How I Became an Internet Hero to Fans of a Defunct Disney Channel Cartoon

Forgive me for going off-topic, but I love stories about what a strange and wondrous place the Internet is. This time I just happened to be personally involved.

It begins with this July 20 article on io9, which introduced me to Gravity Falls:

Gravity Falls was a cartoon that ran on Disney XD from 2012 until February of 2016, where it ended its run after two seasons. It followed the adventures of twins Dipper and Mabel Pines, who went to spend the summer with their (great-uncle) in the Oregon town of Gravity Falls. In the tradition of shows like Twin Peaks, the twins encounter the weird and the unexplained, from ghosts, to shape-shifters, to formerly unknown Presidents of the United States who were frozen for centuries.

What made the show so special—besides its amazing voice acting, outrageous humor, and heartwarming character moments—was its reliance on code breaking. At the end of each episode, viewers were presented with a jumbled assortment of letters that they could crack. Some were hidden jokes, but others were bits of foreshadowing that were sometimes incredibly bleak and foreboding.

The last frames of the last episode showed the cartoon’s main villain, Bill Cipher, as what appeared to be a statue in a real-life setting.

Fans of the show speculated that the statue really existed and was out there, somewhere. Clues were sifted and search parties formed, but no one could find it.

Finally, the show’s creator, Alex Hirsch, put together a treasure hunt for Bill’s location. It began with this tweet:

Using the hashtag #CipherHunt (the deciphered result of Hirsch’s hashtag above), Gravity Falls enthusiasts began exchanging clues and theories, quickly determining the first location to be the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia. A clue there led cipher hunters to a second clue at the Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo, and so on, through Georgia, Rhode Island, California and Oregon. Thousands of fans were actively involved in the search, with thousands more lurking and cheering them on.

I began watching reruns of Gravity Falls, loving the humor and in-jokes, but also intrigued by the regular use of ciphers. Back in the good old days I used to write a column on unknown ciphers for the American Cryptogram Association, and had a cover story published in Civil War Times Illustrated on codebreaking in the Civil War. Hirsch seemed to be a real student of cryptology, though in consideration of his audience kept his ciphers relatively simple.

For two weeks I followed the hunt amid maps and geocaching and jigsaw puzzles, kids and adults live-streaming themselves digging through leaves for clues in various parks, until at last we reached the final clue. There we were all stumped. The clue informed us that the answer to Bill’s location was “written in the trees” of the picture in the very first clue Hirsch had tweeted. After a few days of fruitless guessing by the fans, Hirsch took pity and gave a hint that was quickly deduced to indicate a Polybius cipher was in play.

I admit I spent more time than I should have on the problem, but I finally reached a working hypothesis, which I posted on Twitter and on Reddit, where a megathread had been created devoted to the hunt.

Another hunter applied the “x marks the spot” segment to a Google map of Reedsport and found a perfect match.

Even though it was approaching sundown, Gravity Falls fans in Oregon immediately jumped in their vehicles and headed for Reedsport. I started to get a little worried. If I were wrong, I would be responsible for little children wandering around in the Oregon woods at night.

A young woman from California had already driven to Oregon – before the last clue had been solved – and apparently was in hover mode waiting for a solution. The video of her experience is on YouTube, but if you don’t want to watch it all, jump ahead to the 15:00 mark to see her on a forest trail, like something out of The Blair Witch Project, until she comes upon her goal.

Next on the scene was a family – with a baby in tow – who dug up the treasure in front of the statue. That begins at the 23:00 mark of their livestream.

There was great rejoicing in Gravity Falls-land. io9 ran a follow-up story, Hirsch congratulated all the participants, my small contribution was lauded across a section of the Internet, and thanks to one devoted fan who braved long lines at a gallery, I received a personalized reward.

Some might find a deep meaning to all this – like if the power of the Internet can be used to solve multiple puzzles to lead to a box of tchotchkes in the Oregon woods, why can’t it bring about world peace? – but I’m simply encouraged that the pioneer spirit isn’t dead in America. It was one thing to solve a cipher in the comfort of my office. It was quite another for others to go out alone – or with their entire family – into the wilderness to test a theory. My respect and hopes for the next generation have risen dramatically.