STONEHAM — The first time I met Ryan Collins, I informed him that my brain hurt and I hated him. These two complaints gave him entirely too much glee.
Collins is extraordinarily good at turning brains into Jell-O, and over the past year it has become an obsession. He’s the creator of something he calls Happy Hunting, which started as a simple diversion during the peak of COVID lockdown — a game to get him and his friends out of the house — but has grown into a monthly statewide treasure hunting competition with a cash prize and a rabid, growing following.
To get a sense of how the hunts work — he’s done nine so far, and the 10th begins Saturday at 10 a.m. — he sent me an older puzzle, a verse riddle that would lead to a hidden treasure box. The plan was for me to solve the beginning of the verse, the “easy part,” which would tell me the general location of where in the state the treasure might be hidden. Then we would meet so he could walk me through the more difficult “boots on the ground” portion of the hunt.
But after hours staring at the opening lines on my computer at home — “Where the bold fell, you’ll begin with no car/Then cross to where major was a star” — my mental capacities had dropped to the level where I could no longer remember my middle name, so I yelled at him via text to just give me the stupid directions. “Bear Hill Parking Lot Stoneham,” he wrote. (It turns out that there were five letters in bold in the verse, and they spelled out “Shute,” which leads you to “where Shute fell,” which is some sort of marker in Spot Pond, which is still far away from where I needed to get, and now my head hurts again.)
He was waiting for me when I pulled into the parking lot, and after yelling at him for damaging my brain, I was pained to realize that Ryan Collins is in fact a likable, friendly, unassuming guy. He’s an accountant, for goodness sake. But his real passion is puzzles, and he’s been obsessed with them since he was a kid growing up in Charlestown. When he was a student at Boston Latin School, he would fantasize about getting a job creating the puzzles used on the show “Survivor.” When it was time for college, he chose to study forensic accounting at Bentley because he was drawn to the financial riddles of “putting together a puzzle of what happened and why it happened.”
Now 33, he’s currently fascinated by what are known as “Armchair Treasure Hunts,” which involve searching for a prize that has been purposely hidden somewhere. He’s spent hours trying to solve some of the more famous ones, such as those in a 1982 book called “The Secret” that contained hunts leading to a dozen hidden treasures in cities across North America (only three have been solved, including one in Boston in 2019) and “The Thrill of the Chase,” a hunt created by an antiques dealer named Forrest Fenn who hid a chest worth millions in the Rocky Mountains (after a decade of driving people nuts who tried to solve his verse poem, that one was found in June).
When COVID hit, and Collins found himself bored inside during lockdown, he decided to create a hunt of his own, and hid a hundred dollar bill at the Saugus Iron Works, just down the street from where he lives with his wife and two small daughters. He wrote a verse poem that would lead to its location, posted it on Facebook, and was surprised when 40 people — mostly friends but a few strangers — set out to solve the riddle.
It was an immediate success, in ways larger than the simple challenge. So many people thanked him for providing a reason for them to safely get out of the house with their families that he created a second, more involved challenge the next month, in the Fells (the one I had quickly failed). From there, it exploded. His Facebook group now has 800 members, and there is so much interest that he now charges $20 to enter the hunt each month, with the winning team keeping all of the money in the pool. Not only is Collins not making a dime, he’s losing money. He keeps kicking in some of his own to sweeten the pots, which have been as high as $1,000.
“His puzzles are incredibly creative, and they get better each time,” said Mike Coughlin, a veteran of these sorts of things who is on a team that has found the last three treasures. (Yes, the other teams all hate them.) “The clues seem all over the place, but then in the end everything ties together seamlessly, and you get this massive dopamine hit.”
The puzzles are indeed getting better and more intricate; Coughlin’s favorite involved a clue that led teams to a golf course in Melrose. “I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do when I got there, so I was just looking around trying to figure out what was out of place, and I realized he’d installed a false sprinkler head that you had to screw open to find the next clue. That’s amazing.”
So far, Collins has hidden his treasure — it’s now a small plastic box with a code inside you redeem — in such varied places as Liberty Park in Hudson, on the Esplanade in Boston (where he installed a false cover on the base of a light post), and Fort Pickering in Salem, where one woman made it to the correct general location but searched for 24 hours straight with no luck.
Most hunts take a few days before they are solved. The longest thus far took the winning team a solid week, and Collins is hoping that will grow in the future. He’s making them more challenging in the hopes that will make it more accessible to people who might not be able to drop everything when the first clue arrives via e-mail at 10 a.m. on Saturday. (Coughlin’s team has a system: He waits in his car by a highway as his wife and a friend try to work out the general location on a computer, so he can quickly dash off to start the “boots on the ground” portion of the hunt.)
When the hunts start, Collins sits back and watches the show unfold in the Facebook group and in his inbox. He’ll get lots of messages like “I know exactly where it is and I’m going to get it right now,” then never hears from that team again. He’ll get questions from his friends begging for hints. (He responds to everything with the “shrug” emoji.) And he’ll occasionally sneak out with his daughter to spy on the teams, to see how close they are.
But his favorite messages are the ones he gets from the teams who are the most lost, because they always seem to be having the most fun. “They’ll say, ‘We went to this place we’ve never been before, and then this place we’ve never been before.’ How great is that? Part of the reason I started this is I’m the sort of person who always says they want to go on a road trip and see the country, but there’s so much of my backyard that I’ve never seen. This is forcing me to do that. And all these other people are doing it with me.”
He says that Saturday’s hunt #10 is his best one yet — teams can register at happyhuntingnewengland.com — and he can’t wait to see what unfolds, what kind of crazy questions he gets.
But as Collins led me up Bear Hill in the Fells, toward a lookout tower that is a crucial part of the solution (I’m not even going to begin to try to explain this part), he told me that the biggest question he gets is how much longer he’s going to keep doing these things. At the moment, the short answer is: indefinitely.
“When you hear somebody say, ‘It’s become a special part of our lives,’ how do you stop?”
Then he returned to explaining the clues, taking entirely too much glee from the pain on my face.