No Car, No Phone, No Clue: 10 Life Lessons from a Treasure Hunt

It was anything but a normal way to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.  But despite many unexpected trials, it was also one of the best days we’d had together in a while.  Here’s the very unusual way we spent our anniversary, and ten Life Lessons we’ll be sure to keep mind for the next 25 years (and beyond!).

Treasure Hunt Life Lessons

It all started out typically enough:  dinner with my wife and kids at a nice restaurant to celebrate our anniversary.  But when the waitress brought out the dessert, she also handed us an envelope.  And that’s when everything changed.

The envelope contained the first of 10 clues that took us on a treasure hunt all across south-central Pennsylvania.

Actually, I want to start by claiming some of the credit:  It was my idea.

A few days ahead of time I invited the kids out for coffee. In the car I told them it might be fun to organize a treasure hunt for my wife on our anniversary day.  I was asking for their ideas and help to pull it off.

By the time we got to the coffee shop, not only had they jumped on the concept, but had convinced me that I should no longer have anything to do with it.  They wanted to run the whole thing themselves and allow my wife and me to experience it together.  This was already better than my original idea.

A day later, I checked back with them about how things were going, seeking some detail.  They just exchanged knowing glances and politely encouraged me to mind my own business.  Confident that they had everything under control, I let go.

Life lesson #1:  Delegate then get out of the way.  By allowing others to take the lead, and then getting out of the way, not only can great things be accomplished, but they may turn out even better than you imagine. 

The clue the waitress gave us took us back to the house, where we had to solve a riddle, find a compass, then move a certain direction and distance from a particular piece of furniture.  All was going well until we saw that it made a difference which side of the furniture we started on.

I thought my wife was starting on the wrong side.  Wisely, it turns out, I kept my mouth shut.  She worked out the direction, took five steps forward, and quickly discovered another envelope taped to the back of a wedding portrait on the wall.  Success!

Life Lesson #2:  Someone else might have the better idea.  As smart or experienced as we may think we are, no one knows everything, and it may just be that someone else is right.  Leave some room for that to happen. (this was a recurring lesson for me throughout the day!)  

Next morning found us in an old bookstore downtown.  We had a list of eight books to find scattered all over the enormous store.  A code for each book led us to a specific page, line, and word.  Find the words, rearrange them into a famous quote, then find the book the quote came from to get the next big clue.

Eight books among 200,000 on four floors and 17 rooms.  How hard could it be?  I thought it wise to get a cup of coffee from the café before proceeding.  Our strategy?  Teamwork.

For the first couple books, we worked together, searching alternate shelves and sections for the same title.  After we understood what we were up against, we divided the list.  Things went much more quickly after that.  It still took a while, but we had fun celebrating each other’s success and watching our list grow.

Life Lesson #3:  Work as a teamSuccess comes more quickly when you work as a team; be clear about goals, then play to each other’s strengths, and you’ll get more done faster.

We figured out the quote, trekked to the basement and started to search through hundreds of books for the right title.  We exchanged high fives when an envelope finally tumbled out of a book from the top shelf.

The clue in the book provided the final pieces of a jigsaws puzzle that we had been collecting.  When we pieced it together, it revealed a hand-drawn map and some instructions.  Apparently we had 12:00 reservations at a local restaurant.  We were to check in under the alias “Kenneth McGuire.”

The map led us to a nice place overlooking the river.   I had the Basil Salmon as the clue suggested I should.  Soon, another envelope appeared.  But we didn’t open it right away. It was becoming clear that there were themes to these clues.

Each one related in some way to a place we had lived together after getting married.  Example:  the clue hidden among some kitchen cookware represented our time in the country of PAN-ama.

So instead of rushing on to the next clue, we decided to savor this little trip down memory lane.  We asked each other what our top three experiences were at each of the places we lived, and had fun reliving those times and places together.

 Life Lesson #4:  Enjoy the meal.  Take time to savor the good; even better:  share with someone close.

After the restaurant the next clue took us to the 13th hole of an old putt-putt golf course.  We had to park the car and walk about half a mile to get there.  My phone charge was getting a little low; mental note to plug it into the car charger when we got back.

We got to the 13th hold and searched in, around, under, and over that hole but came up with nothing.  We rechecked the clue and then searched again, checking rocks, pipes, sewers, trees, a nearby swing set, and even a pile of debris that featured a discarded lawn mower and old PVC piping.  Still nothing.

We were getting frustrated.  Finally, my wife thought maybe it wasn’t the 13th hole at all, just near it.  I wasn’t so sure.  She started checking on the 12th and 14th, and before long I heard a shout as she triumphantly held up the next clue (see life lesson #2).

Life Lesson #5:  Beware of target fixation.  What you are searching for may not always be where you think you will find it; expand your effort in ever-widening circles and keep trying things until you find something that works.

The golf course clue was written entirely in German – a nod to our time living in Heidelberg.  Easy for my daughter, who is nearly fluent.  Me: not so much.  But after some effort it became clear that our next clue was 15 miles away at a little German restaurant.

We walked back to the car with confident strides.  Confident that is, until we topped the rise that let us see down into the parking lot.

Me: (concerned) “Where’s the car?”

My wife:  (also concerned) “My purse was in there.”

The car was definitely gone.  We weren’t sure if it had been stolen or this was part of the game.  We bee-lined to the parking lot and searched the area for clues – a note under a rock or something.  Nothing.

I called the kids.  There was a pause on the other end of the line, then my daughter said very deliberately, “Have you considered alternate means of transportation?” Then she hung up.

A flood of relief; OK, it’s part of the game.  We searched again – maybe they just hid the car or substituted a different one.  We searched another parking lot and a local parking garage – all four floors.  Car’s not there.  We checked down by the river bank, in the wood line:  Nothing.  At one point a bus went by; what about public transportation?  Takes too long.  How about Uber?

By this time my phone battery was down to single digits.  I could almost feel the power draining as I downloaded the app to my phone, set a password, and entered payment information.  I couldn’t be sure there’d be enough juice to get us to the restaurant.

Life Lesson #6:  Keep your battery charged.  Be prepared; you never know what’s coming.  Keep your battery charged, your gas tank full, some emergency cash in the bank, and a reserve of mental energy. 

We called Uber, and six minutes later we were enroute to the German restaurant, feeling faintly relieved that we were finally on our way to the next clue.  My phone rang but I didn’t answer it, trying to save the battery. Then my wife’s phone rang.

Daughter:  (perplexed) “Where are you guys?” (it had been an hour since we last talked)

Us: (somewhat smugly) “On our way to the German place”  (we thought we were acing the test)

Daughter:  (amused) “Why would you do that???”

Son:  (Guffaws loudly in the background)

My daughter advised that we needed to retrace our steps immediately and search for “other” alternate transportation.  The Uber driver had a good chuckle as we tried to explain ourselves.

After more searching, we were walking back towards the golf course when I saw a pair of familiar-looking mountain bikes chained to a light pole.  The moment we had discovered that the car was missing, we were standing less than 25 feet from those bikes, but hadn’t noticed them as we were expected to.

My son later said it never occurred to them that we might not see the bikes.

Life Lesson #7:  Plan for the unexpected.  There is no predicting or controlling what other people will do.  When making plans that involve other people, plan for the unexpected to happen, and you won’t be disappointed.  If you have a chance, rehearse.

The clue hidden inside my bike helmet informed us that the mission had changed.  We solved a riddle to get the address of our new destination, and decoded a phone number to a good friend from our time in Germany.

My wife:  “But we haven’t spoken in so long!”

Me:  “You have to call.”

Our friend was warm and cheerful as always. We could feel her smiling through the phone as she gave us the combination to the bike lock.  We were finally on our way.

Ultimately, we found our car in the city, time nearly expired on the parking meter.  With the bikes loaded inside, we solved the next riddle, called a phone number in Virginia, exchanged passwords, then headed west out of the city as the sun slipped below the horizon.

There were more clues.  One in the mouth of a cannon at an outdoor military history display, another by a statue of Benjamin Rush.

It was getting cold and starting to rain when we opened clue #10 on the quad of a local college.  We were beginning to tire, and our riverside lunch seemed like a long time ago.  We unscrambled the phone number and ended up connected with my mother-in-law from Minnesota.

She had only one question for us: “What do you want on your pizza?”  Then she told us, “You can go home now.”  We hung up with some relief, and walked smilingly, hand in hand, back to the car.

Back at home there were no more clues – just lots of laughing and storytelling with the kids over hot pizza.  We had retraced our life together from place to place to place, and finally ended back at the very place we belonged:  together.

Life Lesson #8:  Find your treasure at home.  You can spend a lot of time hunting for things and miss the fact that the most valuable things in life may very well be right there under your nose.

We had fun sharing the story of our adventure.  Just as fun was hearing from the kids what their plans were and how they had to scramble when we started to go off track.

They acknowledged that each of the ten clues was indeed tied to one of the places we had lived together.  And further, that each phone call was also to someone we knew from that time.

The calls had been a fun way to reconnect with friends and family, and a great reminder that it’s your connections with people that matter most in life.

Life Lesson #9:  Connections are key.  Grow and maintain connections to good people; you never know when they might be able to help you, or when you might be able to help them.

The friend from Germany?  Their whole family came over for dinner the next night – it was wonderful!

It had been a great day to celebrate our anniversary.  I remember thinking at one point that the day’s trials were also a pretty good metaphor for our life together:  often an adventure, not always easy, but when we work together as a team and keep at it, we tend to find a way to get where we are going.

Our first quarter century together has been amazing, and I was hoping to come up with a good way to celebrate it.  The kids did more than I could have hoped for in that sense (see Life Lessons #1 and #2).

A quick check of the internet will reveal that the appropriate gift for a 25th anniversary should contain something silver.  But our kids had found a way to give us something far more valuable: time together.

Life Lesson #10:  The most precious gift is time.  Use it well.

We are looking forward to the next 25 years, and the next after that.  And along the way, I’ll do my best to keep in mind the things our kids reminded us are truly important.

Question: We can learn important things from just about anyone; what life lessons have you learned from an unexpected source?

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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