Here I am, deep in the woods, kneeling in the dirt, sticking my hand deep into a pile of foliage:
How did I get here? What am I doing? And why on earth is my hand blurred??
Well, in honor of this month’s theme on Archeology, I thought I would share a modern pastime of discovering other people’s handmade works of art. This activity can involve solving complex clues, carrying special “tools” and could even include some digging! It’s LETTERBOXING!
According to the The Letterboxer’s Companion,
“Letterboxing is an intriguing mix of hiking, puzzle solving, treasure hunting, and rubber stamp artistry, topped off with the thrill of discovery. The pastime can take you to stunning and special outdoor places you never knew existed, lead you through a maze of local history and lore, and challenge you with mind-boggling riddles and puzzles; or it can simply guide you on a fun, relaxing half-hour walk with the kids or the dog, or on a straightforward day hike through rigged wilderness” (p. ix).
Have you ever heard or geocaching? Well letterboxing is the original treasure hunting sport–without all the flashy technology and with more etiquette and attention to craft.
The premise of letterboxing is pretty simple: Armed with your own letterboxer’s logbook, a personal stamp, inkpad, and clue, you search for a box hidden in a secret location (clues for the North Shore can be found HERE for starters).
Inside this unique box is another logbook and a stamp. This is the letterbox. When you find a letterbox, you:
- Stamp your logbook with the box’s stamp
- Leave your own mark by stamping the box’s logbook with your stamp.
- Leave a little message with a date and your “trail name,” and peek to see who else found the box before you.
- Make sure you put the letterbox back where you found it, carefully hidden again!
Some clues also include coordinates or may be hidden in a deep dark place, so if they do, be sure to bring a compass and a flashlight!
Some letterboxers are more secretive than others, but a big no-no is revealing the location of a letterbox (hence the blurring). I have tried to post only pictures that have vague identifiers and locations that are already clearly identified in the clue so as not to give anything away!
It is a sign of serious letterboxers to hand-carve their own stamps. The artistry involved can be quite amazing. I want to find this one!
The history of letterboxing actually began in Dartmoor, Devon, England in 1854. The story goes that an English gentleman, while conducting tours through the moors, left his calling card in a glass jar, with a note asking anyone who found it to leave their card in the jar as well. Soon other containers popped up over the moors; the calling cards were eventually replaced with stamps and the jars with boxes. Clues spread often by word of mouth, but eventually a catalog was created and the sport of letterboxing was born.
I was surprised to read that letterboxing didn’t become popular in the US until much later when a guy named David Sobel used the art of letterboxing to foster awareness and excitement about local history and ecology. He called this place-based education “Valley Quest,” and it has become very popular in New Hampshire and Vermont. After that, an article appeared in the Smithsonian in 1998, and letterboxing took off from there.
Enter me into the picture, when a few years ago, my sister introduced me to a Valley Quest in Woodstock, Vermont. After that, my husband and did a hike in Vermont to find a mystery box. After a while of searching in the cold snow, we finally found a gem of a hand-carved stamp, which unfortunately I can’t show you (letterboxer etiquette), but you are welcome to try and find it!
As you can see, this one was more than a “relaxing walk.” As far as I can tell, only a handful of people have actually found this box.
So what is the letterboxing scene on the North Shore like? Well, a search of “North Shore Massachusetts Letterboxes” turned up 630 listings on www.letterboxing.org.
A few days ago, we decided to take a more leisurely stroll and chose a couple letterbox clues in Danvers. But first, it was time to finally carve my own, personalized stamp, that would brand me as a letterboxer forever:
Ok, done! Next, look up a clue on the http://www.letterboxing.org site. I found a great one starting on the Proctor Farm Conservation Area. Next step: Begin letterboxing!
This letterbox clue was fairly easy, included the name and address of Proctor Farm and only included counting some steps and paying attention to landmarks. It was a beautiful area and provided an opportunity for us to go on a little family stroll through trails and woods I never might have stumbled upon otherwise.
Our final stop, the Cherry Hill Creamery where we sampled the delicious hand-made ice cream (part of our recent ice-cream review!) and found another very easy letterbox in the vicinity.
This is what I love about letterboxing: it motivates and encourages me to spend time in the outdoors and around my community, to spend time with family on an adventure, to pay attention to detail and feel creative and productive. It is a thrill to realize that there may be a hidden box virtually in your backyard. You only have to go out and search for it.
P.S. If you get bored of searching for letterboxes, why not make one of your own? Stay tuned my next installment when I make my own letterbox and invite you to search for it!
Some letterboxing resources:
— Madelene Pario