Wanda & Pete's Interview

This is the third of our multi-part series of letterboxing interviews conducted by Mark Pepe.

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Location: Kensington, Connecticut, United States

Friday, January 09, 2004

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  • photo courtesy of Chuck Straub


    Pete is a scientist/engineer, who has been working for the Navy for over 30 years. Wanda is a former Army linguist/teacher/dancer/backpacker who met Pete while leading a hike for "senior citizens," mostly in their 70s and 80s. Finding themselves to be the "youngsters" of the group, they really hit it off! They have now been married for almost 12 years, including almost 3 years of "serious letterboxing", with almost 2000 finds in just the past year alone! Between adventure trips, they try to keep the home fires burning in Charlestown, RI with their 2 cats, Choolie and Ondra.

    Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning of the interview - What is your current letterboxing count for each of you? Also, please clarify for your skeptics once and for all how you go about counting your “F’s.”

    Wanda: F3808; Pete: F2668

    Well, as most folks who know us are aware, we're pretty much "purists" as to how we do our counting. We follow the general guidelines of the Mapsurfer's FAQ: one search, one log-in, one stamp = one find. We do not, of course, count repeat visits to the same box, multiple stamps that happen to be in a single box, or hitchhikers that we have already found, no matter how many different places they may have visited since we last saw them! We also do not count virtuals or boxes that have yet to be placed for which we have gotten a stamp image in advance, such as from a recent batch of boxes sent out west. Those boxes we will label "TBA" until such time as we might actually get to go out to find them, and only then will we assign them to a particular state and "F number". Most people know by now, too, that we keep "separate counts", not a composite, so that each of our counts represents only those boxes found by that particular person and finds may differ as to date found, event attended, etc. Pete keeps track of all this on a database program named Filemaker, plus we each now have our own stamped logbooks, and then there's also Wanda's "done file" backup, a filing cabinet full of stamped, dated and numbered clue sheets! With all the boxes we've found (in 30 states plus Canada), this may sound pretty complicated, but it's actually quite simple ... just a matter of keeping track of things as we go along!

    How were you both introduced to letterboxing and when?

    Wanda: I stumbled upon one of the NH Valley Quests in July of 1999 while working on a personal project of hiking all the side trails off the Appalachian Trail (which by themselves total many more miles than a walk-thru on the AT!) I'd come down the Hurricane Ridge Trail to Moosilauke Ravine Lodge and spotted a pamphlet near the door entitled "Moosilauke Historical Quest". "Okay," I said to myself, "I'll take a few minutes to check this out," so off I went following the clues. When I got to the spot of the "box clamantis in deserto" (a little twist on the Dartmouth motto "vox clamantis in deserto" - a voice/box crying in the wilderness :-) ) I couldn't seem to pull it out of its hiding hole, so off I walked back to the trails without signing in! And to think that would have been my very first letterbox had I bothered to try prying a little harder! As it was, that box became my F498 in Aug of 2001, just a few months after finally getting bitten by the letterboxing bug in earnest. Meanwhile some other Valley Quest boxes I stumbled upon in Springfield, VT became my first "official" signed finds. Naturally I had to dash home and tell Pete about my fun adventures and show him the cute little stamps, but never would I have guessed what more this hobby would have in store for us!

    Pete: Later that year, we found clues for several other quests at our local Cross Mills library. Since three of them were in our home town (Charlestown, RI), we decided to search for them on Christmas day. Those became our first boxes found together, although we still hadn't heard of letterboxing then. It wasn't until March of 2000, while Wanda was off hiking trails down south, that I stumbled upon a box, a Drew Clan production, in Meadow Woods Park in CT and made the "letterboxing connection" from the info sheet in that container. The funny thing was that when I finally got around to taking Wanda there to show her what I had found, the box was no longer where it had been. She was not impressed. She also was not impressed when a few months later I took her on a letterbox hike to one of the rare local areas in CT that she hadn't already been to and she got a bad case of poison ivy, so our intro to letterboxing was definitely on the slow side. It wasn't until after we heard about the first Winter Gathering in Tolland, CT in Jan of 2001, went, met some of the great folks there, and heard the buzz about some of the more interesting mystery boxes that we got "hooked". That's when we decided to keep a logbook like the other letterboxing folks, go back and collect in that book the stamps we'd only stamped on the clue sheets, and ... start counting. We even did manage to eventually get Wanda that first elusive letterbox of mine as her F1274 in July 2002. We'd gone back to Meadow Woods for a new series, Fab Four, with a report that the original box could now be found tucked behind a log a mile or so from its first published location, apparently re-hidden by someone "Belden style", without a corresponding clue change! It seems people can interpret "Please hide well" and "Please carefully hide back where you found it" rather differently. So you never know just what you might find when you go out letterboxing!

    How has letterboxing changed since the both of you first began? Please give us both a positive and negative change.

    The obvious change is, of course, more letterboxes and more variety as to how they are made, placed and clued. In many parts of the country, newcomers can now get moving right along quickly and easily with an abundance of short-trailed multi-boxes and drive-ups that simply didn't exist when we started out. We remember walking several miles sometimes in our "early days" for a single box, and 8 to 12 miles for a small series. Nowadays, those older boxes are often considerably less likely to be the ones getting visited, which is too bad; because those are the types of places some of us are more apt to leave hitchhikers as a reward for those who make a little extra effort! :-)

    Do you agree with the assessment that letterboxing became a natural extension of hiking since many of the early letterboxers were hikers? Is that how the trail name thing started?

    Wanda: I'd have to say that for me letterboxing is not so much a natural extension of hiking as a complete change of focus. My old backpacking days were devoted to climbing lots of mountains, seeing and covering lots of territory, and just basically surviving, so the thought of taking time out to look for a non-food-containing piece of Tupperware hidden out there somewhere by somebody would have seemed totally frivolous to me back then! In fact, some of my fellow "triple crowner" friends (those of us having hiked all three of the long North/South mountain chain trails - AT, PCT and CDT - at least once a piece) still like to tease me about letterboxing not being a "suitable pursuit for a seasoned thru-hiker" - but at least now I can tell them I'm not the only one! :-) Anyway, it did take me quite a while to warm up to the idea of letterboxing in and of itself. That first year we heard about it, we only did a dozen or so boxes, because I really wasn't that interested in looking for boxes at places I'd already been to for hiking usually many times before. Back then Pete would have to try to come up with some place that we hadn't yet visited or that we were going to anyway as an excuse to get me to look for a box at the same time. Of course after that first gathering in CT, everything changed, and now the boxes themselves have become the main focus of our outings, while hiking has mostly taken a back seat. We still love the nice hikes best, but we'll now go for the boxes no matter where they happen to be - even drive ups - as long as they're not too close to major cities, which we still generally try to avoid.

    Pete: For me, letterboxing did come as a natural extension to hiking. I figured since we were out there hiking most every weekend anyway; why not include the added bonus of maybe finding a box or two along the way? It just took me a while to convince Wanda, but after that first full snowy winter of 2001 when we had a lot of fun doing much of our letterboxing on X-C skis, it was all "downhill" from there. :-)

    Tell us about the early days of letterboxing and your involvement. Where was that first gathering that you attended, who was there and how different was it from current letterboxing gathers?

    We really weren't involved in the early days of letterboxing, and even though we'd told other folks about the hobby much earlier, we ourselves didn't even search out the talk list until January of 2001. It was only by chance that Pete happened to finally click on that site just a few days before the Winter Gathering in Tolland, CT at the end of that month, and we tentatively decided to go. What a great decision that turned out to be! Even though we were rather shy and very late, we got a warm welcome at the door from Carolyn Stearns (Leader of the Pack) along with her various friends and family. We were given name tags, the event stamp, additional clues, and then started meeting fellow letterboxers like See Joy & Space Traveler from PA, Alan from Axtown, ESAK, and many others. While we feasted on hot soup and homemade bread (much appreciated on that cold, snowy day!), Carolyn led the kids and adults through a couple of letterbox-related fun games. The overall spirit of the event was just so delightful that it seemed to set the tone for most of our subsequent letterboxing adventures. The camaraderie was so infectious and the buzz about mysteries so intriguing that we just had to start working on solving "Summer Music" and some of the other mysteries as soon as possible. No matter how many other great gatherings we attend, this one probably will always be the most meaningful to us because it's the one that got us involved in this fascinating hobby!

    What are the attributes of gatherings that you like the most and the least? How many gatherings have you attended and what is the farthest you have traveled to attend one?

    Wanda: Pete and I have each attended 12 gatherings, 8 together and 4 that were different. The furthest trips I have taken for gatherings were to Virginia and Ohio, whereas Pete got to attend several closer-to-home get-togethers this past summer while I was out doing my trail work in the Rockies.

    Pete: What we enjoy most about gatherings is meeting people and finding out who they are. When we first started out in this hobby, we were both somewhat shy, and Wanda had post-traumatic stress disorder resulting directly from having been the victim of early and long-continued abusive family situations. We really didn't know if we would "fit-in" with this group, but, fortunately, most of the people we have met through letterboxing have turned out to be some of the nicest, friendliest people around. Sometimes, it seems unfortunate, at gatherings, that focus gets drawn away by the frenzy of stamping in exchanges, hitchers, one day only, and event stamps so that we can't always remember just whom we've actually met. That is why meeting letterboxers out on the trail still remains such a special experience.

    We’ve all seen the palm tree and sunshine signature stamp of yours in logbooks all over the country! Tell us how your signature stamp came about and what prompted you to choose them.

    Well, I'd actually been using a hand-drawn 3 pine trees with mountain background logo for years as my backpacking signature in trail registers. When Pete came into my life, he added "Mr. Sunshine" over the mountains. So, it was only natural that we'd want to keep something similar for letterboxing. However, at the time someone else was already using 3 pines as a signature stamp, so I decided to go with 3 palm trees, since we'd just recently come back from a cruise to the southern Caribbean and I had decided I really like palm trees, too. We got a set of 12 little tiny beach oriented stamps, 2 became our signature stamps (with the palm tree stamped 3 times), 2 became my personal stamp when traveling without Pete ("a fish called Wanda" or "a fish out of water"), 2 became hitchhikers, and the others which we gave away are probably long gone by now - but our "originals" are still going strong, even over 2 years and thousands of stamp-ins later!

    Now – let’s get to the dirt! Do you help each other in finding boxes? For example, Wanda has the higher “F” count; do you ever help Pete find a box you already have or vice versa? Do you spend more time letterboxing together or on your own?

    Wanda: Pete typically doesn't need any help finding boxes. If I have a chance to go out by myself midweek to find some boxes, then on the weekends when we're together, I might be tempted to point out to him an occasional short-cut - especially if we're running short on time - but that's about it!

    Pete: Obviously, we prefer to go letterboxing together, so that's mostly what we do, except when I can't take time off from work.

    Wanda, you were just telling us about your annual hikes out west and the difficult conditions you experience. Please tell us about where you go and what you do. How are the conditions? Is food readily available? What drives you to make these trips out west?

    I've been going out west to hike just about every year since my first Pacific Crest Trail hike in 1984, following my first AT hike in 1983. In subsequent years, I would frequently alternate east and west coast hiking, and ended up not only hiking from Georgia to Maine 5 times, but also hiking the considerably longer distance from Mexico to Canada 4 times and that's not naming all the "shorter" trails I've managed to squeeze in along the way in all 50 states! Except for broiling sun drenching rains, deep snows, icy fords, and infamous Rocky Mt. electrical storms at high elevations, conditions have generally not been that terribly difficult. Distances between water, roads, and resupply points are usually much greater out west, but only rarely did I have to walk more than 20 miles out of the mountains to resupply, and once even had a resupply box helicoptered in and held for me by a friend working backcountry at Pinchot Pass in the middle of the massive "roadless section" of the High Sierra! Nowadays, my backpacking journeys have been greatly curtailed, but I still try to get out at the Rockies for at least one or two work trips each summer, sometimes with Pete, sometimes alone, in an effort to build a few more of the 800 miles of the Continental Divide Trail that still need to be completed to make that designated national scenic trail a continuous 3,100 mile trail reality and not just the "on paper", cross country version that was all we had to go by for a CDT experience not so many years ago! So, that's the project that has been driving me out west lately, volunteering through CDTA to work with National Parks, National Forests and BLM to try to help get that trail eventually "all completely built"!

    Of the 7,000 plus letterboxes in the US, is there one that continues to elude you, no matter how you try to solve/find it? How many times will you go back to a location to find a letterbox before you give up on it? What letterbox took you the longest time or most trips to find?

    Wanda: We generally find whatever we're going to find on our first try, but if we don't, only Pete has the patience to go back and try again. One exception was a particular Mapsurfer box that I really wanted to find, but we approached too late in the day and found ourselves getting tangled up in a briar patch at dusk! We had a long drive home that night, so it wasn't until several months later that we got another chance to go back and look for a way in from a slightly different angle. Ah, delayed gratification - what a thrill when we finally found that box!

    Pete: There are quite a number of other Mapsurfer boxes that remain elusive to us, but I'm afraid that right now I, too, don't seem to have the time or patience to ponder them very much - perhaps later this summer.

    Tell us about the theory behind your “Almost Last but not Least” microbox?

    About a year or so ago, a challenge was presented to local RI boxers to have a letterbox planted in each of the 37 towns of our little state. Since many of the townships were already well covered with boxes, several folks clamored to claim the last few remaining towns, but no one seemed to want poor old industrial Woonsocket. Ever attuned to issues of abandonment and rejection, we quickly made up a micro box and tucked it away in a little park near Woonsocket's Museum of Work and Culture. We called it "Last, but not least", so that the gracious city of Woonsocket wouldn't have any hurt feelings, but then it was drawn to our attention that one other town in RI was still boxless! Not wanting to step on anyone's toes, we hastily changed the name of our box to "Almost last but not least". And that's the whole story! :-)

    How did the “Sunny Message in a Bottle” originate? Any chance that we’ll ever see it?

    On our cruise to Mexico last winter, we made a port call in Key West, FL, immediately walked out to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park to find the letterbox there, and then, on our way back to the ship, spotted a cool little unbreakable message bottle in one of the funky gift shops that we visited. "That would make a great letterbox", we exclaimed in unison! So we bought it, attached a tacky little impromptu sun stamp to the inside of the cork, and mailed it off to Mansfield, CT to Leader of the Pack, who received it at 4 PM on Christmas Eve! It later turned up at the Wasabi Gathering in PA with a delightful, tiny addition by the Mapsurfer, and has since made its way out to the west coast. There's a picture of the bottle in Randy's book, and the sunny message is on our web site. Perhaps it will turn up again at some long unvisited letterbox, or perhaps in someone's mailbox. In any case, we'll be hoping to hear something of its further journeys sometime soon!

    Pete – what first prompted you to begin your “Hitchhiker’s Progress” web page? Did you ever realize the mainstay it would become to letterboxers? Did you also realize all of the work it would entail as the quantity of Hitchhikers dramatically increased over the years? What is the best way letterboxers can let you know of a new HH or get the progress of one posted to your page? How often do you update?

    Just about 2 years ago a "discussion" erupted on the talk list about there being too many hitchhikers, and whether or not their moves should be reported or cloaked in secrecy. A poll was run, and fourteen folks said post 'em, while six opted for secrecy. Shortly thereafter, in the wake of yet another unresolved hitcher-related fiasco, Aili started the Yahoo Letterbox Travelers talk list group for those who wanted to discuss the travels of hitchhikers without offending others. There were less than 100 hitchhikers at that time. A week or so later I decided that it might be a good idea to start up a hitchhikers' web page in an attempt to fill in the gaps of hitchers' journeys for those who were be interested. Little did I imagine how much it would grow over the next two years! I try to keep it as accurate as possible with whatever information comes my way, and try to update it a couple of times a month. The list is fairly complete, excluding only info on a few hitchers that a couple of people have specifically asked not be listed for various reasons. The hitchhiker web page can be accessed using a link from the Travelers talk list or from our own web page. The best way to get info to me for hitcher updates and announcements is through personal e-mail or through posting to the Travelers talk list.

    While we are in the Hitchhiker vein; do you think there are too many hitchhikers out there? Have they lost their importance since the quantities have greatly increased?

    We still think it's great fun to find hitchers out in the wild, and we've even enjoyed a couple of special hitcher exchanges with friends over the years. We've seen the gradual increase of hitchers going from one to a maximum of six at those particular gatherings that we have attended, and the number nationwide going from less than 100 to over 700 in the past two years. Yet, our own personal ratio of hitcher finds to total finds has only increased from 4% to 6% during this same period, so perhaps the hitcher situation is not quite as drastic as we sometimes imagine it to be. However, we still feel that it is a good rule of thumb to try not to let the overall hitcher ratio rise above 10%, which means that for every 10 boxes we plant, not more than one of them is a hitcher. That way perhaps we can continue to savor and appreciate hitchers individually, like fine truffles instead of M&Ms! :-)

    Wanda, how did the “Inn of the End” come to be and whose idea was it? How many HH are there at a given time?

    "The Inn of the End" was just a copy-cat from Jay's "Inn of the Beginning" in CT so that we could have a hostel for hitchers in RI, too. After all, we'd brought back quite a few hitchers over the years from our various travels and wanted a handy stop-off place for them to take a short rest, one at a time, since we only have a single room and not a dorm! Also, as most folks around here know, Rhode Islanders are not generally prone to taking long journeys, (i.e. more than a half hour drive), so we thought we'd make it easier for them than traveling to CT. Guess it was still too far off for some folks, though, since there hasn't been much business at the hostel lately, and the cat has fallen asleep at the cottage door! Hope somebody comes by soon and wakes him up! :-)

    Pete, where did you come up with the idea of “Dancing Men”? To date, how many degrees have you awarded for the completion of this letterbox?

    I enjoy the detective work involved in locating the mystery-puzzle boxes, so I wanted my first box to be one of that type. I developed the idea guided by the work of a fictional detective which I'd long been rather fond of, and incorporated several other story titles within the clues. As for the graduates, we keep a list of them on our web site. At present 34 groups have signed into the box over the past two and a half years. I occasionally contemplate a "post graduate studies" box, but we'll just have to wait and see if that ever evolves.

    Wanda, you are known nationally as a hiker. Do you have any idea how many miles those feet have hiked or backpacked over the years? Are there any major trails that you haven’t hiked in the US?

    It would be really impossible to know just how many miles I've hiked in the course of my lifetime, but I did keep track for many years of the miles I backpacked. Those are the miles that came really hard for me because I was recovering from having had a fractured spine in an automobile accident back in 1975 (I got thrown through the windshield and landed unconscious on the median divider, so I'm really quite lucky even to be alive and not paralyzed!). Anyway, since then I've managed to accumulate over 25,000 backpacking miles, so I'm sure that my hiking mileage must be at least double that, since I do a lot more hiking than backpacking! I've backpacked most of the major trails in the country multiple times, and many other long-distance trails as well. The only major trails that I haven't completed are the big east-west ones (The American Discovery Trail and the North Country Trail) which have not yet been finished and are mostly road walks anyway, so I can't say that I'm all that interested in them. I'll keep hiking those mountain trails, though, for as long as I can!

    You have a rather unique way of recording stamped images from letterboxes. Can you tell us what you do every time you find a letterbox and stamp in?

    Well, I mostly just stamp the clue sheet, write the date, give it its "F number" and later tuck it into a filing cabinet in our bedroom! Since I've started doing further away trips without Pete, I've also been keeping my own logbook lately, so that now I can more easily show off my stamps from other places.

    Letterbox maintenance has been a much-debated item on the national talk list. How often do you feel is necessary to keep tabs on those boxes that you have placed? Pete – let me know the next time you visit “Dancing Men”!! ; )

    We used to check our boxes every few weeks, but now that there are so many boxes and not that many new letterboxers in our area, we figure every few months is sufficient. We have, however, put a second logbook at "Dancing Men", because you just never know when more folks will be coming to get their detective diplomas! We love to have visitors. Hope you all come soon! :-)

    How do you see the future of letterboxing progressing? Do you feel that it will continue to grow? How about style of clue-writing? Do you see urban letterboxing ever becoming popular or will it continue to prevail on the trails and nature preserves? As the old guard moves along in their interests, are there any younger boxers out there to pick up the torches?

    It is certainly our hope that letterboxing will continue to flourish in a fun, friendly, creative and responsible manner. We, of course, prefer boxes to be out in the woods, but urban letterboxing surely has its place, too. As for the different styles of boxes, representing a vast variety of interests and abilities, we really do enjoy them all, from the simplest to the most elaborate! We hope that the prodigious planters of the past - Jay, Randy, Carolyn, Franzsolo, Legerdemaine, Funhog, etc. - will continue in creating their wonderful works and in inspiring the "next generations", with folks like TeamGreenDragon, Scout Dogs, Phyto, Headless Hunter, and many, many more. Most of all, we just want to thank everyone who has allowed us through their efforts to participate in giving what Jay so magnificently calls "The Finder's Gift"! Many, many thanks to you all!

    Related Links:

    Wanda & Pete's Letterboxes

    Hitcher's Progress