Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Letterboxing = fun!

That irrepressibly rascally journalist, Mark LaFlamme, is at it again. This time, he leads us over hill and dale throughout Maine to find weird things buried in odd places. Typical!

I'll let him speak for himself, since he does it so well. Good fun!
Mystery, nature, art and treasure intersect in letterboxing
Mark LaFlamme , Staff writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009 05:00 am

I'll be honest with you. I didn't expect to find a treasure at the base of the tree in the forests of Westbrook. Why would I? The landscape showed little of man's influence. There were trees of all varieties and sizes. There was a babbling stream that sounded like it suffered hiccups. There was a blanket of last year's leaves on the ground, all soggy and dead.

When I scooped away a mound of wet pine needles and stuck my hand into the hole, I expected one of two things: a reptile would bite me or a tree spirit would grab my fingers and pull me down into some Tolkien world where I'd be forced to slave for Keebler elves.

Instead, I found a plastic box. This was the heretofore fabled Millbrook Trout, a collection of items left in this secret place a year ago and visited by dozens since.

There is something chilling about holding knowledge about a hidden treasure out in the wilderness. The box itself becomes iconic. Inside are things a stranger planted after stealing into the forest on a different date and under different circumstances. Clawing into the contents of the box is like treasure hunting and time travel. It feels mystical, almost forbidden.

But it's not forbidden, it's letterboxing and it's catching on. A mix of scavenger hunting, navigation and art, some say it derives from the ancient custom of leaving a rock on a cairn after reaching the summit of a mountain. The more recent version began in England in 1854 when a Dartmoor National Park guide left a bottle by Cranmere Pool with his calling card in it and an invitation to those who found the bottle to add theirs.

Now thousands of people are venturing into woods or back alleys, clawing beneath rocks, crossing streams, braving hornets, sweeping craftily away from the eyes of non-letterboxers and following sometimes vague clues in a quest to get a stamp in their letterboxing diary and to leave a stamp of their own.

Around the country, it is estimated that 25,000 letterboxes - each with its own theme - have been placed. As of this writing, 1,778 of those are in Maine and I went searching for a dozen or so of them.

In Saco, I had no luck at all. In the hunt for the Bogart in Lilac, I was told through online clues to drive a road named after an American president, stop before a "blind drive" sign, hike a trail and either walk or wade across a stream. Only there was no "blind drive" sign on any of the presidential streets including Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson, and so I never laid eyes or hands upon the letterbox stashed in July 2006.

In Yarmouth, confidence was restored. It was night when I went searching for the Royal River Letterbox, which had remained hidden in plain view for six years. I carried a flashlight in one hand, a baseball bat in the other (in case of zombies or letterbox pirates) and followed the instructions carefully. There. On the right. Five brick circles marking the end of my journey. A short distance away, under a rock that looked like any other, another box with another treasure inside.

You will notice that I'm vague in my descriptions of these journeys. Among the code of conduct of letterboxing is the obvious rule that the presence of the boxes themselves should not be revealed or hinted at to those not involved in the sport. Leave no trace of your own presence. This is a society of such secrecy and nomenclature, it is worthy of a novel by Dan Brown.

In Lewiston, I went in search of a five-part letterbox series in the theme of "A Nightmare Before Christmas." Part of the clue was written like this: "There is a place where some play, some walk, and some eat. As you pass the wooden welcome sign on the right, take a breath of fresh air, enjoy the sounds of the various birds and crickets chirping. Now, we are ready to begin our journey..."

Enjoy the sounds of nature my ass. I overshot the first clue, stumbled on the second in a hollow log by pure fluke, had to backtrack through the forest. A group of kids playing basketball eyed me as though I was a madman clawing at trees and roots. One of the letterboxes had been scavenged from its box, ruined by elements, tossed across the forest floor. I could not read the contents of the box or apply my stamp (mine is a palm tree until I can get one fashioned in the shape of a bat) to the book therein.

My wife, whom I bring along as a cheap GPS unit, wanted to continue on. I wanted to quit. And here it was revealed that in the language of letterboxing, I am something of a slackboxer, described thusly: "The practice of accompanying one or more letterboxers on a letterbox quest but not participating in the reading or deciphering of the clues, identifying landmarks, reading trail maps or otherwise participating in the letterboxing hunt."

Yet, there is a soft addictive quality about the hunt for things left by strangers, and I came back. In Auburn, I went on two searches, both around Lake Auburn. In one, six paces from the corner of a rock wall led me to the bounty I sought. At another, eight paces toward Lake Auburn led me only to a stack of rocks and some animal bones, which in itself is a treasure.

Those of a rational mind will tell you that the joy in letterboxing is obvious. Get exercise by hiking trails and climbing over fallen tree limbs. Commune with nature. See places you would not normally see and sharpen your mental acumen.

Me, I have a motorcycle, which means I don't like hiking. And communing with nature means flying over my handlebars into the puckerbrush.

No, I'm all about the weird connection to strangers through trinkets left in secret places. The thrill for me is in the cloak and the dagger, of being one of only a handful that's in the know. Here is the nine-to-fiver's chance to play Robert Langdon or Indiana Jones, dodging low-hanging branches and bad clues instead of spears. You can search across the world or in your own backyard.

Letterboxes are everywhere. And I can find nine out of 12 of them.

To explore similar pursuits in Maine, go to

What the heck is geocaching? Click here.
What the heck is letterboxing? Click here.

No comments: