By Ben Smith
Long before TV’s “The Amazing Race,” an elaborate competition with puzzles and physical challenges already took place each year around Atlanta with little fanfare. On Saturday, the 25th anniversary Get-a-Clue featured 13 teams in a high-tech elaborate scavenger hunt, a modern tradition started by Georgia Tech musicians.
Contestants jumped out of cars in front of eateries in Decatur and Buckhead looking lost and determined at the same time. Carrying cinderblocks, they scampered through Inman Park, scanning QR codes from cryptic notes attached to public art, benches and other things. Their progress was tracked by GPS and volunteers in the “Game Control” headquarters.
This annual springtime tradition is created and maintained by current members and alumni of the Yellow Jacket Marching Band.
There’s a connection between a successful marching band (recently ranked No. 7 in the country http://www.music.gatech.edu/news/marching-yellow-jackets-rank-7-college-marching-band-land) and a long-running volunteer-led competition like Get-A-Clue, and it’s rooted in the spirit of work and play at Georgia Tech that outsiders might call nerdy.
This is a community that embraces “countless hours of … planning, band camp, rehearsals, arranging and drilling that get them to Game Day,” said Frank Clark, chair of the School of Music, speaking of football season. Get-A-Clue involved a lot of planning and problem solving to make it through a full day of sequential games, and many teams sported an offbeat sense of humor as well.
And they’re off
Teams with names such as “Monkey, Steve and his Friend, Joe” and “I’m not a gynecologist per se” took off Saturday morning at the Couch Building at Georgia Tech. Each had a utility pack with various odd tools such as an ultraviolet flashlight and fortune cookies that were necessary to complete the course. The contestants had to carry cinderblocks (“companion cubes”) the entire way, with no other purpose than to saddle them with dead weight.
An organizer dressed as George P. Burdell disrupted a pre-race presentation and taunted the competitors, causing them to give chase and start the race. Burdell, by the way, is the mythical Georgia Tech undergrad who was enrolled at the university in 1927 and who purportedly earned all of the undergraduate degrees offered there.
For the next 14 to 20 hours, the teams of 4 to 10 members raced from site to site, roughly two dozen in all, each determined by clues collected at the previous site.
Passersby discovered some of the curious QR-coded Get-A-Clue sheets with the playing cards affixed to them. I noticed some at 54 Columns, a public art installation near Freedom Parkway; at another location, a non-competitor removed the clues and temporarily disrupted the event, forcing a last minute rerouting of the course.
A red herring? Look closer.
The clues were cryptic and then some. At one site, contestants had to assemble a jigsaw puzzle that, when completed, displayed the image of a red fish. But not just any fish—“a red herring,” said Ben Klang, a member of the 2013 winning team who helped set up this year’s route.
The puzzle included the words, “The next clue is at your mother’s house.”
A closer look revealed the red fish scales were comprised of the letter UV, a clue to use the ultraviolet flashlight on the puzzle. The sentence then became, “The next clue is at mother’s,” the word “house” and the apostrophe-s attached to the word “mother,” were scratched out, thus revealing that the next stop was the Old Fourth Ward bar “Mother’s.”
One clue in Inman Park led to a recording of two classic sound bites from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” The pattern of “Dude!” and “Excellent!” created a message for the teams who recognized these words as the dots and dashes in Morse code.
Dispatches from the teams
“Mother of God, why are we still awake?” competitor Katie Butterfield posted to Facebook as day turned to night and her team still hadn’t finished the game.
Teams who were stuck could phone in for help, but lifelines like that earned penalty time. The object of the game wasn’t to be the first team to finish, but the second.
That’s because first place wins the administrative headache and Moriarty-like task of putting on Get-A-Clue 2015 and setting the game afoot.
“Second place is the real winner,” said Alicia Cardillo, 33. “You get the bragging rights.”
She spoke from telephone at Game Control, the Decatur nerve center where organizers kept watch over each team’s progress on an electronic map. And they kept awake. “I didn’t brush my teeth for 23 hours yesterday,” one of them posted to Facebook. “I hope my halitosis wasn’t terminal.”
Cardillo had her two-week-old daughter, Norah with her. The role gave her a moment to reflect on the aggravating but fun commitment that Get-A-Clue teams must have, sort of like what a marching band requires.
“When you’re traveling around with the same four people 16, 17, 18 hours, the last place you want to be is with the same four people,” said Cardillo, describing the Get-A-Clue pursuit. “In the seven years I played, last year was the first time I finished.”
Her team and Klang’s, the Geocaching Junkies, took first place in 2013 with a time of 21.5 hours and thus “won” the opportunity of hosting this year’s contest. New aggravation ensued, and more humor. In their video introduction to the 2014 race, they said their leadership involved “building a facility, making peace treaties between warring nations and wrangling space pumas.”
Same game, higher tech
Since its 1989 inception, Get-a-Clue has advanced with technology, according to Klang. Early players were sent across metro Atlanta with telephone books and rolls of quarters to make telephone calls for clues. The experience was, perhaps, a little more underground as well.
Past organizers tended to view trespassing as more of a challenge than an obstacle. According to a history published on the group’s website, suspicious onlookers at a fast food restaurant suspected the contestants were vandals and called 911.
Now Get-a-Clue managers get permission from property owners and businesses to allow competitors to traverse their yards and storefronts.
The 2014 competition ended with all teams but one finishing by 5 am Sunday. The final team made it to the last clue when time was called.
Team Trogdor finishing first, edging out Team Cixelsyd Maet (read it backwards) by just a few minutes. The results won’t be certified until bonus and penalty points are added up.
As annoying as the race can be, as difficult it is to organize the event, Klang says he’s “hooked” on it.
“It has been a blast. I’ve always wanted to win,” Cardillo said. “You can’t win if you don’t finish the game.”
Ben Smith can be reached at email@example.com.