Pokémon Go? Sure. Walk around and stare at your smartphone while hunting virtual monsters in an augmented-reality landscape.
But in this southwest Missouri town, a different pastime is playing out. No smartphone needed. Nothing virtual or augmented about it. But there’s a lot of walking, plenty of hunting and loads of good will.
People here are hunting … rocks. Just rocks, but fancied up with hand-painted images and messages. They’re turning up all over Bolivar, and somehow they’re pulling people together.
Really, when you get right down to it, it’s an Easter egg hunt. Only it’s every day and all around town.
“It’s an art movement,” said organizer Susan Sparks, who heard about a similar effort in Washington state and brought “Bolivar Rocks” to town in June. “We were just looking to spread a little joy and we did.”
A little joy can go a long way these days. Like with little Raylynn Harper on a hot summer night last month. With her best and proudest “look what I found” expression, Raylynn, 3, held out a rock that dwarfed her tiny hands.
Painted in blues and greens, with touches of gray and white, the piece of rock art shows a small frog hopping to a water lily. Raylynn and her little brother, Oaklee — with their dad’s help — found it and four other decorated rocks here in Dunnegan Memorial Park.
“This is their first hunt,” said mom Ciara Harper, smiling as Raylynn twirled around.
All across Bolivar, moms and dads, kids and grandparents have been embarking on rock hunts. They’re heading to the park at different times of day and night. Walking along the town square, peeking down alleys and into nooks along Broadway and Main Street and outside Breadeaux Pizza, the county courthouse and Woods grocery.
The project started June 2. Since then, thousands of rocks have been hidden and found.
Families are spending hours searching for rocks to paint. Summer school kids are turning rocks into creatures and drawing pads. Nursing home residents are joining in.
When you find a rock, you post a picture on Facebook so the artist can see his or her creation was found. Then you have options. You can hide it again for someone else to find or, if the rock’s art or message means something to you, you can keep it. Just paint another rock to hide.
The Bolivar Rocks Facebook page has grown to more than 5,800 members. That’s equivalent to about half the town’s population.
Small communities in and around Polk County have followed Bolivar’s lead, including Humansville, Pleasant Hope and Stockton. Larger cities have jumped on board, too. Springfield already has about 1,000 members on its Facebook group. In Cass County, people in Raymore and Belton have started to hide rocks.
“My town is starting one,” said Wendy Fleeman, who lives in Marshfield, about 40 miles southeast of Bolivar. She and her 3-year-old son, Landon, went to Bolivar last week to visit Grandma and took time to hunt for rocks around the town square.
“These little eyes find them pretty quick,” she said as Landon held tight to one of his rocks. “This gets people moving, excited. It’s all positive.”
Some rocks are painted with blotches of color, mixed and matched. Others show farm scenes or cartoon characters or are painted to look like slices of pizza or cherry pie.
“There are some pretty cool rocks out there,” said Kelly England, 37. She and her daughter, Marissa Doty, 13, hid 10 rocks on Father’s Day. They like to hunt in Dunnegan park and then hide what they find throughout town.
This whole rock idea came from Port Angeles, Wash. Sparks has a friend there who told her about his city’s community art project.
Sparks figured that in Bolivar, maybe 100 people, 200 max, would paint a few rocks — some with inspirational words — and hide them here or there.
“I guess I’m a little hippie,” Sparks said. “I was thinking how cool it would be if you were having a bad day and saw a rock that said ‘Joy’ or ‘Courage.’ That’s what I really loved about it, inspiring other people.”
She didn’t count on thousands of people following along, didn’t imagine that families would sit at the kitchen table painting and then head to town at night looking for rocks.
In Port Angeles, Aisha Lesh — the one behind the idea — looks at what’s going on some 2,000 miles away and smiles. She and some friends were hanging out one night in January and thought it’d be fun to paint a few rocks and hide them for others to find. Six months later, the Port Angeles Rocks Facebook page has more than 2,600 members.
Lesh heard from one woman who suffers agoraphobia and is fearful of going outside. After finding one rock in her apartment lobby, the woman told Lesh that she had actually ventured outside to hunt.
But what’s happened in Bolivar? Crazy, she says.
“What surprised me, is in like seven days, they had 3,000 members,” Lesh said. “I had no idea how that happened.”
Leaders across Bolivar get that.
“If you set up 10 different things and said, ‘Which of these things do you think will spark the community and take off,’ I don’t know if this is one I would have picked,” said Darin Chappell, Bolivar’s city administrator, who has been doing his part by painting dinosaurs on rocks.
“It has gotten people out and kids off their Xboxes and iPads. They’re outside looking for rocks, being creative. … It’s kind of captured the imagination of people.”
Some downtown businesses, like 3 G’s Frozen Custard shop, are seeing an uptick in customers. Without the rocks, they may not have had a reason to come into town so much.
“I’ve seen people coming downtown at 8 or 9 at night, parking and getting out of the car,” said Justin Ballard, a Bolivar alderman. “The thing with this is, you don’t have to have a lot of money or a lot of talent. Rocks are free.”
Organizers expect the hunt may die down a bit when school starts. But for now, it’s just about making sure there are plenty of rocks out there for kids like little Raylynn.
After finding a handful one night last week, she wasn’t done. Her eyes swept across the grass and peered around the trunk of a tree. Nope. Nothing.
“Sorry,” she hollered to her dad and then ran to another tree.
But just like with most hunts, where little kids are the main seekers, Dad spotted something and called her over. He crouched down and gave a few hints.
Soon she yelled: “I found one.”
Raylynn ran over to her father, stopped and looked at her rock again. All smiles.
“I want to go show my mom,” she said.
And with that, she took off running, rock in hand.
No smartphone needed.