Puzzle Box: The Poetry of the Quest

Posted on January 6th, 2012 at 11:47 pm by


It’s 2012 and we Texans are finally enjoying some relief from the hottest and driest year ever recorded.  The rain and cool took their time coming.  When storms blow through now we huddle at our office windows like clusters of excited honeybees.  It’s hard to fight the impulse to wander shirtless in the streets.

Quest Poetry

Two years have passed since Chris’s wedding, and the Reverse Geocache Puzzle still proves a wonderful source of pleasure and diversion.  I marvel at how many surprising twists its story has taken and how far the concept has spread.  Building that first box took so much energy I never imagined I’d do a second, but we now routinely send commissions and circuit boards all over the world—Canada, Australia, France, Slovakia, England, and South Africa in just the last few weeks.  I estimate there are now more than 100 operational boxes in the world, each providing some lucky recipient a potentially rich and unique experience.  And the happy corollary of this wide distribution is that people are starting to invent some marvelous and moving quests.  The box has become a kind of canvas on which a new species of poetry is finding expression—the poetry of the quest.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that these boxes seem well suited to stylish marriage proposals.  You casually present your beloved a strange container which gently guides her to a carefully chosen romantic spot, and when your sparkling ring is finally revealed, predictable magic ensues.  The statistics are pretty good here, so head’s up if you’re single: all nine young men who have proposed with a Reverse Geocache are now married or engaged.  Contrast that statistic with the fact that 40% of adult American women eventually reject at least one suitor.

And I can’t help but be amused by the humorous quests that are starting to pop up, specifically those in which cleverly programmed boxes intentionally lead their “adventurers” astray.  Consider, for example, the wife whose birthday box brought her to the outskirts of a famous Iowa cornfield maze.  Now it’s pretty devious to situate a “magic destination” inside a labyrinth, but the kick here is that hers was actually a few meters behind the rear of the maze—a realization the poor lady came to only after a fruitless 90-minute tour.  Heh heh.  The diabolical husband never told me what “treasure” she earned for her pain,  but we hope it offset at least some of that annoyance.

Small Beauties

But what has really captured my imagination recently is what I call the “poetical” quest.  Is “poetical” the right word to describe an experience that is essentially physical?  Well decide for yourself, but the following tales hold an unmistakable emotional power similar to what you’d find in a profound piece of music or poetry.  I really think they represent an ephemeral kind of experiential art—one that sometimes materializes when its creator has captured just the perfect resonance between treasure, destination, and recipient.  Witness:

Pia and the Red Stripe

Pia's grandfather's favorite

A young South African man writes of a quest he is creating for Pia, a Cape Town woman who recently lost a beloved grandfather.  The dear old gentleman was a popular local figure, known for hiking each evening to a certain scenic lookout with a bottle of Jamaican Red Stripe beer.  He apparently loved that particular brand so much that he had cases of it specially imported, and Pia says that sitting with him on that lookout bench watching the sunset while he drank ranks among the happiest memories of her childhood.

Our young builder is using his industrial design experience to install my electronics in an ordinary cold beverage container, turning it into the world’s first “Reverse Geocache Puzzle Cooler”.  Before he presents this unusual gift he will have locked two iced bottles of Red Stripe inside and programmed it to open at a certain very special place.  You can probably guess where.  He predicts that when Pia opens it and grasps the significance of what she finds, “it will melt her”.  Indeed.  What a lovely memorial experience that will be.

Hand in Hand

I’m curious to hear what you think about this next story.  I find it overwhelming.

Last year a California woman named Jess commissioned one of my old “floral” boxes to commemorate her father’s sixty-fifth birthday.  She designed his quest so that she could present the sealed box while he and her mother were visiting from New England.  When he first activated it the display indicated a distance of more than 2800 miles, suggesting that the programmed destination was probably somewhere near their New Hampshire home.  Or did it?  Could that have been a clever decoy?  Did Jess intend for them to travel to Juneau or Colombia to get their treasure?  That’s the thing about these long-distance quests: it takes a little work to figure them out.

As it happened, that “magic destination” was indeed close to home—though perhaps not so close as they might have guessed.  When the first trial back home showed it to be nearly 100 miles distant, the still-sealed box was reluctantly consigned to a bookshelf where it languished for several weeks.  Eventually the couple did set off with maps and pencils to solve their daughter’s puzzle, but as they drove deeper and deeper into the New England wilderness they became increasingly perplexed about what she might have in mind.  Then suddenly they arrived.  The location seemed such an unlikely choice: a dilapidated old mountain resort where the family used to ski when Jess was a young girl.  They hadn’t been back to this place in decades; why here?

But great quests don’t lead to random destinations, and ten weeks and thousands of miles after he first unveiled the strange birthday box, her father discovered significance of this one.  In the shadow of the old lift, he slowly opened the lid to reveal… three beautifully preserved old photos of him and a happy seven-year-old girl skiing hand in hand, a pair of decades-old ski passes carefully extracted from a family scrapbook, a sentimental letter thanking him for being such a constant and supportive father, and finally, lift tickets for two.  Jess’s mother reports that they both burst into tears as they digested the box’s contents.  It was an experience that neither of them will ever, ever forget.

And this is why I continue to be fascinated by this project.  If a bit of technology and some inventive thinking can create experiences so moving and unforgettable they make 65-year-old men cry, well, I want to be a part of that.

Our flagship box -- the "Seattle" model

The "Seattle" box in action

"Seattle" boxes being tested

Commissioned boxes being tested

Have you got a Reverse Geocache quest story to share?  An idea for one?  Please send me a note.

Happy New Year.  It’s going to be a good one.