Randy Hall [Mapsurfer] has been letterboxing in North America for five years. He is co-founder of the Letterboxing North American website, www.letterboxing.org and owner of the Yahoo Groups Letterboxing North America Discussion Group. Randy is also a nationally ranked orienteer. A software engineer, he lives with his family in Pennsylvania. His letterboxes are legendary for their mystery and difficulty which makes a Mapsurfer stamp a personal treasure in one's logbook. In our opinion, it is very difficult to find another individual who has done more for the sport/hobby of letterboxing than Randy Hall. We are thrilled that he agreed to grant us the following interview.
Secrecy and mystery have long been watchwords in letterboxing. What prompted you to write and publish a book about it?
It was inevitable that someone was going to write a book about it. Since there are different ways to approach the pastime, and any book may be someone’s first introduction, I thought it would be nice if that book contained some of my ideas or was written by someone who I agree with, so why not me.
What aspect of letterboxing appeals most to you and what aspect do you feel is the most important part of letterboxing?
What most appeals to me is the clues as outdoor puzzles to be solved and the “ah experience” of relating the clue to something real. I don’t think there is a most important part. If I had to choose one, that would be respecting, protecting, and preserving the environment, and learning something about a locale or its history. That is why I’m sad when I see people tear thru stone walls to find boxes, for example. I hope more people think about who built a stone wall or other artefacts and why and when, and what kind of life did they have and what stories could one write about them, rather than think about tearing thru it so they can get to the next box to up their F count. I think finesse in both the writing and solving of clues is more important than volume; I guess it all ties together, and I guess its why my clues sometimes tend to have a historical theme, to get you in the mindset of thinking about the place in various ways. The most important thing, I guess, is the place and your respect for it and what can be learned from it and the magic of it.
Since you have probably made the largest contribution to letterboxing of any other individual and since you were there at it’s inception in the US, tell us a little about those early days.
This isn’t true. A lot of people made a lot of contributions. Things were so spread out that you had to travel cross country to find boxes. In the very early days it was almost all hand-carved stamps and somewhat complex clues, then store bought stamps and simpler clues became more popular as more people got into it, then it started evolving back to hand carved stamps and more complex clues again. I think there was more respect for the secrecy ideal back then; “sitreps” were completely unknown. PFX counts were unknown at one point, though there was a challenge in the early days to see who would get 100 finds first. There was also a challenge to get one box planted in each state. One of the first boxes was a “geocache”, that is to say, a box that used GPS coordinates as its primary clue mechanism. This was in 1998. There was a lot of interest in GPS in those days, but many people thought it was too boring or made it too easy. One thing that was interesting was that each article in the press brought in a new wave of people with different ideas.
Besides yourself, who do you feel are the other “pioneers” of letterboxing?
I know I’ll forget people, but in no particular order – Mitch Klink, Dan Servatius, Tom Cooch, Erik and Susan Davis, Rae Record, the Waterford EMS folks, Jay Drew, the Valley Quest folks, Thom Cheney, Bob Degen, Graham Howard, and just tons and tons of other people. Its always been sort of a decentralized community effort, so it is hard to really name people.
Did you ever dream that letterboxing would be so embraced and popular with the public?
I never thought about it too much. I think being popular is a two-edged sword, and something to be wary about. In principle, I don’t mind if everyone on the planet does it, because we all need fun pastimes that get us outside and using our minds and bodies, but I would hate to see artistry, finesse, respect for the environment, and the like be compromised by numbers games, competition, and by masses of people who don’t really think about these things too much. That is part of the point of the book, I guess, to be able to talk about these things. I still don’t really think it is a mainstream activity, but I remember when there were only a handful of people, so it seems pretty big relative to that. But most people I talk to don’t know what it is.
Your letterboxes are legendary for their mystery and difficulty. What prompted you to adopt this style of clue writing?
I’m interested in history, virtual treasure hunting, puzzle solving, and wordplay. I enjoy doing the research that goes into them. In some cases, I write the clues before going to the place, based on research, and its like I get to solve the boxes also, by finding stuff that works with my pre-written clues. I also think Rae Record’s Letterbox on the Knob was a big influence, that was the first “story” clue, and I thought that was cool. I’m very much interested in the science of semiotics (made somewhat popular by Italian professor and novelist Umberto Eco), and find letterbox clues a fascinating way to explore this science.
I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about my clues because there are so many other good cluesets out there. A lot of stuff is a lot better than what I do, in particular clues that are not only high quality, and accomplish the art of merging text, place, and stamp, but are written, for lack of a better word, more accessible than mine. I’ll admit that my clues tend to be a bit self-indulgent, by that I mean I write or explore ideas that I find fascinating, not necessarily that a large percentage of the letterboxing public will find fascinating. To me, it is up to people to work on the clues they enjoy, and ignore the ones they don’t. The most important thing is that there is a diversity of high quality clues out there with different styles.
What percentage of your personally placed letterboxes has been found?
At least 60%.
How did the founding of letterboxing.org take place? As co-founder, how has your role at the website evolved over the years? Who was the other co-founder?
There were many co-founders. The Davises, Mitch, Tom Cooch, Thom Cheney, and probably others. I hate to leave people out because of my poor memory. I’ve basically tried to be a technical consultant at various times or just kick ideas around. Despite being in the software business, I’m pretty much of the opinion that technology letterboxing don’t mix particularly well, as I feel it leads it to more of a numbers/efficiency game as opposed to an artsy/finesse game, so I’m always drumming this notion around and reminding people that letterboxing does just fine with no website on Dartmoor.
Of course, I don’t begrudge other people using technology – I think the biggest thing I push for is opt-in/out for people who don’t really want their clues subservient to the web site. The attitude I push is that the game should lead the website, not the website lead the game. Its hard to describe what this means, and some people disagree, I think, and would rather a more efficient web site.
I know one of the hot buttons sometimes is logging and “sitreps”, in some people’s opinion this would change the game and take out some of the finesse and push it more to a numbers game, so I never tire of reminding people to think about this, but I have very little say in the actual decisions.
Was the Yahoo Discussion Group a natural progression from the website? As talk list owner, are you pleased with knowing that this is the single most communication tool used by letterboxers? Are there any ways you see it evolving in the future?
I don’t think about this too much either. I think its great that there is a talk list, but think the volume is a bit high sometimes. Letterboxing seems to me to be an activity that shouldn’t involve a lot of talk, but that is just my style. At one point it was a place to talk about developing letterboxing, then it evolved into a place where the game was actually played, but I’m not sure where it is going to evolve to. I like to try to be very much hands-off, as so much game playing has occurred there, but I think there are more “flame wars” than is natural, I guess as a result of this hands-off style. I just hope that the people that participate in these flame wars, and spoilers about particular mystery boxes realize they have driven a lot of old-timers away and risk bringing about heavier moderation. That is one downside of growth; I think most big lists end up being moderated out of necessity – I’m happy to say that this one is not, and hope its subscribers have the good sense to keep it that way.
In what ways do you think The Letterboxer’s Companion will impact our hobby – both positively and negatively?
I think it will open some people’s eyes to things they haven’t thought of, and introduce the pastime to people who will think it is cool, but have never heard of it. I can’t see any negative impact really – it doesn’t encourage negative behaviour, and people who don’t care for it can ignore it.
What do you feel is your book’s greatest contribution to the hobby of letterboxing?
I think it puts the major facets of the hobby in one place. I think it shows some people possibilities they may not have thought of.
In a hobby known for its looseness and “no rules,” can you see The Companion becoming “the” letterboxing authority and final word as to how we should letterbox?
No. And books don’t become things, people do. If people want to make the book an authority, that is the role of the readers and their choice, just as it is their choice to not let that happen. I think the only thing that is really rule like is a suggested codification of some PFX counting rules. This sort of standardization is good in the sense that some people want it. Many people don’t care what the standardization is, just so it is written down and consistent from one person to the next. Will people use the suggested standardization in the book? If they want to, I guess. I do, however, know of people who will count things their own way no matter what the book says, so any rule like things in the book have to be looked as mere suggestions. I’m not really big on making rules, but see the value of standardization, I guess is the short answer.
I’ve already heard from many letterboxers who are looking forward to having you personally sign their own copy of your book. Do you plan on any book-signing appearances in New England in the near future?
There is a tentative appearance scheduled for EMS Waterford on 11/15. I don’t have final details yet.
How would you feel about a Mystery Gathering centered around you and The Letterboxer’s Companion?
Well, it wouldn’t be much of a mystery if I answered this question, would it? ;)
Do you have a follow-up to The Letterboxer’s Companion planned for the future? If so, how will it be different from the first book?
I haven’t thought about this much.
And finally, what changes can you envision for letterboxing in the future?
I think it will be regulated more as it grows. I also think there will be more of an underground. I also think the clues, art, and other ideas will continue to evolve in innovative and unexpected ways.
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