Noe Valley Voice February 2005

Family Adventures Close to Home:
Treasure Hunting in the Presidio

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

It's easy for us Americans to mock the British and their odd interests (brass-rubbing, anyone?), so when my brother-in-law and teenage niece, both wash-ashores from the other side of the pond, starting talking excitedly about their letterboxing adventures, I figured that the pursuit would be about as exciting as an afternoon of train-spotting. As with so many things British and otherwise, I was wrong.

Letterboxing originated in 1854 in Dartmoor, a bucolic region in England's southwest, when a zany country gentleman hid his calling card in a jar in a remote bog. Eventually, other zany Brits began leaving their calling cards in the jar, and before too long, more jars appeared in nooks and crannies around the moors.

Today, thanks to the Internet, what was once a quaint British pastime has expanded into a worldwide phenomenon, and the beauty of it is that it's free, it's outdoors, and it relies on such old-fashioned notions as trust, adventuring, and communicating warm greetings to complete strangers.

Here's how it works:

A letterbox enthusiast plants a box (usually a sandwich-sized Tupperware container) in a hidden location. The box contains a rubber stamp, a small blank book or pad of paper, and maybe a message or letter. The enthusiast then posts clues as to the whereabouts of his or her box on one of the many web sites devoted to this pursuit. Letterboxers follow the clues to find the box. They stamp a page in the book and then stamp their own letterboxing books or papers with the stamp that's in the box. That's it. The journey is the adventure. The adventure is the journey. Very British.

Our Voice-approved Letterboxing adventure begins on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where son Miles and I each select our stamps from a street vendor. (It turns out that most letterboxers create their own stamps from rubber erasers, a fact I didn't discover until we found our first box.) Miles chooses a fresh Calvin and Hobbes cartoon stamp. I pick one depicting a pair of demented-looking mynah birds.

We then visit to find out about potential letterboxes in San Francisco. We discover that there are 180 boxes planted in the Bay Area.

Miles finds a particularly enticing set of clues with a haunted mansion theme. The clues promise a cache of five letterboxes hidden around Mountain Lake at the southern edge of the Presidio. We pick up our pal Jules and set off on Razor scooters to search for the boxes in weather that is becoming increasingly British--misty, cool, slightly foggy. Perfect for this sort of thing.

We're nearly to the site of the first clue when Jules, who has brought along the Camelback water pack he got for Christmas, asks, "How far back was the bathroom?"

Backtracking and adventuring go hand in hand.

We follow the first clue to a swampy willow glen and spend quite a while mucking about and alarming the ducks as we search for the hidden box. My feet are damp.

"Let's go to the second clue," I suggest. No Shackleton I.

"Are you nuts, Mom?" Miles says. "We can't give up yet."

I suggest that we retreat from the glen and review the clue. That's when we notice that it specifies a plaque, not a sign, as the starting point. We've taken 30 steps east-northeast from the wrong spot. Jules finds the correct plaque, and in seconds we're racing around the base of a tree, looking for the letterbox. The boys let out a whoop when they discover it. (There's something very sweet about a pair of 9-year-old boys becoming excited over a Tupperware box that doesn't plug in, make noise, light up, or shoot projectiles.)

The kids add their stamps to the book and stamp our clue sheet with the homemade key stamp enclosed in the package. In seconds, they're racing off to clue number two, and I have to remind them to replace the box where they found it and to cover it up again so that it doesn't go missing (a not-uncommon occurrence in letterboxing).

As we set off for the second box, the boys are parsing the language on the clue sheet as if it were the Rosetta Stone.

"Overpass," Jules says. "What do you suppose that means?"

"Hmmm," Miles says. "Overpass."

They're so absorbed in what hidden meanings the term might hold that they scoot right underneath the Park Presidio overpass.

"Boys," I call. "This is an overpass."

"Are you sure?" Miles asks.

Once they're convinced, they scramble up the embankment and locate the hidden letterbox as cars whiz overhead toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

Subsequent clues lead us past abandoned Army housing, down hidden pathways, and deep into tall grass. And with each discovery, the boys became more and more engaged. As we peruse the books, we see stamps and notes left by people from as far away as India and Chile, and as close-by as a family we know on 22nd Street.

We're sitting on a eucalyptus log perusing the booklet from box #3, when a group of dog walkers passes by, prompting Miles to instinctively hide the letterbox. Suddenly, we're part of the secret letterboxing society, and we can't let these outsiders know about it.

As we find the fifth and final box in the clue set, Jules, who has been using my mynah bird stamp, gets a reward--a stamp carved from a pink school eraser that depicts an exotic Hindu goddess. It's a "hitchhiker"--a tiny gift left by one letterboxer for another. Jules grins as though he has just won the best prize in the world.

"Why would someone leave it?" Miles asks.

He can tell by my expression that I'm about to ask, "Why do you think?"

"I know, I know," he says. "It's because it's a cool thing to do."

On tired legs we turn our scooters back toward Funston Avenue. As we sit on a bench with our snack, I suggest that we head to Golden Gate Park and see if we can find a few more letterboxes. The mist is turning to rain, Jules' water pack is empty, and our animal cookies and apple slices aren't quite the snack the boys require after their exertions.

"How about if we rent a movie and order a pizza?" Miles asks.

I fold the clues titled "The Carousel's Pink Treat," "Where the Buffalo Roam," and "The Summer of Love" into my backpack for our next afternoon of letterboxing. I'll have to call my brother-in-law and let him know that we're hooked.


* Letterboxing is free and is practiced worldwide. My well-traveled niece researches letterbox locations in every destination she visits and keeps a diary of her letterboxing adventures.

* The web site lists clues for nearly 200 boxes in the Bay Area (though the sole Noe Valley box appears to be missing!). Visit the site, or "Google" letterboxing for more information.

Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail us at