It's 8-year-old Nicholas Erno's weekly treat: a geocaching outing with his dad.
"I can find the geocaches really good," Nick says. "Tuition."
"Intuition, Nick," says Chris Erno.
As old as the Sacred Heart third-grader, the hobby of geocaching has continued to evolve with technology, now moving into the realm of "paperless" pastime. Still largely reliant on hand-held global positioning systems, geocaching is limited only by cachers' ingenuity and the time they're willing to devote to tracking trinkets across the landscape.
"It's addicting somehow," says Jason Breedlove, a 31-year-old Grants Pass geocacher, known on the trail as blazerfan.
"There's something about finding hidden things that just appeals to some people."
One need only log onto www.geocaching.com to locate caches within several miles of a particular zip code or a set of coordinates for longitude and latitude. Web site regulars like Erno receive alerts via e-mail when a new cache is planted in their approximate area. Print out the cache's particulars or just download it onto a high-end GPS unit — or even an iPhone — and let the hunt begin.
"One of the latest fads in geocaching is going paperless — using a palm pilot," says Erno, known in geocaching circles as Beaver Lover.
The 40-year-old Eagle Point resident still printed out the day's itinerary, detailing caches in two Medford locations, for Nick's benefit. Joining them is long-time geocacher Mark Brazelton, known as Peanuthead. If there's a cache to be located, Brazelton, who has more than 1,400 finds to his credit, has probably been there. The first stop on Parsons Drive is no exception.
"This is an easy one," Brazelton says. "Why don't you go grab it, Nick?"
Stuffed deep in some shrubbery is a small ammunition box. Nick also has seen this cache before, but he and Erno are back for a particular piece of booty.
"There's travel bugs in here, we think," Erno says.
The plastic California Raisin figurine that Nick removes from the box sports a metal pendant that resembles a military dog tag. On it is a unique sequence of numbers that geocachers can log online and thereby track the bug's travels. It's just one of the newer twists that keeps geocaching interesting.
"We'll take these, and we'll go put 'em in this other one we're going to," Erno says.
Dubbed "Rotten Apples," the next cache is no stinker. It's rumored to contain a geocoin, another trackable token that doesn't surface nearly as often as travel bugs, says Brazelton, 42, of Medford.
"You kind of want to make them work for 'em."
Yet the route is fairly straightforward, down a dead-end drive off Vilas Road. Nick bails out of the pickup truck and strikes off for a stand of stunted apple trees in the weedy field. Braving brambles and barbed wire, he explores a likely looking spot shielded by tall grass. But Brazelton is looking for signs that someone has disturbed natural features. A small piece of wood wedged against a larger log gives the cache away.
"A log is a common place to hide one, or a stump," Brazelton says.
Nick unearths the screw-top plastic jar and wrests out a wad of carabiners corralling a host of key chains, including a small pewter angel that the Ernos released some time ago.
"We're finding stuff that we actually ... " Erno begins.
"Put in," Nick says.
The geocoin — a custom item designed by its owner — is nowhere to be found. For Nick, however, the thrill of trading a travel bug for a carabiner makes the quest plenty worthwhile.
"The game works because overall, people are conscientious," Brazelton says.
Although the cache is technically on private property, which geocachers discourage, it's unlikely that anyone minds, Erno and Brazelton say. Caches sometimes do go missing, but more are bound to replace them, Brazelton says, commenting that when he first embarked on the hobby in 2000, there was one cache on the Table Rocks and one atop RoxyAnn Peak. Eight years later, the Table Rocks alone house at least a dozen caches, and every major peak is home to dozens more.
"They're scattered all along the Pacific Crest Trail," Erno says. "Anyplace there's a historical landmark, there's a geocache."
History is a favorite theme of Pat McNeilly, a 58-year-old Gold Hill geocacher who found a cache under Rome's oldest bridge across the Tiber River and has visited obscure sites with his wife, 57-year-old Karen McNeilly, in nearly 20 countries in search of the next stash. Geocaching.com reports that there are 672,893 active caches worldwide.
"It's taken us a lot of places we wouldn't normally have visited," says Karen McNeilly.
The Ernos don't mind sticking closer to home. A search on geocaching.com turns up 1,016 caches within just a few miles of downtown Medford. Given the trend toward "nano-caching" — planting a magnetic cylinder no more than an inch long — the quarry could be stuck to a light pole or a street sign.
"There's more and more urban ones," Brazelton says.
More and more caches have meant more and more commonly accepted rules, such as placing caches at least 500 feet apart. Geocachers also try their best to avoid "muggles," non-geocachers who may take note of the search and later try to find — or dispose of — the cache.
The latest wrinkle? Disguising a cache as trash, like the bottle cap hiding a tube that the Ernoses recently dislodged from a hole in the ground near the Rogue Valley Family Fun Center in Central Point. The father-son duo had never seen its like, Chris Erno says.
"There's always something new."
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail email@example.com.
Correction:A photo caption in the original version of this story misidentified Mark Brazelton. This version has been corrected.