N 29° 25.571 W 098° 29.199
from Local Treasures
The Alamo has become a symbol of the courage of a small band of Texian freedom-fighters who challenged a far larger Mexican force at the mission-turned-military-post. Passed down as a David vs. Goliath saga, pitting upstart freedom against oppressive authority, the story is full of sound and fury, beloved by many. In fact, it’s so beloved that the Alamo is the most popular tourist destination in Texas, visited by more than 2.5 million people each year.
Such places of pilgrimage are strangely fraught. They mean to be iconic, to condense history and shared meaning into stone and space. But as I looked around Alamo Plaza, watching visitors wander along their separate paths, I felt hard-pressed to imagine we all shared one understanding of where we were, of what we were seeing. Still, people flock there, as to tourist spots in general, later telling friends “I was there; I saw that.” We think (or hope) our friends will know just what we mean by “there,” by “that.” And places like the Alamo reassure us that such a common understanding might be within reach: this building and its history repeat themes adumbrated in the history lessons Americans learn in grade school. Visiting is less about discovering something new than about reminding ourselves who we think we are, what we’ve been.
But pilgrimages aren’t always like that. Wending one’s way to Canterbury, trekking to Mecca, or reaching Angkor Wat: seekers make such trips because they sense the destination is somehow sacred, sublime, transcendent. Though we think we know what we will find, we also believe it will be larger than we are, larger than we can quite imagine.
The pilgrimages that geocachers make are something else again. To create a cache is to invite strangers to share a place, to invoke the hope that others will see something of what you’ve seen, will say “yes, I understand; this place is special.” But the specialness is not based in its being battle ground or holy ground; it resides neither in official history nor in the sacredness of all places. Geocache sites are consecrated by an entirely secular incantation, a childlike invitation to “come play here”—digitally recast, swollen with grown-up knowledge, mixing fear and courage as much as any poem could. Together, finders and seekers forge a curious bond, one that transforms an estranged, estranging land into a common ground.