COLUMBIA— At dusk Tuesday, eight adventurers set out to Rhett's Run Mountain Bike Trail at Cosmopolitan Park in search of a green box.
The group, which varies in age from about 30 to 60, is all male except for one woman. They're wearing bucket hats and carrying walking sticks and flashlights. Each has applied a liberal dose of bug spray to his or her clothes and skin.
The Internet description of what they are seeking said to look for trail marker reflectors – small shiny cubes stuck to trees along the steep, narrow trail.
The group is geocaching, a modern-day searching game that uses GPS technology, the Internet and nature. Geocaching usually requires solving riddles, puzzles or simply following descriptions from Internet posts that can be found at websites like Geocaching.com. The goal is to find caches, usually army surplus ammo boxes, that other geocachers have hidden.
According to Geocaching.com, more than 4 million people geocache globally.
A GPS unit or a GPS-enabled smartphone is required for most geocaches. Those who are not afraid of being lost can input the coordinates provided on websites into Google Maps to try to navigate a geocache. The most daring can use a topography map and a compass.
There are 58 documented caches scattered around Columbia, according to Columbia Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Michael Griggs.
The city does not allow geocaches to be placed in landscape beds, areas like golf courses, dangerous places or ecologically sensitive areas like caves and historical buildings. Geocache placers must go through the city and fill out a permit request. Griggs said he has been surprisingly impressed with the geocache program, saying the city rarely finds an illegal geocache.
The activity's appeal comes from giving people a reason to explore interesting areas they usually would not go to. Certain geocaches are designed to teach participants about the environment they are searching in.
The geocache named Rhett's Run Redeye is one of Columbia's first night caches. It leads people down a rarely used trail, at a time most usually wouldn't go out hiking. Griggs said he thinks geocaching allows residents to enjoy the outdoors of Columbia.
"We want more people outdoors in parks and trails," Griggs said. "Its a great way to use technology to enjoy the park systems."
Following the clues, Tuesday night's group is led past a cliff with a stunning view of the ruby-red sun setting on Columbia.
But simply following the trail markers won't get them anywhere. Whoever laid them out put reflectors on both sides of the trees causing the inexperienced to walk in loops up and down the rough terrain of the hill. Group member Daniel Hickey, who's been on the prowl for the cache once already but ended up getting lost, joked that the creator of this hunt was "sadistic."
As the group descends farther into the dark, thick woods under a glowing full moon, it discovers a fork in the trail with trial markers leading down both sides.
Tom Leak, who is leading, turns around and shouts, "This would be the phone-a-friend part."
A few of the members who had completed the geocache once, point them in the right direction. After 10 minutes of ducking under branches, avoiding a large spider and climbing up a small rocky hill, a bright arrow pointed down at the cache tucked under a rock. Glow sticks and flashlight batteries filled the metal box ready to help any adventurer who needed it get back out of the woods. The most important piece, though, was a logbook with the names of everyone who had found the cache.
An elated and sweaty Hickey says after signing his name in the logbook, "This is the best part, the adrenaline is rushing, this is what geocaching is all about."
Hickey first started geocaching when one of his daughters wanted to do something to cure her boredom. It allows him to bond with his children, though on some of his caching sprees his children get frustrated about being in the car so long.
Hickey had heard of geocaching before and decided it would be a fun affordable activity to do. He's been addicted to it ever since, logging 317 finds. When his mother learned about his geocaching, she thought it was intriguing, but his sister didn't agree.
"My sister says, 'You go out with the bugs and everything and dig out boxes?'" Hickey said. "My sister thinks I'm nuts."
Hickey might call himself addicted, but fellow geocacher Dustin Hoffmann was labeled by his family as obsessed. Hoffmann first started geocaching when he was fiddling with his GPS unit outside when someone asked if he was geocaching, which piqued his curiosity. Since then, he has logged 2,139 finds.
"It can very much be about seeing new interesting places," Hoffmann said. "But it can very well be about the numbers."
What started as a hobby to take Hoffmann to interesting places evolved into quests to try and clear out every cache in the city, then the county and then every cache in mid-Missouri. He says his passion for geocaching has been his "pitfall."
"I've fallen prey to every vice you could end up with with geocaching," Hoffmann said. "I've nearly killed myself (while geocaching)."
After his 1,600th cache, he had to deal with a tick in his eye. He got a concussion after falling while rushing to one cache. He hurt his shins tripping over a large rock trying to get to a particularly difficult cache. Hoffmann has even been detained by police officers who are not familiar with the game.
"I thought maybe I should scale back a little bit and really enjoy geocaching," said Hoffmann, who admits he doesn't worry about his numbers so much anymore.
Hoffmann has also been laying caches around Columbia that can only be solved by getting his puzzles right. One of his geocaches is in the Mathematical Sciences building on the MU campus and it can only be found by solving geometric problems. He also has a series of puzzle- and riddle-themed caches in mid-Missouri.
"Finding that container, there's an elation especially with the puzzles," Hoffmann said.
Group member Elonka Dunin, a video game developer and who traveled from St. Louis to Columbia to geocache, talked about how geocaching was really a unique game platform.
"It's a worldwide crowd-sourced game, anyone can do it, its like Wikipedia," Dunin said. "When GPS was invented no one expected it to be a game."
Parks and Recreation has plans to have an administrative role with a geocache database site like Geocaching.com to regulate caches and the permit for them in a more streamlined manner through online interaction. Currently, Griggs and his staff simply patrol the Internet databases to make sure the geocaches are in proper, safe places.
After the long hike, Tuesday night's group heads to Steak 'n Shake to celebrate solving the cache. Over chocolate shakes and burgers, the group shares stories about its most bizarre caches.
As the time approaches midnight, their itch to find another cache rises again. Some of them get together and wander off into the night, chasing another logbook.