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A Quest for Clues

Mar 31, 2009 05:00PM ● By Super Admin

We crested the hill and paused under the old black walnut tree. I passed the water bottle to my wife for a drink and accepted it back for a deep draught of my own. While she reviewed the clues, I surveyed the horizon. We were looking for “a grandfather and four little maidens” – a big old tree with four young saplings nearby. I saw a copse at the base of the valley that I thought fit the description, so onward we pressed. After my brave wife, my stalwart beagle/dachshund (or “Doxle”) and I searched for several minutes; we decided this was not the place, so back we went to the instructions.

We followed the fence-line around the hill for another quarter mile and came upon another small grove of trees – this time obviously the one. My wife, a.k.a. “The Finder of Things,” walked directly to the base of the second sapling, found a stack of medium sized rocks behind it, and, lo and behold, there was our bounty! This time a small five-by-five-inch Tupperware box, disguised with camouflage duct tape. Within the box were a hand-carved rubber stamp and a logbook that held impressions of about 60 stamps with dates and notes.

The Letterboxing Legacy
Our treasure hunt was one that hundreds of local adventurers pursue every weekend. It is called letterboxing and it is a burgeoning outdoor activity in California’s Gold Country. The game originated in England in the Dartmoor National Park over 150 years ago. The activity stayed quietly in its homeland with an exclusive group…until a 1998 Smithsonian article, which immediately and vigorously transplanted it to US shores.
And therein lies the conflict with writing an article about it; much like in Fight Club, the first rule of letterboxing is “You don’t talk about letterboxing.” There is a sort of quiet secretiveness about it. We do not want non-letterboxers disturbing our treasures. We go to a secluded place to put our stamp into the letterbox’s logbook and to put the letterbox’s stamp in our own. The etiquette of letterboxing is quite strict about not letting others, outsiders, see what you are up to. You do not want “them” disturbing the letterbox just to see what is there. It is a private treasure that you have discovered and that you are replacing for the next brave adventurer. To me, letterboxing is an excuse to take a hike in the country, though not all letterboxes are located in wilderness. “Bookboxes” are stowed among the collections of cooperative libraries in hollowed-out books. Other letterboxes are cleverly hidden in the inner city, and some are travelers – tiny letterboxes hidden within other letterboxes that travel with letterboxers to their next destination.

Getting Started
To begin the adventure, it is economical and easy. Pick out your trail name – this is your identity in the logbooks you visit and online. It is something that identifies you and your interests in common, though I know a long-time letterboxer who just goes by his first name. You will need a logbook, usually pocket-size, for the stamps from the letterboxes you visit, a personal stamp, usually hand carved but not always, to leave in the boxes you visit, a stamp pad, a writing implement and a simple base-plate compass.

Additionally, basic outdoor supplies are useful, including, but not limited to, a canteen, a first-aid kit, a pair of stout gloves, a hiking staff and a flashlight. Letterboxes that require special equipment will include a listing of that equipment in the clues.

The Clues
This leads us to the most important requirement in letterboxing: the clues. Letterbox clues range from simple directions to the box, taking you for a tour of the countryside, to complex riddles or mathematical formulae. The variety is limited only by the imagination of the box placer. These clues may be found various places, but the best place to start in our area is at the Letterboxing North America Web site: On that site you will find thousands of clues. In addition, you may find clues in published books, hidden on other Web sites, and in letterboxing newsletters.

We found a relatively flat boulder and prepared for the stamping ritual. We spread out our materials and the contents of the box, carefully placing impressions of our vined and monogrammed stamp, and the paw-print for our Doxle in the letterbox’s log; we then placed the hand-carved waterfall from the letterbox in our own log. We noted our experience in both logs and packed everything carefully away for the next letterboxer to find. We re-hid the box carefully in its cubby and placed the rock pile, mussing the leaves so it looked as it had before we arrived. It was a beautiful spring day’s adventure and another letterbox for our ever-growing collection!