Andy Wenzel didnt drive himself to the very first Tropic Hunt in 1984. A buddy convinced him to trek through Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties trying to solve the devilishly clever puzzles dreamed up by humorist Dave Barry and Tom Shroder, editor of The Miami Heralds much-missed Tropic magazine. Wenzel caught a ride with his pals family because, well, he was just 13 years old.
Flash forward to today, just one week before the first-ever Saturday edition of the Herald Hunt, descendant of the brain-busting Barry-Shroder contest. Wenzel is about to turn 42. Hes been married for 18 years, is dad to two daughters, and hasnt missed a single Tropic Hunt (there were nine) or Herald Hunt (10 so far). Hes even done all five of the Washington Post-sponsored Post Hunts.
How much does Wenzel love the Herald Hunt? He has his own website, TropicHunt.com, and is the popular contests unofficial historian. What Twihards are to the Twilight series, the brainy Wenzel is to the Herald Hunt. Hell be there, of course, when Barry reads the first clue at noon Dec. 1 in Coconut Groves Peacock Park.
A Hunt involves following clues and using an official map to solve a series of puzzles, culminating in one final brain buster for the win. Wenzel, who works as an account support manager at Kaba Workforce Solutions in Miramar, says he got hooked from the get-go.
He remembers getting what looked like a regular candy cane at a puzzle site in the first Tropic Hunt, but when he licked it, it tasted like an orange. In front of him was a billboard with four images of former University of Miami football coach Howard Schnellenberger smoking a pipe, with the smoke from each pipe forming a different number. The answer to that puzzle was the number hovering above the orange pipe.
That got me involved, and it brought me to areas all over South Florida where I didnt normally hang out, Wenzel says. You approach how you look at the world differently. You have to think outside the box. Each puzzle takes a little switching of the gears in how you approach it. Its fun; its different. Its not a Sudoku. Youre not watching a game show youre part of the game.
Thats an apt description of the appeal of the Herald Hunt, which draws players from all over the country. And at TropicHunt.com, Wenzel chronicles each edition of a competition driven by brain teasers and humor.
Barry and Shroder have, inevitably, come to know and appreciate their contests red-haired superfan. In separate emails, they say Wenzel knows way more about the Hunt than they do.
If it werent for his website and its collection of every Hunt puzzle weve ever done, wed be in danger of repeating ourselves ad nauseam, Shroder writes.
In fact, once we spent all morning coming up with a Hunt puzzle, and then one of us had an uneasy sense of déjà vu. So we looked it up on Andys site and discovered wed come up with the exact same puzzle five years earlier. What was most disturbing about that was not so much that wed have to start over, but that it took us all morning to, in effect, plagiarize ourselves.
Barry, photographed with and by Wenzel through the years, writes, Andy is the heart and soul of the Hunt. Hes always there, year after year, and hes always cheerful and enthusiastic. I think he might be insane. But that puts him square in our target demographic.
Wenzels Hunt experiences have turned into a family affair. He and his wife, Juana Villa, go each year with their daughters, and though they no longer are trying seriously for the win (hes too busy documenting each competition), they enjoy trying to solve all the puzzles.
Andy used to take the day after each Hunt off so he could update everything on the website, Villa says. It was hard enough for us to compete, and it became un-fun for me. We never win anyway were losers! Its a lot less stressful this way.
Wenzel, who makes certain hes free on Hunt day each year, has won the Wacky Team Name Contest but never the top prize. He laughs as he notes that his record for the Tropic Hunt, the Herald Hunt and the Post Hunt is 0-24.
I do wish Id won, but Ive enjoyed helping some of the winners out, he says. Some said, Your site made the difference for me.