If you’ve heard one example of the University of Chicago’s anything-goes atmosphere or offbeat student body, it was probably our world famous (and world’s largest) Scavenger Hunt, an annual tradition since 1987. Scav Hunt started in the ‘80s as a couple days fun as a part of the annual Summer Breeze carnival, but it’s become a road-trip, a cooking competition, an athletic showcase, a costume contest, an occasional excuse to show to up to class in wacky costumes, and the most unifying, uplifting, social event of the spring quarter that infuses the campus with a can-do attitude and the spirit of camaraderie.
Forehead finger painting. It's like finger painting, but with your forehead.
I’ve participated in the Scavenger Hunt for two years, one as a member of the Snell-Hitchcock team, and my second year as a Judge-- one of the people that, in secret, crafts the list of Scav items throughout the year, and then helps to run events and assign points to items during the Hunt itself. “But Walker, what it’s like to be a judge of the scavenger hunt?” you might ask, starry eyed. “I want to hear about the meetings, the proposals.” Your voice falls to a breathy whisper, “the voting procedure.” Haha, slow down there, yung’un! I love parliamentary bylaws just as much as the next person, but in this post I’m going to try to focus on the objectively fun parts of the scavenger hunt, where it starts, how it comes together, and all the cool stuff people can make with the right motivation, i.e. winning a scavenger hunt.
The Scav hunt fiscal year starts in October, when new Judges are selected and we begin to think up new items and mayhem amongst ourselves. Then in January, we compile all the possible item ideas that we’ve had floating around our minds and notebooks into a giant compilation, which is slowly winnowed down over the next four months to become “The List”, the eventual behemoth of about 250-ish items that students will actually work on come May. Every item is discussed and voted on, sometimes at excruciating length, but it’s all to ensure we’re putting forth the best scavenger hunt we possibly can. We also plan and do a test-run of a fresh new road trip and assign points to items before the List is released.
This year, some of my favorite items involved making a life-sized pop-up book, a door that opened on its own to a specific knocking pattern, and the inexplicable glory that was the Pizza Mime, an item that read in it’s entirety “Taste the pizza mime. His face is a pizza. His hands are slices of pizza. Motioning silently. Serving itself. Taste the pizza mime.” Most recreations of The Pizza Mime involved a guy with pizza all over his face, and it was good.
Snell-Hitchcock's Pop-up pirate ship.
In May, the Hunt begins on the Wednesday before Mother’s day, as pumped-up teams gather in Ida Noyes hall to get the list. Naturally, we make them jump through a few hoops first, though never literally (not yet anyways). This year teams were herded into an auditorium to watch a pretend-presentation from pretend-sponsor “GerbilTees.biz” with a couple judges, while the rest of us scattered around the campus to be tracked down and tagged once people wised up to our trick. It’s a long night for teams, as they ride the adrenaline of list release back to their headquarters to read the list and start dividing up tasks and goals. Us judges go back to our Head Judge’s apartment to play Mega Man X, which we like to think is equally exciting.
Over the next four days we sent cars of voyagers off to distant lands (this year the road trip went to Canada for the first time in 10 years), threw a party to rival any on campus over the course of the year (we organized teams to construct Community’s Pillowtown and Blanketsburg) referee a succession of sports, each wackier than the last (e.g. Nine-square, the Grape Gobble, real-life Pokémon Snap), eat themed meals from the best student chefs on campus, and finally return to Ida Noyes hall, where it all started four days ago, to see the rest of the items we haven’t had a chance to judge yet, including the showcase items that become some of Scav’s greatest legends.
The Pillowtown faction of our Friday night fort-war.
Showcase items range from the byzantine (a piano that can mix different drinks depending on the tune played) to the dead simple (a Monowheel, which is just one giant wheel that you roll around in like an unhinged hamster). This is where heroes are born and legends are made, it’s also the purest example of the untamed ingenuity and wild determination that makes Scav Hunt what it is.
Then we tally up the points and decide who wins, but at that point it barely matters. For illustration: far less people show up to the results announcement than the list release, because the fun isn’t actually in winning, as good as it can feel to win, it’s in bonding with your team and pushing yourself to the edge to get as much done as 50-odd people hanging out in a dorm lounge can in four days. Then you clean up all the scrap wood and wait the 361 days until the next list release, and the judges start writing down ideas to make the next Scavenger Hunt the greatest ever.