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Inside the world's greatest scavenger hunt, Part 3

David Pogue
Tech Critic

GISHWHES stands for the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen. Teams of 15 have one week to complete a list of 200 difficult, charitable, or hilarious tasks. They prove they’ve completed each item by submitting a photo or video of it; their $20 entry fees go to a charity, and the winning team gets a trip to an exotic location.

This is Part 3 of our five-part report on the hunt.

Part 1    •  Part 2   •   Part 3  •  Part 4  •  Part 5

Part 3: GISHWHES for Good

Each August, as the world’s largest scavenger hunt is under way, the general public is usually unaware—except when teams perform their tasks in public places. Recent tasks have included:

  • Hug someone you love, motionless, in a very crowded location, for 20 minutes without moving—and time-lapse it.
  • Stand in a crowded public place. Ask people to sign a petition to Save The Endangered Unicorns.
  • Get everyone on a subway, bus, or train car to sing “Over the River and Through the Woods.” There must be at least 8 passengers (random commuters, not your friends).

But each year, the list also includes challenges to perform acts of kindness. For example:

  • Write and mail a thank-you letter to a teacher or mentor from your past that you never sufficiently thanked.
  • Have a tea party with a special-needs child or pediatric cancer patient, dressed as a character from “Alice in Wonderland.”
  • More than 10% of veterans returning from war suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome. Post an image of you next to an armed serviceman, with you holding up a sign with a message of gratitude to them and soldiers worldwide.

But for hunt creator Misha Collins (a star of the WB series “Supernatural”), neither GISHWHES nor acting were part of his life’s original master plan.

“[After college,] my objective was to go to law school and somehow try to make a positive impact on the world,” he says. “I thought probably the best way to do that was to go into politics. This was, you know, my 20-year-old brain.

“I was interning at the White House, but I just didn’t love the machine that I saw. I was very naive. I was exposed to this weird environment of, like, nepotism and yea-saying that I wasn’t inspired by.”

So he switched paths.

“I had this great get-rich-quick/make-an-impact scheme: ‘I’ll just go to Hollywood and I’ll become an actor and I’ll get famous enough that I can then leverage that celebrity into doing things.’”

Off he went to Los Angeles. “I thought, like, I’d be the next Leonardo DiCaprio in a couple of months. It took me 10 years to get on a TV show.

And once I’d achieved a certain modicum of, you know, C-list celebrity, that desire to try to use my celebrity for some other purpose resurfaced.”

GISHWHES was born: a list littered with acts of kindness that tens of thousands of players attempt to fulfill every August.

Crowdsourcing for refugees

In the most recent hunt, item 175 is a perfect example:

“#175. According to the United Nations, 4.8 million people have fled Syria since the civil war began in 2011. Many of these families are living in tent cities with few resources and difficult lives. Let’s change the lives of one family that’s in particularly dire circumstances. The GISHWHES Item is to create a fundraising page for your team, where family, friends and others can donate.”

“We identified one particular family with a heartbreaking story. The mom had been shot in the spine tending to her garden. She was paralyzed, she’s been in a bed in this tent for two years. And we said, let’s just change this one family’s circumstances,” Collins says. “Let’s get them a house, and let’s get her medical care, and let’s pay for the kids’ school. And I woke up the next morning to see, oh my god!”

By week’s end, GISHWHES teams had raised close to $250,000.

“So we added another family, and another and another—by the end of the hunt, we materially changed the lives of four different families. We’ve been getting photos from these families, like them moving into their apartments that we just paid for. It’s just such a lovely thing to be a part of.”

The space balloon, continued

For Team Raised From Perdition, though, there are 174 other items to complete if they hope to win.

My daughter, Tia, also participated in GISHWHES. Several days have passed since she launched a weather balloon into space, bearing a child’s note to the universe. It came down into a nearly inaccessible Connecticut forest; she’s unable to retrieve it even after hours of searching. Item 175 is worth more points than anything else in the hunt; for her team, it will have to be marked “incomplete.”

But teammate Christine has no intention of giving up on the balloon’s precious footage. She tells Tia that she’ll just drive over to the forest to help look for it.

From Chicago.

Fifteen hours later, she, her husband Vince, and their children arrive, laden with gear. After hours of shaking, throwing things at, and yanking at trees, Christine’s 13-year-old son Josh climbs the tree. After an hour and a half, he dislodges the balloon. Item 175 is in the can!

The Haves and the Have-Nots

Not everything on the GISHWHES list is as exasperating as lost space balloons. Item 15, for example, sounds like fun:

#15. This is the final showdown between the Haves and the Have-nots. Show up at Dolores Park in San Francisco, dressed either as executives or in blue-collar apparel. At exactly 12:10 PM, the ultimate water balloon battle will ensue.

Nearly a thousand Gishers show up. They stand in two long lines, facing off across the park. They’ve taken the day off from work, driven for hours, even flown to San Francisco for this battle.

At the stroke of noon, GISHWHES volunteer Tone Rawlings raises her megaphone, ready to announce the open-fire.

But at that moment, a San Francisco park ranger runs onto the field.

Ranger: “Hold on! Hold on! You can’t do this! Not without a permit! Anytime you have X amount of people in a park, you have to have a permit.”

“This is like a 10-minute situation for charity,” Tone pleads. “It’s a flash-mob type situation.”

“Yeah, you guys can’t do it without a permit.” (A CBS News camera picked up the audio.)

The two armies can’t hear this, but they see that there’s a problem. It’s not the first time that GISHWHES stunts have tested the patience of society’s overseers.

Will they be deprived of their balloon battle because of paperwork?

Suddenly, a second park manager arrives.

Incredibly, he’s persuaded. “Here’s the thing,” he says. “You have enough people to get this cleaned up?”

“I will personally guarantee it,” Tone says.

“You should have a permit. But if you can make an announcement like that, and get everyone to agree, then OK.”

Tone lifts her megaphone.

“I know and you know that you guys are going to be responsible for these pieces of balloon when this fight is over! Is that right?”

The crowd roars in agreement.

“This can’t happen…unless you guys repeat after me: I solemnly pledge to pick up every last piece of balloony plastic thing on the ground! And I will throw it all away in the proper receptacles!”

The crowd roars.

“Haves and Have-Nots… Commence the water-balloon melee!”

The battle is on.

This time, at least, the forces of merry mayhem win the day.

Part 1    •  Part 2   •   Part 3  •  Part 4  •  Part 5

More from David Pogue:

Inside the World’s Greatest Scavenger Hunt: Part I

Inside the World’s Greatest Scavenger Hunt: Part 2

The David Pogue Review: Windows 10 Creators Update

Now I get it: Bitcoin

David Pogue tested 47 pill-reminder apps to find the best one

David Pogue’s search for the world’s best air-travel app

The little-known iPhone feature that lets blind people see with their fingers

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.