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Two weeks after quadruple bypass surgery, 71-year-old Ralph Harris found himself outside in the snow searching in the trees for a hidden object.
He hadn’t lost anything and it wasn’t an accident that Harris ended up in the frigid weather that day. He was geocaching – a hobby that has kept him busy and active during retirement even in the days after a major surgery.
Geocaching is a global game where participants hide objects at specific GPS coordinates. They post those coordinates on one of the several official geocaching websites, and other players will take up the challenge of finding that object. Oftentimes, those objects are no larger and no more conspicuous than a film canister covered in camouflage duct tape or a thick tree branch with a hole drilled in the middle.
Ralph and his wife, Esther, saw a television show about geocaching a few years ago and decided it was a hobby they wanted to pursue. More than 4,000 “found” caches later, they haven’t slowed down.
Ralph and Esther have also included their grandchildren in the adventure, especially the youngest, 12-year-old Shelbie.
“Sometimes Shelbie and Esther have the advantage over me because I’m paying too much attention to the GPS, and they’re actually thinking about where the cache could be,” Ralph said. “Shelbie loves it when she can find something and I can’t.”
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Shelbie agreed.
Geocaching is an activity that the Harrises love because it allows them to get exercise, adventure and family time all at once. It has also been a way for the 71-year-old grandparents to connect with their grandchildren.
“It’s great,” Ralph said. “What can a 70-year-old and a 12-year-old do together normally?”
Ralph and Esther will often take entire days at a time to search for caches in the area or even in a different state. When they go on a vacation, they will purposefully search the geocaching website for a route that will take them to as many caches as possible on the way to their destination. Once, they found 54 in a single day.
Most times, Ralph, a former motorcycle-rider, is the one who will actually get out of the car and search for the mystery object. In fact, he constantly keeps in his car two stepladders, a wrench, tweezers, sheets of plastic and a flashlight. No matter where he is, he stays prepared to search for caches, even if they are up high in a tree (he is 5’4”) or in a place where he’ll have to lie down on his back to get them (thus the plastic).
Meanwhile, Esther is the one who figures out locations. Sometimes, there are “puzzle caches,” which is when a seeker will have to break a code and put different clues together to find the GPS coordinates. Since crossword puzzles are another hobby of hers, Esther often is able to crack the code that will send her husband off on another quest.
“She’s really the brains of all of this,” Shelbie said.
The balance of brains and brawn in this couple has helped them experience adventures most people over the age of 70 don’t pursue anymore.
Ralph once got his hand stuck in a stop sign trying to wrangle a cache out of it, and Esther had to search out someone with the tools to help. Another time, Esther ran into a pipe at a cemetery, cutting her leg open. She had to get 22 stitches in the wound, but that was the least of her concerns at the time.
“We just had to find a hospital after that, which was more inconvenient than anything else,” she said.
That kind of spirit is what has kept this couple going, with their journey taking them to 10 states to search out and even place their own caches (Ralph has hidden 131).
Not much has been able to stop the Harrises and their continuous geocaching trek, whether it’s a quadruple bypass surgery, 22 stitches, or one of them moving three time zones away.
Shelbie is moving this week to Seattle, Wash., where she plans on continuing the adventure that her grandparents first exposed her to. She has already mapped out a couple caches she plans on finding in Idaho and Canada.
“At least she’ll have all those memories with us,” Esther said. “It’s been great to share this with her.”