Geocaching ≠ Human Trafficking
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
In the fall of 2017 I left home well before dawn and drove up to meet my buddies kcsmiths (Mike) and DrPowercat (Tom) for some geocaching fun in Des Moines, IA. We found a few notable outliers throughout the city but quickly landed on a rails to trail heading Northwest out of the city.
We parked near the trailhead off Hickman Rd and made our way to Vision (GC2ZPP6) a rather unique hide that left us cross eyed before we could see any coordinates. From there the trail yielded a steady release of challenge caches with some sweet sweet D/T every 0.1 miles. I would walk along with them till we approached a junction where a vehicle could be parked then I'd turn around and head back to my van. I'd then move the van up and begin walking back to them where we'd repeat the process. And snaking forward a mile or two at a time we progressed further from the city.
About 5 miles in I ran over something sharp on one of the backroads and found myself stopped dead in my tracks with a flat tire. My performance didn't warrant an invitation to join any pit crews but I was able to get the donut on in a respectable amount of time. I did not like my chances of driving 4 hours back home on a spare tire so my friends were kind enough to join in a diversion to the nearest Big O tires. I had recently replaced all 4 a couple of weeks before and luckily had the road hazard package. This was 2017 when I was playing a game everyday of the year and they humored me by playing a game of Spy while we waited.
Following that we continued down the trail finding, signing and returning geocache after geocache and passing nary a muggle on this overcast, chilly fall day. Shortly after we passed through Dallas Center, IA we encountered a lady who looked a little ragged jogging down the trail pausing to catch her breath occasionally. Keeping pace with her was a biker, likely to encourage and track her progress. Mike theorized that she was training for a race and nodded in agreement.
They progressed ahead of us and we came to a junction where I turned and went back to the van as I had several times before already. Arriving ahead on the trail as before I parked along a dirt cross street and began walking back Southeast passing the training duo. I smiled at them and added a nod as they were fellow travelers on this lonely path and the only souls I'd seen outside of our group. I thought nothing of the expressions on their faces and just reconnected with my party adding to our smiley count for the day. Onward we went blissfully till yet another junction hop occurred but this one with unexpected consequences.
As I approached my van I heard sirens in the distance which seemed odd given the remoteness of our location but not unreasonable. The one siren was joined by another and another, all converging closer to me. Not seeing a fire I assumed it was a medical emergency and as none of them were in my direct path (I could just make them out over the ridge) I continued on my merry way parking and walking back as I had done so many times before.
As I approached Mike and Tom I could see a wry smile on both their faces, of course this is nothing new for either of them.
"A cop came here looking for you"
<Awkward laugh>"Yeah right"
"No seriously, he drove right down the path asking if we'd seen someone driving a silver minivan. Of course we told him 'no.'"
We continued walking and trying to solve the mystery when I noticed ahead of us driving down the narrow elevated trail was none other than an Iowa State Trooper. We stopped dead in our tracks and that's when I noticed a second patrol car directly behind us and a 3rd coming through the field to the North. They rolled to a stop about 50' from us boxing us on 3 sides with barbed wire to the South. Each of them stepped out and stood next to their cars. The one ahead of us on the trail slowly walked forward a few paces and demanded, "what are you guys doing out here?!"
In that moment I decided to take the lead, my buddies are both brilliant people, amazing cachers and all around good people but dealing with law enforcement is not their strong suit and they had just told me they lied to the policeman already. "Were just out here geocaching", I yelled. Confused but seeming less threated he walks closer to find out more. I give the elevator pitch explanation and the officer behind us announces he knows what geocaching is which seems to set them all ease. With their permission I reach into my pocked to produce my GPS and show them the geocaching map explaining we are just a hundred feet from one if they want to see it.
First they ask to see our licenses and after a quick glance around I realize that nobody wants to do that but just the same I reach into my wallet and hand it over. When surrounded by three armed strangers right or wrong I find cooperation and a cooler head is the right approach. We stand around waiting for them to call in our IDs and begin to probe as to the cause of all of this.
It turns out that the couple we encountered was under the belief we were human traffickers out on the hunt... in rural Iowa... on a nearly abandon trail... because we were geocaching (going in and out of the woods). And the rub of it all is that Iowa's finest took it at face value and immediately sent in the cavalry trapping 3 out of place men from Missouri. I still struggle to wrap my head around all of that. The dispatcher radios back to them and gives us the all clear freeing me to walk him down off the path and over to the nearby woods to extract the camouflaged vial and display the log.
"That's it?!", he says with a defeated boy-is-this-a-waste-of-my-time attitude and immediately begins to walk back up to the trail. He cocks his head slightly toward his shoulder and squeezes the CB mounted to announce "there is nothing dangerous here" and then tells his fellow officers the call is a wild goose chase. The other two troopers start walk back to their vehicles and begin backing down the path (and field) the way they came reversing all the way as it's too narrow and steep to turn around.
"We plan to walk several more miles out here so if you can please let your dispatch know", I added as the last of them starts for his car. He mumbles and nods appearing as embarrassed as I've ever seen an officer reveal before departing in reverse himself.
Noting how event filled our day had already been we continue onward and upward now with a ridiculous story to take home with us. ...oh and we found Pennywise the clown in the sewers of Des Moines too but that's a whole other story.