One day last month the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County called and asked if they could lock me in a room.
“Did I forget to return a book?” I wondered.
No, I was being invited to try out the library’s newest escape room, a game in which a team of players is locked in a room and must solve a series of puzzles in order to escape before time runs out.
Escape rooms have popped up in Oxford, Gadsden, Birmingham and all over the country. In some escape rooms, you have to escape a sinking ship before time runs out, or catch a jewel thief, or find the cure to a killer virus.
The library’s new escape room is Alabama-themed, in honor of “Making Alabama,” a traveling exhibit that celebrates the state’s bicentennial, which will be at the library from Tuesday through Aug. 28.
I gathered a team of three other Anniston Star journalists — Jessica Akridge, Ben Cunningham and Patrick McCreless — and we headed to the library to test our investigative skills.
Library director Teresa Kiser explained that this was the third escape room the library has put together. The first one was a “Stranger Things”-themed room, the second a “Harry Potter”-themed room.
“In that one, you had to match musical tones and match smells,” Kiser said. “I’m tone deaf and I have a terrible sense of smell. I did not make it out of that room.”
The Alabama Escape Room is more family-friendly — meaning the puzzles aren’t as hard — which was good, because this would be the first time any of us had visited an escape room.
A knowledge of Alabama history is not required to solve the escape room (but a knowledge of Alabama trivia is helpful). All the information needed to solve the puzzles is inside the room.
“The important part of this is communication,” Kiser said. “You have to communicate well with each other.”
Well, communication is what we do for a living. We got this, right?
We would have 60 minutes to get out.
Kiser opened the door, and the four of us entered.
We found ourselves standing in a dark room.
Almost immediately, we found the light switch. We had solved our first puzzle!
And then we spent the next 10 minutes just staring at the walls.
The walls were decorated with maps and stars and fascinating facts from Alabama history about steamboats, ironworks, sports figures and literary figures.
(This is where I learned that the state is named after the Alibamu Indians, whose name translates from Choctaw as “thicket-clearers.”)
In the middle of the room was a table, and in the middle of the table was a locked box.
We had no clue how to unlock the box. We had no clue how to find a clue to help us unlock the box.
I was staring blankly at one wall and Patrick was staring at another wall when behind us Jessica announced, “I unlocked it!”
Wait, what? How? Never mind, now we were on the case!
Except we weren’t. We had found our first clue, but we couldn’t figure out what to do with it.
Kiser had told us that if we got stuck, we were allowed to ask for up to three hints.
We had been in the room for 15 minutes when Ben asked, “Do we want to ask for a hint?”
“Not yet,” answered Patrick. “We haven’t even been here 30 minutes.”
(Here, you can see the delicate dynamic between the editor who wants to speed things up, and the reporter who argues for more time on deadline.)
“Well, we’ve at least established that we are too proud to ask for a hint,” Ben said.
We continued to explore the room, looking for more clues but finding only more padlocked boxes. Jessica starting trying random combinations. “I do have a Leatherman tool in the truck,” Ben said.
With 42:06 remaining on our countdown clock, we outvoted Patrick and asked for a hint. This is when we became acutely aware of the fact that we were being monitored. Library staff were watching and listening from the other side of the wall.
This is also the point at which Ben regretted lying down on the floor to see if anything was hidden underneath the table.
Once we got the hang of it (and the staff fed us a couple more hints), we started to work together as a team and our pace sped up. We were solving puzzles and finding clues and unlocking locks and learning some things about Alabama along the way. (Who knew we had a state fish?)
We got out of the Alabama Escape Room in 49 minutes. The team of journalists made deadline with 11 minutes to spare.
Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or firstname.lastname@example.org.