The Colbert Report Saga

This is the tale of how three of my engineering friends and I won brief fame and fortune…

A long time ago (i.e. 3 Months)…
Stephen Colbert, host of the eponymous political TV satire, The Colbert Report, sent out a call to his loyal college fans. The call was to found your SuperPAC, a political organization capable of raising unlimited funds to unofficially support candidates

… and also to find a treasure hidden somewhere in the continental US. Some people might say these two points are completely unrelated. Those people need not apply.


Allow me to skip over the hidden, golden elephant in the room for a moment. If you’re not familiar with the SuperPAC concept, in a nutshell, it is a legal method for subverting campaign finance limits imposed on individual candidates. With some clever legal work, you can also get around the reporting process so that all donors remain anonymous. Moreover, you probably have to fill out more paperwork at the DMV to replace a stolen license then you do to create your own SuperPAC. The cover letter is essentially a mad lib with only two blanks. Stephen Colbert saw through the smoke and mirrors. The contest put forth was to have the demographic with the most amount of free time (i.e. college students) to ridicule this system. The only smoke and mirrors allowed are when Stephen Colbert enters the room.

In addition to creating a SuperPAC, Colbert put forth a competition to search for a treasure hidden somewhere in continental United States. The Prize: A 100 year-old antique silver bell in the shape of a turtle (a.k.a. ‘Turty’). Clues to the location where given on a map included in a SuperPAC Super Fun Pac kit, along with instructions to start your own SuperPAC.

Watch the following clip for an explanation of the contest and the launch clue the treasure hunt!

Spending $100 on the Super Fun Pac seems a little capricious for a someone on a graduate student’s salary and no clear plan to get anyone involved. That’s because it is. Without a distraction, however, it’s easy to go insane with research work. I decided to buy it the very same night it was mentioned on the show.

When the kit arrived, it was like Christmas morning, or shooting a unicorn out of a cannon into a rainbow; there’s was something magical about it. In addition to the map and a leaflet containing instructions to create your own SuperPAC, there was quite a mix of Colbert merch and random items, including:

  • Colbert Tube Socks
  • ‘Turtle’ T-shirt
  • Allen Wrench
  • Legal Advice Button
  • Novelty US Flag
  • Decoder Ring
  • Official Rule Book

View the map!

If you look at the map, it doesn’t give much away. Aside from a very clear cipher text in the right hand margin, the map only consists of colored arrows hopping across a map of the US, with a seemingly random set of pictures thrown in. It was easy to decode the cipher text with the ring in in the kit, which leads to the clue, “OER THE LAND OF THE FREE”.

This momentous competition called for backup. An excerpt from my email:

So this is the part in the movie with the montage of getting the crew together, vis-a-vis Armageddon. I am clearly Bruce Willis, in that I am leading the effort to collect a top-notch and rowdy team to kick-ass and blow shit up. I am also Ben Affleck, because I live to the end of the movie and sleep with Liv Tyler. I ask to all of you, who will be the Steve Buschemi to my Willis/Affleck?

Not a lot of people want to be Steve Buschemi, likely including Steve Buschemi, but there were takers. Namely Daniela Aizpitarte, Justine Buchman and Ben Zaczek. With the players on the dream team defined, it was time to play the game.

Enter Dropbox, a free file sharing service that allows one to synchronize files between multiple computers, or in our case, between different members of the team. This was the key to solving the puzzle portion of the treasure hunt. While I had created a word document logging all the clues that I was finding in the kit, Justine created a spreadsheet with a tabular listing of the map features. I could also post scans and pictures of the materials in the kit to the Dropbox folder, that way people without the physical kit had access to all the materials.

We found many clues scattered through all the Fun Pac Materials, logging them in the Word document. There is a good summary of them in the solution video that follows. Justine was clever enough to break the braille and the pigpen ciphers once we found the location of these clues.

Here is a link to the solution video!

The big break was the word search that was sent out in the beginning of June. View the wordsearch! If you solve the word search, the unused letters spell out “THE ANSWER YOU SEEK IS WRITTEN IN THE STARS”. Up until this point, the best idea that I had was using the streets in Washington DC, which are named mostly after states, to locate the treasure. But this lead to an epiphany! The clues “OER THE LAND OF THE FREE” and “THE ANSWER YOU SEEK IS WRITTEN IN THE STARS” were related. What has stars and symbolizes freedom better than the US flag. Literally taken, the new clue told you to connect the stars to find the answer. The other clues makes sense in this context, as explained in the video. Using the colored paths, I found the first part of the GPS coordinate (N 41.53358)!

The excel spreadsheet revealed the other interesting trends that are shown in the solutions video. Everything was already in alphabetical order according to the states with little pictures on the map. Odd that it was only the first 30 states or so! Finding the captions was easy; Google Goggles lets you take snapshots of the photos and find there source on the interwebs. Knowing now that we need states names to play connect the dots on the flag, we found that only the first and last letter of each caption could produce the requisite state abbreviation. This lead Justine and I to the second part of the GPS coordinate (W 89.29683). This puts you in the middle of a corn field outside La Moille, IL. Who was I to argue with this though? For all I know it could be hidden in a scarecrow wearing a Reagan mask.

Make sure to follow up on the next page for the slideshow!

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