NEWELL, W.Va.-All throughout Hancock County, hidden in unexpected places, are little treasures waiting to be found by people with a sense of adventure, a love of the hunt and a GPS unit.
People like Robert Bailey, of Chester, W.Va.
The audio engineer at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort is one of a growing number of enthusiasts who can't get enough of geocaching, a hobby that sends people on modern-day treasure hunts in faraway places or just around the corner.
"It quickly rose to the top of my hobbies," Bailey said. "For me, it's just the thrill of the hunt and experiencing new locations. Who doesn't like to hunt for treasure?"
Geocaching involves searching for pre-placed items by following GPS coordinates and then logging one's finds on the Internet, Bailey explained. Most players use either a GPS unit or a smartphone GPS application. Geocaching kits also are available for checkout at some West Virginia libraries, including Lynn Murray Memorial Library in Chester.
"Every smartphone's got a GPS," Bailey said, "so the app has really opened it up to a lot of people." Geocaching.com has a free app and a premium one for $9.99. The free app currently is available only to iPhone users, although one is under development for Android phones.
Bailey has been active in the geocaching subculture for about a year, and he's closing in on finding all 90 of the geocaches hidden in Hancock County. He's also responsible for the seven geocaches hidden in Laurel Hollow Park in Newell-geocaches with names such as "The Squirrel Cottage," "Gnarly's Mouthful" and "When Pet Rocks Grow Up!"
Bailey received permission from the Newell Community Improvement Coalition to place the items in the park. No geocache may be closer than one-tenth of a mile from another geocache, he said.
"I just liked the fact that it was a wilderness area that had ready-made trails," he said, noting that most geocache waypoints are known for their scenic beauty or historical significance.
"The general rule of thumb for placement is: If the only reason to come to a place is the geocache, find a better place," he said. "But that rule isn't always followed, since some people are in it for the adventure and others are about the numbers."
Bailey admits that sometimes he geocaches just to improve his statistics-what he calls "part of the addiction."
Geocaching as it's practiced today traces its origins to May 1, 2000, the day President Bill Clinton removed the civilian restrictions on GPS technology. Overnight, the accuracy of GPS pinpointing improved to within 20 meters (66 feet), Bailey said.
Geocaching started as a way to test the precision of the newly-available GPS technology by placing an item in a remote location and noting its GPS coordinates. In September 2000, there were 75 known geocaches in the world. Today, there are an estimated 2.2 million geocaches, Bailey said.
In the year that Bailey has been geocaching, he has found 275 geocaches in five states-four within a mile of his Chester home, 77 within 10 miles and 166 within 25 miles.
The one geocache that still eludes him is one called "Why Not Here?" in Chester City Park. "I've cleared everything north of Weirton except for that one. It starts to eat at you after awhile," he said.
A difficult one that Bailey found in February is a multi-cache involving two locations in Tomlinson Run State Park-one of 10 geocaches in the park. The geocache known as "ELPO Rock," placed there by a Weirton geocacher who goes by the name "skyraider," requires a three-mile hike, Bailey said.
"It's like finding an old Aztec ruin," he said, noting that ELPO stands for East Liverpool Post Office.
Traditional caches have a container that includes a paper log that can be signed by the geocacher and trinkets known as trackables. The latter can be tracked on the Internet using a code as they are moved from place to place.
It is customary to leave something behind if taking an item from a geocache, Bailey said. Some geocaches also have garbage bags that are used by practitioners to clean the area-a practice known in geocaching parlance as CITO (Cache In Trash Out).
Among the trackables that Bailey has collected are commemorative "geocoins" issued by the state of West Virginia on the occasion of its sesquicentennial.
As with the West Virginia Civil War Geotrail, Bailey believes the geocaching phenomenon should be exploited by local officials to promote tourism in Hancock County.
"It's cheap, as long as you have the technology, and you can take the whole family on most of them," he said.