Funhog Interview

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

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Location: Kensington, Connecticut, United States

Friday, March 05, 2004

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    Da Hawg!, by Mark Pepe
    Part of Hog Heaven Theme Park, a tribute to Funhog in Red Bluff, CA

    Biography [written in the Hog's own words]

    While my Dad was a student at MIT and my Mom managed a boarding house on what was then low rent Newbury Street in Boston, this little piggy made its entry into the world. I had my eighth birthday along Route 66 in Albuquerque New Mexico as Mom drove the kids across country to our new home in Southern California. I was mystified when I was presented with a birthday cake at our hotel. It took me years to figure out that the restaurant where we celebrated the occasion didn't really have an electronic sensor on the front door that alerted the staff to birthdays, the logical explanation given by my Dad.

    The land of Sunset Strip, Malibu Beach and Disneyland were a grand place to grow up. It was definitely paradise for an adventurous teenager but being more than a little bit of a rebel, I was anxious to leave the nest. I wanted to go to a college where I could encounter alternative lifestyles. Reed College in Portland, Oregon seemed the perfect choice. I discovered that the natural world of the beautiful Pacific Northwest was the big draw here, not Reed. Hiking, camping, fishing and birding have taken us to the four corners of this very diverse state.

    Three cats, Leonardo, Mischa and Pearl deign to allow me and KB to live in their house. We don't have human children of our own but a steady stream of loaner kids pass through our home. The occasional exotic letterboxer also finds their way here. We both run our own small business which allows us the kind of flexibility that gives us the time to follow our other interests. I always say that I have the best boss in the world...

    [Interviewer's note: This was my most difficult interview to date. I either was acquainted or knew a little something about each of my other previous victims. With Funhog, my knowledge was almost nil, besides doing a few boxes and there was very little out there on the net. After learning something about the Hog from a friend, this interview began to take shape - and like peeling the layers off of an onion, the real Hog emerged. The nature-loving, story-telling, wonderful person that blossoms forth is quite a thing to see and read. Hog - thanks for giving so much of yourself and making this interview a complete joy!]

    Let's begin with your trail name! I would never think that the name Funhog would belong to a woman - in fact, there's a geocaching guy known as Funhog. How did this Hog come to be? What made you choose what most might think an unlikely name for a female?

    No one ever said I was a girl... Many folks have assumed that I ride a Harley because of my trail name. However, my motorcycle phase was limited to Yamahas and my experience with Harley is limited to stock ownership. My closest friend gave me this name as a result of a particularly decadent vacation I took with other travel junkie pals. It began with theater and fine dining in New York. The next day, we flew to Grand Turk for a week of memorable scuba diving and so-so dining. This, of course, should have been enough fun for anyone but... we then proceeded to New Orleans for the St. Joseph's Day festivities and yet more fine dining. Hearing this itinerary, my friend shook his head and christened me Funhog.

    How and when did you get started in letterboxing? Where did you hear about it?

    Three years ago, one of my neighbors went back to school at Lewis and Clark College to receive his Master of Arts in Teaching degree. In that program, the professor introduced the class to letterboxing as a potential classroom activity. Knowing my penchant for hiking, puzzle solving and travel, my neighbor figured I just might be interested. He copied all the classroom materials and handed them to me with a smile on his face. I found two of Paisley Orca's Columbia Slough boxes on July 30, 2001 and hid my first box two days later. Little did he know what a monster he had unleashed.

    By the way, I understand that the L&C campus has a number of letterboxes hidden there as a result of that MAT program. The trick would be to find the clues....

    You mention your penchant for hiking as almost one of the prerequisites to letterboxing. One of the theories I have heard is that letterboxing has a greater appeal and acceptance to a hiker than a non-hiker. Do you agree with that and why would that be?

    It was one of my personal prerequisites but it is clearly not one for everyone. There are plenty of letterboxers out there who have little interest in climbing a 2500' elevation gain in 3 1/2 miles just to find a couple of little letterboxes (Dog Mountain, WA.) I once read a post regarding one of my letterboxes, one I consider very easy. It's hidden along a level, paved, wheelchair accessible trail about a half mile from the parking area. I called it a 'short stroll.' The poster begged to differ with me. I think one of the beauties of this pastime is that it appeals to people of all ages, diverse interests and varied physical abilities.

    Are you disappointed or encouraged at the state of letterboxing today vs. the way it was when you first started hunting Tupperware?

    I love that there are new boxers planting constantly. At one point, I worried that I would have found all of the letterboxes in my home region. I actually stopped looking for them for a few months because I didn't want to exhaust the supply. Nowadays, this is very unlikely to happen.

    However, I do wish that some of the new boxes provided more of a challenge. I recently found two boxes hidden about thirty feet apart. You could literally park the car in between the two and snag them in about thirty seconds. The stamps were nice but there was no feeling of satisfaction in adding them to my collection. The place they were hidden is a wonderful locale with lots of interesting history, expansive grounds and notable buildings. The person who hid those boxes missed a wonderful opportunity to take folks on a grand tour and create a memorable experience.

    For me it's all about the letterboxing experience, not upping my F count. The idea of "power boxing" is alien to me. I have actually been to places where I thought there were too many boxes, something I never thought possible.

    Sue & I have done your letterbox at the Cape [G B Heron's Haven] and the two in Vermont [Hip Hop and Let's Play]. After we completed those, we looked for more Hog-ifed boxes and noticed that your other contributions are spread all over the country; in 13 states to be exact. How have you accomplished such a feat? Do you have designs on placing a box in every state?

    I'm glad you counted them. I've been wondering how many states I've hit! I'd best get to another state soon since thirteen is purported to be an unlucky number. Ahhhh... I AM going to be in a couple of new states very soon. Florida and Kansas, look out! As for hitting all fifty, I think Amanda from Seattle is much more likely to bag that honor than I.

    I haven't hidden boxes in every state that I visit but those that are severely lacking in letterboxes are likely to receive a Funhog contribution. My work takes me hither and yon. Since I don't tend to watch TV very often, I'd much prefer to spend an evening in a hotel room carving a stamp. I'm a map freak, so I always have a map handy for scouting hiding spots; those green areas on an AAA map are VERY helpful.

    One of the big surprises that came to me with the discovery of letterboxing is my love of stamp carving. I had never made anything other than your basic first grade potato stamp before. Now I carve vinyl as a regular pastime. There's a boxful ready and waiting at all times. I often carry a few stamps with me when I travel "just in case."

    If you have pre-carved stamps in your traveling suitcase and then place them in an area that you feel needs a little boxing love while you are on the road, how can you be sure the stamp will match the surroundings or is that not the most pressing attribute that you look for in designing a letterbox?

    When I'm packing, I try to pick stamps from my stash that might find a potential home in an area. If I'm going to Nebraska, I probably wouldn't pick a stamp that had a palm tree on it but I might pick one that had a crane. I do have quite a few to pick from. In fact, this interview is cutting into my carving time! I may have a shortage on my next trip.

    So carving came at what point in your letterboxing career? Do you feel that it's a maturation process? First we hunt, then we carve, then we plant, then we improve our clue-writing skills?

    I carved right out of the gate. My first efforts are admittedly pretty darned bad but I made the effort. I can remember slaving over that first stamp, biting my tongue and cutting my fingers. Over time, my carving has improved a lot but I will never be a master carver like some of our ranks. Some of my clues are very easy and others more cryptic but I always try to make the language colorful.

    Oregon seems to be the state in which you have planted the most letterboxes. Is this home or is there another reason for the abundance of the Hog's boxes?

    Oregon is home for me. We split our time between life in the city of Portland and frequent weekends in the desert of Central Oregon. I know many folks who've never visited our fine state don't realize that two thirds of Oregon is high desert. There are rimrock canyons, sagebrush prairie, juniper trees and honest-to-God cowboys, the kind who actually ride on horses and brand cattle!

    Portland is getting downright Connecticutty what with all the letterboxers who've appeared on the scene of late. The desert country, on the other hand, has been slow to take off. It took over a year before my first letterbox, which is hidden in that part of the state, received its first visitor. It still hasn't received a lot of action but I am very pleased to report that the much coveted signature stamp of Legerdemaine has made its way into this logbook.

    Desert in Oregon? That's amazing! Tell us more about the desert, what it means to you, the ecology and is there a particular place you visit when you are escaping Portland?

    Big sky, deep canyons, no light pollution, clean air, wild trout, Golden Eagles, total silence, and good Mexican food. Need I say more?

    We have a little piece of land between the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. For several years, we stayed in a vintage travel trailer when we visited but last year we graduated to indoor plumbing: we built a cute little western bunkhouse. There are Bubbas there who leave beer cans and worm containers down by the river but, all in all, it's heavenly out there.

    Your concentration on boxes seems to favor the Midwest and West. Was there a reason for that? I have heard from a mutual friend that, along with Ryan, you are responsible for planting the western half of the country with much-needed letterboxes. What drove you to plant there away from the crowd of letterboxers in the East?

    I spend more of my time in these parts of the country. When I'm in the East, my work schedule is pretty tight so I don't have as much time for fun.

    Although Ryan and I have been pretty darned busy planting letterboxes here and there, I really think major credit should go to Mitch Klink, Der Mad Stamper, and Thom Cheney, The Green Hornet, two of the originators of our hobby in the United States. Fortunately for us in Oregon, they happen to live in Portland. DMS has disappeared from the Lb scene and TC is an infrequent player of late but without them, this would be a different game, indeed.

    When they first began in the hobby, they were hiding boxes just for each other to find. Der Mad Stamper had placed over fifty boxes in the Portland area by the time I discovered the hobby. They both carve fine stamps and write clever clues, so the bar was set high from the beginning. Few of us here ever considered hiding a store bought stamp. It just wasn't how it was done.

    You said that without Mitch and Thom's involvement, letterboxing would be a different game. How so?

    As new people discovered the hobby in our area, everyone assumed that clues should be clever and stamps handmade. They led by example.

    With over 130 Funhog letterboxes shown on the website, and who knows how many more not listed there, do you have a particular favorite and why? How about a favorite box by another letterboxer?

    One of my favorites that I've hidden is El Corredor in New Mexico. The evil clue for that one makes me chuckle whenever I think of it. Have a look... looks pretty darned straightforward, doesn't it??? So far, I've heard nary a word about that box since it was hidden. Perhaps, it's not quite as straightforward as it looks.

    I have several faves from other folks. One of the classic letterboxes in all of the US has to be Der Mad Stamper's Spirit of Dartmoor. Everything about this box is great: the cryptic clue, the quality of the stamp and the overall presentation. The Davis Letterbox that was hidden on the UC campus was the most thrilling find I've ever made. Unfortunately, it has since been moved and no longer packs the adrenaline punch I got from its original hiding place. When I was disassembling part of a campus building to reach the box, I was wondering how much bail was going to be. Beautiful stamps created by Don and Gwen, Legerdemaine and Ryan Carpenter are also on my Top Ten list.

    So, are you saying that one attribute for making a more memorable letterboxing experience is the existence of an element of danger?

    Naw... just that the element of danger made that particular letterbox find one that will always stand out in my memory. No other box I've found even came close to being a thrill sport. This one definitely did.

    In a similar vein, have you checked out the British website called Urban Letterboxing? It details boxes planted in cities, primarily London, that possess that adrenaline-producing element of danger like boxes hidden on rooftops of apartment buildings, etc. Do you feel there is a place for this type of letterboxing in this country?

    I haven't looked at the site but will have to take a peek. There used to be a box hidden in the downtown Chicago Underground by Matt the Rat. The surroundings appeared to be a bit iffy, I wouldn't have wanted to go there alone, but the hunt was a thrill. I learned about Chicago history and saw a part of the city I would have surely missed if I hadn’t been lured there by a letterbox. Bring on the urban boxes!

    What do you think makes an ideal location for a letterbox? When you plant a box, which comes first: the stamp, the clues, or the location and why?

    The ideal letterbox location is one which will NEVER be discovered accidentally by either humans or animals, doesn't disrupt the surrounding environment and takes you on an interesting hunt. I have found a few boxes hidden in places that invite damage to an area: historic stone walls, eroded hillsides, animal burrows.... I consider these to be the worst kinds of hiding places. Longer hikes are my preference since I like to fool myself by calling letterboxing "exercise."

    Most of my boxes are hidden based on their location. Some locations just beg for a letterbox because of their names: Bald Peak, Buckhorn, Crystal Springs, Papillion and, of course, anything with the word Hog in it. Even if I use a stamp carved before I know its eventual home, I try to find a location that somehow matches the stamp. Some locations or occasions are just so noteworthy that they MUST have a box to mark them.

    When I first started hiding boxes, I worried about publicizing some of my 'secret' spots, especially in Central Oregon. Fortunately, my fears have been mostly unfounded. In my experience, letterboxers tend to be a group that respect the environment and tread lightly on the earth.

    So you have no fears of hoards of letterboxers tromping over ecological frailties, disturbing a certain rare species of bird or leaving a trail of lunch wrappers or plastic water bottles in their wake?

    Of course I have those fears. It just seems that most box hunters and hiders have a similar ethic to mine when it comes to the environment. They aren't the ones who leave the trash. They are the ones who pick it up. I would never knowingly hide a letterbox in an area that had sensitive or rare species nearby.

    There seems to be a few personality types in letterboxing. The first is the outgoing, social type that posts to the talk lists, boxes in groups and attends area gatherings. The second is one that is much more introverted, stays in the background, does their boxing alone and may abhor the social aspect of a gathering. In which category do you fit, or are you a blend or combination of the two?

    I am definitely of the social persuasion but with limitations. I have backed off of the Talk Lists after becoming the target of personal attacks but I continue to chat privately online with letterboxers both new and old. I prefer to letterbox alone or with just one or two other people. Group boxing really does have the potential to cause the kind of environmental havoc you mentioned above and I really want to avoid that.

    I have enjoyed all the gatherings that I have attended but I have found that I usually end up spending most of my time with just one or two people. That way, I can get a better idea of who they are. Since I began this hobby I have made some amazing friends, people who I believe will be friends for life. I used to think people who met online were weird. Now I know that they may be weird but they can also be way cool.

    In your new Arizona letterbox, Agua Dulce, you mention birdwatching and sewage plants, giving us the impression that where there's sewage, there are birds. Is that a fair statement? Bird watching comes up more than once in your letterbox clues, is that a passion of yours? Which do you most enjoy birdwatching or letterboxing?

    Sewage is not the draw. By the time sewage water hits an open air pond it is pretty clean. In fact there are some beautiful sewage ponds that have been developed as wetland habitats. The one where Agua Dulce is hidden is one of these. Another is to be found in Arcata, California and, yes, there is a letterbox there but not one of mine. Where there's water, there are birds.

    Along with an Exacto knife and Mastercarve, my Swarovski binocular is always in my travel bag. (Yes, we bird geeks use the singular for binos) Birding, like letterboxing, is a great pastime for a person who travels. The birds are different all over the world and it is something that can be done before and after work. I have been known to arrive at some local park via taxicab at the crack of dawn to meet up with a local birdwatching group. Just like letterboxers, birders tend to be a very friendly group, willing to welcome a stranger and share the local attractions.

    Tell us the most extraordinary birdwatching story you have experienced?

    The word 'extraordinary' is the operative one here. Hands down, it's the morning fly-out on the Platte River in Nebraska. Several years ago, I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room looking at a tattered birdwatcher's magazine. I came across a photo of cranes as far as the lens could see, standing ankle deep in the waters of the Platte, mist rising from the river. I told the receptionist that I would be compelled to steal the magazine if she didn't copy the page with contact information for me. Luckily, she was glad to do it and thievery wasn't on the program for the day.

    It took me a couple of years to make it there but in March, 2002, I finally went to Kearney, Nebraska for the Rivers and Wildlife Festival. One of the organized activities was a tour to a private blind on the river for the fly-out. Unfortunately, birds think that first light is a grand time to start their day so this trip entailed hiking across frozen fields at 5:30 in the morning in total darkness and waiting in 16 degree temperatures for the sun to come up. When the sky started to lighten the cranes began to talk amongst themselves until thousands of Snow Geese rose up and began to fly. Half a million cranes followed suit and the brightening sky was absolutely filled with birds in every direction. The sound was akin to a speeding freight train. This is a wildlife spectacle of the first order, one that anyone with even a passing interest in nature would relish.

    Sounds like an experience that would be difficult to forget and awe-inspiring as well. What is the rarest of birds that you have spied during your travels? Have you watched birds on foreign soil?

    It was a peak experience, that's for sure.

    The rarest birds I've gotten to see would definitely be Whooping Cranes since there are only about two hundred of them alive on our little green planet today. Those lucky Texas letterboxers! They can go get letterboxes AND see these graceful creatures at the same time.

    Both work and play have taken me to some pretty exotic locales and I'm always on the lookout for birds. Some of the bird books for foreign countries in the Multnomah County Library have post-its hidden between the pages. I leave messages for any other potential travelers to spots I've visited.

    Besides yourself, who do you think are other letterboxing pioneers that have made significant contributions to this hobby and what do you see as their individual contributions? Are there any up-and-coming letterboxers for whom we should be on the lookout or those who might take letterboxing to the next level?

    As I mentioned before, Mitch Klink and Thom Cheney are at the top of the local list. The other early pioneers, Eric Mings, Tom Cooch and Randy Hall all are deserving of kudos. I only consider myself to be part of the second wave. Some of the notable carvers currently in our midst are Ryan Carpenter, Jay Drew, Legerdemaine, ScoutDogs, TeamGreenDragon, Springchick, Alafair, Franzolo... Any time I'd have a chance to find one of their boxes, I am rarin' to go. Plus, I'm sure there are others whose work I have yet to see.

    As for challenging clues, I'd probably name Randy Hall as a major player. Unfortunately, I've never managed to find one of his boxes but have spent considerable time online working on his clues. Legerdemaine also puts the old grey matter through a workout with his maddening conundrums. Brett Costley, here in Oregon, has created some real head scratchers. There is a guy named Steve in Omaha who writes great clues but, unfortunately, isn't very active in the hobby.

    With all the Postal Letterboxes that have been popping up lately, I think credit should be given to Legerdemaine for initiating this type of box with his groundbreaking Flutterby, the box that finds you. Those who were lucky enough to see this oeuvre before it was retired marveled at the beautiful handmade wooden box, hand bound log and address books and the gorgeous hand carved stamp.

    Oh! I also think Wes Garrison deserves major praise for his reworking of Der Mad Stamper's original web design. The cool old-timey look was maintained but the new functionality is wonderful. This poor guy lives in a part of the country with a distinct dearth of letterboxes, which is probably to the rest of our advantage. No boxes...lots of time to geek out writing code.

    As for the future, I have had my curiosity piqued by Ollie Oxenfree. Unfortunately, this enigma has been very quiet of late but I'm always on the lookout. There is a duo here in Oregon who goes by the moniker Miller and Hutch who carve nice stamps and has only been spotted via cuckoo clues. I love the guerilla aspect of their letterboxes.

    Can you think of another way letterboxing can evolve say, letterboxing of the future? Do you think virtual letterboxes have any place in that future?

    Let's hope the evolution of letterboxing seeks the highest common denominator. There have been many new folks joining up in the last year or so and, with practice, their carving skills will grow. I know that there is a trend of late to create hand bound logbooks. A number of players, both East and West are learning to make beautiful books, some of them unbelievably detailed. The more of these that find their way into letterboxes and are discovered by finders, the more people will be inspired to make them. With higher quality contents inside a letterbox, hiders will seek more secure hiding places for them and hopefully, boxes will have greater longevity.

    With the sprouting up of regional Talk Lists everywhere, I think that Letterboxing may regain some of the delicious hush-hush quality that cloaked it at first. Some of these new pages can only be read by registered members and one that I know of is closed altogether to new members. It's likely that clues may appear in some of these venues that are only accessible to those who read those lists. I actually, relish the element of secrecy with regard to clues. Being privy to a secret clue can be very exciting.

    One recent development that I find very disappointing is the creation of letterbox databases that exclude input from the creators of the boxes listed there. I don't have any objection to such information in general but feel that the owner of a box should have ultimate say in what is published on the Web. The excellent Letterboxing Nebraska site created by Scott Redd allows commentary on each box as it's found but anyone can edit the entries if so desired.

    I'm not a particular fan of virtual letterboxes but then I live in a pretty temperate part of the country. We can box here twelve months of the year. I'd much rather go out and slog around in the mud than sit in front of my trusty Mac. Printing a stamp image from the computer doesn't spin my beanie. I want that tactile experience of pressing ink to paper. I love the out of doors and would much rather find my boxes there. I'm sure that those who like these indoor quests will continue to create and enjoy them. I'm just not one of them now. Maybe someday...

    While I agree with your opinion of the letterbox databases, what do you say to those that feel we post our clues on the website, and as a result are considered public domain, thus up for anything that may happen to them?

    Just that I think they have bad manners.

    What is your connection to the Zoomobile?

    Of course, there are Funhog boxes hidden at the Zoo but the real zoo connection is by way of my Eco-persona not the letterboxing one. For the last fifteen years, you would have been able to find me every Tuesday during the school year at the Oregon Zoo or in one of our local grade schools. We have a program that takes live animals to classrooms and teaches the kids about birds, mammals and reptiles as well as conservation and the environment I get to handle a variety of animals from Blue-tongued Skinks to owls, bunny rabbits and other creatures covered with fur, feathers and scales. Since I work for myself, I have been able to schedule my work around Tuesdays. I often fly home on a Monday night to be here in time for Zoomobile Tuesday morning. When I can't make it, I feel like a real traitor.

    How do you feel that these animals impact a child's life? Are there valuable lessons here to be learned besides the fact that the children may get to pet an animal that they never knew existed?

    We hope that we set an example of respect for other living creatures and communicate a sense of wonder with the natural world. I can't tell you how satisfying it is to see a child's eyes light up when they get the nerve to touch and animal they may have feared before our visit. Plus, one of the tenets of the Zooguide Motto is "Fun is basic," perfect for a Funhog.

    Speaking of lessons . . . what is one lesson that letterboxing has taught you and why?

    Don't believe everything you read on the Talk List. There are very sneaky letterboxers out there....

    Related Links:

    Letterboxing Nebraska's Funhog page

    Urban Letterboxing