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Letterboxing from Hell — And We Won

November 16, 2017

The Traipse WQSV Treasure Hunt was not officially a letterboxing or geocaching activity, but it certainly felt close enough, and we were hooked. A treasure, hidden somewhere here in Staunton, VA? Worth actual money?

The folks who’d developed a self-guided walking tour app called Traipse partnered with local radio station WQSV to hide this thing, and they’d given the public roughly six weeks to find it. We had few clues where or what it was. The official rules suggested it would be in a weatherproof container and consist of instructions on how to claim over $500 of cash and prizes. But by the time my family sunk in over 20 hours searching for it, we no longer cared what the treasure was. It could have been a little gold sticker that said “you won.” By that point, we just wanted to find it.

Here’s Deena’s description of how it worked:

Every hour, the radio station WQSV gave out a clue on-air. Other clues could be gathered by following Traipse’s social media. Other clues were revealed once you went on mini scavenger hunts using the Traipse app around Staunton. There were ciphers, clues in semaphore, word puzzles, and tons of other things to solve. Each clue related to a specific location in Staunton. As time went on, clues were more and more specific, honing in on specific pacing and square feet. We needed to find a spot on a specific trail a certain number of paces from the road next to a particularly described tree.

Yeah, the semaphore one was a bitch.  We got it by finding clue #86, nothing more than a URL that went to an animation.

After sequencing out the frames in Photoshop and deciphering them at a semaphore website, we learned the message is, “It’s not at the.”

It’s not at the what?

Clue #88, when we finally found it, was no help.  “Ahoy!” it said. “There’s a system that sailors use to communicate using flags.”

Well, no kidding. But where is the treasure “not at”? I’m not sure we ever found the rest of the message. Several of the clues were like that: either we never found the other half of them, or we found tantalizing messages about where the treasure was “not”: it was not were you’d see a triple-double; it was not where you’d catch the Cardinal train; it was not where you’d get a Master’s or Bachelor’s degree.

Other messages, however, were found in their entirety. One Traipse location, once we solved its puzzle (which might have been to count the triangles in the rails of a downtown hotel, or to read the graffiti engraved in the sidewalk near a Mary Baldwin University office building) revealed clue #80, a bizarre series of letters: ABAAB ABBBA AABBB ABBAB AABBB ABBBA BABBA AABAA ABBBB AABAA BBAAA BAABB ABBBA ABBAB. Clue #81, at another location, added, “Sir Francis Bacon discovered a way to hide messages in plain sight.” And from that, we learned about the Baconian cipher. We deciphered the message, which read, “John Howe Peyton” — the 19th century lawyer who built Montgomery Hall, the mansion and estate that would one day become the basis of Montgomery Hall Park.

Clues like that inevitably led us to believe the Traipse treasure, whatever it was, had been hidden in Montgomery Hall Park.

Pieces of the picture of a bird, discovered in other clues, made us home in on a hiking trail on the western side of the park named after a noted ornithologist, Yulee Larner. We eagerly scoured the mile-long trail but couldn’t find much except the occasional broken beer bottle. The brush surrounding the trail proved impenetrable. Wondering if the treasure might be something tiny in the crook of a tree, my family frequently tromped off-trail through thorny vines and brambles. Owen cut his foot, I tore my shirt, and one day a stick in my eye nearly caused me to need a cornea transplant like Paul Taylor in The Organ Donor.

We would be out of town on the last day of the treasure hunt, Nov. 11. We worried if we didn’t find it, then on that day the organizers would give out clues so transparent that anyone could find it.

Indeed, the clues did become more specific as the date neared, as Deena pointed out. Clue #73 on Traipse’s Instagram feed said, “The treasure is about 1100 Ft from the nearest ‘home'” and included a picture of a baseball diamond. Another clue said it was 1750 feet from a train track. Using Deena’s Photoshop wizardry, we overlaid a Montgomery Hall Park trail map onto a Google Map, and drew red scale circles around the park’s three baseball home plates and black lines paralleling the train track 1750 feet away:

Yellow Xs represented where those lines intersected the Yulee Larner trail. You can see we were homing in on the trail heads nearest the soccer field in the southwest (thanks also to a clue that spelled SOCCER).

Despite all that, we still couldn’t find it. Not until the day I was out of town on a business trip and saw this clue on Facebook:

Traipse/WQSV Treasure Hunt Clue #105: If you are counting steps, start from the end rather than the beginning, and U will not be disappointed.

I called Deena, who at that moment was searching the Yulee trail with her mom. She immediately realized the U was a map, and the star showed the treasure’s location. The nearest U-shaped trail, however, was called the Walking Trail, not the Yulee trail — however it was still colored green on the official park map. Could this be what the WQSV on-air clue, “A place of green is sure to hold the treasure in between” referred to? Or did the “place of green” phrase merely refer to the park’s dense growth? Deena and her mom went to the Walking Trail to find out.

Flipping the U upside down in their heads, they started at the northern trail head. The Traipse “treasure map” flyer, below, contained vertical fold lines, and when joined together the boldfaced words on top and bottom spelled out EIGHTY PACES.  Clue #70, from social media, said one of the map’s embedded clues would tell us how many steps to walk from a road to the treasure.

So Deena and her mom walked eighty paces from the road at the northern trail head.

And there it was, in a camouflaged tackle box:

The prize was a $750 check, a gift certificate to a night at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, a $50 gift certificate to the Baja Bean restaurant, and miscellaneous swag. Our our boys’ urging, we’re giving some of it to the Wildlife Center of Virginia — and some to them to buy credits on the Monster Legends video game. The rest goes to pay for health insurance.

Traipse says they’re going to repeat the treasure hunt next year, and we’ll be ready. In the meantime, we’ll continue using their cool app for self-guided walking tours and mini treasure hunts and listening to WQSV.

To Side or Not to Side?

June 26, 2017

In the midst of all our country’s partisan politics, I’ve encountered yet another divisive issue. When a slice of cake is served, should it be on its side?

Consider the cake-upright presentation:

Fig 1. Cake upright

Each forkful acquires a moist portion of the top icing layer. One experiences each layer of cake, as is proper.

Then there’s the cake-fallen-over presentation:

Fig 2. The cake drunkard.

This poor chocolate cake is perhaps drunk on kahlua. Pity the poor wretch. Now, the eater can only experience one, maybe two, layers at a time. Too far to the right, and the eater eats all the icing at once. Who wants that?

Which do you think is better? (You know the right answer.)

Covert Art Behind the Scenes

April 25, 2017

Deena Warner has posted a cool “behind the scenes” photo essay about how she created the cover art for Meatcow Maker. Check it out.

This isn’t the first time my publishers have hired her to illustrate my work. Here’s another photo essay she did about the cover of Dominoes in Time.

Book Parts & Body Parts

March 20, 2017

Today, I sent the updated manuscript for the 15th anniversary edition of THE ORGAN DONOR to Bloodshot Books. In honor of this, I share with you this cool video a friend recently posted on his Facebook wall. My only reservation is I don’t think I’d want this guy’s liver. Click “More Info” below.

Yet Another Jiu-Jitsu Video

March 5, 2017

Here’s a video I put together about my friend Johnny Morales. I help him to teach the kids class at Total Defense Martial Arts. It includes a clip at the end of him kicking my ass. Enjoy!

Bob Ross painting #2

March 5, 2017

This time, we tackled Chill With Bob Ross S1:E13, “Artic Winter Day.” It took three hours to do what took him 30 minutes, but I feel like we improved over the last attempt.


Here’s Deena’s.


Here’s mine.


Before we started: the grimace of determination!


Profanities made things easier.

Letter to City Council

February 24, 2017

Today, I wrote a letter to my local city council requesting they pass a resolution calling for President Trump’s impeachment. You can read it below. Sorry for the bad scanning.

If you’re curious, Richmond CA’s resolution can be found here.

I hope you’ll consider sending a similar letter to your local government.

Another Hobby I Don’t Have Time For

February 16, 2017

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, Deena and I each painted the “Valley View” painting in S1:E3 of the Bob Ross: Beauty Is Everywhere series now on Netflix. Click to view a gallery of our attempt to paint some happy little trees and mountains:

Oil painting would be another hobby I don’t have time for, but damned if I’m not interested now. This is far from over (he said, shaking his fist).

Tableaus

February 11, 2017

A couple scenes from my life over the past 24 hours:

#1. School Field Trip

Kid picks up a rock. “What’s this?”

The scientist answers, “That’s coprolite. It’s fossilized poop.”

Kid drops the rock.

#2. Sleepless

The band played a discordant cacophony of Les Miserables while trapeze artists swung overhead and baton twirlers cavorted downstage. Disheveled men with armfuls of paper staggered around, shouting about work and schedules. Confetti and Roman candles completed the tableau.

Pointless to try to sleep. I gave up and got out of bed. Might as well check email for a while.

Satisfied, the band immediately stopped playing. “Take five, guys.” They vanished from the stage.

It’s OK to Lose

January 25, 2017

There’s a troubling myth being propagated in our national culture. It says winning — success — is everything. That if you lose a fight or other contest, you’re worthless. We saw this in the juvenile commentary after the Dec. 31 UFC women’s bantamweight bout between Amanda Nunes and Ronda Rousey, and we’ve continually heard this from our president and his sycophants.

I’m coming up on four years now as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, and one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned on the mat applies to life in general. It’s that it’s okay to lose. It’s how we learn.

There’s a spirtual aspect to this if you’re a fan of Taoism. The yin-yang symbol is one of motion: the white and black halves tumble over each other, propelling each through the cycle of development. The Tao Te Ching says, “Yield and overcome; bend and be straight.” Because when I accept defeat, I release my ego. I acknowledge that someone else might be better than I am at a particular task, that someone might even be stronger or more intelligent. When I accept the Socratic paradox that wisdom begins with knowing that I know nothing, then I am ready to learn from others.

The opposite of this is someone ruled by ego. He whines and lies if he thinks he’s going to lose, and he swaggers and taunts when he wins. He gaslights when objective truths don’t serve his popularity. And he learns nothing. When this person is an average Joe, it’s a tragedy. When this person is a national leader, it’s a catastrophe.

There’s probably nothing I can do to solve the problems at the top of our government. All I can do is ride the storm out, spending that time teaching the next generation the equanimity it will need for actual success. In the meantime, I entertain the fantasy that Ronda Rousey and Hillary Clinton will set their sails in these winds of fate. So, you’re not a world-champion mixed martial artist, and you’re not a president. So what? It doesn’t matter anymore. Ride the sailboat to where you should be now.