Editor’s note: This story is by Nancy Price Graff, a freelance writer and editor from Montpelier. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
To understand letterboxing, I wanted to do more than an interview; I wanted to have a hand in the game.
So off I went to the art store to purchase the items I needed: two pink erasers (one to practice carving into a rubber stamp and one for a finished design); a red colored marker; and a small, unlined journal to use as my logbook. That night I considered several trail names and finally settled on “pomegranate” for sentimental reasons. After making a few sketches, I managed to carve a passable image of a pomegranate out of the second eraser.
To my surprise, the pedestrian pink eraser found in every desk drawer in the country makes a satisfactory rubber stamp impression, so I planted a pomegranate on the first page of my logbook with my new personal trail stamp.
For less than 10 dollars and an hour of my time, I was in business.
Letterboxing dates back more than a century. While hiking over the moon-like terrain of Dartmoor, England, in 1854, a gentleman bored with the simple pleasure of walking left his calling card in a bottle buried in a remote corner of that barren landscape. Other walkers found the bottle and added their calling cards. Some left self-addressed postcards and a note asking anyone who stumbled upon the bottle in its hiding place to mail one of the postcards back to him or her using the English letterbox, or mailbox. It was a sport slow to catch on and organize itself. By the late 1970s, there were still fewer than 40 letterboxes on Dartmoor.
Today there are thousands. Rubber stamps have replaced calling cards, and the rules, such as they are, are a combination of tradition and simple courtesy, as befits a sport without winners or losers or bureaucracy.
In 1998 Smithsonian Magazine reported on the English sport of letterboxing, and Americans took to it like buttered popcorn. Letterboxing had jumped across the pond – and Vermont led the way.
One of the first two letterboxes hidden in the United States was concealed in Bristol. The oldest letterbox in the United States is in Braintree. Today www.atlasquest and www.letterboxingna are the official websites of letterboxing in the United States. Atlasquest lists 66 registered Vermont letterboxers by their trail names out of a national total of 32,469 treasure seekers. Even more surprising, atlasquest records 748 letterboxes hidden in Vermont. The question isn’t why relatively few people are familiar with letterboxing, but why aren’t Vermonters tripping over the boxes every time we step out the door?
My friend and I left Montpelier early the next morning for Randolph armed with my personal stamp, my marker, my logbook and clues that I had printed off the Internet. My daughter had accidentally found a letterbox the day before atop Owl’s Head and taken a photograph of it on her cell phone, which gave me the only idea what we would actually be looking for. The object of our hunt would be small, watertight plastic containers, each one containing a rubber stamp unique to that site, a miniature inkpad, and a small logbook.
“Letterboxing started out for me as a way to get exercise,” says Cindyellen Robinson, one of Vermont’s premier letterboxers. With more than 3,000 finds in 21 states to her credit, Robinson is passionate about the sport: “It’s a secret game that other people don’t know about. It takes me to places I wouldn’t otherwise see.”
That was true for us. After driving for half an hour, my friend and I passed Floyd’s General Store in Randolph and turned right into the Vermont Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery, magnificent in autumn dress and morning sunlight. “This cemetery so moved me that I want to share it with others who might not know about it. Please be very respectful of those resting here,” advised Rubaduc, the trail name of the letterboxer who had hidden a box here and written the clues to find it.
The foliage was as bright as fire. Low-hanging mist kissed the treetops. The flags whispered in the light breeze. After we had taken in the setting, we followed detailed instructions leading to specific spots, trees, and eventually a quartz rock. I lifted the rock. Tucked underneath it was a letterbox nestled in leaf litter.
“You’ll love it. It’s fun. You follow the clues and there’s a prize,” Robinson had told me.
My prize was finding a hand-carved rubber stamp of a shield decorated with stripes and a star. The sensitivity shown by the anonymous letterboxer for the row upon row of memorials marching down the hill behind us touched me. I used the small inkpad in the letterbox to moisten the stamp and then I pressed the image of the shield into my brand new logbook as proof that I had found this particular letterbox. To prove that I had been there, I took out my pomegranate stamp, inked it, and pressed it onto a page of the letterbox’s logbook, well marked by letterboxers who had preceded us.
I scrawled my trail name on the page and the date. It took less than a minute to put everything back in the box, seal it tight against the elements, and return it to its hiding place. The last thing we did was replace the quartz stone. No one could tell we had been there, but the proof was in our logbooks.
“Letterboxing is supposed to be non-competitive,” says Robinson, “but people set their own goals. Some letterboxers really get into the creative angle, others try to find as many boxes as they can.” One of Robinson’s goals is to hide a box off every exit of I-89. She is more than halfway to accomplishing this.
My competitive appetite whetted, I wanted to see how many of the five remaining letterboxes I had targeted that day we could actually locate. We headed up Route 12 to Northfield, where we found a letterbox tucked behind twin trees on a lovely nature trail above the elementary school. Children’s voices wafted up the hill. In the letterbox’s logbook we noticed a number of stamp images we had seen in the Randolph letterbox logbook, but what really caught our attention was the hometowns of letterboxers who had also found this peaceful, out-of-the-way spot: Boston, Mass.; West Hartford, Conn.; Galion, Ohio; Oaxaca, Mexico.
None of these people had stumbled upon this site by accident; they had followed clues and come specifically to find the letterbox hidden there.
We ended up in Montpelier, at the Statehouse, following clues to a site there called “The Magic of Fourteen.” The clues alone contained enough state history to make a pamphlet, and the hand-carved rubber stamp with a folk art image of the Statehouse was our prize. Before lunch, we had found five of the six letterboxes we had been hunting. We had been to beautiful places we would never have otherwise known about if not for the letterbox clues. We had discovered by studying the stamp images in the logbooks that this was a beloved game for families, couples, and people with dogs.
I was probably hooked.