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A new adventure-entertainment game lets everyone become urban explorers

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My soon-to-be teammate John is not making eye contact as we're introduced; he's staring at my feet. "You sure you'll be able to run in
those?" John asks of my flip-flops.

"We have to run?" My response sends his eyes rolling back into his head.

The game we're about to play is a high-intensity treasure hunt. "Adventure races or real adventures," Ravenchase founder Josh Czarda calls them. Not scavenger hunts for grown-ups, which would give people the wrong idea -- that the game is going to be easy. "We do epicodes, cipher wheels, anagrams and give people gadgets to solve clues, like in The Da Vinci Code," Czarda tells me. There are also actors planted along the way, like a woman in red standing on a corner, a paranoid schizophrenic whose clue is in his word salad or a bagpiper in full regalia that sings his clue.

I ask Czarda if he's trying to recreate the movie The Game. "It's exactly like that, except for the death, murder and mayhem part." Czarda got the idea for his company, which makes its big bucks doing corporate events, after he put together a treasure hunt for his three little step-brothers. Their mother was dying of cancer and the treasure hunt was a way to get their mind off of it.

Out of the 30 or so players on seven teams, I'm paired with two of the more gung-ho players. Jason is from Fredericksburg. John is from Richmond. Both of them traveled to Charlotte just for the event. When I first ask Jason what he does for a living, he tells me he is a consultant. A few minutes later, it comes out he's a consultant for a security company. A few more minutes later, it comes out that he's a former military bomb technician, and he trains people on how to dismantle bombs. He spent four years traveling around the world, including a stint in Iraq, doing bomb dismantling contract work. For 99.9 percent of the time, when you disable a bomb you don't cut wires, Jason tells me. That's the technique for when the bomb is attached to a person. Flip-flop disparager John, a Phillip Morris employee, races airplanes and once jaunted around the world.

Our team name is the Flying J's, and John summarizes our special abilities. "He diffuses bombs, I race planes. ..." Then he gets to me and pauses. "I write silly stories," I say, then add, "when I'm not being a ninja."

When the game starts, I speed read the first clue. "Stacks of books mark the start/ Up the winding path/ Frederick Douglas points the way/ Past words in copper cast." Easy, I think, the library has all those quotes from famous literary figures on the wall. We sprint to the library. As we read from the treasure map, I look up and see a homeless man staring at us like we're out of our minds. ("Urban campers" is the euphemism Ravenchase uses for the homeless, but they might as well call them Ravenchase haters, as they often run off with clues or puzzle pieces. An urban camper in the game two Saturdays ago urged players they needed to jump in the fountain to solve a clue. "Maybe you oughta get wet," the urban camper said.) Turns out I was wrong. We waste half an hour running around the library in feigned pursuit, one of the day's many gaffes.

Coins have been planted throughout the city. Finding one will deduct 15 minutes from our final time. Throughout the day, I feel like Sonic the Hedgehog, looking in fountains and behind people's ears. One clue takes us to the sculptures at Seventh Street Station, in front of ImaginOn, where we drop to our hands and knees looking for a puzzle piece among children playing with their parents. A girl, who looks to be 5 years old, has found one of the gold coins, and John wants it. The girl probably would have derived more long-term enjoyment from keeping the coin than us, but John trades her a quarter for it. Not wanting to betray a Flying-J, I hold back my honest appraisal of the transaction. (She should have held out for more cash.)

For one clue, when we are stumped, John pulls out a black light from his knapsack. He also brought a homemade cipher wheel with him. His wheel has three rings of letters, whereas the one we got from Ravenchase has only two. For real adventure junkies like John, Ravenchase offers other reality games like The Heist, a simulation bank robbery. Heist players must light cigarettes to navigate through laser security alarms, and both security guards and players are armed with paintball guns. In another game, players solve a crime CSI-style, running around a city collecting evidence like fake blood samples to run fake forensics on it in a fake crime lab. Ravenchase is also putting together a 30-day race across 25 states next year called the Great America Treasure Hunt (which costs $500 to enter). During our $20 game, my two Flying-J teammates discussed the possibility of signing up.

Before the game began, not unlike Michael Douglas, we had to sign our lives away. As it turns out, this is a wise precautionary measure by Ravenchase. During the game, I'm almost flattened by a car while darting across the square. And when the game takes us to Elmwood Cemetery where we have to read and search for info on the gravestones, I feel a hot, stinging pain in my feet. An army of ants are crawling over and biting my precious pieds.

Once your mind is in real adventure mode, off-the-wall connections don't seem so far-fetched. In the Green, the kids park on Tryon Street and Second Avenue, we find a chessboard we're looking for and need to locate the puzzle piece that should be nearby. The clue tells us: "Look below their board of eights/ For clues within the shadows." Jason points out there's a parking garage under the park, so we descend under the earth to look. The first floor of the parking garage is themed with a pot of gold and the words "it's one for the money." Since we were on clue number one, we're convinced we're on the right track. I even search a bag of garbage by the parking attendant, who looks like he's ready to call the cops. The puzzle piece was in the bushes right next to the chessboard.

I don't think I took the game very seriously and felt ridiculous sprinting around the city with a treasure map. But I guess Ravenchase hooked me more than I thought. In the three hours of the hunt, I didn't find time to snap a single photograph.

Ravenchase is planning a pub crawl-related adventure in October for the sensuous swashbuckler. Visit www.ravenchase.com for details.

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