Night Crawler

Treasure Quest
There are those who believe the first moment of the New Year is an allegory for the rest of the calendar cycle. Luckily, there are quite a few calendars to choose from and, since I am a great believer in option and a great disbeliever in canon, the Western 1999 loses out to the Chinese Year of the Hare. This year, the official Chinese celebration falls nearly two weeks after the fact -- no doubt, the celebration of a new year should be as arbitrary as the type of new year celebrated -- but the day is nothing if not fortuitous.

The memory of impetuous cold fronts and irrational rain clouds is scattered within the first few waking hours; the morning sun is robust and egg-yolk yellow with no chance of dilution. By half 12, the beaches and parks are filled with wobbling Frisbees and canine glee. Folks strip down to shorts, tank tops, and sandals, with single-security sweat shirts tied around their waists. Breakfast chatter floats from one restaurant to the next as the sidewalk becomes more desirable than a table inside. The streets are overwhelmed by melodies -- convertibles with their ululating sound systems and open windows in top-story flats, street musicians and accidental bongo players, and hundreds of birds waiting for their bread-crumb snacks. Even the roadside evangelists seem to succumb to the mild climate, tempering their bullet-gray sermons with lions and lambs nestled among the fire and brimstone.

With the hint of dusk, people begin trickling downtown for the beginning of the Chinese New Year Parade. Most are casual, rolling through town on skateboards or strolling along with families and cameras, which they direct at pleasant sights along the way, but some carry large camping packs with explorers' head lamps and water bottles in shoulder slings; they are cheerful but imbued with an explicit sense of purpose. Downtown, the crowd begins to spread itself along the parade route starting on Market, but the "explorers" shamble past Herb Caen Way into the Ferry Building to join a throng of like-minded individuals on the other side.

Turnout for the Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt has rarely exceeded 600, but under tonight's exquisite atmospheric conditions more than the usual city's share of would-be sleuths have been drawn out of the Victorian woodwork. Against a gentle backdrop of diving sea gulls and bobbing ferryboats, over 1,000 competitors attempt to locate teammates, ascertain their skill level, and register their team name for a map and clues. It's noisy, chaotic bedlam, but no one seems to mind.

Veteran hunter Ben Stiegler arrives smiling, with two maps, a cell phone, a flashlight, and a AAA guide to Chinatown. Even without his usual teammates and their mobile library, he's confident enough to sign up for the "Regular Hunt" with six "virgin" players who form The Danas.

"I've always been a really nosy person," says Stiegler. "Peeking around alleyways and looking under flowerpots suits me. I enjoy the physical and intellectual challenge."

The Synergistic Value Adders boast one second-year competitor (with a sporty head lamp) and three newbies, including Meghan Browne, who claims to have a photographic memory and cartographic autism, and if that isn't enough, all four team members are linked by "digital ethernet."

The Parade Monitors -- with their utility belts, whistles, Maglites, and matching orange T-shirts -- are media darlings at the Treasure Hunt. Led by "fearless" eight-year veteran Fred Adams, they placed third in 1997's "Regular Hunt" by following a tried-and-true system: Bolt to home base (a nearby office building equipped with an extensive library of reference material), try to solve each clue as if it were on an exam (without getting too hung up on any one hint), plot the route (on any one of the half-dozen maps on hand), and run. This year, the Parade Monitors' "minister of information," Ray Bruman, has assembled hundreds of keywords that refer to buildings and landmarks in the area, cross-referenced with map coordinates and historical descriptions. Despite assiduous planning and nearly 15 years of cumulative experience, the Parade Monitors still register for the "Regular Hunt."

Desiring both thrills and agony, I join the Null Set on the "Master Hunt." For all intents and purposes, the Null Set looks like it might have a chance: Musician Henry Kaiser is a past winner and a volunteer, as well as a close friend of Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt founder Jayson Wechter. Kirk Steers is also a past winner, and can read Chinese. Writer/performer Don Paul has been a North Beach resident for more than 19 years. And Andy Marshall is from Seattle, but he has a bag of salmon jerky and an unrestricted cell phone.

As the clock approaches 6, Wechter jumps onto a tabletop wearing a white bunny suit. For the benefit of newcomers, he shouts through a bullhorn, "Be aware of what's around you. Don't develop tunnel vision, intellectual or otherwise. ... As the Buddhists might say, this is an environmental exercise in mindfulness. Open your clues!"

The sound of hundreds of ripping envelopes fills the cooling air. Without warning, my team takes off at a brisk jog. Kaiser, passing out clue sheets as we move, shouts directions over his shoulder: "How many days are 15,768,000 seconds?" Marshall is on the case, pushing numbers into his phone. We take advantage of a stalled bus and cross on the red, dodging through traffic while other teams anxiously wait for the light. We dart toward a group of tables where we can spread out, but my photographer is already down, having popped his knee while avoiding a bus. From backpacks, Kaiser and Steers pull phone books, travel guides, calendars, and maps. Painstakingly, they read through each clue, scribbling notes and marking their maps. Marshall phones amateur astronomers, screenwriters, and parents. I call a priest. It's slow going. Clue No. 12 begins: "January 17, 1999; February 16, 1999; March 17, 1999; April 16, 1999; May 15, 1999; June 13, 1999 ...." Clue No. 13 begins: "I had 874 pieces of paper, each one with the words 'Norvus Ordo Seclorum' on it ...." We lose time going to the bathroom. Soon, it's dark, and most teams have scurried off into the night. The sound of firecrackers reaches us from a great distance as the parade winds its way through Chinatown. The Null Set packs up and sprints down Market Street. Between pants, I'm told navigator Don Paul is also a marathon runner.

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