Letterboxing is a hike combined with a treasure hunt, a 100-year-old weekend hobby in which hikers follow a series of clues to find a hidden box. In the previous century, English enthusiasts passed the location of the only two letterboxes in existence by word of mouth, but now letterboxers all over the world download sets of clues online that lead them through a beautiful hike or picturesque town to find one of thousands of letterboxes hidden in any corner of the globe. Sometimes you follow all the directions to the letter, turning west at the tree near the split rock and walking 15 adult paces to the hollow at the roots of the birch, and the box is gone: lost, stolen or flooded away. Sometimes, it’s there, miraculously right where it should be, and pulling it out and opening it up feels like your best childhood birthday surprise all over again.
In an era in which the Global Positioning System allows you to plot a course from anywhere on the planet you happen to find yourself, directly to a precise handful of earth somewhere else, letterboxing forces you to take the scenic path. Letterboxing routes, unlike those of its GPS-driven cousin, geocaching, can meander and turn, taking adventurers not necessarily on the straightest route from the parking lot to the letterbox, but on the most interesting walk there. Directions sometimes include detours to a lovely lookout, or notes about the remaining traces of the land’s history, old train tracks or iron mines or rock quarries here in the Hudson Valley. Slowing down and observing your surroundings are part of letterboxing’s ethos, and since the letterboxes themselves do not always survive, the journey can literally be more rewarding than the goal.
Letterboxing rules require you to make sure that no one else can see you as you remove and unpack the box, where you will find a rubber stamp, sometimes hand-carved, a stamp pad, a pen and a small notebook. You stamp your own letterboxing notebook with the stamp inside the box, and stamp the box’s notebook with your own stamp. In addition to printing the stamp, you record a little bit about the journey, who you are and who came with you, the date and where you’re from. You read the notebook in the box to see who has discovered it before you. Sometimes you’ve just missed them. Sometimes, you’re the first person to find the box in years, or ever. If the letterbox is hidden in a busy area, you must do your journaling and stamping quickly and furtively, then repack everything in its waterproof container, hiding it again for the next adventurer, protecting it from someone who might find it by accident and take it home. No one should ever find a letterbox by accident. You have be in on the secret. You have to earn it.
Letterboxing on a hike up steep Hook Mountain overlooking the Hudson this weekend with two eager 10 year old boys, our son and his friend, my husband and I discovered a subtler treasure hunt someone had created. Good citizen that he is, my husband had bent down to pick up a bit of paper along the side of the steep trail that zigzags up the mountain. A minute later, he saw another, then realized they were a set, two carefully torn scraps of thick paper. We stopped and looked up and down the stretch of trail we were on. About every 25 adult paces or so, on either side of the trail, little pieces of paper were not so much scattered as carefully laid, clean and dry. They could not have been there very long. I picked up a few and turned them to the printed side to find that they were pieces of a single-spaced letter. A love letter, I realized, though no fragment was larger than three words square. The unconnected nouns and verbs did not tell a story, but they painted a familiar picture. Freshman year. dorm. kissed me. talk to you. so sexy that I. angry. but had to study. summer. missed you. Later on. your skin. my roommates were. morning coffee. wanted to see you. The pizza we. fight. so stupid. final exam. laughing about. loved to. jealous of. wished we could. not just friends. God I wanted. The trail of shreds ended at a rock off to the left on which was painted in blue, in the neatest handwriting I have ever seen, the word Please. Later, after the boys had found the letterbox and we hiked back down to the river, we found a rock we hadn’t noticed when we started at the bottom of the trail. This one, in the same elementary-school-teacher perfect handwriting, said Rob, with an arrow pointing up the trail.
I remembered the young couple I had seen coming down the trail holding hands and talking softly, the girl with long dark hair and a long skirt. Was she the writer of the love letter? Was he Rob? What was he please to do? Marry her? Forgive her? Understand her perspective on their history and cherish her all the more? Was he meant to pick up all the atoms of the love letter and piece them together? If so, between my husband’s do-gooder trail cleaning and my incurable nosiness about other people’s love lives, we had made Rob’s task impossible. Were there other clues? And what was the goal and where? Had something been hidden near the Rob rock or the Please rock? Maybe she hid the whole letter intact, or maybe a gift or a promise or a plan or plea. Maybe the prize at the end was herself, sitting next to the rock, pointing to the word Please. Maybe he had to follow the trail alone to reach her. Was the young couple I saw the right one? They talked and giggled as if they had a secret, but young lovers always do that, and they hadn’t seemed to notice the paper like rose petals marking their path. Maybe Rob’s lover is a man. Maybe they were in college during the Nixon administration. Maybe the plea was for a divorce. Maybe Rob is short for Roberta. I’ll never know.
Whoever she (or he?) was, Rob’s lover had done some serious planning. She had to write that letter, which was at least several single-spaced pages. She carefully tore it up into morsels of their life together. She considered all the places she could create the path for Rob to follow. Maybe she scouted a few parks, looking for the perfect length of the trail, the ideal rocks. She bought the blue paint marker, maybe deliberating a long time about the color and longer about what she she write with it. She planned to meet him, checked the weather. Wet scraps wouldn’t work. She got him there soon enough after she blazed her trail that the scraps wouldn’t have been blown away or eaten by squirrels, or cleaned up by Boy Scouts before Rob could follow them. But with all that precise timing, the hike itself had to be slow. No rush. It would take time for Rob to understand, for the plan to slowly blossom and reveal itself to him, for him to feel whatever it was she wanted so much for him to feel.
The mystery of Rob’s trail was the most romantic thing I’ve seen in real life in a long time, and it made me think about how difficult romance has become in the world of instant communication. I am old enough to have been both the recipient and the writer of love letters, actual letters written with pens and folded into envelopes and mailed. The kind you checked the mailbox for, hoping, or found slipped through the vent of your high school locker. Those of us old enough to remember a world with letters didn’t conduct our romances by post to be quaint, but because we weren’t in the same place at the same time and long distance phone calls were expensive. Or you lived at home where there was one telephone and someone else was using it, and you couldn’t wait another moment to express your passion. Waiting and longing and wondering were integral to being in love. If you were lucky enough to get a love letter, you read it a hundred times, then put it away somewhere no one else could find it so that you could take it out and read it a hundred more times. Even the ones that weren’t very good.
Now that you can text your lover anywhere on earth day or night, waiting, wondering and longing are largely removed from the experience. At any moment, you can find the invisible global line that runs from yourself to your true love. You can go online at work or school and see if your sweetheart is available for some instant messaging, even fall asleep on Skype with your laptop on your pillow and wake up to the two dimensional image of your beloved, or at least of his blankets. Do you wonder if your crush is thinking about you? Text her. Are you waiting for him to respond to your latest 140-character witticism? You’ll see his response only a fraction of a second after it flies from his brain to his fingertips. What is she doing right now? Check her status update, and if you’re lucky, she might be there to chat with you. Every response is instant and public, or can be, so it had better be. Taking too much time to respond is suspect, and every relationship status is public.
Where can lovers find enough time and space for romance? Rob’s trail could have been his lover’s attempt to reclaim the interstices, to conduct this crucial moment of their relationship away from screens, out in the air, on a steep hike that cannot be accomplished instantly. It is not the moments of intimate togetherness that have vanished in the contemporary world, but the moments between them. We have to create artificial structures for romance, games or rules or stories that interrupt the continuous flow of data in a relationship. One who has to walk the trail up a mountainside, required by the rules of the game to stop and take note of the scraps off to the side of it inscribed with the story of his life and hers, has no choice but to appreciate the spaces between the moments.
The private adventure we’d stumbled upon lay where anyone could find it, but only one person possessed the clues to make sense of it. It was a little slice of privacy in a public space, a waterproof box containing mysterious artifacts that only the initiated could interpret. I hope he treasures what he found.