Follow @listofsurprises Excuse Me: Are You a Traveling Stamp?
Icebreakers are my Achilles heel. I generally consider myself a fairly sociable person, and I think we can all agree that the party don’t start until K@te or Ke$ha walk in. But whenever I am stuck in a forced ‘get to know you’ activity, I am a disaster. Since I was once a college freshman and have couple jobs under my belt, I’ve tried a slew of them.
I’ve had to play that name game where you all describe yourself with an adjective alliterative to your name more times than I can count, and the only person I remember is a guy at business camp who chose the monkier “Mysterious Mahesh.” I have untrustingly fallen into trust falls, embarrassed myself and all around me with impromptu raps, and air-beard-stroked my way through a pantomimed impression of Abe Lincoln.
Worst of all is being asked for ‘something interesting about myself.’ While one would really hope that finding a singular response to this question would not be too much to ask, I am afraid that (despite my generally sparkling personality) I find it to be exactly that. For whatever reason, no one seems captivated by my LOST-watching stories, or even by my account of the one time I got a really bad papercut while quietly reading. For a long while, I just said I was one of five kids. Interesting enough, but I eventually realized that this did not hold up in situations where other people say stuff like “I was once a guest on Good Morning America” or “I have four pet lemurs.” I have, I swear, actually heard both. By my senior year of college, I had given up and resorted to telling strangers that I had a childhood crush on Al from Home Improvement. I was in desperate need for something interesting.
I am breathing a sigh of relief, because I have finally found my answer. I, my friends, am a letterboxer. No, this is not the martial arts/Boggle hybrid you are imagining- although I would also be great at that. Letterboxing is, as Mattern family letterboxing pioneer Nora describes it, “a scavenger hunt that never ends.” And who doesn’t like scavenger hunts? No one I care to associate with, that’s who.
Here’s the gist. People carve elaborate rubber stamps out of crafts store rubber or erasers. Then they hide them places and put clues to their location online. Sometimes they are hidden in urban spots- libraries, stores, whatever- and sometimes along hiking routes. The clues range from the technical (“Take a compass bearing of 30 degrees…”) to the lyrical (There's a school for young wealthies/ to the south and southwest/ where they're taught their lessons/ and on Sundays they're blessed”). On occasion, the hider carves a series of stamps along one theme and hides them along a trail. The last set I found was ‘Jetsons meet the Flinstones,’ with about ten stamps hidden in a Massachusetts park.
You, the search-ee, carve your own signature stamp and obtain a little notebook. You go and find the hidden stamps and stamp them in your book. At the end of the train, there is a little tablet for you to put your own stamp in, allowing the hider to see that you’ve been there. It gives you a weird sense of accomplishment, and it’s cool because they’re hidden all over the place. You’d never know! It makes you feel like you’re a secret agent.
I have done a little digging and found out that my new hobby goes way back. Back in 1854, the English region of Dartmoor was a hard-to-reach hiking spot. A local wilderness guide named James Perrott decided to reward visitors intrepid enough to reach its most perilous points. Perrot sounds awesome. He was the kind of guy who went on record that he had not only seen but fought the hound of the Baskervilles, a folkloric demon dog that supposedly haunted the Dartmoor moors and inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story. Remind me never to go up against him in an interesting-fact-off. More relevant here, he was nationally renowned for his knowledge of the local wilderness.
It was this knowledge of the terrain that allowed him to find a perfect hiding spot for a small metal canister. He hoped that visitors would seek it out, leave their calling card, and triumph in their membership in this exclusive exploratory club. Perrott, and eventually his sons, led a small troupe of early letterboxing devotees. Thirty-four years after the first box, they replaced the bottle with a sturdier tin box. A few years after that, people started signing a little book instead of leaving their cards.
One 1893 visitor to the moors described his letterboxing experience like this:
“In parts the Moor looks as if it had been seared by lightning and then scored by a giant’s plough. Presently, from a green, wet hollow, among the eternal slopes of peat, the sound of water, feebly trickling, falls upon the ear...
And what is the aspect presented by this wonderous piece of water, which we have toiled so far to see? A slight depression in a soil of inky blackness, bounded on every hand y morass, and having on the western side a narrow strip of water nowhere attaining a foot in depth, and which in hot water disappears in the bog. By the margin stands a low cairn of white stones, erected by Perrott, the well-known Chagford guide; within it will be found a canister containing the names of the adventurous few who have succeeded in discovering this melancholy hollow.”
Two years later, another remarked that when he found the can, he got a kick out of previous explorers' signatures and comments of ‘more or less villainous verse.” Victorians: salty as ever. The picture above is the modern Dartmoor box.
When people realized it might be fun to communicate a bit with their fellow explorers, a rubber stamp was added. People left a self-addressed postcard for the next visitor to stamp, inscribe, and send back to them. Here are some letterboxers “signing in” on the moor in 1920.
By 1937, the Western Morning News newspaper took the box under their wing and erected the granite box that still sits on the moor today. The next year, a group of hikers built two more boxes on a Dartmoor pond.
Until the 1970’s, letterboxing remained a Dartmoor-only activity with only a few dozen hidden stamps. Apparently the hobby developed weird twist over there, with the standard boxes coupled with ‘mobile boxers’- people who wait for someone to approach them and ask, “Are you a traveling stamp?” before handing over the goods. I truly enjoy imagining what kind of response you’d get if you asked the wrong person this question. More standard letterboxers quit it with the postcards, and switched over the stamp system we’re using today.
The activity’s popularity didn’t boom until 1993, when Smithsonian magazine printed a story on the peculiar pursuit. The first verified American letterbox was placed in 1998. Thanks to the efforts of an EMS store in Waterford, CT, the state established an early lead on the domestic letterboxing front- today, it has over 2,000 within its borders. Dartmoor has more than a thousand, and it would be impossible to count the global total. They exist on every continent, and you are probably within a five mile radius of one right now. Check out the clues here. You, too, can break that ice- all you need is a stamp, friends!
Hall, Randy. Letterboxing.org, 2005. http://www.letterboxing.org/faq/faq.html#031
Granstorm, Chris. “We Live and Breathe Letterboxing.” Smithsonian Magazine. April 1998, Vol. 29 Issue 1, p82. Reprinted on LbNA. Last Modified: 10/12/2006. http://www.letterboxing.org/Smithsonian.html
Page, John Lloyd Warden. An Exploration of Dartmoor and its Antiquities. London: Seeley and Co, Lt.d, 1895.
Page, John Lloyd Warden. The Rivers of Devon. London: Seeley and Co, Ltd. 1893. http://books.google.com/books?id=IOIMAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA133&dq=canister,+dartmoor&lr=&as_brr=1&ei=QWXXS76LE5DqywS5_5X5CQ&cd=23#v=onepage&q=canister%2C%20dartmoor&f=false
Rowe, Samuel. A Perambulation on the Ancient and Royal Forest of Dartmoor and Venville. Exeter” James. G Commin, 1896. http://books.google.com/books?id=BPIVAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA421&dq=james+perrott,+dartmoor&hl=en&ei=NFnXS4fkIMH7lwezk9T7Aw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDwQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=james%20perrott&f=false
Swinscow, Anne. “More Dartmoor Letterboxes.” First published December 1986. Republished by History of Dartmoor Letterboxing blog, April 24, 2004. http://dartmoorhistory.blogspot.com/
“We Live and Breathe Letterboxing.” History. http://www.weliveandbreathe.com/index.htm