Nevada sends geocachers’ money elsewhere

Val Hamilton had her Las Vegas trip all mapped out.

She and her three buddies planned to leave the chill of British Columbia and touch down in Sin City next week. They had reservations in Ash Springs, Rachel and Tonopah.

Whoa, whoa, what? No Bellagio? No shows? No basking by luxury pools in the 70-plus-degree weather? What is this?

These women aren’t interested in all that. Hamilton’s grand plans included building on her 1,410 "caches," and Southern Nevada was an ideal place to do just that.

After all, 1,000 of the little treasure boxes were said to be hidden along the famed Extraterrestrial Highway, a desolate state route that runs just north of Area 51. That is, until the Nevada Department of Transportation stepped in a couple weeks ago and took them all.

If you are unfamiliar, as I was when Hamilton recently reached out for help, geocaching is an increasingly popular hobby. Enthusiasts use GPS systems to hunt down little boxes or canisters that others plant across the planet, then post the coordinates on a website.

Once cachers locate a box, they sign a log and can remove a trinket if they replace it with a knick-knack of equal or greater value. Nothing pricey typically. It can be a teeny plastic chinchilla or some such random prize.

Anyway, geocaching apparently is an inexpensive adventure enjoyed by hard-core cachers or outdoorsy families. It is all about the fun, unless, apparently, you wander into the state transportation agency’s territory.

The government suits are to geocachers what vice cops are to frat parties: Buzz kills.

"My group is now driving to California to do the Route 66 set," Hamilton recently said via e-mail. "Most of our money will be spent there instead of Nevada. That is just sad."

Hamilton suggested that geocachers keep businesses in small rural communities open during winter, which is good, obviously, because otherwise seasonal workers become full time. And in Nevada, hunting for a job can be more difficult than tracking down a tiny box in the middle of the desert.

Hamilton’s passion for geocaching is respectable; but, really, are there enough of these types to determine whether small-town businesses stay open or closed during off-season months?

Well, last winter Connie West, co-owner of Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel, was preparing to shutter her 10-room motel and RV park when convoys of geocachers showed up week after week. She decided not to lay off her housekeeper and hold on to the entire kitchen staff.

"They don’t come in bunches of one. They come in bunches. Bunches," West said. "They came from Australia, Austria, England because the highway is considered a ‘power cache.’ "

Power cache because of the sheer number of treasures in a relatively short distance. It allows collectors to rack up caches without a lot of effort.

As of March 1, more than 7,000 geocachers had logged their names on the sheet marking the first treasure site along the highway.

"Those are people that otherwise wouldn’t have come here," West said. "They’re putting money into our community. They are buying fuel, rooms, food, groceries."

The impact of the transportation agency’s recent decision to remove the caches has been devastating.

"For the first time in the history of our business, our rooms were booked all winter long," West said. "Since they removed the caches, we have had every single one of them cancel. They’re not going to come here anymore. All that revenue is going to California."

A group from Ireland pulled into West’s place last week to begin a trip they had planned for more than a year, West said. They had booked one night and then were headed to Alamo and Caliente. When they learned the caches along the Nevada highway no longer existed, they too aimed their car toward California.

"A guy from NDOT was in the other day and wanted ice in his Coke," West said. "I said, ‘No, you’re NDOT. You’ve pissed me off.’ "

So, now our state transportation division is at odds with these geocaching people and business owners along the E.T. Highway.

The transportation folks have some valid concerns. Michelle Booth, spokeswoman for the agency, said the caches are hidden right off the shoulder of the highway or even on top of road signs or guard rails.

"People are parking where there isn’t a shoulder," Booth said. "They’re going 2 mph on a 70 mph highway."

The straight portion of the highway isn’t as much of a hazard as the curvy summit sections.

"They’re plowing snow, they can’t see and all of the sudden there is a car parked," Booth said. "It creates a safety hazard."

Nobody expects to see vehicles pulled to the side of the road. Both transportation officials and locals acknowledge there aren’t any great hiking trails or reasons to park on the road. Parked cars are unexpected and pose a danger to motorists traveling upwards of 70 mph.

Hamilton and West agree that some geocachers are careless or disrespectful.

"I understand some geocachers were rushing to find as many as they could in the shortest amount of time and didn’t follow the rules," Hamilton said. "There were some problems with people pulling out into traffic, especially in front of a snow plow. It is a shame that a few have ruined it for so many."

Now the controversy over the alien highway caches has been passed along to the attorney general’s office . Officials there will determine whether encroachment permits might solve the problems.

I suppose the lesson to be learned here is not everybody who lands in Las Vegas is about pumping their tourist dollars into traditional Sin City experiences.

We have this rather large group of unknown tourists who are in search of treasures, and I’m not talking the strip club off Interstate 15.

I’m talking treasures that geocachers were recently stripped of by the transportation agency.

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call Adrienne Packer at 702-387-2904, or send an e-mail to roadwarrior@reviewjournal .com. Please include your phone number.

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