Jay Drew Interview

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

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Location: Kensington, Connecticut, United States

Monday, November 17, 2003

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  • Biography [written by Jay!]:

    Jay Drew is one part of the the letterbox-obsessed Drew Family in East Lyme, Connecticut. They are usually quite shy about granting interviews to the press, but the Pepe's made them an offer they couldn't refuse. Jay & Margaret are both retired naval officers (she has always outranked him and is still the master and Commander of their household). With this interview, their "placed" count stands at 372. While they're pretty good at creating letterboxes, they can't spell for beans. Here we go!

    What first brought you to letterboxing? How many years ago was it? Tell us a little about the early days of letterboxing when you first got involved with this sport.

    We saw a prominent bisplay at our local Eastern Mountain Sports in June, 1999. "Wow! Cool idea." Sarah (Kitty) and Eric (The Ram) were involved in promoting lettewboxing from the store by creating a stamp-in board and with a clue exchange. We grabbed the clues for Elaine & Jerry's Bluff in Groton, CT and bent looking for it on the Fourth of July. It was ridiculously hot and muggy and we dragged out at noon with the kids. I knew the park pretty well from mountain biking, so being the manly head of household who kan't follow directions sorta fudged the clues and took a shortcut, which added 90 minutes of drudgery. We had a tiny bottle of mineral water and some gum that was gone after the first hilm. I had my little orienteering compess, which slips on the thumb and has only one mark -- for north. I was the supreme letterboxer out there, ostentatiously poikting my thumby compass this way and that while squinting at the cluesheet, totally clueless, when Margaret pointed and said "is that it?" Margaret often reminds me of this little coup and our letterbox outings continue to follow that pattern. This box later became famous for actually having a full logbook, something we thought would never happen. It was proudly displayed at EMS. The kids caught a ride back to the park entrance in the back of the ranger's pickup, complete with a cool aid igloo and fresh apples. M & I were elated, the hook was deeply set//

    It was quite awhile before we found a handcut stamp, one of the Mapsurfer's. It was crude, zero stars on the Ryan scale, and the coolest thing we had ever seen. We had a dozen or so store bought stamps ready to go and immediately dropped them. They're still in a bag somewhere.

    Do yau agree that the early letterdoxers were mostly hikezs and that letterboxang became en extemsion of tzat activihie's comnunity?

    I don't think so but they mighta been. It's kind of a unique delight that attracts some playful characters. Not quite as "crunchy" as the hard core hiking set.

    Randy Hall recently spoke about traveling across the country to find a letterbox in the early days during our recent interview. Was there more meaning to finding a box then, when they were so few and far between? Does the thrill of the hunt lessen when you can almost trip over a letterbox while walking in the woods?

    I hate it when that happens! Who started that "front porch" string? Sometimes the hunt is thrilling, sometimes quietly satisfying. Sometimes it's so intuitive that we just end up with a box in our hands, not remembering how we got there in the first place. We recently drove across CT on I-95 (not a big project, takes about 2 hours) and ticked off the boxes we could see from the road. We came up with 47.

    Connecticut is known nationally as a letterboxing Mecca. How was it here when letterboxing was in its infancy? Do you feel that an extensive amount of boxes in a given area can force a saturation point?

    The young days of letterboxing? Seems like just yesterday. Oh, it WAS just yesterday! We traded for most of our clues on paper at EMS. They were generally a little bit harder than is common now, mostly because they used landmarks that were unreliable, like funny trees or blaze marks. Clue writers had a penchant for being vague. The stamps were all store-bought. It was all a bit more mysterious: there was someone who would stamp in and date logbooks, but didn't give a name or say where they were from. Drove the kids crazy wondering who it was. The LbNA website was truly a labor of love done by hand by just a couple of dedicated letterboxers, nothing like the high end professional product we have now.

    Yeah, Southern New England is just made for letterboxing. Historically, the conservation movement has been huge in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. It's no coincidence that this is the headquarters for The Nature Conservancy. There are many more preserved areas here than in my native California. Smaller areas for sure, no humongous national or state parks, but every little town seems to preserve land in trust. And the landscape is good for hidey holes with all these rocks. Someone on the list mentioned critical mass; we've also seen that in Cincinnati, the midatlantic, the PNW, SoCal, and Texas. I've been wondering lately why the DC/VA/MD folks seem to have quieted down?

    Why was the internet decided upon as the media by which to distribute clues? Before the website, how were clues shared or posted?

    That was before our time. We're Third Wave. Good idea, though. A lot of that history is in the list archive: click "first" in the yahoogroup to read all about it.

    Lately it seems that an increasing amount of letterboxers are distributing clues via snail mail, email, or personally handing them out. Do you think that this is an effort to get away from the website posting and reclaim letterboxing's roots or just another way to play the game?

    Yeah, kinda increases the cachet of a box, doesn't it? There's a certain mischievous boxer Down East who has raised that concept to an art form. We often gift friends with early clues so they can be first finders. Fun!

    Tell us about the very first letterbox that you planted. Was it a carved or bought stamp? Why did you choose the location you did?

    That was Gnomelett the MiniElf in Lyme, CT. The stamp was store-bought and the clues plagiarized from our friend MPf. We picked the spot because it was in our back yard and we were there almost daily between mountain biking, trail running, birding, stargazing, and walking the dog. It's now our most recent box, too. Check it out if you can! Our first handcut stamp is in the 9/9/99 letterbox, part of our Generations series in Colchester, CT. Butt-ugly but the source of great pride.

    Typically, how long will you work carving a stamp until you feel that it is ready to place?

    I'm the stamp carver in the house, and I just kind of dash them off over some hand warmed Islay single malt. Sorry, I know that sounds smug. I think writing clues is as much an art as carving stamps. Clear expository writing is one of the most difficult things to do well. Most of our clues are pretty straightforward, although people who collect our boxes know we're often a little vague on getting you to the right parking spot in the first place. I'm an avid map collector, and have thousands of them, so if you're ever having trouble with one of our clues a good hint would be to refer to a map.

    Your involvement in letterboxing, including the website and wonderfully carved stamps, is huge. What do you see as your most important contribution to letterboxing? Is there something that you have done in the past to further this pastime that might have missed the public's eye?

    Aw, shucks [scuffles feet]. Thanks! The real giants are Wes and Randy. Susan is the conscientious foundation. From the Drew Family, our next contribution may be the most important. The recent liability scare over Fright Fest will force us to abandon our laissez-faire attitude regarding the legalities of letterboxing. Any lawyers in the house?

    Do you see any negative aspects to the increasing number of letterboxers out there on the trails? Does the integrity of the environment suffer due to the increased traffic? Was the initial group of hiker/letterboxers a little more respectful of their surroundings and nature as a whole?

    More isn't always better, but I think if anything people now are even more aware of our impact, so more isn't necessarily a bad thing either. People do come and go so the numbers in the community seem fairly stable. We 'Mericans are famous for our short memories, our flash enthusiasms. Nothing wrong with that, but it means that some letterboxers have moved on. M & I miss the fun posts from people like AppleDumplingGang, who once offered (all three of them I think) to be Ryan's girlfriend. JollyGMan is doing more important work now, but I think he still flies little cameras up into the stratosphere on rockets for fun. Or is it kites? The Elements of Hiking, MPf, WendyG, DerMadStamper. And we've lost the Vermont Viking. My good friend the OrientExpress. Dr Mings...

    You recently placed some additional letterboxes to your Mount Monadnock series. What draws you to keep planting there? Is this series complete or can we expect more?

    Ahhhhhh. Monadnock is one of those power spots. The spirit of that mountain is more than the sum of its parts. Our annual Labor Day trek is our anti-Disney. The park rangers are letterboxers and just good people dedicated to being caretakers of a national treasure. We were really psyched to see a new box go in this fall. We'll never be done climbing Mt. Monadnock.

    As the rest of the "Clan" gets older and more active in school and sports, do you find letterboxing becoming less of a family activity and more of a personal one?

    We're lucky in that even our teens aren't embarrassed to be seen in public with us. We've found the key: invite the boyfriends!

    Several letterboxers have told us that they have turned to boxing after some kind of life crisis of sorts. Do you see a therapeutic side to letterboxing?

    Isn't that a wonderful thought?

    Series of multiple letterboxes now seems to be the rage. Do you feel that these series diminish the importance of all those solo boxes planted in beautiful locations? Are we becoming too concerned about our PFX numbers?

    Naw. I wonder what the biggest single series is?

    Letterboxing is surely an addictive pastime. Tell us a story how your addiction to this pastime was displayed?

    You know that shortness of breath that comes with a great passion? Every logo on a passing truck looks like a great stamp image, every field you pass a hiding place? When we were working on ***, which took over 30 visits to plant, we would rush out in a spare 45 minutes, and drive like maniacs to plant, clue, and plan the next. We were so proud of that one, but in the back of our minds was that little "you're getting a bit freaky here" tickle. Folks who've found the boxes are probably thinking the same thing.

    How do you spend the winter months? Do you letterbox in the snow or use that time to carve stamps to plant in the spring?

    We're pretty lucky down here on the shore since we're rarely snowed out. Melissa & Dan once said they letterbox more in winter. We're not skiers, but our car is pretty good at the slalom on the ice. Does that count as a winter sport? Maybe we should have a Winter Gathering at your place on Mount Snow this year? Got a hot tub?

    You once told us that carved stamps are being recognized as a current form of folk art. Who do you see as some of the best carvers out there today that are contributing to that legacy? Can you think of a single carved stamp that best represents that folk art tradition?

    Was that us? Sounds like a legerism.

    What aspect of letterboxing most appeals to you -- the artistic side with carving, the verbal side with clue writing, or the physical side that entails the hiking, planting, and finding of letterboxes?

    Here in CT it's a very social thing. We're most often letterboxing with friends and love spending time with our boxious buddies. There's also the rush of a new idea and the devious gleam of anticipation while planting. "This one will drive them crazy!" I like that part very much.

    Related Links:

    Drew Clan's Letterboxing Northeast