My Hench Life: Part 6

Sunday: Pacifica and Upwards

Back to van. Soon we were on our way up a very steep hill road in Pacifica. We were coming up with insults for that steampunk cyborg supervillain The Victorian, our next foe. And soon enough, we were there. Frontierland Park didn't have cellphone coverage, but it did have picnic tables, where GC had laid out food for us. And it had a nice playground, laid out like a frontier fort. And it had The Victorian. It was time to duel.

Us vs The Victorian; photos by brave GC volunteer Mandy Elizabeth

This time, when we sensed that we were doomed in our insult duel, we had a retort: "Don't blow a gasket." I said it with enough confidence that The Victorian seemed to hesitate: did we really think that might be the answer?

And then he turned his hat around. Because The Victorian was actually two personalities in one: he also had a Lady Gaga-inspired side. This other side called himself One-i'd Willē (the special spelling of which he carefully pointed out) and he tended some little monsters. He gave us a list of sets of monster "ingredients" to find. He told us that the playground was full of monsters, that we should go up and gather them. When we had a set of eight, we should let him know.

The playground was full of little laminated pieces of paper on sticks; each paper had a word and a number on it. The numbers let us know when we'd found all the monsters. Once we had eight words, I tried trotting back to Willē to tell him... but that's not what he meant by a set of eight. He pointed at our paper. Oh, it listed several ingredient sets. It asked for the antennae of six ant-monsters(?), eight golden-hearted monsters. Oh, that's the "eight" we were looking for; we'd misinterpreted before. OK. No doubt golden-hearted meant "words with AU in them"

So we gathered up words and made a great list. We walked down out of the playground and to the picnic table, where there was shade and food. And sure enough, we had eight words containing AU. At about this time, Willē ambled over. I pointed out our list of eight golden-hearted beasts. Willē said that was nice, but he didn't want the beasts, just the ingredients. I said, "Oh, I bet each of these words has an odd number of letters, and we want the middle letters." And a team-mate said, "No, that couldn't be it." Fortunately, I remembered not to poop on an idea until it poops on you especially if GC has just nudged you at that idea, and sure enough, each of our AU-words had an odd number of letters, and the middle-letters together formed a word, a monster name.

"Now give me eight of those sets." Oh, so that's the "eight" he'd wanted the whole time. He wandered away.

We picked out seven more sets. Some were quick to spot, some were not so easy. But we kept at it, picking out the correct "ingredients" to make more monster-names. When we had eight, we got excited.

The Victorian walked towards us and started to address us in Willē's voice. We harrumphed; I touched the brim of my ridiculous fish-hat. The Victorian turned his hat around so that he became Willē again. Willē gave us a sheet of paper with crude drawings of ten monsters... and I guess some way to put the monster names together. Uhm, I forget how we extracted an answer from that. Sorry.

But it made sense, and soon we had a reply for The Victorian, something like I bet that really grinds your gears. And so we sought out the Victorian for another duel, and our rejoinder was right. Time to get back in the van.

This puzzle had seemed a little strange—Why have us search a playground for the words? At the risk of sounding like a puzzle snob, the wandering around in search of word-cards seemed a bit gratuitous. Later on, we'd learn that in Seattle, this activity had been at Gasworks park, a most thematic park for a steampunk cyborg... but not a place with a San Francisco equivalent. You work with what you've got. Our next stop was much more thematic.

Sunday: Growing Things

Photos by Robert Cheng

Our next stop was a little park at Pacifica's sewage treatment plant, the perfect place for an insult duel with Poison Ivy. To reach her, we walked along a path past lots of plants. Amongst the plants were laminated cards with cryptic-crossword-ish clues. We noted their presence, but didn't slow down. And so we came to a bench, where sat Poison Ivy, as played by brave GC Donna Whitlock. I'd thought of a clever thing to say on the ride over. Instead of the traditional start to an insult duel ("Looks like everything's going to be OK."), I said "Looks like everything's going to be Poison Oak-ay... Dang, that sounded a lot funnier in my head than saying it out loud." Sorry, they can't all be winners. But soon we were in the duel, and with our paper-of-retorts, we made it as far as we could, until there was a new insult, one we couldn't answer. Ivy handed us a paper with four sparse crossword grids labeled "Fruits/Vegetables", "Spices", "Trees" ...and one other plant-y thing I can't remember.

Time to gather cryptic clues. They were laid out in a line along the path, which suggested a logical way to divide up the work. Three of us started at the end of the path and three of us started at the beginning, working towards the middle. Some we solved while standing there, some we just jotted down and moved on. It was cold out; most of us wanted to move to van as soon as possible. In the van with our brains and with Puzzle Pal, we'd soon made it through the cryptics. But we only got one plant-y word. Our grid labels made us think we wanted planty words. But the choice of words seemed strange... and soon we had it—each answer word could be changed into a plant-y word if swapped out one letter. No doubt we'd need that for the final answer extraction: either the swapped-out letter or the swapped-in letter from all the words would make our answer.

We put our plant-y words into grids... and then didn't know what to do next. Or rather, we had several ideas, but none of them worked. Look at where the swapped-in letters appeared in the grids, read them in that order... no. Look at where the swappedp-out letters would have appeared in the grids, take them in that order... no. Maybe it's the grid-intersection letters, places where words crossed... no. Maybe it's those and the swapped in letters... I mean swapped out letters... no, no, no no. Maybe we were ordering wrong, but each grid only had six swapped-in letters; maybe we could anagram those to form words. That gave us a couple of words and a couple of pieces of nonsense. That wasn't it. Minutes ticked by. The van settled into grumpiness. We were double-checking things; had we made a mistake? A timed hint told us: if only there was some way you could order the letters. Well yeah. Someone said: well, there's the order that the cryptic clues appeared along that path. But... then why the grids? Why have us fill in the grids? And thus we pooped on an idea before it pooped on us; and we didn't have a better idea to work with.

So we asked for a hint, and got one: Yeah, it was the order of the cryptic clues along the path, with each category of plants handled separately. And each grid gave one-fourth of our answer message; our anagramming trick hadn't worked because we'd expected the "breaks" to be word breaks, not fourth-message breaks. Once again, I'd wrongly assumed each part of the puzzle would be independent; I hadn't thought that the puzzle designer would divide their message up into four equal-length parts.

Since I was raised on the icy tundra of San Francisco's tundra district, I was ready to brave the cold to write down the order that the cryptic clues were planted along the path. But the more puzzly folks said not to bother; once they knew what they were anagramming for, they'd crack it soon. They did. Soon we had our last super-retort. A couple of us who could handle the cold hopped out to confront Poison Ivy again. Another duel down.

And so it went. Time to get back in the van. Time to face the baddest supervillain of them all.

Sunday: Denouement

Our next destination was on top of San Bruno Mountain. I'd been at the head of that road before, but only on foot. Reaching that moutaintop was not a walk in the park. First, you enter San Bruno State Park. Then you find the underpass to bring you to the other side of the main road. Then you drive through the gate marked "Authorized Vehicles Only". And then on an on up a curving road. One of us had been up this road before on another puzzlehunt. (It was a hunt I'd been on (a Shinteki?), but a clue I'd been skipped over.) He remembered driving up this curvy road in the fog. It was so foggy, they couldn't see, they'd had to drive super-slow. They'd spent the better part of an hour just getting up and down the mountain. They'd lost so much time on that puzzle.

But that was then. Today was clear. And from the top of San Bruno Mountain, you look down on hills, cities, the bay. It's dramatic. It's a fine place to confront a boss-monster supervillain puzzle fiend. A fine place for a showdown.

Along with the view, the top of San Bruno Mountain has radio towers and a parking lot. There were some vans in the parking lot, but not many. Probably other teams weren't spending much time here. Did that mean that we were heading into an easy puzzle (yes) or that we'd soon have to drive somewhere else (no)? It was a parking lot, so we parked, clambered out. Gathered our gear. This was a final showdown, so we gathered a lot of gear. Not just the sheet of insult-retorts, but backpacks and all of the puzzles we'd solved in the past two days in case we needed some bit of our history.

Brave GC volunteers Linda and Casey Holman were in the parking lot, making sure that we knew where to go. Casey was about kindergarten age, but seemed more in command of the situation than we were. Brave GC volunteers, always poised.

The Mentalist vs Us; photo by Linda Holman

Our destination was down a path to a flat clearing on the mountainside. There, the Mentalist awaited us. The cold wind from Poison Ivy's garden had followed us; it was stronger and colder here. The Mentalist looked kind of cold in her cloak. But now was not the time for mercy. Now was the time for insults and retorts. (Modulo a short wait to let another band of puzzle freaks confront her.)

The Mentalist's insults were oddly worded. We had a tough time figuring out which retorts to use back. We correctly figured out that we had to re-use the special supervillain retorts here, but her insults were strange. We got a retort wrong—not because we were supposed to earn its answer through puzzle-solving, but just because we couldn't figure out what her insult meant. But instead of making us start over, the Mentalist had us continue battling: "That was wrong. And later on, you'll figure out why that was wrong." Finally, we came to a last insult, an insult we couldn't figure out an answer for—but we weren't supposed to know its answer, we'd have to earn it by solving a puzzle. She handed us our puzzle: a piece of paper bearing the text of her insults.

We headed back up the mountainside to the parking lot. My legs are long, but Casey ran fast enough to get ahead of me. How tired was I? Pretty tired.

Back in the van, out of the wind, we looked over our puzzle. The insults really were strangely worded. If you smushed the words of this insult together, some womens' first names were formed. And that insult had some strange words that sounded a little like DNA bases. Each insult had some special words hiding in it. What to do with them? We had some wacky ideas, but while most of us wasted time with those, fortunately one of us calmed down and tried some straightforward approaches. Like taking the first letters of those "special" words to see that they spelled out a message, an insult retort: THATS WHAT SHE SAID.

As we piled out of the van, I was replaying a memory. Ian Tullis was talking about some early planning stage for one of his puzzlehunts. He'd been kicking around encoding ideas with someone—Darcy?—and they needed a "filler" message to encode. Once they knew how the hunt would hang together, they'd make the puzzle decode to something like "ANSWER IS EGGPLANT" or "PULGAS H2O TEMPLE". But since they hadn't figured out the overall structure of the hunt, they just needed a filler message. And they'd used THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID over and over again.

The Mentalist was no longer on the mountainside; she'd come up to the parking lot. She might have come up because she was plotting to destroy us in our vehicle, but I think she was just taking shelter from that wind. We went through the insult duel again; this time we did not falter. And that was that. We defeated the Mentalist and then thanked her. We'd had a great time. We'd had a wonderful time. Was it over? It was over.

Back in the van. At the Steelhead Brewerey in Burlingame, we and other teams could check in, eat something, relax a bit before calling it a weekend. We headed into the Brewery. There weren't many teams here. Though several teams had finished already, there had been quite a spread; some teams had finished hours ago, come here, left. Some teams were still here, though. It was time to sit down at a table for food. And I started to sit, but staggered instead. If I sat down at that table, I was falling asleep for sure. Instead, I asked Joe to let me get my stuff out of the van. Pretty soon, I was on a train back to San Francisco and bed.


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