Your vacation mission? Find this stolen horse

SAN FRANCISCO — “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 handoff 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.

As we discussed motives and means, conversation kept coming back to a snooty Marin horse breeder who seemed to resent Talisman’s success. Vance Faraday was her name, and there she was on our dossier, looking moneyed and a little smug. Sarai expressed curiosity about her — specifically the kind that led a person to slap a tracking device on someone’s car just an hour earlier. If we left soon we could catch her.

Sarai led us out to the parking lot and handed us a set of keys. Before us sat a cherry red Mustang (Get it? A mustang?) convertible, equipped with a personalized playlist and our luggage, magically transported from Charles’ car. Sarai had to split before we could ask our five million questions, but a blue dot was blinking on our iPad, moving north, and it seemed we should follow.

We roared off, top down, Calexico blaring, paranoia racing. Was Vance a red herring? Had Sarai seemed overly upset? Was her ankle tattoo a clue, or just the actress’ actual tattoo? Our travel was theater, and theater was hard to distinguish from reality.

“Do you think maybe Charles wasn’t really a teacher?” I asked.

Amy gave me a jeez-honey look.

Game on, freaky art vacation people.

To live in the Bay Area is to watch a certain formula harden in your mind: overnight excursion equals bottle of wine, hot tub and catching up on old New Yorker magazines. Amy and I now found ourselves on an entirely different trajectory. As I drove, Amy rode shotgun, eyes glued to the iPad. It blinked its way into Marin County, and we followed, gray Berkeley giving way to warm redwoods.

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, looked 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.

Vance’s signal stopped in Nicasio, a tiny right angle of a town east of the Point Reyes National Seashore. We pulled up at a low roadhouse, and, voilà, an audio tour of the area popped up on our iPad. While Amy and I typically avoid walking around with shared earbuds, eyes glued dorkily to a screen in our hands, we were soon rapt. As we followed the meticulous directions, a gripping tale of dark, local history played in our ears, atop an eerie David Lynchian soundtrack. Crossing an old bridge, we were told that horse-racing cheaters were sometimes found in the canyon below. True? False? Didn’t matter — it was the pleasure of being immersed in a fun vacation read, and we were part of that read.

Clues began to surface. We spotted a torn flier tacked to a wooden fence advertising Talisman’s sale. Then we noticed Vance’s tracking device, ripped from her car and tossed by the side of the road. In the movie version of our adventure, the music would have swelled here.

I swear we don't conduct murder-mystery dinner parties or join geeky role-playing games. But we were hooked — a testament to the writing chops, acting and all-around cleverness of the trip. Indeed, so thorough and extensive is the fictional world that the company has generally limited itself to two productions a month since starting last winter. (Prices start at $562 a person for a basic version, and go up to $1,162 each. Food, lodging and a fancy car were all included for our trip. Reservations are made online at

Then, a third clue: a bloody hatchet stashed just beyond the baseball diamond in the center of town. We reported our finding to agency headquarters over the iPad and were told it was time to meet Herb, Talisman’s distraught owner, over in Point Reyes Station.

So it went. Over the next 24 hours, we’d uncover clues, meet with Talisman-related locals and desperately try to assemble the puzzle pieces — all while enjoying a genuine vacation. The vacation part was always baked right into the narrative. “I’m falling apart,” Herb said upon meeting us at the Station House Cafe. “Why don’t you two have lunch alone — give them my name — and I’ll meet you in a couple hours over by the marsh.”

Some fish tacos and a mellow stroll later, we reunited with Herb. He was a rangy guy with long hair and lilting, Louisiana accent. It took willpower to acknowledge he was, in fact, an actor. As far as we could tell, a beloved horse had truly been stolen from this man. We wandered into the Giacomini Wetlands, the newly restored sweep of marshland south of Tomales Bay. “It’s like we walkin’ through a paintin’,” Herb noted accurately, then returned to his misery.

As we peppered him with questions — about Vance, about Sarai, about Herb’s unstable stable boy — I found myself thinking about California as a character, too. This quaint town, outwardly a haven for cheerful cyclists and cheese connoisseurs, was now layered with menace. Instead of simply being pretty, the distant hills were now crisscrossed with ancient family rivalries. Is this not what you’re looking for on a trip, some next-level truth of your destination? Ours happened to be a fictional truth, but it deepened the place nonetheless.

Soon after parting ways with Herb we received a message from Vance on our iPad. She’d heard we were dropping her name all over town, and by way of picking it up had left us a gift over at Five Brooks Stable. She suggested we speak with Dustin, the stable boy. She implied he’d had a meth-addled past, which had perhaps returned.

Five Brooks Stable, we soon learned, is the only operation authorized to lead horseback rides through Point Reyes National Seashore, and that’s just what Vance had arranged for us to do. Within an hour we were riding happily amid white pine and huckleberry. (Even the staff was in on the act, nodding concernedly about Talisman.) The squeak of saddle leather became the soundtrack of our rumination about coastal flora and druggie stablehands alike. And then there he was.

Dustin was a sweaty fellow, consumed with some twitchy private turmoil. He agreed to chat in exchange for a car ride to the nearby beach town of Bolinas. En route he relaxed a bit. We dissected the events of the previous evening, and somewhere in there started to wonder if it was Herb who deserved our suspicion. Oddly Herb had failed to mention a Talisman-related squabble he’d had with Dustin, or the hefty equine insurance policy he’d taken out.

As we drove, Dustin got on the phone and purported to arrange a thank-you gift for us. For a screw-up the dude had connections. At his direction, we soon arrived at the nicest 10 acres I’d seen in a while, our home for the night. Bolinas mostly calls to mind its population of crusty bohemians or its rows of old Victorians. But just outside town you get a tranquil agricultural zone. We found ourselves surrounded by chard patches and fruit trees, meadows sprawling out toward the Pacific.

The First Person Travel team might have art in their veins, but they also shine as travel agents. Amy and I would be sleeping in the gorgeous turret of someone’s gorgeous home — a funky Northern California place with eclectic furnishings and warm, afternoon light everywhere. Casually sprinkled here and there were kitschy horse-racing games, horse-themed art and even a bag of Chessmen cookies. (Get it? Horse heads on the cookies?)

In our questionnaire, Amy and I had opened up to First Person Travel about what we want in a getaway and, by extension, who we are. Now, in our room upstairs, we found the results: a guitar for the guy too busy to play, a picnic basket with our favorite cocktail fixings and other treats, and a remarkably thoughtful three-page note. Invoking the busyness of children and careers, they prescribed us a silent, 40-minute walk to the beach: “Commit yourself to not talking,” it said. “You have been together long enough, I’m sure, that you can read one another’s meanings in your movements.”

I strapped the guitar on my back; we grabbed our basket, and by dusk we were drinking and plucking wordlessly on a windy bluff over the ocean. (It wasn’t all sappy stuff. Dinner reservations awaited us later in town, where we fanatically reviewed the day’s clues.)

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.

It was late when we climbed into our tower bed, fields stretching in every direction, frogs croaking demonically. The last thing we saw before conking out was a wooden map hanging above our feet, depicting the various stables of the Bay Area.

The next morning we kept right on relaxing. Amy jogged. I read and drank coffee on the deck and wandered off to inspect some baby chicks. Amy returned, and we were served the finest breakfast in California that day: grits, fresh eggs and chard and spring onions that the owner of the house had just picked. Somewhere in there we remembered Talisman.

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.