I had hardly ever seen Clara more excited. She held my phone in her hand like a pirate holding a treasure map, and watched with glittering eyes out the window of the car, squirming in her seat as we traveled down the road in search of our prize.
She glanced down at the phone again. “Just 70 more miles in that direction!” she pointed.
I smiled. The gravel road only went one direction, and I knew the end of it was only a mile or so away. But I quietly let the navigator do her job.
We were searching out our very first Geocache, a small box or marker placed in a remote location with published GPS coordinates and instructions on how to find it. I’ve been trying to force my family out into nature in fun and exciting ways all summer, and this seemed like a perfect way to combine the unique beauty of the Alaskan outdoors with the kids’ desire to search for treasures. Participating in a global scavenger hunt.
The prize on this day was hidden near the Bartlett Earth Station just outside Talkeetna Alaska. It was an abandoned satellite dish facility built in 1969 that was the first in Alaska to communicate with the then infantile GPS satellite network. It was built at a time when they needed to make the dishes very large to make up for the noise encountered passing information through the atmosphere. Now the structure is obsolete. A rusting hulk, overgrown with weeds, covered in graffiti in spite of the chain-link fence and warning signs surrounding it.
We pulled up in front and were overcome with the eerie feeling that we had just wandered into a post apocalyptic science fiction novel. The great dome loomed overhead like an alien space ship.
Before we could even adjust under the weight of the new silence, Clara’s door flung open and she charged down the dusty driveway towards the unknown. I chased after her. We stood, shielding my cellphone from the glaring light of the sun, and turned until the compass was pointing us in the right direction.
200 meters. Clara danced and spun in circles, and I had to physically constrain her excitement and angle her body like a rudder to keep us on track.
100 meters. We wiped sweat from our foreheads and batted at mosquitoes, glancing back and forth from the phone to the area in front of us where the treasure box was hidden.
“The directions say that the box will be hidden in the base of an old tree,” the girl said.
We continued walking. I squinted and marked our progress on the GPS in Clara’s had and compared it to the distance to the line of trees that were out in front of us. We were crossing a large expanse of freshly laid gravel.
50 meters. The trees moved closer.
20 meters. Closer still.
Finally, I stopped walking. Clara trundled on in front of me still looking back and forth from the phone to the trees.
“Clara,” I called softly. She turned and smiled back at me. We were so close! This was her moment of triumph!
“Clara, where are you going?”
“I’m going to the trees over there.” She pointed another 50 meters or so in the direction of the forest.
“Clara, step over here.”
She obediently walked towards me. I pointed down at the phone.
Her smile faded. She slowly rotated in a small circle, “But…” she squinted up at me, “…it says the box is in a tree.”
I nodded, and then looked across the field to a pile of torn up brush that had been cleared to make room for this gravel pad. The geocache had been put here maybe six years ago. This clearing was only a month old at most.
Clara bent down and flipped over a large rock. “But where is the tree?”
Life, I thought to myself, Life is not a cartoon where every problem is introduced and perfectly resolved in 20 minutes. It isn’t a game where you roll the dice and someone always wins. In real life, you can do everything right, and follow all of the directions, and still come to the end of your journey only to find that the tree and the prize no longer exist. Out loud I said, “How about we go find some ice cream.”