Tomquest Part 2: The Surprise

September 10, 2012

My boyfriend Tom’s birthday was last week; mine was the week before. I’d been stuck trying to figure out what to do for his birthday for months. I had lots of ideas, but none of them were perfect. When Tom surprised me with a trip to San Francisco, that’s when I knew it was time to pull out the big guns. It was time for Tomquest.

Tomquest is a scavenger hunt that I built specifically for Tom. I hid clues around Cambridge and Somerville in some of Tom’s favorite places, and wrote a Django web app to tie in with the clues. (I wrote a separate post about the Django app if you’re interested.) Each clue led him to the next one. The final clue would lead Tom to the Cambridge Center roof garden on top of the Kendall Marriott’s parking garage, where I would be waiting for him in a giant box full of balloons.

While the hunt was going on, our friends would assemble at Firebrand Saints, a block from the roof garden. I’d rigged up the Django app to send out notification emails every time Tom reached a new clue, so the partygoers had a good idea of when to start arriving. Once I surprised Tom at the roof garden, I’d blindfold him and bring him to Firebrand Saints for the surprise party.

Pulling it all off secretly was a huge challenge, but with the help of our wonderful friends, some understanding staff, a lot of tape, and six rolls of wrapping paper, the hunt was a roaring success. Read on for photos and details…

The Clues

I started hiding clues around noon the day of the hunt. It was hot and I had a lot of ground to cover, but it was a lot of fun finding secret spots at each location to hide the clues. The drop zones were, in order:

  1. Inside a balloon in the shed behind Tom’s house. There was a safety pin tied to the other end of the balloon string. I also stuck a glowing LED in the balloon just for funsies.
  2. Behind a window bar at the Prospect Hill monument
  3. Underneath a table at Olecito
  4. A poster on the bulletin board at Bukowski
  5. With the baristas at 1369
  6. At the counter at Flour (Pete left this one)
  7. An ad in the Weekly Dig
  8. With the baristas at Voltage Coffee (George left this one)
  9. Me jumping out of the balloon box at the roof garden

The hardest one to do, surprisingly enough, was the Olecito clue. Olecito has a few tables outside and I planned to hide a clue underneath one of them, primarily since I wasn’t sure the staff would be too receptive to me pre-ordering him a burrito and then tasking them with giving him the clue. But that probably would have been easier than trying to dead-drop it under a table in broad daylight. Did you see that episode of Breaking Bad where Mike hides the note under the trash can? It was exactly like that. It felt sketchy and I’m sure it looked sketchy too, but luckily nobody got to it before Tom did.

Lucy at Voltage Coffee was psyched about the hunt. Tom is a familiar face at Voltage, so she got the baristas to give him a special greeting (and a birthday sticky bun!). The 1369 baristas had a shift change between the time I left the clue and the time Tom showed up, but luckily I managed to give them a call before he showed up. Tom found the Bukowski clue quite amusing:

The Dig

Tom and I love reading the Weekly Dig, especially when we’re out getting brunch on the weekend. I figured running a clue in the Dig would be pretty cool, so I contacted them about ad space a few weeks before the hunt. To my delight, they loved the idea and wanted to run with it. Scott designed a funny retro-computer ad around the keyword and QR code. They sent me the proof while we were in San Francisco – it was pretty tough to check it out without Tom noticing!

Here’s the Dig ad in all its glory:

Tomquest clue in the Weekly Dig

Tom was quite pleased:

Huge thanks to Jeff Lawrence and Scott Murry of the Dig for making this happen!

Rolling with the Punches

Despite all the work I put into it, the giant gift box full of balloons proved to be a less than stellar idea. I made the box collapsible, and even picked out a polka-dotted wrapping paper so I could cut eye holes. Pete has a car, so I enlisted his help in transporting the box across town. Unfortunately, Pete’s car turned out to be about six inches too narrow to fit the box. Not to be deterred, we strapped it to the roof and drove over to Kendall, each of us with an arm out the window holding it down. It’s a wonder the cops didn’t notice us.

Once we finally made it over, we loaded the box materials into the elevator, punched the “R” button, and stepped out.

Oh no. Oh god no.

There was a wedding happening. At the roof garden. The secret roof garden that nobody is supposed to know about.

First thing I did was freak out. I considered aborting the end clue altogether (thank goodness the Django admin was accessible from my phone). We talked through several alternative solutions (MIT classroom? Other parks nearby? Get the Marriott to rent me a room for 20 minutes?) before finally deciding to just set the box up on the courtyard below the garage. Not as picturesque, not as dramatic, but it worked. Alorah ran to Central Florist to pick up some balloons, Pete brought clue #6 to Flour, and I set up the box.

Soon after Tom started the hunt, the next problem surfaced. I foolishly hadn’t called Firebrand Saints ahead of time – being in an area where more people work than live, it usually isn’t too busy on weekends. However, when party guests started to show up, they found out that there was a 50-person event happening there that evening. Firebrand Saints is not a large bar! I sprinted over to investigate, ready to move everyone over to Meadhall up the street. Luckily, the 50-person event was happening outside. The Firebrand Saints staff were extremely helpful, telling us they could “more than accommodate” the party.

Tom hit a few snags during the hunt as well. His QR reader was, as he put it, “lame.” His phone’s battery died and had to be charged. When he got to Flour, it was closed. I told him to get a Dig out of the box near the Middle East, but he thought I meant I’d hidden a specific copy of the Dig INSIDE the Middle East and subsequently drove their hostess bananas trying to find it. But at last he made it to Voltage.

The Surprise

As soon as we got the notification that Tom was at Voltage, I hid in the box with the balloons. Pete hid off to the side to capture some photos. (All following photos of us are thanks to Pete’s mad camera skills)

This was my view from inside the box.

Box o' balloons

A wild Tom approaches. Ari uses Surprise!


Tom wasn’t thrilled about the blindfold, especially since we were on a busy block, but he took it all in stride. We attracted some curious stares.

En route to Firebrand Saints

At Firebrand Saints, everyone was sitting by the window and saw us approaching. They didn’t make a sound till I took off Tom’s blindfold, then they all yelled “SURPRISE” in perfect unison!

The party awaits

Alex, who has access to a laser cutter, made some Tomstache pins for everyone. These were a big hit.

Tomstache pins

Cocktails were bought, dinner was ordered, and Tom regaled everyone with tales of the quest. Firebrand Saints turned out to be a great choice of venue. There were about 25 of us there, and the staff were still very friendly and attentive. We even got to meet the owner, Gary!

Ultimately, Tomquest wasn’t perfect, but it was close. Despite the few setbacks, everything more or less went off as planned, and everyone had a great time. I couldn’t have done it without the help I got from George, Alorah, Pete, Alex, and the rest of the gang. Now, the only problem is figuring out to do for Tom’s next birthday!