Tuesday, January 1, 2008

This is the interview that almost never was!

We initially emailed Daniel Servatius sometime in the fall of 2006, explaining that we have a letterboxing website that contains interviews of those early letterboxers and submit some links to the various interviews we've done. We also asked if he would be interested in participating in this interview series. A very short time went by and a return email came back in the affirmative. We wrote back explaining that we were working on one (Don & Gwen) and would be back to him in a while. His response was that he would try his best and that his story was a little different than those of the others we'd interviewed.

Many months went by and in April of 2007 we emailed the first draft of our questions. By September of 2007 we hadn't heard so we sent a quick email asking how he was doing on our questions. It seems he never got them. Again, we emailed them and asked that he let us know when he received them. Again, he didn't receive them.

We then suggested that he take a look in his spam folder and - voila - there lie the original and the newer emailed questions. After that, it was a breeze.

We hope that you enjoy this interview. Daniel told us he had a different story to tell. We'll let you be the judge of that - Mark Pepe, 1/1/08

How did you first hear about letterboxing? What was your initial reaction after reading the Smithsonian article “Thinking Outside the Box” and what actions did it prompt you to take?

I learned about it from reading the Smithsonian article. I found it a great idea for a hobby, but wondered how you could generate interest and make it available to a greater number of people. It seemed that it would lend to an internet based map, so I started to conceive one. I didn’t know anyone else who might be interested until I made contact with Erik Davis. I got Erik’s name from one of the folks in Dartmoor, England. Erik and I agreed that the internet could be used to generate interest in the hobby and provide easy access to clues and maybe even develop a sense of community.

Within less than a week I had a website up. It was crude, but it was broad enough to accommodate any interested parties in the U.S. Meanwhile several more email addresses trickled in, most were from the Dartmoor folks. Other people in the U.S. (who I presumed also read the same article) contacted them independently. Erik was the initial communicator. He kept sending me email addresses. I developed a crude talk list at the time and added names as Erik collected them. I still don’t know where he got them all from but they poured in for weeks. Some people contacted me directly. I think Mitch Klink was one of them. I’m not sure how they found me. I've always assumed that someone from Dartmoor gave out my name?

Erik Davis and I co-founded the USA form of the hobby. Erik was a genius (a Mensan) and a great communicator, and I had a combination of inspiration and (just enough) technical know-how to form a crude website and talk list. Susan Davis provided me with my only hand-carved stamp and the first letterbox was placed by her late husband at Prayer Rock (I think near Bristol, VT). That's significant given that Erik was sick in those days and he has since passed away. God give him peace and rest and many letterboxing adventures which I’m sure would have been a part of his personal prayer.

Who were those “Dartmoor folks” that you refer to who contacted you early on? Do you remember names?

I wish I could remember the name of the gentleman who started a cab company. He was the one who, at the time, had a website up showing himself and his kids out on a letterboxing outing. He also was impressed with a dream I had and shared on New Year's Day. As I recall, he said it changed his whole perspective. It was pretty simple. In the dream, my house was being attacked. It was a house that I had actually been in where I was subjected to a lot of trouble (in real life). In the dream, I retreated to an interior closet, and there in the closet were several close friends of mine, people I knew who had come to my aid during the time that I lived in the house. Upon seeing them the attack stopped.

I think the cab driver's name might have been Adrianne, I'm not sure. Another gentleman who I remember was named Graham, AKA "The Moorland Wizard", a well educated (I think, Oxford) guy, he might have even been a prof. He spoke in riddles and poems and treated the hobby as something from the mystical realm. He rarely supported me. I think he wanted to see a sort of "Dungeons and Dragons" theme in the hobby, but I could never be quite sure, he was so indirect in his dialog. My offline correspondence with him was very extensive. We discussed theology, philosophy and politics.

Tell us about your early contacts with Erik Davis and Mitch Klink and how these contacts got the ball rolling for this hobby. I read that someone from Dartmoor put you in touch with Erik for that very first contact? Who was that contact from the UK and can you tell us about it?

This is the one area that is fuzzy for me. Like I said the email addresses rolled in from Erik and I think Erik got them from Dartmoor. The guy who gave me Erik's email address, I forget his name, but he's the one who started a cab company and who in the early days I had shared my "New Year's Day" dream with, which for some reason he was very impressed with.

The first two or three weeks during the inception of the project it was just Erik and I exclusively. It was a year or so later when Mitch had received schooling in the graphic arts and web development. He then started to develop LBNA independently. For the record, the day I was ousted from the talk list was the same day that Mitch unveiled LBNA. I had no prior knowledge of it. I didn’t take it personally though. I had met Mitch and had a few beers with him and I truly liked him. I realized he was very proud of what he'd accomplished, and graphically it was much more polished than what I had done. Go Mitch! Also, just prior to this event a woman named Michelle from Colorado had been contributing her graphic works to the site and I was trying to build consensus around her work. She was really good (I think her site was called "gigagraphica" or something like that). She was also bed-ridden and so working on the computer was about all she could do to be productive. I thought it was unfortunate that her work went by the wayside at that point.

Can you reminisce about Erik Davis and his early role in this hobby? What was he like and share some stories about what seemed to be his boundless enthusiasm and love for this developing hobby.

Erik was a very smart man who was, in some instances (just as me) like a kid. To tell you the truth, other than a misunderstanding over attribution vs. “artistic license” Erik and I agreed wholly about everything that was done. Whatever I did he agreed with and whatever he did I agreed with. And I think when Eric Mings came on the scene it only made us more solid in what we were doing. Erik collected wood planes and there was one in particular (a curved plane, believe it or not) that he was missing. I made a concerted effort to find it and wanted to give it to him to show appreciation for all the help he had given me. I never did find it, but I learned something about wood hobbies in the process. He described his house to me in detail and I still have a picture of it in my mind.

Please explain what you mean by “attribution vs. ‘artistic license’” and which side did you and Erik propose and why?

I felt that everything should be free, really, unfettered by license or ownership, but contributed to in a community fashion and others allowed to do with it what they want. This is why when the website was more or less taken from me, I didn't consider it taken. Though I had written much of the code, I didn't mind seeing it used and modified. It actually wound up being improved upon. I felt the same way about art and poetry. I had a poem at the time written by Sue Davis (given to me?) and I changed a line of it because I wanted it uplifting at the end. I also felt that if someone gave to someone else or posted a stamp image other people should be able to freely use or modify it. I believe in always attributing the source of material to its author, and attributing yourself if you change it. Erik did not think attribution was adequate except for something like the Smithsonian article. Still he didn't balk that I had changed Susan's poem, and it remained on the website for a long time without complaint. To see my side of this you have to think like a child would when he's in a playful mood, he would think nothing of picking up a picture and changing it to be more to his liking. He wouldn't think to check the copyright status.

Erik Davis once told the Washington Post "Our founding principle was that any child could go on any public access computer and find their way in and find the clues to take their family on an adventure."

Did you ever subscribe to that same theory? What do you feel about special WOM boxes or letterboxes that are shared with a certain group of people?

Yes, that was what Erik and I had envisioned from the beginning. We had already heard and seen pictures of Dartmoor folks (especially the cab driver) doing this. They’d take their kids out and find these boxes and stamp them together.

As far as exclusive groups are concerned that was never a thought. It would have been open and free and a handy excuse to do something fun and nothing more than that. I think that Graham’s influence is felt in what you’re describing. He spoke in riddles and poems and acted as thought it was something ancient and mystical (or intellectual?) not sure, but in truth it’s just a simple fun hobby and that’s all Erik and I intended for it.

Recount, please, a little more of Graham Howard’s role and contributions to letterboxing in those early years. Is it true that he met some resistance by the Dartmoor letterboxes because he was aiding the US counterparts?

In my opinion the resistance was more a product of Graham's vivid imagination than of an actual resistance. I think Adrianne (if that were his real name) impacted the hobby much more and was responsible for numerous email contacts being provided to Erik and me (mainly to Erik). He never talked of that ruffling the feathers of anyone in Dartmoor.

Did you ever meet face-to-face with your contemporaries like Erik and Susan or Mitch Klink? Did living in Minnesota serve as a barrier where most of the early activity seemed to occur either on the East coast or the West coast?

I only met Mitch and his neighbor from Portland. I was visiting my son out there and the three of us had a few beers together after I hunted for their boxes in the area. It was a good time. Mitch and I stayed later and (maybe a few too many), but I think the kids section was conceived that evening.

I don’t think the geographic barriers mean anything. I mean if you make a connection with someone you’re going to want to meet them and will. But the hobby, if it’s smartly managed using a server, would be just as fun for everyone no matter where they live. And local conventions can be done too and that’s fun in its own right.

What inspired your design of the original Letterbox USA website? Is it still up and running? Who helped develop that site and why was it orphaned for the Letterboxing.org site we all know today?

No, the site was removed a long time ago. But virtually everything on it was reproduced on the current site. And that was fine we me. I had never thought of the site as anything but public domain. It was a community effort. The community elected to change it apart from me and that's fine.

How it was orphaned is a little complicated. I had thought of it as an eventual worldwide, map-based project, and the only other person who had thought about it that way was a man named Eric Mings of Florida. But he wanted to commercialize the hobby, yuk. There was a battle of principles between he and I. Should the project be commercial or should it be freely accessible to everyone? The group sided with me that it should remain free and also be a volunteer effort, and everyone then abandoned Ming’s project. But I stayed in touch with Mings as a friend as I had tried to do with everyone offline who was interested. By "offline" I mean personally, one-on-one, outside the talk list.

There was a long absence of Eric Mings, about a year where he wasn't on the talk list. Due to past "sins" unforgiven, I suppose. I didn’t dare bring his name up again until I could be convinced that he would relent to commercialize the hobby. And about a year later he did relent.

I have never thought it was a coincidence that just as I began to mention his name for inclusion, suspicions arose and I was ousted from the new talk list that had been started by Mitch. What Mitch and most others didn’t realize at the time is that Eric Mings had since given up the idea of a commercial site. At least he had given up on the idea that he should control it and that he would prefer instead to build consensus with the group. There was no doubt in my mind that the group would never give in to a commercial venture (at least at the time). So I tried to get him back in the fold. But like I said as soon as I tried to do that I was ousted.

The story is much more involved than this, but I think the above is a fair assessment of what happened. In short, I was bounced because people didn't trust Mings and I had taken up Ming's case.

If you and Eric Mings had been at odds and you were finally convinced that he saw the error of his ways and you believed him, why didn’t the others give more credence to your acceptance and take Eric back into the fold?

Well, Eric had rightly gained a reputation as someone who was strictly looking to turn the hobby into profit for himself. He had become the nemesis of the rest of the group. I was his fiercest and most vocal opponent, I think, in the early days. But I continued a dialog with him because I didn't want to see him left out. Throughout that dialog he slowly acquiesced, and it reached a point where he was ready to start a dialog again. I think the problem was everyone's memory of him was of the "old Eric", they had not been privy to my private offline correspondence with him. There was not an easy way to get him back into the group. Bear in mind too that there was no doubt other offline correspondence taking place between members that I didn't know about, so who knows what other suspicions there were.

After our initial contact for this interview, you said you were a bit of a different story in that you were ousted from the fold several times. Would you care to elaborate on that and tell us the events that led and followed your ouster?

As I said earlier, first I was ousted by Eric Mings from his talk list because I held so firmly to the "free" idea. Eric Mings at the time was strictly for profit (remember though, he relented later and the group was not too sympathetic? That’s why I was ousted the second time from Mitch’s talk list because I had come down on the side of the "new" Mings). Mitch was in communication with Randy Hall at that time and they had different ideas altogether about the project. I wanted the site to eventually be worldwide, completely open and simple (not cryptic). There were several who disagreed including Rae Record, and that caused some confusion.

Rae Record told us in her interview that months went by before her “Secrets of the Knob” letterbox would be published on the website. How unique was this method of embedding clues within a story and why was it withheld for such a long period of time?

Like I said, the mystical approach didn’t lend very well to kids. Not that I didn’t like it. Personally, I do like a challenge, and the deepest subjects in life are my favorites. I love all the mystical writings for example, but I wanted there to be a means to filter clues based on their difficulty so that you could always ensure an easy clues set for kids and families.

There were a few discussions about this and then Mitch’s site went up in which Mitch included a kids page (and good for Mitch.) But there was no reason why all clues couldn't be made accessible for kids.

Rae Record’s delay was mostly due to me not being able to translate her ideas into the format that was already established for clues. It was map based, and her and I went through several exchanges of emails before she finally got around to providing me a location. What you have to remember is that people may be looking up her clues from say, Illinois, prior to their trip to Massachusetts, Cryptic clues that do not even tell you if the locale you're about to visit may have a letterbox is not much good, is it? Rae, I think, had an idea similar to Randy’s “Mapsurfer” idea (I think I have this word right) – that the deciphering of a mystery was the central aim rather than an outing to find a treasure. Once Rae gave me map and some coordinates so that I could clearly show on the map where to start looking everything went along quickly. And I still think the "mystical" clues go along with a different kind of hobby altogether. The roots of the hobby were that it provided a ready means for people to share their trade.

So the major emphasis, or target audience, for letterboxing when you and Erik began working on it was based on children? That’s really a far cry from what actually happened. It’s our observation that the majority of active letterboxers in the early 2000’s were adults. The larger influx of families and children didn’t seem to occur until 2005 and later. Do you find that at all ironic?

It sort of makes sense to me. Many of the people who were involved were solitary (single) people, and a few empty nesters, and they tended to be introverted. (It’s not exactly a social hobby.) There was a school teacher from Wisconsin who got his whole class involved and I thought that was pretty cool. But aside from him it was mostly people of a solitary nature who naturally thought of themselves as engaged in a corporate "adult" project. The fun was there, but it was the whole means to do it, set it up, organizing it and refine it. I admit I fostered that as much as anyone. But I recognized that it may drive some of the fun out it if that were to become the main focus. I wanted to shift the focus away from what "we" were doing to what we would provide for future fun seekers, including esp. kids. On that point Erik and I fully agreed and I think later Mitch got on board, but I'm not sure if he was able to expand in the idea later. Remember, I was ousted from his talk list?

Did you ever think that alternate websites like Atlas Quest or personal blogs might overrun the hobby? Do you feel that these new guys on the block augment or hinder that original website?

No, I think it will return to its humble beginnings someday. And I hope it will then be consolidated and universalized. That way it will pay homage to the Dartmoor hobby (which incidentally was not a hobby in the beginning, but a way for working class people to advertise their trade.) I think the hobby will always do best if people contribute their skills toward something widely shared and make it universal. It will be the first time that's ever been done. Usenet might have been like that, but that's all over the map and it has no universal underpinning.

At any time, did you or others with whom you were dealing expect there to be the explosion of new recruits as this game has seen lately? What were your plans for the future when you first developed the website and began putting together your future plans? Do you think the growth is positive or negative and why?

I don’t know. I do think the hobby should trace its roots to Dartmoor, and try to find a centrally managed server solution that can be shared everywhere. I think simplicity should be the hallmark of the project. There is nothing more frustrating than traveling somewhere to look for a treasure and come up empty. With a decent system you should be able to filter out the highly shrouded clue sets and opt for an easy set that would be suitable for families. I also think that for tracking purposes (and to respect the environment) GPS coordinates should be strictly adhered to and stored in a centrally managed database, or they should at least have a plain and clear explanation of the location that is centrally stored. If you want to make it a challenge you can, but if you want your 6 year old to have fun, you could do that too.

So, in effect, it appears that you are trying to “dumb down” or simplify the more difficult and mystery clues. Don’t you see room for as many different clue techniques as there are letterboxers? Why must all of the clues be simplified?

Hmm... I don't think they should be dumbed down, only that there should be a simplified clues set as an option for people who don't want to be disappointed on their outing, esp. if they've got kids with them. They may have to drive miles to reach the search area and walk a ways in from that point. For this type of hunt it is nice to be able to remove some of the ambiguity. I also think it's irresponsible to not have the boxes officially tracked with a close enough description or set of coordinates so that they can be recovered if necessary. GPS is good for that. You'd not be hunting in that case, but doing maintenance or reporting to the park system (or possibly to the property owner?)

I'm not sure if this is what you were looking for in an answer. I know that some people value the stamp that has really tough clues and view it as a treasure. I just think that's a different hobby than was conceived early on. Of course, if this is become more of an adult hobby as you said, I doubt there'd be much demand for what I've been describing.

What do you recognize as the first letterbox planted in the US? This has been a constantly debated item and we are hoping you might shed some light on it. Both are coming up on their 10th anniversary next year. Have you found either Prayer Rock or Max’s Patch?

Prayer Rock was both the first box discussed and the first advertised among our group. I heard about the Max Patch box later, but since no one but its author knew of it how can you verify authenticity with regard to placement?

How do you feel about publicity and letterboxing? We all realize that your initial group was brought together by that Smithsonian Magazine article. Do you feel that subsequent articles like Time Magazine and Family Fun Magazine have hurt and or helped this pastime and why?

I don’t know. I’ve not read those articles. But I don’t see why they would hurt it, unless they encourage folks to turn it into a for profit venture. Virtually all of the original proponents of the project (including the Dartmoor folks) abhorred that idea.

What is your current involvement in letterboxing? Do you still maintain your letterboxes? Do you see this interview as a way to set history straight or a return to the game?

Hmm… History is an elusive thing, isn’t it? I’ve shared my reflections and recollections and I hope that will fill in some of the blanks. Yes, I will hunt a box or two or place one again just for fun, esp. if I find something nearby where I am at the time I think of it. I think this was one idea that was also a key thing. Say you find yourself somewhere in the world and think to do this? From that point how easy is it to find something to look for. Most of the people discussing it in the beginning thought it should be a snap and that was one of the main thrusts of using maps and/or cords or alternately driving directions etc. I’m sure with a little creativity Tiger map server or Mapquest, etc. could be tapped, and if you had a useful search mechanism you’d be home free.

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