Entertainment & Life

Your vacation mission? Find this stolen horse

Phin Upham and April Thygeson meet the character Sarai, played by Janelle Jacoban, at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley and receive the instructions for their travel adventure.
Phin Upham and April Thygeson meet the character Sarai, played by Janelle Jacoban, at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley and receive the instructions for their travel adventure. The New York Times

“How long have you worked with the agency?” our driver, Charles, asked. My wife and I exchanged glances. Awhile, we said. No reply.

We drove through San Francisco’s morning gray – hilly Bernal, littered Bayshore. Charles was middle-aged, with a rumpled, slacks-over-sneakers look. Amy and I kept our counsel at first, but by the Bay Bridge were lobbing questions. Charles looked in the mirror. He taught public school when he wasn’t driving, he said. Soon we were discussing the finer points of teaching, and the importance of a good principal.

It was all perfectly ordinary, and not once over the next 15 minutes did we voice our central thoughts: Where were we going, what was “the agency” and what in God’s name was going on?

We’d known nothing about this strange weekend getaway when we signed on – only that people unknown to us had planned every inch of it, that it would range over the Bay Area, and that we’d be tasked with locating a stolen thoroughbred.

“It’s some kind of … art project … mystery … vacation thing,” I’d explained to our kids earlier, hoping at least to squid-ink the situation enough for a painless hand-off to the grandparents. It worked, and soon we were climbing into Charles’ back seat, as one does, to recover a horse recreationally.

I’d wager that we all vacation more or less the same: pick a place, select ways to relax and indulge at that place, then shuffle home. When a couple of months back Amy and I signed up for a weekend with First Person Travel, we elected for a wholesale departure from that model.

Rather than make our own choices, everything would be planned by mysterious game-designer artists. In lieu of reality we’d plunge into an interactive and bespoke form of travel-as-theater. Instead of a generic itinerary, the organizers got to know us in advance, somewhat intimately, via a probing questionnaire.

Our getaway was a play, written for us and starring us, too.

First Person Travel is the creation of Gabe Smedresman, a game designer and maker of “mixed-reality entertainment,” and Satya Bhabha, a writer, director and actor best known for his role in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Their idea is to bring narrative and elements of immersive theater to the staid genre of the weekend getaway. To that they add high-end concierge services, lest travelers be distracted by lowly logistics.

“Instead of watching a movie, you’re living one,” Smedresman said. “We deliver a heightened reality, where you connect more deeply with your travel partners and the place, itself.”

As parallels go, the closest comes not from travel but the theater world. The New York-based production “Sleep No More,” a loose adaptation of “Macbeth,” similarly injects audience members into the story. (Michael Douglas fans might also be reminded of the 1997 thriller “The Game.”) “Sleep No More” is set to open in Shanghai later this year; for now, First Person Travel is only in the Bay Area.

Amy and I were just crossing the Bay Bridge when Charles reached discreetly over the seat.

“I’m supposed to give you this,” he said, handing us a leather attaché case with an iPad inside. Over the next 36 hours its custom-made dashboard would deliver itineraries, real-time directions, a dossier on various characters we’d meet and a direct line to a kind of mission control, on hand to help us have fun and fight crime. (Per instructions, we’d shut off our phones.)

Near Berkeley, Charles exited the freeway and pulled up to Golden Gate Fields, a 1940s-era racetrack by the rocky edge of the bay. In all our years in the Bay Area, Amy and I had somehow never been here. The First Person Travel team had a talent for finding great, underexplored California nooks, we’d learn. Charles sometimes played poker with some of the jockeys – a slippery bunch, he said.

Soon we were climbing out of the car and wandering toward the entrance. Inside we saw nothing unusual until a distraught woman in houndstooth slunk over.

Sarai was her name, and an air of dark glamour hung over her, compounded by the noirish vibe of an old racetrack in fog. She anxiously took us by the arm and led us to the sprawling grandstand outside. She was a horse broker, she said, and after the upsetting events of the last 24 hours, she knew she needed a pair of ace investigators. She looked over her shoulder as she spoke.

Over the next half-hour Sarai told us about Talisman, the fleet racehorse she’d been on the verge of selling for a sizable sum. Last night his trainer had taken him back to his stable, and that was the last anyone had seen of Talisman; no Talisman this morning. Any number of people could have wanted him out of the picture. Gravely we reviewed the various figures in Talisman’s orbit – while nibbling happily on the breakfast Sarai had brought. Think “Maltese Falcon” with really good pastries.

This was how it would be: a strangely seamless blend of fake mystery and real leisure – horse investigation leaves a surprising amount of time for strolling, eating and generally kicking back. We were also surprised to accept the whole conceit so readily. Within a couple of hours, we didn’t entirely believe we were horse-thief detectives, but we also didn’t feel like a married couple on vacation. The truth felt somewhere in between.

Susan Orlean once said travel is best when you have a purpose of some sort – a quest, a mission, something to focus you when you’re in a new place and clueless over how to engage it. Attuned to the task at hand, suspicious of everything, our senses sharpened. We looked at people more closely, at California more closely. Amy noted that she’d never really gazed up at the cathedral of redwood branches arching overhead on Lucas Valley Road.

“We shell-shock you into receptivity,” Smedresman told me later.

Throughout our trip a second mystery hung over the main one: Why hasn’t travel been disrupted like this before? As a civilization we’ve updated the way we get around, the way we buy plane tickets and so on. But the essence of travel is still so analog. The intersection of theater and technology felt refreshingly new and inventive.

In the interest of spoiling no mysteries – each First Person Travel weekend is customized, but a general story arc remains constant – I’ll just say that lines began to converge. At a drafty, old church we learned something surprising about Vance then had an eye-opening reunion with Herb in Muir Beach – followed by a terrific lunch among the surfers and Frisbees of Stinson Beach. Was there a dramatic conclusion involving elaborate plot twists and even shouting? A good detective knows when to keep his trap shut.

By afternoon we were in the sun on a ferry back to San Francisco, dazedly reviewing the truth of Talisman’s last 36 hours and our own. Later, we’d be emailed the cold metrics of our gumshoeing. (We belonged to the 67 percent of travelers who find a certain ax in Nicasio, thank you very much.) For now, we just marveled at how this wacky, fake detective charade somehow left us both switched on and mellowed out. At one point I glanced over at Amy, happy in the ferry breeze, and vowed to pursue far more fictional stolen horses than I ever had previously.

Charles, the not-really-a-schoolteacher, chauffeured us home from the Ferry Building. It was not hard adjusting to post-Agatha Christie life. What was hard was no longer having an unseen squad – in total 50 collaborators have pitched in with First Person Travel – laboring on behalf of our pleasure.

For all our sleuthing, the absence of planning might ultimately have been the most affecting part of the weekend. You just go where you’re told. No guidebooks, no decisions, no guessing how long it will take to get to dinner. Liberated from such concerns, we were free to delve into the hidden nooks of the Bay Area, and into strange truths about the affinity of travel and mystery.

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