ST. PAUL, Minn. — It's long past midnight, three degrees below zero, and two guys in camouflage parkas are scrambling through a tangle of frozen brambles on a hill in a pitch-black park. Down by the river, young lovers so bundled only their eyes show rake dead leaves in a stinging wind.
Two men sift through the sand of a gloomy playground. Two others pace off a soccer field. Across the park, yellow circles bob and waver -- flashlights picking out clods of mud and crumpled candy wrappers. It's silent, except for the scrape of hoes.
The great treasure hunt is on.
Thousands of men, women and children, many with headlamps strapped around wool hats, drive themselves into a frostbitten frenzy each January in search of a blue plastic medallion. The medallion is worth $10,000, plus a trip for two to Hawaii. That's incentive to get out and dig. But the prize money doesn't begin to explain the medallion mania that grips this city.
A rite of winter since 1952, the treasure hunt has become a civic institution in the Twin Cities. Parents give 3-year-olds spoons to poke through snowdrifts. Whole families -- sometimes three generations -- abandon work and school to scour parks. Some take a week's vacation so they'll have more time to search.
"I break from reality completely," said Tami Cormier, 36, a mother of three. "I don't cook. I don't do laundry. I don't sleep. My kids survive on frozen pizza and fish sticks."
The most obsessive, wrapped in so many layers they can barely bend their knees, search 12, 16, 20 hours a day, their teeth unbrushed, their hair matted. They give themselves nicknames like "Excavator Stud" and form teams like the "Maidallions" -- three women who own a housecleaning service.
They pore over worn copies of the Treasure Hunter's Guide, a book that maps every tree, every dumpster, every memorial bench in every park in St. Paul. (Steve Worthman, an avid hunter who wrote the guide, spent five years on it. "I'm not normally the kind of guy who engages in obsessive behavior. Except for this," he said, shortly after putting out his second edition in 1999. )
The hunt is sponsored by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the newspaper prints a cryptic clue to the treasure's location daily until the medallion is found -- which can take anywhere from five to 12 days.
As they close in on the medallion, hunters line up by the hundreds outside the Pioneer Press lobby, standing for hours in brutal cold to grab the first edition when it comes off the press at 11 p.m. rather than wait for the clue to appear online at midnight. On walkie-talkies or cell phones, they bark the clue to buddies positioned in the field, then race to join them. They know it's nutty. They cannot stop.
"The medallion is so elusive, it's like a mythical object. It would be just a transcendental experience to find it, to get to hold it," said Randy Skjerly, a 50-year-old proofreader who has been hunting for a decade without luck.
"I'm exhausted. I'm so sore, I can barely move. I hate this. But I'm hooked," Dale Coski said earlier this week, after a long night of searching.
Tiny icicles glinted on his eyelashes. Burrs clung to his blue ski mask. Coski's nose was scratched from branches that had lashed his face as he hunted in the dark. It was noon now, on a cheerless gray day, and he was scratching through the grassy median in a parking lot. He had told his boss at the post office that he had a bug. "I got medallion fever," said Coski, 38.
The medallion is hidden on public property in St. Paul or in the surrounding county by a top-secret team at the Pioneer Press -- in recent years, two reporters, who also write the rhyming clues, laced with puns and anagrams and local history.
Even publisher Harold Higgins claims not to know who hides the treasure, much less where it is. He does know that the paper's circulation of 190,000 jumps by a few thousand during the hunt. And that the secrecy makes the game of deciphering clues "a whole lot more fun."
"My typical answer, when people ask, is that there are leprechauns involved," he said.
For their part, the clue writers are not about to spill the beans. Don Boxmeyer, a retired Pioneer Press columnist, hid the treasure under cover of night for seven years in the 1990s -- and watched with secret pleasure as some of his best friends puzzled for hours over his clues, attaching enormous significance to words he had thrown in just to make a rhyme.
If they were getting too close, he revised the next clue to throw them off course. If they were hopelessly confused, he took pity, loading the next day's verse with hints.
Unraveling the clues is only the first challenge. Over the years, the medallion has been hidden in a sock, in a fast-food burger box and in a discarded (but mercifully, clean) diaper. It's been taped to a broken record and an Oreo cookie, even stuck into the crevice of a boulder. One year it was wrapped in green-and-brown Play-Doh, making it look like dog droppings.