Student Stories

A Long, Strange Scav Trip

Oft-overlooked in the hoopla of the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt is Road Trip, an off-campus, three day journey for participants to scour the continent for Scav items. Read on for a glimpse of how the wheels turn for the Scav Hunt tradition whose odometer has been running for over 28 years. Additionally, learn more about the history of Scav Hunt here.

“123.______ At the King Kong at Kong’s Café, Dread Pirate Popeye ground pounds the ground with his haunted hand. [3 points]”

If you Google “Kong’s Café,” you’ll find listings for a “Hong Kong Cafe” in both Houston, TX and Katy, TX, a “Kam Kong Café” in Chicago, and a “King Kong Restaurant” that boasts several locations in Nebraska. Perhaps that means the correct keyword is actually “Kong’s Kafe,” which leads to information about a store located just outside Foyil, OK.

Texas, Chicago, Nebraska, or Oklahoma? It’s an important decision to make at 1:00 am, considering the start of the road trip is 8:00 am the next day.

It turns out that the “Kong’s Kafe” in Oklahoma features a full size King Kong gorilla statue perched out on the corner of its plaza—which seems auspicious. An image search and glance into Google Street View corroborate your hunch.

Oklahoma it is.

* * *

The University of Chicago hosts an annual campus-wide Scavenger Hunt in the spring, and every year since 1988 there has been a road trip component to the Hunt. Among the list of approximately 300 items are a number of tasks which can only be completed by driving off-campus, sometimes within the state border of Illinois, and other times very, very far (the Road Trip in 2014 saw participants travelling to Niagara Falls).   

Typically, a team participating in Scav Hunt organizes a group of four to travel on Road Trip. My team, which represented Burton-Judson Scav, included me (a second-year at the time) and three fourth-years, two of whom were Road Trip veterans. The List mandates that all team members assume a character and dress up in costume as they complete items—with photographic documentation. Armed with our smartphones and cameras, our team set off on the morning following List Release, stopping only for food, gas, lodging, and Scav items.

Our first day of Road Trip took us through southern Illinois and Missouri into Searcy, Arkansas, where we lodged for the night. We made stops along the way at a 30-foot tall Paul Bunyan sculpture, a vintage car museum, the World’s Largest Cross, “the home of Popeye,” and a Dungeons & Dragons-themed park.     

We learned a couple things on the first leg of the trip. The World’s Largest Cross in Effingham, Illinois is 198 feet tall and not any taller, because the Federal Aviation Administration requires any structure exceeding 200 feet in height above ground level to be lighted at the top. Additionally, Chester, Illinois is the birthplace of Elzie Crisler Segar, the creator of Popeye. The town started the “Popeye Character Trail” in his honor, erecting granite statues of Popeye characters in various areas throughout Chester.

As we drove towards Arkansas, our excitement about the trip built along a progression of discrete events: driving in southern Illinois along the eastern border of the Mississippi River, greeting bovines strewn about midwestern fields of grass with a raucous, “Hey cow!” (per the List’s demands); and noticing a quaint similarity between the “St. Louis Bread Company” stores and the “Panera Bread” chain from home (they’re under the same ownership).

We passed the time singing along to musical throwbacks and reading the List aloud. As the daylight faded we turned to word games and podcasts to stay awake, and also noticed inordinate amounts of roadkill littered about the road—none of which we picked up (although I found out afterwards that it’s apparently legal for anyone with an Illinois furbearer license to salvage pelts and food from roadkill).

The characters making up our team were Immoral Roberts, The Precious Moment (yours truly), the Dread Pirate Popeye, and the Bauxite Troll; there was also a Merman doll, which did not require a human actor. Collectively, we were termed the “Clinton Administration,” hence the trip to Arkansas. At appointed stops, team members posed in front of the camera and enacted various activities according to our respective personas.

Undertakings in the name of item completion ranged from posing with spinach in front of each of the Chester Popeye statues, ad-libbing a song about the Blues Brothers’ time in Moline and singing it to the tune of “Jolene,” and starting a Twitter war with Piasa Bird, an inanimate mural of a Native American dragon.

Sometimes we even took the liberty of strolling around town in our conspicuous outfits. Some of the best moments during the trip were when multiple Scav teams would congregate in the same area with all of their members fully decked out in costume. For example, on Saturday morning, four Scav teams congregated at Imo’s Pizza, located in Bethalto, IL—which meant there were four sets of televangelists, angels, pirates, and box trolls concurrently ordering pizza for breakfast. The cashier seemed unfazed by the scene.

On that note, it was also surprising how well teams stayed in sync with each other (chalk it up to obeisance to speed limits). Our team routinely ran into the teams from GASH (Grad/Alum Scav Hunt), Breckinridge, and BroStomp (representing houses scattered throughout Broadview, Stony Island, New Graduate, and I-House). No feathers were ruffled, and only once did members from our team engage in fisticuffs—and that was for the completion of an item. More often than not we shared advice and meals with the other teams along the way.

By the end of the three days we’d crossed three different states and completed all 47 Road Trip items on the List. We met a man whose 11-year hobby of collecting roadside refuse resulted in several garages’ worth of memorabilia (such as a Mobil Special Gas pump from 1904 and hundreds of neon clocks); we discovered places like Tiny Town, a diorama started 70 years ago and composed entirely of salvaged and recycled materials (who knew you could make grass out of sawdust?).

We were undoubtedly impressed by the people we saw, but conversely, we found ourselves making impressions on them as well. Ariston Café co-owner Nick Adam, who’d been running his historic Route 66 restaurant for 50 years, admitted that he’d “never seen anything quite like us,” and the church folks in Benton, AR were convinced that the Scav groups were all part of a local high school senior prank.

Our team returned to campus late Saturday evening, greeted by the cordial knocking of spring shower raindrops. We crossed over the puddles in the B-J courtyard that routinely form when it rains, and entered the Burton building to announce our return.  

It looked as if a tornado had hit the place. The floor was littered with paper, wood chips, various crumbs, paint, metal scraps, you-name-the-rest. People were blitzing up and down the stairs to complete as many items as possible before the 10:00 am deadline for Judgment. Although Road Trip had ended, Scav was far from over.

Following our report, as I exited the building, I caught a waft of the all too familiar scent of hot glue. Home.

As for the next item on the itinerary?