Why I like geodashing

Geodashing is an Internet-based game that involves trying to find, using various GPSr devices, some of the 32,000 “dashpoints” on the globe randomly chosen each month. It actually should be called geodriving since that is mostly what you do as “reachable” “dashpoints” (to be explained) are usually 60-100 miles apart. The game has teams and scores and winners so there is some element of competition to it but since it’s down to a handful of diehard fans the competition part is not so keen any more. Geodashing started when GPSr’s were relatively uncommon and thus a geeky new toy to play with, but now almost everyone has one. Despite the novelty wearing off the technology the game itself is still fun and still meets its purpose, “Getting there is all the Fun.”

It’s a lot of fun, at least for me, and I’ve done a lot of it: I searched for 664 points in three countries and 29 states in just under nine years since I started (the game has been going on for eleven years.) A “dashpoint” is just a latitude and longitude coordinate somewhere on the earth (not counting major bodies of water) and “reachable” means you can get within 100m of that coordinate without trespassing (that’s the hard part). It is played by people in many parts of the world and dashpoints have been attempted in 59 countries.

Now a brief digression on GPS. GPS is now a fairly old technology (old by the standards of digital technology). It started with the U.S. Navy wanting a navigation system for their missile submarines (you have to know accurately where you are in order to launch your missile where you want it to go). Originally it was secret military technology that required hugely expensive and large devices to make it work. I actually, by accident, stumbled onto the birth of GPS as a consumer technology. I used to bike to work and started noticing people wandering around with backpacks with large antennas sticking out of them (or at least that’s what I learned later once I knew what this was). The part of Silicon Valley I passed through on my bike ride to work often had engineers wandering around outside with strange gadgets so I didn’t pay much attention.

Later, when someone I knew went to work at Trimble I learned what GPS was but still wasn’t much interested. But Trimble did the impossible and shrunk the “receiver” (that’s the ‘r’ in GPRr) to a small enough size and cost to use these things for non-military uses. GPS got a huge boost when President Clinton turned off “selective availability” (a way to scramble the satellite signals so they “lied” and gave inaccurate results) and later through very inexpensive devices now commonplace in most cars. Like a lot of technology I got in “early” (before few had even heard of it) but also I was nowhere near a “pioneer”, just an early adopter.

When I moved to Nebraska one thing I missed from California was being able to “take a drive” and enjoy seeing the country. Here it’s cornfields for 500 miles in any direction so there isn’t much to see. Somehow (don’t remember how) I learned of geodashing, checked the website, found there were no reachable points nearby and gave up (as many do). Later I really needed an excuse to get out of town so I actually bought my first laptop (ever), an inverter (rare in those days, provides power for the computer from the car’s electrical system) and a DeLorme GPSr and mapping software. It was a really neat toy.

The first “Road Warrior” GPSr was a beast and relatively expensive, bulky, inaccurate, now replaced by tiny and cheap little dashboard units. Using a computer and more sophisticated maps is much better than the dashboard units in many cars (like ours in the Prius) or the iPhone (nice device but useless maps since they require a net connection, not available in the middle of nowhere, which is where you need the maps). So, as I’ll later relate geodashing saved me. I later added my first handheld unit on route to my first Wyoming camping trip, stopping at Cabelas in its home in Sydney, Nebraska. At first I thought I’d wasted my money and was going to have to return the thing since it took over 15 minutes to startup the first time, something I now understand but didn’t expect

The availability of cheap consumer GPSr (the ‘r’ stands for the receiver, the part of the system you buy, the rest of the system is some very expensive hardware the U.S. government provides) led to a number of Net-based games. Perhaps the most well-known is geocaching which is a high-tech treasure hunt that is popular for kids since the GPS location part only gets you close and once in the vicinity you have to actually find where the “cache” (usually an ammo bucket) is. People also started the Confluence project where the goal was to go to every longitude/latitude pair with integer values, like N41 W96 (the closest one to me). Now having integer degrees (no minutes and seconds, or no fractional degrees) is fairly arbitrary. Latitude is set by the geometry and rotation of the earth, but longitude is completely arbitrary and the prime (0) meridian could just as easily have been set in Hawaii as Greenwich England. So there is nothing special about Confluences. In the U.S. almost almost the Confluences fall on private property (the section line grid was never aligned with either latitude or longitude) so getting these points involves getting permission from landowners, a part I don’t enjoy.

But the other problem with Confluences is that only one person can get there first and so most have been found. Geodashing removed that constraint by simply picking a new set of random points every month/game and thus the players can rush out and still reach the dashpoint first. Once there players write up reports about what they find (just as with Confluences) but since there are so many points (around 500,000 in the history of the game) a lot more country can be described.

OK, that’s a long preface but it lets me finally get to why I enjoy this.

#1. The real point of the game is finding the unexpected. Here in the heartland the countryside is pretty boring. Most dashpoints fall in some farmer’s field or pasture, they all look the same. But getting there does provide the opportunity to find something unusual. Since there isn’t really any there there at the dashpoint itself, it is the trip you take to get there that matters. The navigating in the midwest is fairly simple although quickly learns the one mile square grid has its gaps, washed bridges, abandoned roads, keep out signs, and the infamous “minimum maintenance” roads that turn into glue with any moisture as we learned the hard way on January day, getting completely stuck (and learning AAA won’t rescue you) and spending the night in Shenendoah Iowa (despite the mishap, one of our favorite trips). Nonetheless doing a “mad dash” (at least 8 points in one day, probably requiring at least 600, more often 900, hundred miles of driving) can require solving the TSP and good planning (and lots of money and endurance).

If you drive I-80 through Iowa and Nebraska it seems like endless cornfields and nothing else (and it is). But get off the main roads and onto gravel backroads and some interesting things appear, little stuff not like grand scenes of National Parks or other scenic places. But I refer to this as the “fractal” nature of the country, look on the small scale and you’ll find something that occurs on large scale in the scenic places. Sometimes it’s a humorously named town or road, an cool old house, odd yard art, folk art on buildings or vehicles, a little festival going on in a town you’ve never heard of, a historical marker, sometimes a chance meeting with people suspicious of what you’re doing, whatever. There is something anywhere, if you look hard enough, and when you starved for experience and you set your expectations appropriately you’ll find something fun on almost every dash. So geodashing opened up a part of the country that otherwise is completely boring. Since I like to drive and get out in the “country” it’s a fortunate accident I found this game to provide an excuse to find some fun here.

#2. The next part, more particular to me, is I find stress relief “on the road”, especially when dashing solo with my Harley-Davidson driving songs blasting. I always liked “taking a drive”. Around Boston with the compact and historic New England scenes I got hooked when I had my first car in college. In California there is great scenery plus some great and challenging driving roads. As a kid in Montana with my parents’ car and no speed limits it was great for racing around. So until I moved here all the time I had a car I was able to get “out”. And I never realized how relaxing this is.

When I bicycled a lot (over 10,000 miles a year, almost every day) I was doing something I didn’t completely appreciate when cycling was always available. I’d leave on a ride, my head full and busy, and after 20-30 miles I’d found a kind of peace, a resemblance to the empty mind of such mystic beliefs. I mostly rode on the same roads where I knew every bump and crack and hole and despite a lot of traffic could almost do it in my sleep. Cycling required just enough attention to avoid getting crunched but otherwise the rhythmic turning of the pedals and steady breathing in sync with legs created, at least for me, a kind of meditative state. Various people I told about this debunk it as not really meditation, but it was for me.

And like a lot of things in life we don’t appreciate something until we lose it. When I first moved to Nebraska I tried to keep up cycling. But the awful weather doesn’t suit me and when you get out of shape cycling is not much fun, plus the drivers here, esp. kids, think you’re a moving target to harass. So biking quickly ended. And stuck at home all the time (I was either working at home or later unemployed) I got serious cabin fever.

But then in desperation one March I just threw my backpacking stuff in the car and headed south, looking for warmer weather. I ended up in Big Bend National Park and had a great time and when I returned I realized I just needed to get out of the house every now and then. My trip to Big Bend was solo and at times navigation was a thrill (I still can see almost getting crunched by pickups in the rain on the freeways near Dallas as I’m trying to drive and read a map). So that’s when my brief exposure to GPS led me to try to acquire my own and fortunately DeLorme had just released their first one. At first I used the GPSr to do navigation on camping trips since Delorme maps are very complete and show every road, but I also remembered seeing the geodashing website so I went back to give it a try. I went after my first dashpoint near Rulo Nebraska, discovered the town’s historic marker about some grisly murders, discovered Brownsville (a cute river town), and I was hooked. I recruited other unaffiliated geodashers for a team and set out to knock the dominant team off their throne of 13 consecutive wins.

But what I didn’t realize was that a geodashing trip, esp. a longer one, was a lot like my bicycling, minus the good exercise, and with a lot of greenhouse gas emissions as well as a bunch of dollars for gas. But I got that same feeling, leaving the house in a foul mood, then having the relaxing monotony of the driving broken by the unexpected finds and the brief thrill of “scoring” the dashpoints. By the time I got home I had that same feeling of peace, of having, as my wife says, “blowing the stink off me”, but really mostly clearing my head to that empty mind state.

If you haven’t found something that can give you this kind of peace go find it! Geodashing is not for everyone nor is cycling. In fact, the best exercise I find was swimming as training for my triathlon, virtually sensory-deprivation with lots of emphasis on breathing (a key to any meditation). So everyone will have something different, but I’m just happy that geodashing, at least partly, replaced my lost cycling.

So I’ll be geodashing as long as the game goes on even though it is now just down to a few of us diehards. So, Scout, please keep it going.

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About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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One Response to Why I like geodashing

  1. Pingback: What is the point of blogging? | dailydouq

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