I came to the University of Chicago for three reasons: 1. it is in a city, 2. it offers a Medieval Studies major, and 3. it holds a gigantic, incredible scavenger hunt every May (and, okay, I wasn’t accepted anywhere else. Details). The list is over 300 items long and includes items that range from the hard-to-find (“A pen that has signed a bill into law [18 points]“) to the creative (“A pitch pipet [8 points]“) to the performative (“Up at the Law School they work all day. Out in the sun they slave away. Couldn’t they use the distraction of mermaids in their fountain? [8 points]“) to the genuine-miracle-of-engineering (“Play me a drink, Sam, for old times’ sake. . . on your piano that dispenses a beverage component with every keystroke. Changing the melody should change the mixology. Instruments and their compositions will be judged both on the quality of the cocktails and the musicality of their recipes. [250 points, 25 extra points if your keyboard can play a different melody to create a different drink]“).
There are items obtainable only by road trip, a series of Olympic-like competitions, and a giant party. There are teams with t-shirts, captains, lieutenants, and names like Rasputin and the All-Tsars (represent!) or Political Action Committee for More America Now. There are mandatory costumes, literal hundreds of things to make, do, and find, and only four days to get them done. Weird, but also kind of awesome.
Usually people have one of two reactions upon hearing about Scav (as it is affectionately known for short): they question why anyone would bother doing something like this, or they read the list, laugh to themselves, and go on with their day. But I don’t do either. For Scav, I will give up four days of my life to paint, nail, draw, film, sew, and staple-gun. I will forgo sleep, burn myself on strings of hot glue, survive for days on handfuls of refined carbohydrates, and perform the Hamster Dance in the style of Renaissance Polyphony. I will crash high-school proms and drive to South Dakota dressed like Marge Gunderson.
It seems crazy, or like a waste of time, or (probably) a little of both, to spend all this time and energy and money on something that’s ultimately meaningless and inherently ephemeral. But I do it, loyally, zealously, eagerly, with no shame or regrets. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but then, people do a lot of ridiculous things in college. People join fraternities, for Christ’s sake.
I think my answer to the inevitable question of “why do it?” makes more sense framed as a response to its converse: why not just observe? The explanation cuts right to the core of my belief in the primacy of activity. Projects. Because for me, it’s not enough just to read this list and envision things theoretically. I need to craft. I need to execute. I need to scav (yes, also a verb). I throw myself into it in a literal body-and-soul way because planning and shaping and presenting these strange little objects affirms in a concrete way all the parts of my absurd and whimsical view of the universe. Scav and its strange, quirky, occasionally obscene sense of the world matches and feeds the exact flavor of my creative nature so well that making these things becomes almost transcendent. I want to live on a planet that not only allows me to attend an Under-the-Sea Prom dressed as a Clownfish, but encourages it.
I know what you’re thinking, and yes, sleep deprivation plays a large role. How else could I explain my team-captain-cum-roommate weeping over the loss of her Cap’n Crunch mustache or the five minutes of hysterical laughing that ensued after snapping this webcam shot at 5:30 Sunday morning? But–and this is the part that’s the most important–it’s about more than the summer-camp atmosphere and the things that we make. Yes. The event that involves squishing together a “Bleu Cheese Man Group” and stringing up googly eyes on campus buildings possesses real value because, in the end, it’s about people.
Every minute passed in Scav Hunt is a minute spent in the company of people, people who are talented and imaginative and funny in ways you never would have otherwise realized, people capable of wonderful and beautiful things that make you laugh and cry and that move something in you that you didn’t know was there. The sense of community and friendship, of appreciation and awe for your fellow man, is something I am hard-pressed, even incapable, of finding elsewhere. It’s team effort, it’s unbridled optimism, it’s collective effervescence par excellence. It’s awesome.
Somewhere between the the first-year-student who volunteers to get her appendix taken out and the mom who hastily FedEx-es boxes of sequential Goosebumps novels to HQ and the published eschatologist happy to appear at judgment there emerges an incredible, generous, devoted section of humanity. These are people there to brew you tea and make sure you sleep after assembling a pushpin mosaic for six hours and hold you while you shake in exhaustion and emotional overflow at the closing ceremonies.
The projects themselves carry no real consequence or meaning–no one will hold on to the homebrew vending machine or attempt a second stroll across the balsa-wood bridge. Every list item, like all things in life, will be deconstructed, thrown out, and forgotten, no matter how beautiful or amazing it was momentarily. It’s the people who make them who make them matter. It’s the people who make them that I’m both privileged and humbled to know, people who take our team motto to heart in every last action: “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”
So, yeah, this is a thing that I do. The world’s a fucked up place a lot of the time, and you’ve got to wrangle meaning out of it however you can. Some people run ultramarathons, some people find Jesus, some people snort drugs. I scav.