Sometimes Robin Morrison of Columbia tells people she’s been out hiking in the woods all weekend.
Only those who may appreciate her guarded hobby find out the truth.
Morrison is a letterboxer.
Letterboxing, a pastime that began in England in the mid-1800s, is an outdoor treasure hunt that has taken on a life of its own in mid-Missouri. Players hide boxes in public places, then post clues for those who want to join the hunt.
The Web site letterboxing.org says that 20,000 letterboxes are hidden in North America.
In Columbia, the first box listed on the site was planted in 2002 in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. By the end of 2002, two boxes were listed for Boone County.
Today, more than 180 boxes are stashed in the county and at least 275 are in northeast Missouri.
This is how letterboxing works:
Someone hides a box — usually Tupperware — with a log book and a hand-carved rubber stamp inside.
The hider devises a set of clues to post online or hand out personally.
Anyone can solve the clues and search for the box.
After finding a box, the player stamps the log book inside, as well as a personal log book.
The box is then replaced for the next hunter.
Although Morrison describes Columbia as a “hot spot” for letterboxing right now, she said there is still a secretive nature to it.
On a recent fall day, she found a box hidden in a Columbia park. This particular box was part of a contest where boxes had to be hidden in plain sight, in a high traffic area and less than 10 feet off a beaten path.
Her short hair whipping at her face, Morrison used her warm breath to reactivate the ink on her stamp and press it firmly into the two logbooks.
“It’s kind of like a badge at this point,” she said. “I’ve gotten much better; I like exercising my brain.”
Sitting on a nearby park bench, she began to decipher clues for the next box while trying to ignore curious onlookers.
“Don’t pay any attention to us, we’re just doing an art project in the park,” Morrison said.
In fact, the arts-and-crafts aspect is what really sold Morrison on letterboxing and what separates it from geocaching.
Geocaching sends people out with coordinates; using a global positioning system, they find boxes.
Instead of finding stamps, Morrison said the boxes contain small items such as Happy Meal toys or “the junk I’m trying to get out of my house.”
Still working on a code in the clues, she rambled through letters and eventually solved the puzzle: “Floor!” she said. “Major breakthrough! Major breakthrough!”
Her contagious smile, just moments ago veiled by frustration, lights up her face.
“I love it when I crack a code; it’s so satisfying,” she said as she filled in the last few letters.
Ciphering is a popular way to create clues. Others, Morrison said, have done clues in Elvish or in the form of a treasure map.
With her clue solved, Morrison then had to find the box. It proved to be a bit of a challenge and had Morrison climbing and walking in circles.
“Look how dirty I’m getting already,” she said. “This place is not that big. I’m feeling kind of dumb.”
Persevering, she emerges from the hiding spot, covered in gray dust, with the box and a huge smile.
Secrecy is very important when searching for boxes, and Morrison usually moves away from the hiding spot to be inconspicuous.
“All right, let’s see what we got.”
She flipped through the logbook — something she almost always does — and found that quite a few people had discovered the box by accident.
One man wrote, “We were looking here as a site to get married, and my wife found it because she’s nosey.” Another said their kids were exploring and found it.
Most people, Morrison said, are respectful and will put the box back, but not always.
“That’s the biggest fear for all letterboxers, for your box to go missing,” she said.
Most letterboxers in mid-Missouri carve their own stamps, Morrison said. Hers shows a monkey and her trail name: McMonkeyMom, a combination of her son’s nickname and McDonald’s, where she works.
“I always say it’s better to have a crappy hand-carved stamp than a store-bought one,” she said.
She described a personal logbook as a passport to remember where she’s been. Her personal logbook — she’s on her third — is covered in a brown leaf pattern on a black background with a quote from Aristotle: “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”
Morrison usually writes notes to accompany the stamp in her log book, as well as the one in the box. The notes often provide context such as the weather or the difficulty of the hunt.
This time, she complimented the creative hiding spot and the interesting logbook.
After finishing, she returned the box to its original spot.
Then she smiled, packed up her stuff and walked away with her prize: the imprint of a wildflower.