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A Pirate Treasure Hunt That Led to Actual Treasure: A Fairytale Marriage Proposal Come True

07/29/2013 04:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2013

When you get engaged in today's day and age, one of the first things people ask you is: "Were you surprised?" With more and more couples cohabiting first and women asserting their independence by discussing marriage as an equal partner before the proposal, it seems that for most couples these days, it's hard to spring a surprise proposal on anyone. The girl may not know all the details ahead of time but she knows it's coming or has asserted her readiness or even set a deadline for the man to act by. So while most girls I know were surprised by the how, the proposal wasn't coming out of the blue (unless of course it's one of those dating for one month whirlwind romance proposals that you just know is setting you up to buy a first and second marriage gift.) But in my case after dating for two years, my fiancé (it's still hard for me to believe I get to call him that now) went to great lengths to throw me off track, so much so, that I thought he wasn't ready for marriage and fully expected to be having a serious talk in a year about how long I was willing to wait. And although you can tell how this story turns out, I am still reeling in disbelief at the complexity of the events he orchestrated to literally make my childhood dreams come true.

He had always been very clear, from the beginning, that he wanted to live together first, so after we moved in together last October, I was settling in to my first cohabitation and assuring myself and everyone else that I wasn't in a rush to get married. But since then when marriage had come up in conversation, he essentially said he didn't want to talk about it which made me think he wasn't ready for marriage and I was having an inner secretive freak out about having to tell my grandmother she would probably die before seeing a ring on my finger. It never occurred to me that he didn't want to talk about it because he had been ring shopping since January and wanted to provide a truly surprising proposal -- the kind I had always wanted but never dared voice for fear I would be setting my sights too high and myself up for failure. So He and his accomplices kept mum and as winter turned spring I began to wonder how long I could keep from mentioning the "m" word.

The last weekend in April, we set out for a drive up the California coast to Big Sur for a romantic weekend away at Post Ranch Inn. Now at this point, everyone has asked, but didn't you suspect something might be coming and the answer would have been yes if not for the elaborate involvement of my family. He had asked my sister's permission a month earlier, so while she and I were living it up at Coachella one week before the romantic getaway, he had the foresight to ask my happily married parents separately for their permission -- my dad on Friday night and my mom at Sunday brunch which tells you quite a lot about his shrewd observations regarding securing a yes from my parents.

But back to Coachella. So while we're there, he emails me his perfunctory vacation itinerary on a spreadsheet, which lists a treasure hunt on Saturday. This definitely made my heart skip in a moment of anticipation but was not as unusual as you might think because a) we had tried to sign up for a treasure hunt once before -- on vacation in Hawaii, the hotel had an elaborate scavenger hunt but it was sold out by the time we tried to register and b) I have a soft spot for all things piratey so it would make sense that he would be on the lookout and c) we travel frequently. However, the minute I got the itinerary, I turned to my sister looking for a hint. Of all people, I figured my sister, who is notorious for not keeping secrets, would know. I looked to her, hopeful she'd confirm my fantasy come true. But she not only didn't confirm, she completely threw me off the track and put a quick end to the thumping of my heart I had felt a moment earlier. She told me I was being ungrateful and I should appreciate what I have. She warned I would ruin my trip, if I spent the whole time expecting something that might not come and I should have faith that when the time is right, things will move along, etc. Essentially, she did her sisterly duties in convincing me that I was acting like a brat, so I emailed him back and told him to be sure to sign us up ahead of time for this treasure hunt.

I was slightly deflated by my sister's reproof but decided I didn't want to be one of those girls that was going to pout all weekend in a beautiful place because I didn't have some meaningless rock on my finger. So I put it all out of my mind and decided to enjoy the weekend and told myself I was being silly and frivolous for getting worked about it at all. After all, I truly had a lot to be grateful for.

If there was even the tiniest sliver of hope left in me, it was completely 100 percent stamped out the moment we arrived at the hotel because when we checked in, the woman at the desk, after mentioning what times stargazing and yoga started, handed me a rolled up piece of parchment with burnt edges that said in calligraphy to arrive the next morning promptly for the treasure hunt. They must do this every weekend, I remember thinking, assuming it would be lame and we'd be competing with a bunch of families with lots of annoying little kids and ridiculously easy clues.

Saturday morning, we went to brunch across the way at Ventana Inn. My normally serenely calm boyfriend seemed antsy. Is the service slow here? It didn't seem slow to me but maybe I thought. Is it taking forever to get the check? If it had, I didn't notice. We arrived back at our hotel fifteen minutes late. I didn't expect it to start on time but I was wrong. Everyone had already begun without us. Now, I was a little irritated. I'm slightly or not-so-slightly competitive and didn't like that we were starting after everyone else but I was determined we would still win.

We got our first clue and a map of the property and ran outside to begin. We had to go to the place of tactile rituals (the spa) and ask for treatments of: 1) Beowulf's land (Swedish massage) 2) The kingdom of Siam (Thai massage) and 3) a treatment originally depicted on the tomb of a sixth dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh (reflexology). They were harder than I expected, but for a while it seemed like I was on a roll. We bounced around from place to place finding rolled up pieces of parchment at each one. I couldn't help being slightly pleased with myself for knowing the answer to each clue before he could figure them out. (Although now, I'm slightly annoyed he was letting me win because he wrote all the clues himself.)

We were hiking over acres of land for hours and I was sweaty and dirty as we searched for clues and dug through brush. I was sure this was something the hotel did often because everyone seemed to know about it. There certainly was no way my He could have ran out the night before and hidden these clues himself. When I arrived at the timber factory (woodshop) and was deciphering the clue which told me to go to the dwellings of Nomads (Yurt), a woman mentioned that the other competitors had just come through and we were close on their heels. Good I thought to myself, we're almost caught up.

I continued to show off to my boyfriend how smart I was by figuring out every clue first, which eventually started to backfire on him. Once or twice, I got really stuck on some very hard clues and when I wanted to take him in the wrong direction he tried to hint at the correct answer but I told him that since I had been right every time so far, we should probably go with my guess. I was convinced that the "I love" reference in the clue meant that we had to hike in the shape of a heart but he kept saying, "What if it's I love something? Wasn't there a TV show like that?" and after 10 minutes of discussion I spotted Lucy's Loop on the map and realized which trail we were supposed to be on.

And even though I did figure out that "Search for the Northern Circle for the words Jerry lost and Costanza mistakenly retained. You will discover his first work penned" meant Tropic of Cancer at the Henry Miller Library, I was shocked that the hotel had arranged for the treasure hunt to take us off-site where a clue was waiting for us at the bottom of a stack of books.

As a Henry Miller fan, I had been itching to see this library for 10 years but after about 20 minutes there, it seemed that he was getting antsy again (he later told me this was when he started to get really nervous). I tried to get him to read this long letter and he started but it seemed his mind was wandering which was unlike him and I wondered if he was tired. We found our last clue and on our way back to the hotel car that was waiting for us, the woman who worked there gave us three books and I remarked about how smoothly they all ran this thing.

In the car, I took a guess that the watery gem cure for our burning loins was the jade pool and told the driver to take us there but I wasn't sure. (I didn't know jade was an ancient cure for titillation.) My boyfriend who also said He didn't know, wanted to check on his phone but the rules had expressly forbidden this. I was worried that we'd be disqualified for cheating and told the driver to take note that I was going to have no part of looking at our smartphones. (Of course, he didn't have to check the clues, but later confessed that in a panic, he forget which finger the ring went on when you propose and was desperately Googling this to find out.)

At long last, our clues took us to the restaurant overlooking the ocean at our hotel as the sun had just begun its slow descent. The staff was quietly setting up for dinner service, but mostly we were alone as I followed my instructions to prepare for carpentry by ordering a splash of the definitive. We sat with our Absolut screwdrivers, or I sat with mine because he downed his in one big gulp, and we looked at what seemed like our final and most complicated clue.

Just as I was reading the last part of the clue that said, "Open if you dare, but beware of the eternal consequences that may prevail," the bartender brought over a treasure box. "I think we won," I said, delighted that getting so sweaty and dirty and working so hard had paid off. I was thinking, I hope we got free spa treatments instead of some lame T-shirt as I dove in and found a crackerjack box. I knew this prize was going to be lame. But then I opened the crackerjack box and there was a jewelry pouch. And in the jewelry pouch was a ring.

And then he dropped to one knee. And he started to speak, but I could barely focus on what he was saying because I was so confused. He said my whole name slowly and deliberately. Did we not win the treasure hunt? Wait, what's happening right now? Is everyone else still competing and we're just taking a break? Does this mean the other couples are still ahead? He said I was his best friend. And the most beautiful and smartest person he knew.

And slowly my mind began to process what was happening. And what had happened. As I listened to him say all those magical words every girl wants to hear in that moment, I started to realize that this whole thing had just been for me. He had planned and executed this entire day to surprise me with the kind of thing I had always wanted but assumed I would never get. This whole thing was for me? I thought over and over. I started to re-understand the lengths he must have gone to to plan this very moment and then I burst into tears. And not just like a few girly teardrops. The kind of crying that smears your mascara and makes it hard to breathe and your hands shake. I could just barely wrap my head around it. It was too much to take in. He told me he couldn't wait to spend the rest of his life with me and would do anything to make me happy and I could barely stop crying long enough to get the word "yes" out. I mouthed it three times before I finally heard myself make the sound.

I had always assumed that I was not the type of girl who would cry when I got proposed to but it turns out, I'm the kind of girl who couldn't stop crying. In between phone calls to our parents, I spent the next hour asking him questions and going over in my mind what had happened. How did he write the clues (he got a map of the property and spent weeks researching to write them up)? How did he hide the clues in such obscure locations (with help from the hotel staff)? And the library's involvement (a donation)? The ring (help from my best friends)? My sister keeping a secret (he didn't know)? It turned out that the last clue was a cryptic description of all his planning.

He had a beautiful dinner planned at the restaurant to celebrate (I insisted we shower first -- if I had known I was going to be proposed to that day, I really would have looked a lot cuter). I was really in shock the whole weekend though. Even now weeks later, I still look at the ring on my finger with a feeling of I-can't-believe-this-all-happened to me. I'm wondering when this silly grin is going to leave my face (although I hear wedding planning helps with this).

So was I surprised? It was the biggest and best surprise of my entire life. And in a world filled with cohabitation and hook-up culture and over-communication, I'm living proof that silly fantasies of girls who still yearn for old-fashioned romance can and do come true.

Check it out all the clues and some pics from that day on the slideshow here:

A Treasure Hunt Proposal