Urban Safari Participants Find Equal Parts Fun and Frustration

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

The Morrisons stood in the rain at 11th and I streets NW, wearing orange T-shirts and carrying a clipboard with a diagram of a telephone keypad, a drawing of a clock face and a Roman numeral conversion table.

They carried pages of The Washington Post's Sunday magazine, a colorful map of downtown Washington that featured a hamburger with eyes, a building made of cheese and a car with a tongue.

Several thousand other people scurried in the rain with the same sodden map. Some, such as the Morrisons, were giddy. Others looked worried, pensive, determined, despondent or devious. They scribbled in notebooks, Googled on BlackBerrys, whispered into cellphones.

All, amid showery spring weather yesterday, were on a quest: a weird, madcap, totally random, slightly diabolical expedition called the 2008 Post Hunt.

The free event was part scavenger hunt, part urban board game and part mind torture. The idea was for contestants, using complex clues from the magazine, the Sunday comics and the zany organizers, to find numerical clues that led to other numerical clues that eventually led winners to vacations in Florida.

The hunt was hosted by the magazine and editor Tom Shroder, columnist Gene Weingarten and humorist Dave Barry, who ran a version of the contest when all three worked at the Miami Herald in the mid-1980s.

This year's hunt began at noon, when the trio emceed from a stage in a large parking lot at 11th and H streets NW, and wound up at the same place at 3:40 p.m.

A team of four from Northern Virginia -- Jack Reda of Herndon, Todd Etter of Alexandria, David Forrest of Woodbridge and Chris Guthrie of Arlington County -- won first prize by delivering a piece of paper with the letters MCI to a contest official standing on F Street east of 14th Street.

How they did it would take an hour to explain. Suffice to say it took teamwork, fast thinking and good fortune.

"We always start with the certainty that it'll be a total failure involving deaths and arrests," Barry joked during the event. "When it starts, it always seems like nothing's working. Things always go wrong."

He described Washington area contestants as "obedient" and prepared but not too prepared.

"You would think that if D.C. were like it was supposed to be that this would already have been won by the Central Intelligence Agency," he said. "It would be over now. They would have known before we even did it that we were going to do it."

But people came from far and wide to play.

The Morrisons -- Shelly, Scott, Kate and baby Claire -- journeyed from Miami and Dallas to participate. They said they had been playing the Florida hunt since it began.

"We are insanely addicted," Shelly Morrison said. "We are the hunt masters. . . . We've been doing this for many years. We won three times, but not first. We've won two seconds and one third. Our goal is to go first."

"Even if we don't win, it's just so much fun," she said. "Picks your brain."

Said Scott: "The politicos in Washington need some fun in their lives. . . . It's a board game come to life."

As for the "secret" data on their clipboards . . .

"You need the computer keyboard layout, a picture of that," Scott Morrison said. "You need a clock face. You need a telephone dial pad, because sometimes you map the numbers to letters. You need the alphabet to numbers. . . . All these have been used in past hunts."

Shelly said: "It is not easy. But it's fun."

As people huddled under awnings and umbrellas, poring over the map, or gathered in intense groups, trying to divine what might or might not be an actual clue, it often looked more like work than fun.

"You kind of have to think bent," said Janine Rauscher, 43, who was on the hunt with her husband, Carl, 41, and their daughter, Morgan, 9.

And one distraught hunter striding through the puddles near hunt headquarters said: "I can feel myself dying."

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