Pitt students recall treasure hunt engineered by Colbert
Pitt students who won the Stephen Colbert treasure hunt last summer are, from left, Ben Zaczek, Justine Buchman, Daniela Aizpitarte and Daniel Stough.
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Right after the box of clues arrived, the four friends did what engineering grad students do:
"We started by making Excel spreadsheets," said Justine Buchman, laughing.
"Yeah, she's an excellent spreadsheet-maker," said Ben Zaczek.
"And we always thought that skill was useless, until now," added Daniel Stough.
Such was the beginning of a months-long obsession that began in Oakland and ended on a forested trail in Dixon, Ill., last summer.
The three, joined by Daniela Aizpitarte, won the "Colbert Super PAC Super Fun Pack" treasure hunt, bringing back the prize -- a century-old, silver antique bell in the shape of a turtle -- to Pittsburgh.
But there is another, bigger reward: Stephen Colbert today will speak and conduct a book signing at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. He is scheduled to address students, faculty and staff of University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering, although anyone with a valid Pitt ID also had the chance to score tickets.
Representatives from Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" said the 2 p.m. event is closed to the public; outside news media will not be permitted to attend.
Only 1,000 Super PAC Super Fun Packs were available through the show. For $99, would-be Indiana Joneses received a treasure map, a retro decoder ring, printed instructions, socks, a T-shirt, an Allen wrench and other goofy swag.
"I went in on the $100 because I wanted the T-shirt that came in the box," said Ms. Buchman, 25, of Saylorsburg, Pa.
To demonstrate how easy it was to create a super PAC, registering one was part of the contest requirements. Most of the treasure hunters were affiliated with American colleges or universities.
"When the kit arrived, it was like Christmas morning, or shooting a unicorn out of a cannon into a rainbow; there was something magical about it," Mr. Stough wrote on his blog, www.danielstough.com/projects/the-colbert-saga/.
The four Pitt students recently sat down in the Cathedral of Learning Commons Room to recount their adventure. Mr. Stough, who got to shake hands with Mr. Colbert on the program when they were flown to New York City to accept their prize, brought along the turtle, wrapped in a cloth and transported in a plastic "Batman" lunch box.
For the students, Mr. Colbert's visit is a validation of the idea that sometimes doing crazy things is a reward unto itself.
They also meandered down some wrong paths. (At one point, Mr. Stough said, he had the brilliant idea of looking at a Google Earth view of the Washington, D.C., streets named after states, but that proved to be a waste of about six hours on a Saturday night. He gave up after deciding "I had gone Picasso on this.")
Mr. Stough, 26, who lives at his parents' home, was poring over clues one day when his father walked in.
"What do you say to somebody, to your son, who you wish would get a job? And he's working on a treasure map?"
The game's afoot
It began with Ms. Buchman's spreadsheets. Scanning all of the Super PAC Super Fun Pack info, the documents were placed in a Dropbox account, where everyone could work independently. Mr. Stough and Ms. Buchman did the lion's share of the geek problem-solving; first up was deciphering a map of the United States.
On the map were arrows connecting groups of states. Many states had seemingly random images assigned to them: a cat, a mountain, a ballet dancer.
Turns out that taking the first and last letters of the images (CAT = CT, as in Connecticut) was crucial in later stages of puzzle-solving. The cipher of the arrows turned out to be linked to a colorful clue presented during "The Colbert Report" at the start of the contest.
There were myriad clues scattered throughout the map, in the instructions themselves, even in the raw HTML code of the contest Web page.
"One of the things we found that other groups never found -- as a nerd, I was trying to think, 'Where would I hide a clue?' -- was IN the website! It's in the source code, you could pull it up," Mr. Stough said.
Another word search suggested the answer "was in the stars," and still another emphasized "we, the people." Together, they led to arranging the 50 states by descending population over the stars on a U.S. map, which in turn yielded another clue.
They had to decipher one section printed in Braille, one clue demanded they know the order in which the states had achieved statehood, and yet another involved a pigpen, or tic-tac-toe sort of challenge.
On June 11, they had solved enough of the puzzles to agree on viable GPS coordinates. Concerned because another team, working online, appeared to be getting close as well, Mr. Stough, Ms. Aizpitarte, of Eagle, Idaho, and Mr. Zaczek, 24, of Higganum, Conn., set off in a Mazda3, heading west.
Ms. Buchman didn't want to miss work, but the others figured taking one day off wasn't a crime. They drove for more than 10 hours, reaching a farm at sunrise. It did not look promising. "I thought there would be a funny scarecrow or something," Mr. Stough said.
Several frustrating hours later, they had a nice breakfast, then spread out the clues on a grassy patch nearby.
"We were sifting through them, and it just hit," she said. "When we had a string of numbers, we just assumed that it was in decimal form, and that we'd have to convert it to degrees, minutes and seconds, which is what you have in typical GPS coordinates."
This happened because they overlooked an important clue. The instructions noted, "It may be helpful in finding the treasure to have a B.A., M.F.A. and Ph.D., as well as the records from your last Super PAC meeting. You will not under any circumstances require a person to assist you during a duel."
In short: degrees, minutes, but no seconds.
A quick recalculation sent them on the road again, heading 45 minutes north to a park in Dixon. When they discovered a plaque proclaiming it the hometown of Ronald Reagan, they knew they were at last in the right place.
Google here, Google there
Technology is a wonderful thing. Solving the puzzle involved creating Excel spreadsheets, finding images with Google Goggles, sharing documents on Dropbox. But the GPS on their smartphones couldn't get them to the turtle until they got the coordinates right.
After about five hours in Dixon, they'd tramped through spider-infested brush and explored an old bathhouse. Still, no treasure. Ms. Aizpitarte went to sleep in the car as the guys switched up the coordinates again.
It was getting late, and soon they would have to head back to Pittsburgh.
Walking down a path in the forest, Mr. Stough tripped over a piece of wood.
"I thought it looked a little weird ... and I'm like, 'Ben. What's that?'
"And he goes, 'I don't know. A normal log doesn't have engraving on it.' "
It read, "If you want to win the prize, kingmaker, take heed. Do not break me open for you have the tools you need."
The Allen wrench opened a sliding door on the log where they discovered a "disgusting" array of ants swarming over a plastic box inside. A small wooden turtle, painted gold, and a note inside provided instructions on how to claim the prize.
For another take on the mad scramble to Illinois, here is the link to Ms. Aizpitarte's blog: www.realpersoninreallife.blogspot.com/2012/06/treasure-hunting.html..
One might argue that going on a vast treasure hunt doesn't justify missing work or diverting from an evening of research. That, Mr. Stough said, was exactly the point.
"I think that's why I decided to buy this [Super Fun Pack]," he said. "It's 11 o'clock at night and I'm doing work. For a hundred dollars, you can be in a treasure hunt? Want. It has to happen now."
First Published January 18, 2013 12:00 am