by him; he was a gruff, big, bearded guy with a wary look about him, and one of the first things he said to me was to make sure I didn’t let the trash from the store pile up. We stared at one another for a second when he beckoned me to go with him to the dumpsters. I trotted alongside him and started bombarding him with questions. I knew immediately that my first impression was so wrong and that he was going to be a part of my new chapter in life. From then on I was the little sister to his big brother. He took me for drives and helped me fix things long broken around my apartment. I dragged him with me on adventures around town when I wanted to get a closer look at a place I had heard about or seen.
One in particular was one of our very first nights hanging out beyond the green aprons of the coffee shop. I mentioned a “secret park” I had seen recently. It was in between two buildings and seemed to have been abandoned yet taken care of at the same time. There were several statues entwined with ivy branches, mixed in with low-hanging trees and mossy benches. I asked him to help me find this park. His response was, “Oh, that’s next to the Thomas Morris studio. He owns the spot and does all sorts of photo shoots there.” I was insistent that this was not at all the case, that this was a secret park. So, like the true friend he was, Charles drove me to literally every small park in the county. I continued to turn each one down, stating that “my” park was better, more private, seemingly made just for me. After a few hours of this I resigned myself and asked him to take me to this place he claimed it was along. Sure enough, right next to a photography studio downtown was my magical place. I can’t lie; this was a huge letdown, and I could tell Charles felt bad that he was right as I had been so excited. As we approached, the watchful owner came outside and onto the upstairs balcony overlooking the space. I told him how much I admired what he had done and respectfully requested that we go in and have a look around, to which he gladly obliged. This is how much of our time was spent: one of us had a crazy idea or a place we wanted to check out, and the other followed.
At that point, I was in school full-time at Jackson State Community College, I had scholarship classes and subsequent obligations, and I was working two jobs. I was genuinely happy, but I was busy. Constantly busy. To be honest, I’m not sure how I even made time to see friends as much as I did back then. In 2009 I was accepted to Columbia College Chicago to finish my degree. I accepted and spent the next three years finishing school, followed by another three trying to find my place in the Windy City. The more I tried, the more I realized that I had already found my place, and it was in Jackson. So I came back down and started to rebuild what I had left behind, which brings me to today.
Before we embarked on our adventure, I thought about what this would mean to me, doing the same activity in a different time. I felt as though that first geocaching experience was a lifetime ago, and both of us had grown into different people. For us, we had to refamiliarize ourselves with each other as friends, to reclaim old jokes and make new ones. For me, I realized that this city has also transformed within the last six years to the point where I was rediscovering new pieces of it every day. What better way to reconnect to a place than to dig up its secrets through an interactive treasure hunt? I was surprisingly emotional before we left in Charlie’s old red Jeep, Dixie. I felt like everything had come full circle from the first experience to now.
We set out near Highland, where we had met up about an hour before. My mission had been to plot out our exact route, but it ended up being more about grabbing coffee and trying to figure out how to use the new Geocache app on my phone. Charles sipped his drink patiently as I grew frustrated at the auto-rotate function that appeared to be mocking me at every turn (literally). I finally figured it out, and we set out to warm up our skills a bit while waiting for the photographer to meet us a bit later. We found several caches around the mall, one near a bank, and one in a wooded area that required much finesse and caused several arguments about the exact coordinates. “Mere, how many feet does it say now?” “It says fourteen feet. Dang! Now it says twenty-six feet! I haven’t even moved! Is this real life?!” “What direction does it say to go? East?” “Charles. I do not know directions. That’s why I got this app! I don’t even know where we are right now!” “Give me the phone. I’ll check it out.” This is how it went, give and take, throughout the early afternoon. After finding three caches somewhat successfully, we were contacted by the photographer, Aidan, and met him downtown to get to the real stuff.
We set off toward the farmers’ market in search of a promising find, littered with clues about past presidents and previous seekers finding it easily. Aidan stayed back at first, asking questions and taking photos of Charlie and me doing what we do best: cracking jokes, rolling our eyes, and generally enjoying the day together. We got to the first location and absolutely could not find this cache. We searched for a long while. Aidan, who had been standing in the wings, eventually got in there with us, searching through shrubbery and getting down on his hands and knees without luck. I finally called it after searching the area thoroughly, and we set off to the next one.
Here there were a couple of police cars monitoring the area directly across from where we were searching, but they didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they almost seemed in on it, and they left us alone to search. Charles and I set off in different areas, yelling questions to one another about where it was supposed to be. Aidan ended up finding the cache first. It was an old film canister buried in the earth with only the top sticking out. This story was supposed to be about two friends going out to find amazing treasures, yet the photographer ends up finding it first! I laughed at the thought, and we shrugged to each other and congratulated Aidan on his quick find. We signed the log and took a minute to look at previous signatures. Charles and I quickly noticed signatures from previous caches we had found that day, some dated years before. It was really cool to think of this as almost a time capsule. The area had changed so much in such a short span of time, yet these caches remained unchanged, waiting for someone to find it to keep the game going.
We decided to try our hand at one last cache before splitting for the day as we were quickly losing sunlight. This was also downtown and had presidential hints surrounding it. As we searched, an older gentleman in a smart suit emerged from the nearby building carrying a briefcase and a stack of papers. “Are you finding what you are looking for?” At first, we stared frozen, believing we had been caught and would get in trouble for trespassing. I said, “We’re certainly trying, sir!” and with a wink he looked at us again and said, “Well, you’re on the right track. Good luck!” and walked away without another word. Aidan waited until the man was out of earshot and proclaimed how cool it was that the guy seemed to know exactly what we were doing, like we were all in on this big secret. We then told him that earlier something similar and equally amazing had happened. While searching for the cache in the parking lot that day, another gentleman was riding by in a white car. He stopped, smiled, and said, “You’re going in the right direction. And keep left. Good luck!” He then stopped to talk with Charles while I looked around. He told Charles he had been geocaching for years now and had found over 300 in the Jackson area alone. He said he knew this area well but had found out a lot of its secrets through this game we were currently playing. Thinking about this interaction later only reaffirmed my belief that rediscovering the city was best done by finding its hidden gems.
We said goodbye to Aidan as the sun became low in the sky, and we set off towards Dixie, neither of us in a hurry. We stopped into a couple of shops along the way, all of them looking vastly different or new from the last time I saw them so many years prior. But this was the goal, this search of the unexpected. And we definitely found it that day. We may not have won at the geocaching game, but that’s not really the point. The point is the journey itself, and what you find along the way, that truly defines your experience.
After receiving a degree in Magazine Journalism from Columbia College Chicago, Meredith Hoffman decided to make West Tennessee her forever home. By day she dons a brilliant green apron with the mission of keeping the city caffeinated. By night she is a bookworm, novice cook, and a professional list maker. She loves exploring the growing specialty shops in the area, creating print art, and hanging out with her dog, Greta.
Photographer Aidan Bennett is just a boy in a Members Only jacket with a camera. He is a Jackson native and a recent graduate of Madison Academic High School who enjoys exploring, being outside, and capturing pictures of his city.