Andy Wenzel didn’t 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 Herald’s much-missed Tropic magazine. Wenzel caught a ride with his pal’s 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. He’s been married for 18 years, is dad to two daughters, and hasn’t missed a single Tropic Hunt (there were nine) or Herald Hunt (10 so far). He’s 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 contest’s unofficial historian. What Twihards are to the Twilight series, the brainy Wenzel is to the Herald Hunt. He’ll be there, of course, when Barry reads the first clue at noon Dec. 1 in Coconut Grove’s 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.
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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 didn’t 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. It’s fun; it’s different. It’s not a Sudoku. You’re not watching a game show — you’re part of the game.”
That’s 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 contest’s red-haired superfan. In separate emails, they say Wenzel knows way more about the Hunt than they do.
“If it weren’t for his website and its collection of every Hunt puzzle we’ve ever done, we’d 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 Andy’s site and discovered we’d come up with the exact same puzzle five years earlier. What was most disturbing about that was not so much that we’d 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. He’s always there, year after year, and he’s always cheerful and enthusiastic. I think he might be insane. But that puts him square in our target demographic.”
Wenzel’s 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 (he’s 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 — we’re losers! It’s a lot less stressful this way.”
Wenzel, who makes certain he’s 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 I’d won, but I’ve enjoyed helping some of the winners out,” he says. “Some said, ‘Your site made the difference for me.’ ”