Boxing with Mark & Sue
by Don & Gwen, CA
This interview happened accidently when we asked Alafair if she would consider doing an interview with us for our Interview Series. Well, she turned our question around on us and said that since we were headed to Dartmoor with the Baker's Dozen, would we, in turn, agree to be interviewed by her?!
After some hesitation, we agreed. We went to England and forgot all about the interview and one day asked Funhog if she wanted to work with Alafair on the interview. Da Hawg, being our website's official cheerleader, quickly agreed. And you now have the result to the left!
Our thanks go out to both Alafair and Funhog for turning the tables on us! This interviewing thing is much more difficult than I ever imagined. Thankfully, after this interview, we can go back to asking the questions and not worrying about answering them!
How did you discover letterboxing? Can you share what your very first impressions were, even before you found your very first box?
Sue: I am an avid newspaper addict and read the newspaper cover to cover even if they are weeks old! One day, while reading The Hartford Courant, I noticed a picture of 2 women looking at an eagles nest. The article below it described how these women had been searching for a letterbox and ended up at this great location. Knowing Mark’s long standing interest in birds, I cut the article out for him and told him about this pastime called letterboxing that began in England. We discussed it a little, made a visit to a local craft store, selected our pinecone stamp, a green inkpad, a journal and put it on the back burner, along with the other ideas that I routinely snip from the papers.
Mark: Well two months later was a “landmark” birthday for Sue. Realizing that this wasn’t her most favorite number and that she had more than a little birthday angst, I secretly planned a get-away weekend at a bed and breakfast in Deep River, CT. I wanted everything to be perfect so she would see that the best was yet to come. I arranged the whole thing myself – theatre tickets at the Goodspeed Opera House, dinner at the Gelston House and even a bouquet of flowers for the room! Boy, did I get mileage out of that!
Anyway, I remembered that article about that letterboxing thing we had discussed several months prior. So before we left, I secretly printed off 2 clues for the area in which the bed and breakfast was located. Jay Drew’s “Zoom, Zoom” letterbox, our first find, was one of those clues. After that very first box we both knew we had found something that was special. But we never believed then that we would become so involved in this game and Jay would become a special friend.
by Funhog, OR
Letterboxing has been variously called a “game,” a “sport,” and, more generically, an “activity.” Share with us your interpretation.
Sue: I think of letterboxing as our outdoor “adventures.” We never know where the trail might lead us, and we have found the most beautiful, challenging, and peaceful areas that we never knew existed. Mark works behind a computer all day, and letterboxing gets him out and moving. I cannot get him to walk around our neighborhood, but if I mention going after a box, he can’t move fast enough! I am very active in my job, but love being outdoors ….even working in my garden beats housecleaning any day!!!
Mark: I believe one of the best things about letterboxing is that there are so many different levels to this pastime - it’s one or all of these terms to some people. I bore more than a little teasing about one of my posts to the talk list when I referred to letterboxing as an onion – but I still vouch for the metaphor’s validity.
The outer portion would represent what a casual, family or the new letterboxer experiences – the “activity” portion. As you peel off the next inner layer, it might signify the more advanced letterboxer – or the “sport.” The inner most layers of the letterboxing onion would be those that only the most advanced letterboxers find – the underground aspect of boxing – “the game” portion, if you will. And again, many stay at one level and never advance deeper; others cut to the chase and peel away to the innermost core – that’s the beauty of letterboxing – different strokes for different folks. No level is correct and not every level is for all!
The hobby appeals to different people on many different levels. Is there any aspect of letterboxing that stands out for you as being of paramount importance?
Sue: The great areas we have discovered and our time together out on the trails away from the daily grind is the most important to me.
Mark: The nature aspect is the most important to me. The beautiful waterfalls, trails, mountains, gorges, and wildlife that we’ve enjoyed while hunting Tupperware have been the greatest thrill for me. Being out there in the woods, the smell of a pine canopy overhead and the birds singing to us make it all worthwhile – better than any concert you could attend or movie you view. Almost of equal importance though is the social aspect. Just love getting out there and making new friends, hearing their stories, the boxes they’ve visited and what brought them into the fold. Whether it is a gathering, a small organized event or even on the trail with another couple, we always depart with a few more good friends, some great stories and a new appreciation for this pastime!
We'd like to ask you to talk about your deep sense of commitment to the letterboxing community and all the effort you put into bringing relative strangers together whether it be via your website, the talk lists or personal contact. Can you share with us where your desire to do this comes from?
Sue: We enjoy letterboxing so much it could be that we are always anxious to share this great “hobby” with others. Mark has a much deeper involvement in all aspects of letterboxing area than I do. I enjoy it all, but he is the one responsible for all the efforts behind the website, the talk lists, etc.
Mark: Darned if I know! Seriously I think it’s a will to give a little something back to a diversion from which we’ve received so much joy and pleasure. You may not believe it but prior to letterboxing, I suffered from a good degree of shyness – so much so, that it prohibited me from being in a situation where I was with complete strangers. I always needed to know a few people before I would attend a party or activity and then would stay with those I knew, never venturing past that safety zone. In hindsight, my shyness held me back from many wonderful situations and from truly enjoying life in general.
Then something changed in me when I was introduced to letterboxing. Sue and I stayed on the fringes of the letterboxing community our first 6 months as newbies until we attended our first gathering, the first Moose Hill Gathering in Sharon, MA hosted by RustyPuff and CSCM. It was there that we hooked up with TeamGreenDragon – another couple of newbies, but much more savvy about what was happening in letterboxing than us. Our friendship was instant and deepened as the years wore on. We also met Jay Drew there, as well as others that would eventually become close friends.
Then we discovered at subsequent gatherings that there was a complete league of like-minded wackos who hunted letterboxes, just as we did! These strangers, all united in a common interest, soon became friends. That shy cocoon was being replaced by an emerging social letterboxing butterfly! And the rest was a natural progression, I think. The more pleasure and excitement we received from letterboxing, the more we wanted to contribute and give something back in return. Since we were hesitant to actually carve our first stamp or place our first box, we looked for other venues from which we could contribute. I’ve always been interested in writing and our foray into our website filled both a creative and contributory need.
To answer the final question, I guess this desire to share comes from our passion for letterboxing and all that it encompasses and the desire to “pay it forward.” It’s not often that you find a diversion that truly changes your life. But, I still believe that we receive so much more than we give. One example of receiving more than we give became one of the most rewarding and touching moments for us in letterboxing. The very recent Hog-sponsored Make-the-Pepe’s-a-Pinecone-Stamp episode was amazing! All of these pinecone images you see here, decorating this page, were part of that effort. A total of 17 wonderfully hand-carved stamps started appearing in our mailbox for no apparent reason! Plus the street name on the address was wrong so we knew it was an organized effort! What a wonderful feeling to think that letterboxing friends, and some strangers, took time out of their busy schedules to carve us a pinecone and spend the postage to get them to us! Even though it was a piggy-inspired conspiracy – it was a conspiracy that truly touched our hearts and made our eyes mist over more than once! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – letterboxers are the nicest people we’ve ever met and this recent kindness will never be forgotten by either of us.
The two of you enjoy a great deal of popularity and visibility by attending many gatherings, organizing or joining in on weekend boxing adventures for and with groups and, of course, recently being tour group leader of the Baker’s Dozen trip to Dartmoor. Boxers come in all shapes, sizes and natures. Besides letterboxing being the common thread that brings folk together, what do you see as the key to your personal success in bringing such diverse groups of boxers together?
Our visibility on the talk lists and our website has let people know who we are and they in turn feel like they know us due to a certain level of comfort and familiarity. We can’t tell you the number of emails we get from letterboxers who write us like they know us and are friends. But – we really are! And that’s the best – to think that by just reading our website and posts fellow letterboxers feel comfortable enough that they write as if communicating with friends. We love those emails – please keep them coming! Thus, when we decide to host or back an event or sponsor an excursion like our recent Dartmoor Trip, our attendees at least had some idea who we both are, a sense of familiarity and things just seem to work out. We are still amazed at the wonderful group dynamic all of our Dartmoor travelers shared – and you couldn’t assemble a more diverse group of people! Most likely it’s just sharing a common love of letterboxing, with some enthusiasm and sociability mixed in for good measure.
by Jay Drew, CT
Speaking of Dartmoor, did your trip to the Mecca of Letterboxing affect your attitudes toward the hobby in the U.S.? Did you notice any significant differences in practice there?
In our conversations with British letterboxers, we noticed a common love of the land of Dartmoor. Sure, we Americans love our forests and environs but there is a true passion and protection for all that is Dartmoor and letterboxing. Spannerman told us that the company he worked for closed their plant near Dartmoor and moved many miles north. It was then he decided to remain behind and not follow his coworkers who were relocating. “I couldn’t be that far away from moor,” he said. He gets out on Dartmoor at least several times a week and “misses it when away.” The beauty of this land gets into your soul as the Bakers Dozen discovered. Dartmoor was a truly wonderful experience.
The major difference in practice would have to be in the way clues are written and the way letterboxes are found. In Dartmoor, triangulation is the norm for finding a letterbox. When we letterboxed there with the Bakers Dozen, we did not follow that standard to reveal where letterboxes were hidden. With as large a group as ours was, the triangulation method would have taken forever. We were intent on getting our Dartmoor 100 patches and had only 3 full days in which to accomplish that goal. So we took to the “scavenging” method, which means we all just headed up a tor [those wonderful rock formations set atop the rolling hills] and looked at any “likely” place where a letterbox might be hidden. This method proved different, fun and very fruitful. At times there were 4 to 5 boxes found at once! Scavenging was enjoyable in Dartmoor but we much prefer letterboxing the way it’s done here. Nothing like a well written mystery clue or a story clue that leads the finder down a tree-covered path to a lookout that spans the horizon!
Our stamp artistry far exceeds that of Dartmoor. While England gave birth to letterboxing, the carving talent and creativity quotient belong to those US, in our opinion. We should be proud of the talent found here. We were told that about 75 percent of all Dartmoor stamps are commercially made. Many of the Dartmoor stamps are designed by letterboxers, but computer-generated and sent to one of several commercial stamp houses in the UK. Our stamps in the US have that wonderful folk art component which is missing in those commercially made stamps. We do now notice a recent trend towards hand-carved stamps in Dartmoor since several groups of Americans have been there and some of the Brits have found their way here to experience letterboxing in the New World and seem to be taken with the hand carved method over the commercial.
Popularity has aspects that are both positive and negative. Rumor has it that you've even had boxers ask if they could tag along on a weekend wedding anniversary trip. When the two of you want some “alone time” to enjoy a weekend or an afternoon of boxing, do you find it difficult to tell boxing friends that you’re off on your own?
We don’t think we have a problem when it comes to being on our own. If they truly are friends and we need some alone time, we would expect them to understand. Our Vermont place always serves as a haven. It’s a place to which we can escape, relax and really enjoy nature. We don’t even have a computer there! [I won’t let him!!!] When we need some alone time, that’s normally where we’ll head. Our friends know by now that if we want company in Vermont, we’ll ask. Otherwise, it’s a place where we can be ourselves, by ourselves.
You’ve asked this question in your interviews of others so it seems only fair to pose it to you. Letterboxing has grown tremendously and will likely continue to do so. Where do you think boxing is headed? Do you see any trends that are disturbing or very positive overall?
Wait – no fair using our words against us! We do see an exponential growth to letterboxing and can think of some trends in both the positive and negative arenas.
On the negative side, it’s probably safe to assume that the environment will suffer as more letterboxers take to the trails. Missing boxes and poorly re-hidden boxes will also increase as more find out about our special hobby. On a recent afternoon of letterboxing, almost every letterbox was either poorly hidden or left open, resulting in wet logbooks and inkpads.
On the positive side though, with increased growth, we will have a whole new bunch of talent with fresh ideas! Who knows what exciting methods of clue writing may be revealed? New people mean new talent mean innovation – maybe another up-and-coming Legerdemaine or Der Mad Stamper. But the most important part, as we see it, is that new people are the future of this game. All of the work put forth by present letterboxers, whether it is artful carving, wonderful box placement, superbly written clues, informative websites and the like is perpetuated by each new letterboxer that comes into the fold. While we may disagree as to whether we want this pastime to grow, we must admit that we’d rather see it continue and flourish than die out; leaving those wonderful letterboxes to waste away in their hidey holes.
With proper education, we might minimize some of the apparent pitfalls that come with growth. The Newboxers talk list seems to fit a need with educating those new to letterboxing and we’ve noticed an increased awareness in replanting well that wasn’t there several months ago. Another aid might be to ensure that gatherings always include some form of educational component that keep new and old boxers informed of the basics and advanced techniques. Some educational sessions could include how to better hide letterboxes, where not to plant, why we should respect the environment, and how to carve a stamp or make a hand-crafted logbook. The more work that we invest in new letterboxers in the form of education and guidance, the more letterboxing will reap greater dividends in the future.
You count amongst friends letterboxers from all over the US, not to mention the UK and perhaps other parts of the world. In terms of internet activity, letterboxing continues to splinter itself into regional groups as well as others defined by special interests. Do you see this as a positive or natural progression due to more people getting involved? Do you see any negative impact on letterboxing?
Personally, the LBNA talk list will always be where it’s at! While we’ve gone through our problems there now and again, this is THE place where this game is played and is still so connected to the actual beginnings of letterboxing. And we are proud to be a moderator there! That being said, regional or specialized lists do flourish, fill a need and even take some of the pressure off of the big list. Postings that relate to a specific area are much better placed in their own region’s talk list. There is also a much tighter sense of community in these regional lists where letterboxers in a common area can discuss area boxes and even hide an exclusive clue or two in the files of these lists.
The only negative that we can think of at the moment is that some letterboxers participate only on the smaller lists so the main list no longer is a full representation of all of the players. When we first joined almost 3 years ago, we knew everyone’s name and personality by their posts on the big list since it was the only game in town. Now, with some just participating in regional lists, there are many letterboxers that are not represented on the national list. It forces those that want to keep a handle on letterboxing to join each of the regional lists in order to get a full overview of who’s who in each part of the country.
What is the funniest thing that has happened to you during a boxing outing? Any close calls with danger?
The funniest thing that happened to us was during the Monster Mash this past October. Sue and I took a Friday off from work and were doing a bunch of those great monster-themed letterboxes in the Mansfield area. Those that know me well know I love coffee and drink a good amount of it, especially in the morning. After finding a box, I told Sue that I was taking a rest stop after re-hiding it. Sue said she’d meet me at the next letterbox. I was in the process of my natural call when I heard Sue talking, quite loudly, to someone! I immediately finished my business as quickly as possible, just as a group of newbies came into view! Luckily, they were none the wiser but Sue and I laughed as we left them. The newbies almost got a real personal exchange from me! No close calls with danger so far!
Since you are fortunate enough to live in Connecticut and to have a country getaway in Vermont as well, you have boxed in areas that have a glut of letterboxes as well as ones where they are sparse. Do you have a preference?
As much as we love the ability to find tons of letterboxes in many towns and trails of Connecticut, we really enjoy the country in Vermont – there are so many beautiful spots there. Vermont is very special to us and the fact that there are so few boxes makes us wants to contribute and place more there so that the letterboxing public can avail themselves of all this wonderful state has to offer.
Also, the scarcity of boxes reminds us of the early days of letterboxing in this country where so few boxes existed that it brought about a much deeper appreciation for them. Because we exhausted most of the Vermont letterboxes to hunt a few years ago, we learned about the Valley Quest project and immediately purchased their book of clues. While paying for letterboxing clues might go against the ideals of our early letterboxing forefathers, the funds collected from this first book and the recent second edition are used for the community at large in the Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont. The educational and historical components of these boxes are excellent. They also use a series of volunteers who act as box monitors, who routinely check the status of all of the Valley Quest boxes within their given area. I can remember only one time where we’ve looked for a Valley Quest box and not found it because it was lost. And after a quick email to Steve Glaser, director, the box was replaced several weeks later! We recently celebrated our 50th Valley Quest find and were rewarded with a great letter of thanks from Steve and Simon as well as a new Valley Quest baseball cap for each of us!
Are there places that you have on your wish list for future letterboxing forays?
We are heading to Michigan this June to visit a long-standing dream destination of Sue’s – Mackinac Island and hope, while in Michigan, to attend the Great Lakes Gathering there on June 18. We are very excited about that. Finally we’ll get a chance to meet SpringChick! On this trip, we plan on searching for letterboxes in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. As far as a future wish list, we would put Oregon on the top of the list of places we haven’t been and would like to box – especially that desert habitat that Funhog so aptly described in our interview and the Pacific coastline of Oregon. Stone Mountain in Georgia, Texas, Maryland, Washington DC and Virginia are all other areas that we intend to avail ourselves of the local letterboxing fare.
We all know that the Pepe's are, first and foremost, letterboxing addicts. Are there other activities in your lives that hold a similar interest level?
Sue: I enjoy reading suspense novels, making memory quilts, needlework and family time together. I love taking my two nieces with us letterboxing but since they’ve entered middle/high school, their activities now prohibit them the free time needed to go with us. My favorite outdoor activities include working in my perennial gardens, walking, snowshoeing and canoeing.
Mark: I’m a voracious reader – always have been. I also like to bird watch, canoe, snowshoe and photography. Sue and I collect antiques – in fact, we sold them to a minor extent back before our 2 sons were born. Along those lines, we find great satisfaction in refinishing old furniture. We are in the process of restoring an old Hoosier cabinet that we bought for our Vermont kitchen. I’m not sure if we are as passionate about any of these endeavors as we are letterboxing, but they are diversions that we very much enjoy and participate in frequently.
Your mantra, “Just get out there and box.” seems to be representative of your letterboxing philosophy in general. Has this come to represent more to you than just a slogan or message to boxers?
We’re not sure what it means to others but we’ve always meant it to as a way to challenge letterboxers to look past any negativity, number-crunching and that we should just enjoy the hunt. This was how the originators of this hobby meant it. We all want to be respected and valued as individuals so we should treat each other as such. To us, the key is getting out there on the trails, enjoying nature and the company of others – back to basics – and to remain positive about it.