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Hunting for answers: A personal essay

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2022

Usually, the bathroom is predictable: I go in, do what I need to do, wash my hands and leave. Usually, it’s nothing spectacular, and usually, I don’t write about it and put it on the internet for anyone to read. Sometimes, though, a routine visit to the bathroom can shape a semester, as I learned an unassuming February morning.

There was a sticker on the wall. It stared innocuously at me from above the toilet with the message: “I’m Back. Please Find Me” and a library call number. This was the first clue.

Oh, boy! I was thrilled. I have, since birth, been a mystery fanatic. A purveyor of all things detective-related: “The Batman,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” everything James Bond, escape rooms. Immediately, I wondered: Who put this here? Why did they make this? How far does this go? I pulled out my phone, snapped a picture and then forgot about the clue entirely as I tossed my paper towel in the comopst. I had too much going on to worry about it.

This was the first clue.

A few further questions: When does college get easier? When does life get easier? I want to go back 12 months and try it again. Sometimes, I can ignore my new reality, but I’m going to have to face it when I go back home this weekend. Two houses at home, splitting time back and forth. Will anyone from college text me while I’m away?

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when I was checking out a book for class, that I actually began to answer these questions. Standing in Main Stacks, I remembered the picture I had taken of what felt like months earlier. I pulled it up and was lucky enough to find I was in the right library. As promised, when I found the book, there was another sticker: the second clue. This one was either in a language I didn’t recognize or a code.

A self-proclaimed luddite, I opened my journal, uncapped my fountain pen, turned to the next empty page and got to work. I reasoned my way through it without any experience working with ciphers. After some trial and error and only paying partial attention in discussion that afternoon, I had a location for the next clue.

This one was in a general assignment classroom. I was interrupting a class every time I poked my head through the door, and a hundred eyes would turn and scrutinize me. After several attempts, the clue hunt slowed down. My initial interest was overcome by a never-ending pile of obligations, and the hunt took a hiatus.

I’m crying for the first time in months. Not because I’m sad for the first time in months, but because I’m feeling something for the first time in months. Maybe I’ll be able to do laundry tonight. Stress is just the frosting on the cake. How can I be around people all the time and still feel lonely? My relationships are superficial. I’ve never been so uncertain. Did I make a mistake when I changed my major? Do I have what it takes? People always say engineers live comfortably. Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe losing my journal is a sign.

I can’t remember what reignited my curiosity, but my phone remembers that on pi day, I took a picture of the third clue. To this clue: Respectfully, may you suffer the same as I did.

It was a monster. Not in the good way that gym bros want to be “monsters,” but in the way Chemistry 1A feels to an English major. Even after deciphering the clue, the location made no sense. It was a riddle of the highest degree. I approached some of the smartest people I know for help — to any of you who may be reading this now, thank you — but became discouraged as I made no progress. I stopped giving the hunt my time and attention as before, but this time for a different reason.

Nine-hour shifts — 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. Usually, it’s fine. I can deal with the threats, the customers who intentionally tip a penny and laugh. But I want to go home this weekend. I want to see my mom and my cat. I have to give up spending time with friends, so I can work or study and get ahead before work. I think my co-workers are calling me a slur. I don’t speak Spanish, so I can’t be certain, but I know what the slur is now, so I can listen for it.

Eventually, I did find the fourth clue — in a drawer I had to ask a librarian for help locating, in an obscure little library I didn’t know existed, in a building I had to use Google Maps to locate. It was the Riddler of Russian nesting dolls.

I’m proud of the way I solved this one. I didn’t need to fully decipher it — I recognized the diagram outlined on the clue while walking to Dwinele Hall with a friend. We found the fifth clue later that day in a stunning location on campus. This ended up being the end. It gave me an email address and stated simply: “What’s the code?” 

It was the Riddler of Russian nesting dolls.

Here’s the caveat: I don’t know. So, if you were hoping for a Doyle-esque ending to the clue hunt summing up all of its mysteries, I’m unable to give it to you. I don’t know why it was created or whoever even created it; I can’t even be sure that I completed it. But I don’t really care. There was much more going on in my life than this clue hunt.

Will I ever stop missing my friends? I had to take their pictures off of my wall because it’s too much to look at good times when right now is so difficult. I remember telling them goodbye, the first real goodbye I’ve ever had to give. I wanted to grow into new people, I wanted to find new friends. I haven’t. When does that happen? Will I ever be able to call my mom without crying when I hang up? It’s so hard. I didn’t think college would be so hard in so many different ways.

I have so much going on all at once. I’ve spent my entire life juggling, but at college, the balls have been replaced with flaming swords. The stakes have gotten higher. While my life felt like it was about to crumble, while my dorm room got messy and dirty dishes piled up, this clue hunt gave me some stability. It was an escape from exams and loneliness, one juggling ball among all of the swords.

The clue hunt framed a semester where I barely scraped by. My goals sit in January, abandoned with a few deserted dreams. I’m doggy paddling to the day I can hug my mom. I do everything I can to appear like I have it together, but sometimes — especially recently — I’m barely able to wake up and face the outsdie.

It’s important to realize that when I feel like I’ve failed, I’ve grown. I always figure out where the next clue is, even though at times I want nothing more than to click the “drop out” button on CalCentral. I’m learning to admit that sometimes I cry. I don’t need to keep my vulnerabilities hidden like they’re clues for my friends to find.

To finish, I offer two first clues: one to a hunt I (nearly) completed and the other to a hunt I have created. The clue hunt didn’t make anything better. All it did was give me a few minutes to spend with my friends, and my experience might not directly help anyone else. But hopefully, it can make somebody feel less alone and give somebody a way to escape for a few minutes. So, to this clue hunt and to my freshman year of college:



A previous first clue


Page 105



I’m Back.

Please Find me.


A new first clue

Within these paragraphs there are

A few words that seem bizarre;

They don’t fit in, and here’s your clue:

Order them in one, three, two.

Contact Riley Nichols at [email protected].

SEPTEMBER 10, 2022

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