It’s an underground thing

| 25 Feb 2013 | 01:35

I glance back at my orange car with the NY Press plate parked outside the cemetery’s gray stone chapel, then down at my neon green-splotched scarf. “Got it.”

Coolbaugh and I are going letterboxing. No, we are not going to be bashing in mailboxes with a baseball bat. Not today. Coolbaugh, 24, calls letterboxing a sport akin to hiking. The letterboxing websites describe it as a pastime. It feels to me like the kind of game you used to make up as a kid, with caveats and nuances that take creative juice to dream up. Coolbaugh, who works at Woodbury Commons, is dressed in black jeans, a black leather jacket and wraparound shades, carrying a backpack over a shoulder. The backpack contains his “signature” stamp (a gift a friend brought back from China that says his name in Mandarin), a notebook and inkpad, a pencil, and a knife to sharpen said pencil. He hands me a gift: a baggie containing a stamp he fashioned from Dirt’s logo, and an orange inkpad.

It was by word of mouth I found Coolbaugh. No one had replied to my pleas for a guide on various letterboxing sites and I’d all but given up on the story when a colleague mentioned that she knew a letterboxer. “It’s pretty much an underground thing,” said Coolbaugh. “If you see people out, you don’t want to tell them because they could find the letterbox and remove it.”

Part of letterboxing’s enticement is that it feels like you’re in on a secret, even if these days, there are a few others in on it, too. Tens of thousands of people letterbox in the U.S., many spending a part-time job’s worth of time carving stamps out of rubber and filling up logbooks with other people’s stamps. Of the nearly 74,000 boxes hidden inside tree stumps and under rock piles in the United States, New York State hosts more than any other state, with 7,706 boxes, according to the letterboxing site

Our hunting ground today is Warwick Cemetery. Our quarry is a box planted by someone we know only by the trail name Little Green Mouse. Cemeteries turn out to be popular, if slightly controversial, plant sites. One letterboxer said she would never plant in a cemetery where people were still being buried; another asked letterboxes to please water the flowers at her father’s grave. Letterboxes are stashed at Hillside Cemetery in Middletown, Vail’s Gate United Methodist Church Cemetery in New Windsor, and St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Verplanck, to name a few within 30 miles of Warwick.

Coolbaugh has been letterboxing for 10 years. He started as a kid when his family, staying at a cabin in the woods north of Pittsburgh, encountered a shopkeeper who had planted a box that required a compass and map to find. After that, Coolbaugh and his dad would go out in search of such boxes together, most of them planted and maintained by caretakers at state parks. Coolbaugh had gradually stopped doing it when three years ago, he re-encountered letterboxing. Fueled by the web, which allowed anyone to create and publicize a hunt, the thing had exploded.

I was scribbling all this in my notebook when Coolbaugh’s pace slowed. “I think that’s… the next clue.” He nodded toward a massive polished rock globe perched atop a monument marking the Drew family plot.

Indeed. A glance at the clue sheet brought me back to the task at hand. We were on the lookout for an “elephant jawbreaker.”

From there, the hunt took us past graves of the likes of General John Hathorn, who, before becoming a congressman and senator, served as a colonel in the Orange County militia in the Revolutionary War. Fun fact: Hathorn determined where to place the massive chain across the Hudson that prevented the British from sailing up the river.

After maybe a half hour’s meander, Coolbaugh found the box. I don’t think he told me right away, but gave me a chance to figure it out. When I kept yammering, he finally filled me in, and then I looked around and found it too. We got to the business of stamping up – well, I watched as Coolbaugh unpacked the box, and stamped and dated my notebook, his, and the one in the letterbox. I realize now, after perusing the letterboxing glossary, that my technique might qualify as slackboxing. A slackboxer “will hike with others and let other people actually find the box while they watch, perhaps with a few encouraging words in order to appear as if they’re helping. Slackboxers will let others ink up the stamp in the letterbox so they don’t have to do it themselves. Slackboxing is the goal of any lazy letterboxer.”

We were roughly the 39th and 40th visitors to stamp the notebook since it was planted in 2010. It was tempting to sit down and page through the colorful imprints left by visitors from Newburgh, Brooklyn, Middletown, Albany (on the way home from the 2011 Deadfest at the Warwick Valley Winery). I glimpsed a soaring cathedral, cardinals on a branch, a dragonfly, a ladybug, a square-rigged sailboat, a dog paw, a close-up of a cat’s face, a blue star encircled by red stripes left by one Captain America. How had the Captain managed to stamp two colors at once?

But Coolbaugh was glancing around nervously, keeping an eye out for the caretaker. It was time to put it back. Our takeaway was a stamp of a cat next to a tombstone that said “W.C.” and had tufts of grass sprouting at its sides.

I messaged Little Green Mouse at, then again at, unsure whether I was violating some written or unwritten code by attempting to unmask the letterbox’s creator. The silence suggested I was. Then an email appeared in my inbox. “Mornings are the best time to catch me,” wrote Linda Ferruggia. “Life gets more hectic after lunch!”

We met at Warwick’s Wisner Library, because one of Ferruggia’s sons was coming down with the flu. Gregarious in her distinctly southern way, she didn’t quite jibe with my mental image of Little Green Mouse. An eccentric psychology professor had given her the nickname. The green is a nod to her Irish heritage, and the mouse represents her bashful side, which she insists is there. The other half of the professor’s nickname was eagle, symbolizing her outgoing personality. “I don’t know who has a personality where one half eats the other half,” said Ferruggia, “but hey.”

Ferruggia heard about letterboxing three years ago from her son’s kindergarten teacher, who’d read an article about it. “We love hiking but sometimes it’s hard to keep the kids interested,” she said. “Letterboxing is a motivator. There’s the bonus of a prize at the end of a hike.” The first time out, the family spent a long time searching for some sort of fungus, perhaps a pile of mushrooms. According to the clues, the box was hidden underneath a SPOR. Ferruggia later discovered SPOR is letterbox speak for “suspicious pile of rocks.”

She’s almost through filling her second notebook with stamps from letterboxes she’s found since then. “Every stamp I get I always remember the hike vividly,” she said, paging through her book.

She paused on a stamp of a family of skeletons, the skeleton mother cradling a swaddled bundle whose head is, on close examination, distinctly skull-like. The hunt, called Forgotten Cemetery, was supposed to be a family day trip to Tuxedo. The hints were mile markers, and the family found itself driving back and forth, baffled. She emailed the guy who’d planted the box: “I can’t find the cemetery for my life.” The chapel had burned down, and the graveyard was up on a ridge, with only the tops of the tallest memorials visible from the road. “We went like four times,” Ferruggia laughed, and finally found the place. It was “overgrown crazy with poison ivy. It was such a treat to find! My youngest is into Nightmare Before Christmas, so he loved that stamp.”

A history buff, Ferruggia decided in 2010 to plant her first letterbox in the Warwick Cemetery. She bought a pink rubber mat and gouging tool, and painstakingly etched a cat and the words “Warwick Cemetery” across its body. She stamped it into her new logbook. The words showed up backwards. Oops. When you’re carving a stamp, you have to reverse the letters. So Ferruggia flipped the rubber pad over and tried again, going with “W.C.” this time, and glued the botched side to a wooden block, never to be seen again.

Planting a letterbox involves not only carving a stamp, finding a hiding place and creating clues, but it also requires attention to all sorts of boring details. The most essential: finding the right container. Ferruggia swears by the Lock & Lock Tupperware, which has a gasket and snap tabs that keep out moisture. She keeps an extra on hand so that if she comes across a beautiful stamp stashed in a Chinese food takeout container full of water, she can give it First Aid.

Once she found a “hitchhiker” – a mini letterbox that travels from one letterbox to the next – inside her letterbox at the cemetery. The simple Taurus sign had come from Georgia, probably via the Appalachian Trail, and “it was in a real mess.” Ferruggia cleaned it up, re-planted it in a letterbox in Bethlehem, PA, and e-mailed its creator with an update on the hitchhiker’s progress.

Ferruggia still thinks of herself as a “very novice stamp carver. But I figure if they look good then I must’ve done something right.” Her favorite creations are a series of four characters – Toad, Mouse, Badger and Mole – that she traced out of a copy of The Wind in the Willows.

She unpacked her supplies and spread them on a table to demonstrate the process for me. I watched intently as she outlined my daughter’s name, Kai, in black marker, then scooped away the rubber from around the letters. Kai means willow tree in Navajo, so Ferruggia added a trunk and wispy branches. She gave me the half-carved stamp, which I intended to get my feet wet by finishing.

The next day, a voicemail: I can’t believe it, Ferruggia laughed. I forgot to reverse the letters. I’m making you another stamp.

Sidebar: Letterbox with Dirt We couldn’t help ourselves. We had to try our hand at designing a hunt for Dirt readers. (Slackboxers through and through, we owe thanks to Little Green Mouse for doing all the work.)

The journey is contained within the children’s section of Albert Wisner Public Library in Warwick. Wait in line for the bathroom and look right, and your globetrotting begins. One clue will lead to the next.

Bring a stamp if you have one; if you don’t, just leave a note.