- Los Angeles Times
- January 4, 2007 Thursday
- Fun with their stamp on it;
Letterboxers get to leave their mark as they follow clues and
enjoy the outdoors.
- Shana Ting Lipton, Special to The
- SECTION: CALENDAR WEEKEND; Calendar
Desk; Part E; Pg. 22
MORE than a century before technology-inspired treasure hunters
put geocaching on the map, British hobbyists known as "letterboxers"
headed out on their own trails.
- An outdoor activity not unlike treasure
hunting, letterboxing has its roots in the craggy moorland of
mid-19th century Devon, England. It is said that "Letterbox
1" was the result of a hiking guide having left a well-hidden
container of letters, presumably written to subsequent hikers,
along a trail -- thus the name "letterboxing." This
evolved into enthusiasts' placing notebooks and rubber stamps
in containers sought out via clues spread through word of mouth
and published in a catalog. When searchers found a spot, they
used their own rubber stamps to mark the notebook, and the stamp
in the container to mark their notebooks. A little-known open-air
hobby was born.
- Today, people of all ages, in Southern
California and beyond, unobtrusively participate in the pastime
-- albeit with a 21st century twist, as the World Wide Web offers
a link to the great wide open.
- Letterboxing aficionados post and
read clue lists and directions that are placed -- most often
anonymously, using a made-up name -- on websites such as Letterboxing
North America and Atlas Quest. They then set out to locales such
as overlooks or public gardens in search of well-hidden letterboxes,
which these days are small waterproof plastic containers such
as vitamin bottles and Tupperware.
- Unlike in geocaching, the containers
don't hold trinket treasures meant to be traded. Instead, inside
are a rubber stamp and a small journal. Visiting letterboxers
come equipped with their own journal and "signature stamp."
When they have sufficiently surveyed the scene to ascertain that
no outsiders are watching, they stamp their journal with the
box stamp and the box journal with their stamp.
- Beyond the rules and technicalities,
letterboxing seems founded on a liberating thirst for discovery
and a desire to explore one's creativity. The sometimes-handmade
stamps found in the boxes often relate to whatever theme a given
journey might have. For example, a feather adorns one in the
Feather Falls area of La Canada Flintridge's Descanso Gardens.
Some clue lists double as historic tours of areas such as Old
Hollywood or Will Rogers State Historic Park . Others follow
pop culture via shooting locations of the Bat Cave from the 1960s
"Batman" TV series or locales in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."
- Some, such as public relations executive
Lynne Doll of Glendale, believe that when it comes to this pastime,
it's the journey, not just the destination. "I have lived
in Southern California my whole life," she says. "Letterboxing
has taken me to parts of Griffith Park that I've never been to."
Doll, who discovered the hobby through a friend, Stephanie Irey,
goes on letterboxing treks with her husband, daughter and daughter's
- Irey, who runs a catering company
in Pasadena, enjoys the destination reward even more than the
letterboxing journey. Finding the letterbox, she says, gave her
young son and his friends the incentive to experience nature:
"It was an added benefit to be able to do something outdoors."
She and her husband have also taken the activity across state
and country lines. "We traveled to Montreal a couple of
years ago, so we looked for letterboxes there," she says.
"That's something that's always in our mind when we travel,
because they're all over the world."
- One such traveler, a 40-year-old
musician and music teacher who prefers to identify herself by
her online letterboxing name, "Kantexan," brought her
passion for the hobby from her home near Dallas to a former zoo
in Los Angeles while visiting this summer. The online clues to
her L.A. box read like an Edgar Allan Poe tale:
- "You will soon hear the ghostly
roars of lions, tigers and bears long since gone. After you pass
these cages you will see a set of eight wide cement steps going
down the hill on your right with a metal railing down the center
- Anonymity and secrecy are quite
clearly prerequisites in this hobby. "We like the mystery
of it," Doll says.
- "When you are searching for
a box you have no idea what the planter's race, sex, religion
or age is," says Kantexan, whose identifying stamp is a
seahorse. The activity, apart from get-togethers, requires little
to no in-person interaction.
- There is nevertheless a kind of
fierce and at times outsider-wary solidarity. Some "silverbacks,"
as the veteran hobbyists dub themselves, shun publicity, fearing
that the nuances of letterboxing will be lost in the media. One
such concern is that wannabe letterboxers will not be secretive
enough to keep outside observers from damaging or stealing the
boxes. Such alleged interlopers are known in the community as
"noxers" (nonletterboxers). True letterboxers are required
to care for their boxes and report when others have been damaged
or gone missing.
Yet members of the community will be the first to explain that
the hobby's contemporary U.S. incarnation was born through the
media. An article on letterboxing in England published in a 1998
issue of Smithsonian magazine first piqued the interest of would-be
letterboxers in the U.S., beginning full-throttle in the Northeast
and expanding into California.
Some of the hobby's adherents see its longevity as contingent
on sharing it with other (stealthy and discreet) individuals.
Kantexan adds: "Perhaps historians may look back and consider
[letterboxing] one of the most widespread folk-art movements
of the 21st century." Or perhaps they'll keep quiet, for
fear of revealing too much of a cleverly hidden secret.