Ryan Carpenter Interview

This is Mark Pepe's seventh interview in his series.

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Location: Kensington, Connecticut, United States

Monday, December 06, 2004

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    Ryan Carpenter's Biography [in his own words]

    My life started in the urban sprawl frequently known as the Los Angeles area, but fortunately I have few memories of it since my parents divorced and my mom moved my sister and I up to San Luis Obispo a few days before I started the first grade.

    One of my early defining moments in life came in the third grade, when I went over to a friend’s house and we played some games on his Atari computer. After playing a few, he told me he wrote the game. I didn’t believe him at first—but he persisted and explained that he copied the code out of a magazine he had. And I remember him pointing out a small icon of a dinosaur and explaining how the curve of the tail wasn’t really a curve, but rather a series of square dots that, from a distance, looked like a curved tail. This was fascinating stuff to me! I was hooked!

    The next day I checked out a couple of books on BASIC from the school library and read them from cover to cover. Several times. I didn’t even have a computer at the time—few people did in those days—so I wrote programs out on paper. My very first programs. Must have filled up a hundred pages before my mom got me a cheap computer a couple of years later. I was still extremely fascinated that I could create a program for a computer—and it was so easy! Granted, they weren’t complicated programs, but it was following my directions!

    By high school, I moved on to more advanced computer languages dabbling in Pascal, C, Fortran, Ada, and probably a couple of others I don’t remember anymore. My high school only had one computer science class that taught Pascal, so I got permission to attend a local community college for other classes during that time. And at some point while attending a Fortran class, I remember thinking, “This is SO stupid!” It’s such an antiquated language, and all of these classes were teaching the exact same concept, but in different computer languages. I wasn’t really learning anything new. So I started visiting bookstores to read about more advanced computer programming tasks. Adding colors and graphics that used complex sorting algorithms. A bit more mentally challenging and exciting for my tastes, though I still attended those dead-end classes since I was required to well, be in school! It was mind numbing, though, and I hated them. Occasionally I’d run into a question about a program I was writing on my own and ask my teachers about them, and I was devastated when they couldn’t answer them! These guys had advanced college degrees (at least one even had a Ph.D.), and they couldn’t answer what I thought was a simple programming question! It was very annoying, and I felt betrayed in a way. I actually knew more than my teachers did—why were they teaching the classes and not me?

    It does seem interesting, however, that I can trace back my interest in computer science to a single day of playing games in the third grade. Who would have guessed waking up that morning that my life would change forever? =) After high school, I attended the local community college, then the local four-year college. By my college years, my attitudes about traveling and adventuring were starting to change. I started taking longer trips and tried more activities including snow skiing, canoeing, rafting, rock climbing, and backpacking.

    I also chose to go on a cruise ship the summer of 1999. I cut two full weeks of school (out of a nine week summer quarter!) to travel halfway around the world to see the eclipse. Along the way I stopped in Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and the Ukraine. And it was AWESOME! I visited locations such as the famous Parthenon in Athens, and toured the very room used in the Yalta Conference where Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin carved up post-WWII Europe. History never seemed so alive to me. The people wore strange and bizarre clothes. The Blue Mosque in Istanbul is nothing short of astonishing to marvel at from the inside.

    By the time I finished with college, I was itching to get away from home. I love SLO—it’s a great little town—but I wanted to see more of the world, and it was time to leave. So when Intel offered me a position for a job near Portland, Oregon, I jumped on it. The Pacific Northwest, from what I knew, looked like a beautiful place with lots of hiking trails. Microsoft had flown me out to Seattle the year before for an interview as an intern, though I didn’t get that job, but I saw the Pacific Northwest for the first time and loved it. Intel flew me out a year later to interview for a full time job, and I drove out to the Columbia River Gorge on that trip and loved the area. The cherry trees at waterfront in downtown Portland were in high bloom as well. It was so beautiful out there, and when Intel offered that job position, I went.

    As you could probably guess, I’ve grown to love the area more than ever, and couldn’t be happier than to call the Pacific Northwest my home. Intel, I’m also happy to say, paid me very well and I managed to save up a nice chunk of change before they laid me off two years later, which is when the most recent chapters of my life started including moving down to Central America for four months and thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

    When did you first start letterboxing and where did you learn of this pastime?

    I had gotten a free issue of Backpacker magazine in April of 2001. It was a small blurb—couldn’t have been more than two inches in length that mentioned letterboxing almost in passing—but I was hooked. That night I logged onto letterboxing.org and read every word. I was hooked in a big way! At the time, I actually had a job and couldn’t rush out immediately to nab a box. Nope, I had to wait until the weekend—an excruciating wait!—until I could finally head out to find my first letterbox: the Multnomah Falls box planted three years before. Spent half the day crawling around that area trying to find the box and failed. It was very sad.

    With my first failure notched in my belt, I headed a few miles further down the road and tried for a second letterbox at Horsetail Falls that I was thrilled to find. I didn’t have a signature stamp yet, so I scrawled a note you’d expect from most new letterboxers about this being my first letterbox and I’d come back later with a signature stamp.

    On my way back to my apartment, I stopped at Michaels and picked up some carving equipment and created my first signature stamp that night. I copied it from a photo I snapped of Mount Hood, and it turned out remarkably well for a first stamp. I didn’t use the stamp very long, however, because I soon realized it was too large for many logbooks. I created a smaller one a couple of weeks later of a cute little spider. Only two logbooks are left in the wild that have my original signature stamp, and I’m sure they’ll likely be worth lots of money someday. =)

    Also, about a month later, I was thinking about that pesky Multnomah Falls clue, and inspiration struck. The next available weekend I went out a second time and found that box almost immediately, right where it was supposed to be the whole time. I could count on one hand the number of people who found that box before me, and it had been at Oregon’s most visited tourist attraction for three years. It’s a tricky box to find, and I always urge new letterboxers not to look for this box until they’ve racked up some experience first. Nobody ever finds this box their first time out. Nobody!

    You carved your first stamp right after you received your first “F?” That’s extremely commendable. At what point after that did you place your first box?

    About one month after I found my first box. I’ve rarely gone very far out of my way to actually find a letterbox—which surprises a lot of people. Typically, I go hiking wherever it is I want to hike (usually to someplace with a great view or awesome waterfall). If the area already had letterboxes, I’d find them. If they weren’t around, I’d plant them.

    When I started letterboxing, I lived in Portland (Oregon) and the area was a hotbed of letterboxing activity—perhaps second only to Connecticut. My first month of letterboxing took me out on trails that already had boxes. Additionally, I wanted to find a ‘respectable number’ to see how things were done before I started planting my first boxes.

    So it wasn’t until a month after my first find that I had the opportunity to plant my first boxes—the Los Osos Oaks series near my hometown of San Luis Obispo, California. At the time, there were no letterboxes within a hundred miles of the area, so finding letterboxes was out of the question. I carved a few stamps and planted them in one of my favorite haunts. Being the first and only letterboxes for hundreds of miles around, I deliberately made straightforward clues on an easy hike so they’d be good ‘starter’ boxes. Once I seeded the area, I begin to plant boxes on more difficult hikes with more challenging clues—the types of boxes I prefer.

    Two of the four original boxes in that first series are still alive and well today—three and a half years later. The two boxes that have gone missing I’ve replaced with stamps of the original images. I can carve much better now than when I first carved those stamps, but I like the primitive look of those original stamps. So when they’ve needed to be replaced, I tried to faithfully reproduce the look of the originals. Oddly, it’s probably a good thing my carving has improved, because had it not; the stamps wouldn’t look like the originals! It’s much more difficult to carve an identical replacement than it is to carve a stamp from scratch!

    What are the important elements that you look for in placing and designing a letterbox?

    I like my boxes to be a bit elusive. There are a lot of really easy boxes to get out there, so I prefer to do something different. If the hike won’t kill you, the clue will drive you mad instead. =) Besides the fact I like to do things just a little bit different than the normal, it’s less work for me when fewer people look for my boxes. I’m lazy in a lot of ways, and I just do not enjoy maintaining letterboxes. If nobody ever looks for my boxes, they don’t ever report them missing, and I don’t have to maintain them.

    You might wonder why I bother to plant boxes at all if that’s the case. Well, I just can’t help myself. It’s addictive. And I do want to leave the world a better place than when I joined it. Letterboxes give people happiness, and those poor hearty souls that enjoy looking for challenging boxes need people like me to hide boxes for them. =)

    Some people are surprised to learn that I don’t worry too much about the quality of the stamp I plant in a box. If a box is a challenge to get, I like to hide my best stamps in them—give people something nice for their efforts. But if the only thing I have immediately available is some butt-ugly stamp carved on the side of the trail the few minutes before planting, I’ll do it without a second thought. The adventure for me is in the journey, not the destination.

    Please explain why you chose “Green Tortuga” as a trail name and stamp image.

    I was nearing my 100th found letterbox and wanted to do something special to celebrate, and I thought it would be a swell idea to carve a new signature stamp to commemorate the moment. In fact, I liked the idea of creating a new signature stamp for every hundred boxes I found. My carving skills had improved dramatically since I carved my first few stamps, and I wanted to do something new. At about the same time, I carved a cute little stamp of a turtle. It was a great stamp. I stared at it for hours, it seemed, just amazed that I carved that wonderful little stamp. Originally I planned to hide it in a box, but I didn’t have the heart to give it away. I wanted to keep the stamp for myself, so I proclaimed it as my new signature stamp. I carried it around for a couple of weeks and refused to use it as a signature stamp until I had actually recorded my one hundredth find. And for my one hundredth find, I stamped in using the new turtle stamp.

    I never had a trail name until I started the Appalachian Trail. In the letterboxing world, I was only known as Ryan and—I later learned—RiskyNil since that’s what was on my e-mail address. I intended to plant and find letterboxes while hiking the Appalachian Trail, so I brought the little green turtle stamp with me. I’d already found over 200 boxes at this point, but I never retired the stamp because I was too lazy to carve a new one. So much for changing signature stamps with every hundred finds!

    Most people on the trail, I knew, had trail names, and I wanted to make sure I wouldn't get stuck with something I didn’t like. (Thank goodness I didn’t light my crotch on fire the first week on the trail—my trail name might be Hot Pants today had that been the case!) So at the very first register on top of Springer Mountain, I stamped in with my signature stamp and proclaimed myself Green Turtle. In addition, I figured the bright green stamp would make my register entries really stand out from the rest. Nobody else is weird enough to carry a silly stamp over 2,000 miles of trails. And I figured if someone was on the trail who actually was a letterboxer; it would be like a secret code of brotherhood: We were letterboxers. We sign with signature stamps.

    After a month on the trail, I was a bit disheartened to learn how many people actually used the name Turtle as a trail name. There was Bad-Ass Turtle, Mountain Turtle, and the relatively bland name of simply Turtle among others. But my trail name had stuck: I was Green Turtle.

    After finishing the trail, I came back into the letterboxing world and decided to start calling myself Green Tortuga so I wouldn’t blend in with all those Turtles anymore. Now I get heckled about not knowing English from Spanish, but at least there aren’t too many Tortugas in the English-speaking world. =) I’ve considered changing my trail name to Tortuga Verde to make it more consistent, but most people I ask said I shouldn’t change it. I do like how Tortuga Verde rolls off my tongue, though. It sounds like an exotic dessert.

    I understand that Amanda carves all of your stamps. Is there a reason why you don’t?

    I had no idea such a rumor was spreading! The vast majority of boxes I’ve planted include hand-carved stamps carved by myself. In fact, the only boxes I’ve planted that Amanda carved the stamp for came out during my Appalachian Trail hike. On the trail, I got rid of all my carving supplies—when you’re hiking more than 2,000 miles over rugged terrain, you really don’t want to haul around excess weight such as carving supplies. So whenever Amanda would come out to visit me on the trail, she’d supply me with a small number of small stamps that I could plant along the trail. Even then I was quite adamant that I was only going to hide microboxes on the trail—I didn’t want a backpack full of normal sized letterboxes!

    Well, most of the time I hid microboxes. Occasionally, if I left town with a normal sized letterbox, I’d plant it within 24 hours just to get rid of it the weight and space it took up. But that’s why you’ll find mostly Amanda-carved stamps in my boxes in the eastern states—I didn’t carry carving tools to carve stamps along the way.

    Additionally, I might point out, Amanda carved my current signature stamp. While I was on the trail, she carved my signature turtle stamp—with boots on the turtle instead of the bare feet the original stamp I carved had. One boot had the letters AT written on it, and another boot said 03 (the year I hiked the trail). She figured I’d plant it in a box like I did a similar stamp she had carved (a turtle using an umbrella). But I liked it so much; I retired my original turtle stamp and adopted hers as a replacement.

    Its days may be numbered, though, since I’d like to carve a new signature stamp of a turtle wearing a big old sombrero. But I’m pretty lazy, so it might be awhile before that happens. =)

    Your hike of the AT was well-documented on the talk list and your website. Tell us a little about what prompted you to make this hike.

    It’s rather surprising I didn’t hike the Appalachian Trail earlier! When I first learned of the AT, I was probably in elementary school and the concept of hiking from Georgia to Maine just fascinated me. WOW! Back then I figured only rich people could do it, though, because what normal person could possibly commit to such a strenuous, time-consuming endeavor? It was filed into the back of my head and I didn’t think much more of it for years. Decades passed.

    In February of 2003, I started reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk In the Woods—perhaps my favorite book of all time. I’d only gotten through the first couple of chapters, but it clicked in my brain. I was unemployed so there was plenty of time available. While not rich, I had the money to pay for such a relatively cheap activity. I could actually do this hair-brained idea! What took me so long to realize it?!

    Some people mistake my inspiration for the hike. It wasn’t Bryson’s book that inspired me to thru-hike the AT, but rather the match that ignited the idea. I loved to walk—everywhere! Never even bothered to get a driver’s license until after I turned 20, despite my mom trying to push me to get it from the day I turned 16. I certainly didn’t want to pay for a car, car insurance or any other expenses related to a driver’s license I’d rarely use. I was a born walker and loved the outdoors. How could I not thru-hike the famed Appalachian Trail now that I had the time and resources to do so?!

    How did “A Walk in the Woods” ignite the idea of the AT hike? What appeal did this book have and did you look at the book differently after the AT hike than you did before?

    I just needed something to get me thinking about the AT. It probably wouldn’t have mattered what it was, and it was more-or-less fortuitous that I discovered A Walk in the Woods when I did. Had I read it before I was laid off or after I found a new job, I’d never have even considered hiking the Appalachian Trail—there wouldn’t have been time for it.

    Before I even read the book, I was a big fan of Bryson’s style of self-deprecating, matter-of-fact humor. This book had me laughing so hard it hurt. I’d try to read parts of it out loud to Amanda and couldn’t form the words, so I’d point to the passage that got me laughing to hard. This book should never be read in public because those that do are guaranteed to make a spectacle of themselves!

    I was shocked, however, when I met former thru-hikers on the trail and they had nothing but contempt for Bryson. I mentioned to one woman who had hiked the trail several years before about how funny I thought Bryson’s book was, and she looked at me with disgust and said, “But, he never finished the trail!” I didn’t quite understand the connection between whether he finished the trail or not and the book being funny or not, but she clearly held a lot of contempt for the man solely because he did not finish the trail. I suspect there was a degree of ego involved—here was this man who couldn’t even finish the trail and went on to write a bestselling book about the topic, and these people who did hike the trail in full got nothing more than their name printed in the Appalachian Trail Conference magazine for recognition of their efforts.

    Not all former thru-hikers felt this way, but I was surprised at the numbers who did. After pondering the thought for a bit, I made a regular practice to remind them that the vast majority of people who start the trail never reach the end. They have stories to tell as well, and it’s actually a more realistic point of view. There are a lot more people who’ve tried to hike the trail but failed than people who tried to hike the trail and succeeded. They deserve to be heard just like everyone else.

    But I’m happy to say that I don’t look at the book any differently than when I started the trail. It’s a fun, laugh-out-loud story. I read it a second time a few weeks after finishing the trail and could relate much more to the places he visited and described. I even met a couple of the people he described in the book—characters that, at the time, I thought were larger than life and clearly exaggerated—but turned out to be remarkably accurate! And I enjoyed reading the book just as much after finishing the trail as before I started.

    What was the funniest thing that happened to you those months on the AT?

    At the time, it wasn’t very funny, but now I get a pretty good chuckle remembering the day I set my crotch on fire. Earlier in the day I had passed the halfway mark on the trail near Pine Grove Furnace SP in Pennsylvania, so I was in a pretty good mood. I was actually closer to the end of the trail than the start of it for the first time in three months!

    Spaghetti was on my dinner menu that night, and I used a hand-made soda can alcohol stove to cook with. The thing about these home-made stoves is that they lack an OFF lever, so I usually let it burn until it ran out of fuel. For some reason, this particular night I decided to snuff out the flame early and save fuel, but to do that, I had to remove the pot stand surrounding it. While moving the pot stand out of the way, it caught on the stove, pulling the lit stove into my lap.

    The next few seconds would be some of the most memorable of my life! The lit fuel spilled into my lap and fell to the ground. I jumped up as if I sat on a hot stove—which wasn’t far from the truth as it turned out. My first concern was myself, and I quickly started smacking at the flames coming from my crotch. Loser, another thru-hiker at the table, kept yelling, “Drop and roll! Drop and roll!” I ignored him and focused on attacking the flames directly. After a few frantic but exciting moments, I extinguished the fire on my crotch and finally noticed the fire on the ground. Much calmer now, I grabbed the water bottle near my cookset and put out the ground fire as well.

    After assessing damages—which fortunately was nothing worse than a slight redness on my leg—the table talk turned to new trail names I could use. Suggested names over the next few days included Hot Pants, Hot Turtle, Flaming Hot Dog, and Great Balls of Fire. I fought them off vigorously, and fortunately my trail name of Green Turtle was well established by that time and didn’t get replaced.

    Not only did the letterboxing public learn of your AT adventures, they were rewarded with some great letterboxes that you placed along the way. How many of these Amanda-carved gems did you leave in your wake and in what states? Are they still active boxes and who maintains them for you?

    When I started the trail, it was my intention to hide at least one box in each state I hiked through, and I did just that. In all, I left 25 letterboxes in my wake in 14 states. The first few states I was pretty ambitious and planted about four boxes per state, though I got tired of carrying the extra letterboxing gear and finally dropped down to hiding one box per state by the time I reached West Virginia.

    Six of them are known or suspected of being missing today. Most have had no maintenance and few visitors—some haven’t even been found at all as far as I know which isn’t too surprising since many of them are quite a ways off the beaten path! For the boxes that have had maintenance, I can thank several people who live in the area including many letterboxers I met along the way and one thru-hiker who I never actually met in person—although we followed each other’s shelter register entries over thousands of miles of trails.

    What prompts your wanderlust? You’ve hiked in many parts of the country and world. What do you enjoy most and how has hiking in other countries helped you become a better person, if at all?

    Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Life can get pretty boring at times—I was bored out of my mind at my last job as a software engineer, and after I got laid off, I wanted to do something crazy and exciting. Moving off to Central America for several months to learn Spanish seemed like a great idea under such circumstances. Two events led me into this direction—first was a girl I had met who learned Spanish quite fluently, but didn’t start learning it until high school. Learning a foreign language fluently seemed like an impossible feat for a gringo in my mind, but it wasn’t until I heard her speaking rapid-fire Spanish at a Mexican restaurant we had went to and it just amazed me. Wow! All she had was some high school Spanish and then went to Ecuador for six months coming back speaking like a pro. Okay, it probably wasn’t perfect Spanish, but it was pretty darned good. It was inspiring to see that someone could actually learn a foreign language fluently—from scratch. Since that’s where I’d be starting myself.

    The other event that led me to Central America was listening to two friends discussing the topic of immersing themselves in the language. One commented about how he’d love to immerse themselves for several months, but his wife wouldn’t be happy about him leaving for such an extended period of time. The other commented she’d like to do that too, but she was raising two children alone.

    And the light bulb went on. I didn’t have a wife. I had no children. And at this point in time, I had been warned I likely wouldn’t have a job in a couple of months. A crazy idea had just been seeded in my head, and I kept it to myself for a week to give myself time to talk myself out of it. Moving to a foreign country, where I don’t know the local language nor have any friends? I must be insane! But gosh, it would be an adventure! It wouldn’t be easy. And I flip flopped over the idea for a week until I asked myself if I didn’t go, would I regret the lost opportunity? That was when I knew I had to go.

    Moving to Central America for four months was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It was hard, but I knew it would get easier with time and experience. So I stuck with it, and it did get easier.

    By the time I left, my Spanish was quite good and I was quite at ease using it to get around. I never reached the level of fluency I had hoped—and I still someday hope to reach that level—but it was a good feeling my last couple of weeks there when I’d meet strangers on the street and could hold a conversation for the next half hour. And after that experience in Central America, I figured anything else I ever did would be easy in comparison. You could throw me in the middle of France—where they speak a language that is still totally foreign to me—and I’d feel confident of my ability to point and pantomime my way through the country. It would still be tough, but nothing compares to the first time one throws them into such a stressful situation.

    Originally my plan was to go back to work after returning from Central America, but then I got side tracked by the Appalachian Trail. And now, well, gosh, it just kills me—the thought of going back to a desk job. In a lot of ways, I’ve really ruined my desire for a 9 to 5 job—so many more adventures out there, so little time.....

    To answer your question—what do I like best? I like a challenge. =) I like to do things most people would take one glance at and dismiss as the ravings of a lunatic, then proceed to prove them wrong. (Or right, depending on your point of view.) If it’s not audacious and big, it probably won’t hold my interest very long!

    As for how has my adventures made me a better person? I’m more confident of myself and my abilities. Even if I died today, I know they could put on my tombstone: He lived life to the fullest. It better be a small tombstone, though, because I’ve told my mom if I were to die, cremate my remains then hide them in letterboxes as one last, grand practical joke. =)

    Can you tell us more about Central America? The environs, the people, the wildlife, the rain forest?

    In Central America, you take nothing for granted and even the most common things aren’t always as you’d expect. Wastebaskets are provided near toilets to deposit used toilet paper. That may sound gross, but it’s far preferable to clogging up the toilets. Their plumbing is primitive and very narrow. Getting hot water from a shower can often be a challenge and even includes a slight danger of electrocuting oneself (because the water heater is attached directly to the tap and often has exposed wiring). Eggs are sold from large pallets and never refrigerated. If you even suggest something as radical as refrigerating an egg, they’ll look at you like you were from Mars.

    But you know something? It’s fun. There’s always a surprise where you least expect it. I enjoy collecting Coke bottles from foreign countries I visit, and I dropped by a small store in Honduras to purchase one. Now I should have thought to tell the man at the counter not to open the bottle—for that mistake, I blame myself—but he popped off the cap before I thought to stop him. Where the surprise came in, however, was when he proceeded to pull out a small, plastic bag, then poured the contents of the bottle into it! I watched him with absolute astonishment. After emptying the bottle, he stuck a straw in the top and handed it to me. I wanted to buy a collector’s item, and I ended up with a bag of Coke in my hands. I was sure the Candid Camera team was about to jump out at any moment, but they didn’t.

    As it turns out, they recycle soda bottles very religiously in Central America, and it costs extra if you actually want to take the bottle with you. Consequently, it’s standard practice for shopkeepers to hand out soda in small, plastic bags. If you aren’t expecting it, however, it can be quite a surprise!

    The people I met generally ranged from incredibly dirt poor—I’ve never seen such a poor and impoverished country in my life—to the “middle class.” I use the term middle class loosely since—by US standards—they’d probably be considered poor as well. A huge number of them are illiterate, and it was a bit strange to realize that I was able to read Spanish better than many of the locals—though of course they could still speak it better than I. In Honduras, the only ‘bookstores’ I found—and these stores had large signs painted in Spanish that said ‘Bookstore’—would have a selection of perhaps one dozen books and office supplies. Nobody reads for enjoyment.

    But for all the differences, it’s amazing to see all the similarities as well. Most of the people I met were very friendly and nice. They’d tell Monica Lewinsky jokes, and then curse their own politicians’ corruptness. And you could never keep their spirits down. For all the poverty, they never seemed to dwell on it—or at least they didn’t anymore than people anywhere else in the world including the United States.

    As for the wildlife and rain forests, I didn’t actually spend much time in those locations. I never felt confident enough of my safety to go out alone in such areas, and the relatively few times I did I went with a group. It wasn’t just afraid of getting mugged either (though that’s certainly a possibility), but I wasn’t familiar with the local plants and animals either. I didn’t know what was safe to touch or which of the many interesting species of insects might turn me into a raving lunatic if one were to bite me. The areas I did see were amazing—bright, colorful plants and flowers I’d never seen before. The butterflies seemed to light up with beautiful, iridescent colors. Snakes were unusual colors and, if hanging down from the trees, could look just like one of the many vines hanging down next to them.

    Everywhere I went in Honduras was oppressingly hot and humid, though I only explored the northern half the country. Can’t vouch for the rest of the country. I explored Guatemala much more extensively and it varies from the same oppressive heat and humidity in the lowlands to wonderfully pleasant and sometimes even chilly in the mountainous areas where the most spectacular scenery could be found. (More interesting wildlife and insects were found in the coastal lowlands, but the views were more impressive in the mountains.)

    Costa Rica disappointed me. Nearly everyone I met spoke English (which is good if you don’t want to learn Spanish, I suppose), and the quality of life was significantly higher. The taxis looked new, and the seatbelts in them worked so you never had to guess if the right, front wheel would fall off going around the next turn. It felt so…. Americanized. For a lot of people, they’d probably consider this a good thing, but for my dashing adventurous spirit, it was something of a letdown. Had I started my travels in Costa Rica to break myself in for Honduras and Guatemala, I’d probably have very different thoughts, but Costa Rica was a big disappointment for me.

    You have somewhat of a “bad boy” image on the talk list. In fact, the very first time Sue & I met TeamGreenDragon, almost 3 years ago, part of our conversation was about who this Ryan guy was and why he started trouble! Do you really mean all of these jibes that you write or is it just part of your charm?

    If I’m really passionate about a topic, I can be brutally honest. Funhog likes to remind me that I have no tact, which is true much of the time, but for all those heated discussions I’ve participated in, I try to stick to the issue at hand and rarely hold grudges for long.

    I once received a scathing e-mail from someone—I forget who—but it was scathing, going on about how mean I was and that I could hold a grudge longer than anyone they knew. And I remember laughing at how incredibly funny I thought that was, because I couldn’t remember who this person was. Apparently I held a grudge against them, and I had to search the archives to figure out why I was supposed to be holding a grudge against them. Even now I remember the e-mail only because it amused me so much, but I still can’t remember who wrote it.

    I have strong opinions at times, but I don’t hold a grudge simply because someone disagrees with me. In many cases, such heated discussions are a good thing if it can get people to think about a topic from a new perspective. Misunderstandings can be mended, compromises reached. Heated discussions built this country into what it is today, and heated discussions have built this hobby we call letterboxing into what it is today. And I believe this hobby is better for the experience.

    How do you feel heated discussions have helped letterboxing as a whole? Can you think of a few examples?

    The store-bought vs. hand-carved stamp is an old one that never really seems to die, but it eventually morphs into a discussion about the quality of hand-carved stamps. I once suggested that the Seattle area had a significantly higher proportion of less-than-stellar stamps than the Portland area did. Which was not meant as an insult to Seattlites—it was just an observation—but in my usual straightforward way, it sounded like an insult and oh, the drama! Stirred up a hornet’s nest with that one.

    Feelings were hurt in the process, and for that I’m sorry, but good things did come out of the discussion. Some people ignorantly were going through life thinking that nobody would ever judge their stamp-carving abilities, which is untrue. Of course people will have opinions on your stamp—just like they have favorite colors, favorite authors, favorite movies, and—dare I say it?—favorite stamps and letterboxes. Some people are very good carvers, but it seems like a slap in the face to tell them their stamps are no better than anyone else’s hand-carved stamps. This discussion was a wake-up call for a lot of people, I think. It urged them to create better carvings and a better experience for those people looking for the boxes.

    It also came out that while people did have opinions on the quality of stamps—nobody would fess up and admit they selected letterboxes based solely on the quality of the stamp they perceived to be in it. They enjoyed themselves regardless of the stamp, and they always enjoyed even the crappiest hand-carved stamps to a store bought one.

    Because of that incident, I created the Crappy Stamp letterbox (http://www.atlasquest.com/lboxes/showboxinfo.html?boxId=47) which many people have enjoyed. It also encouraged me to create a stamp carving tutorial (http://www.atlasquest.com/tutorials/carving/) to help others teach themselves to carve better. Carving stamps is not an activity limited to artists and those with ‘talent’—it’s something everyone can enjoy with pleasant results.

    The discussion, I think, encouraged a lot of ugly-stamp carvers to improve their skills, and encouraged a lot of store-bought stampers to make the leap to hand-carved ones. The overall letterboxing experience improved for everyone involved, although it was difficult for some people at the time.

    On other note, the Seattle area boxes have more than redeemed themselves. There are some excellent carvers out there! Not that that’s important, mind you, it’s just an observation. ;o)

    I happen to know that there is a soft side to you. I received an email from a then new letterboxer who joined our newbie talk list. He detailed a story how he went into a local stamp store with some questions about ink and stamps – all relative to letterboxing. Another gentleman overheard this newbie’s questions and came over and helped him out. That gentleman was you. Is this the real Ryan Carpenter at work?

    I love to help people. Even in my ‘heated discussions’ you can frequently see that at work. Hybrid letterboxes (a box that’s both a geocache and letterbox, for those that don’t know) are a good example. I personally don’t really care if people want to hide a hybrid letterbox. I’m not a big fan of them, I’ll admit, but there are plenty of non-hybrid letterboxes that I can look for so it doesn’t really matter to me. But I’m very passionate about discouraging other people to plant them. Usually, the justification someone uses for planting a hybrid box is that there aren’t many letterboxers around, and they want more people to find their box, or they want to encourage geocachers to get into letterboxing.

    If they really want people to find their letterbox, it doesn’t really count if only geocachers are finding it, so I don’t really buy that argument. Simply hide a straight-out geocache in the first place and it’ll get plenty of visitors. Why waste the effort of carving a never-used stamp for it as well?

    And the second argument I think is even poorer—once a geocacher has found the cache, they no longer have a letterbox to look for to hook them in! After all, they already know where the box is! I’m all for trying to ‘steal’ geocachers away into the letterboxing fold, but it seems to me that it would be more effective to plant a letterbox near the geocache and include the letterbox clues in the geocache instead. Now they’ll learn about letterboxing—and have a letterbox to hunt for to hook them in.

    So when someone posts and says they want to plant a hybrid box, I strongly try to discourage them from doing it. On a personal level, it doesn’t really matter to me. But to achieve their own stated goals, I encourage alternatives to planting hybrids. Then I get a bunch of hate mail saying if I don’t like hybrids, just don’t look for them! Rather comical in a sense, but I don’t diss hybrid boxes because I’m anti-geocaching, but rather because I think it’ll help those people achieve their goals better.

    Ultimately, I’d like to think I’ve left the world in a better state for my being here, and one way to do that is by helping others. It doesn’t always seem that way at the time, but more often than not, you’ll find that lurking as one of my motivating factors.

    Relative to the geocaching/letterboxing feud – why do you think there exists that animosity between the 2 camps. I know a few who do both but many feel strongly against the other side.

    I’m rather baffled by the animosity between the two groups myself. For some, I know it’s personal when a geocacher takes a letterbox stamp thinking they’ve found a geocache, and they equate that to all geocachers being stupid or evil or both. Which is about as absurd as calling all letterboxers environmental terrorists because one idiot dug up a meadow looking for a letterbox. Both groups have members that we’d love to ban from our hobbies because they are guilty of not following “Leave No Trace” principles. But it’s easier to distinguish between people in a hobby when you’re an active participant in it, while if someone isn’t part of the hobby, they’re more likely to make gross assumptions and lump the bad behavior of one person to the entire group—guilt by association.

    And it’s almost always the problem behavior we hear about. We learn a geocacher took a stamp from a letterbox by mistake. We find a geocache by accident because there’s an obvious trail that leads directly to it pounded down by geocachers looking for it. But we rarely ever hear about the hundreds of geocaches that letterboxers don’t find by accident because they’re responsibly hidden.

    And the same goes for them. They hear letterboxers complain and whine about them—so of course they’re not going to like us. The letterboxes they find by accident are often poorly hidden or in environmentally sensitive areas and had no business being there in the first place, so they tend to think all letterboxes are like that.

    But for all that, it’s obvious most geocachers and letterboxes think very much alike and have much in common. Geocachers encourage Leave No Trace principles and responsible hiding of boxes only in areas where they are allowed, and frequently pave the way for letterboxes to follow after them. Working together with them is in our best interests, and I do wish letterboxers would stop antagonizing them.

    You now have a new website, Atlas Quest, which hosts letterboxing clues by other letterboxers and has introduced many new, user-friendly features. We were honored that you asked us to critique this site in it’s earliest of stages. Now that you’ve been up for many months, how has the response been to your site and what was your intent in creating it?

    When I first started creating it, it was going to be a simple virtual logbook. There was nowhere on the web where people could go to list their found and planted boxes, and after being out of the computer field for two years, I figured this would be a great exercise to beef up the old programming and web design skills. And it would be nice, during a job interview, if someone asked, “So, Ryan, do you have any examples of projects you’ve worked on?” and I could smirk and say, “Well, yes I do, Bob. Check out this website….”

    About a month into my efforts, Amanda was trying to add a new letterbox she planted to letterboxing.org and started to verbally complain about not knowing what county the box was in—she didn’t live in the area for heaven’s sake! And it got me thinking—surely there had to be a better say to sort boxes than by county. It’s the same problem that has plagued myself on multiple occasions. And that’s when I thought of a city-centered search. Wouldn’t it be great if we could search for all boxes within a specified distance of a town?

    That’s when Atlas Quest shifted direction in a big way. Originally, I had no intention of hosting letterbox clues at all. From that day onward, that would become it’s primary purpose. It was too good of an idea not to do! I tossed the idea around and started researching how to implement such a feature. I also knew it could be very controversial, and kept the idea very hush-hush until I had something to show. I figured people would be much more receptive to the concept if they could actually try it rather than hearing what it was about. Atlas Quest became top secret! =)

    It took six months and about a thousand hours of effort before I had version 1.0 ready to unveil, and I was quite nervous about how its reception would be. Did I just waste six months of my life for something nobody would ever use? I consoled myself with the thought that even if it never took off among letterboxers, at least I’d still have something to point to during an interview when I’m asked about projects I’ve worked on.

    And I’m happy to say the response has been far better than I had dared to dream of. It has detractors, of course, but the support for it has been heart-warming with over 2,500 listed letterboxes and six hundred registered users and continues to grow daily.

    One idea I had early on but set on the back burner to figure out later was the ability to list letterboxes along certain stretches of roads. It’s almost daily that someone posts about an upcoming road trip they’re about to take and asks for suggestions on boxes to find along the way. The same day I thought of a city-centered search I also decided it would be nice to allow users an automated way to perform linear-searches, for lack of a better term. I had no clue how I could create such a system, but at the time it didn’t really matter—a city-centered search would be enough of a challenge to begin with. I’d deal with a linear-based search at another time.

    About a month ago I dusted off that idea to reexamine it and almost immediately figured out an elegantly simple solution of a linear-based search: Just list all the towns the road goes through and connect the dots. Presto, a virtual road that Atlas Quest could calculate the distance it was from any given letterbox. And today the trip planner on Atlas Quest is—so far as I know—the first and only search engine that allows one to list boxes along major routes throughout the United States.

    I’m out of brilliant ideas for the next innovative improvement in letterbox sorting, so development on Atlas Quest will definitely slow down. Which is just as well—I’m running low on money and sadly, need to start looking for a job. =( It’s a sad moment, indeed. I’ll continue to make improvements to Atlas Quest, but they generally won’t be as dramatic as they have been in the past.

    Your unemployment has been mentioned on the talk list by you in your posts and even Senator John Kerry remarked about it in our recent interview with him! Tell us about your occupation and why it’s so difficult to land a job in your field of expertise.

    Wow! I had no idea John Kerry remarked about my employment status! I really need to keep up with the news better! In hindsight, being associated with me may have doomed his political career.

    I used to work at Intel as a software engineer. Intel is a great company to work for—they treat their employees very well and I have the utmost respect for them. But in the dot com meltdown, they had to cut back and the whole division I was in vanished! I tell people the best thing to ever happen to me was getting laid off. If it wasn’t for that, I’d probably still be stuck reporting in to a 9 to 5 job never having lived a dashing life in Central America or the Appalachian Trail (though I’d be considerably richer than I currently am!)

    As for why it’s so difficult to land a job—I’m not sure that it is. I simply haven’t been trying to land a job. Not working is far more fun! Even now, I dread the thought of going back to a desk job. It would be so boring now that I’ve experienced so much more! Rather than look for a job somewhere that will surely bore me to death, I’m considering what, to some, may sound like equally crazy ideas. I put in an application at REI to sell outdoor gear. Surprisingly, I got turned down! Amanda says it’s probably because I’d push backpackers to make their own alcohol stoves instead of selling the expensive MSR brands, or telling them to buy a light-weight tarp instead of expensive and heavy tent models, etc, etc. I think she was joking, though!

    I also put in another application to Costco to stock goods. Those forklifts they drive around look like fun. =) (I haven’t heard back from them.) I picked up a couple of applications for Safeway, though I haven’t got around to filling them out yet. I bet they have some really cool food fights after the store closes!

    Money is getting low, but my expenses are minimal and I should be able to get by quite well with a low-paying, part-time job, so that’s what I’m looking for at the moment. A high-paying, part-time job is okay too—I like to stay open minded! =) But I really don’t want to get stuck at a desk job.

    I’ve also been considering others ways to make money. Atlas Quest does generate a small profit from the Google and Amazon.com ads, and I could probably eat two or three square meals a week from Taco Bell with the money I make from it. There’s not much money to be made in letterboxing, however, and Atlas Quest was never about making lots of money. (There’s just not a big supply of Zip Lock bag advertisements.) But now that I have this incredible code base to work with, I’d like to use it to create other, unrelated websites that have the potential to make far more money. Others have suggested I should turn my adventures into a book—an idea that’s very appealing because darn, wouldn’t it be so cool to walk into a bookstore and see YOUR book on the shelf?! That’s a lot of effort to put into something that may never make it beyond an agent’s desk, however. And then there’s always that nagging little voice in the back of my head saying, “You dumbass. Just do it. What have you got to lose?” =)

    I can’t tell you where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing in five years, but it doesn’t really matter either—I’m in it for the journey, not the destination.

    Can you give us an exclusive on a new, exciting development that is coming in the future on Atlas Quest? And why the name “Atlas Quest”?

    Well, because it’s you, Mark, I’ll give you one exclusive. =) Recently I’ve started looking into ways to make the website easier for people to use from PDAs and cell phones. It’s in the research stage and I can’t tell you what will shake out in the end, but I’d really like to make Atlas Quest PDA and cell phone friendly. The biggest problem is that I don’t own such devices to actually test how it would look, but I’m sure I can get something working. This is top secret information, though, so you’re not going to tell anyone? Right? =)

    As for why the name Atlas Quest, it’s because letterboxing.org was already taken. =)

    But seriously…. there is actually a funny story behind the name Atlas Quest. I had been asking around for suggestions on names. My working title was Letterboxing 101, but it didn’t seem quite ‘right.’ So I started asking around with friends and family who knew about the project and hooked on the idea of calling it “World Letterboxing.” (Thanks for that idea, by the way, even if I didn’t use it!) Yeah, sure, it was generic, but at least nobody would have trouble figuring what the website was about! And the domain name worldletterboxing.org was available.

    I updated all the code to start using the name World Letterboxing….

    A few weeks before the site was set to go live, I was horrified to learn of another letterboxing website calling themselves “World of Letterboxing.” I couldn’t call mine World Letterboxing anymore—people would just think I’m copying the name. There might even be confusion between the two sites. I needed another name, so Amanda and I spent a week brainstorming. I really wanted to use the word ‘letterboxing’ in the site’s name so it would be clear to any letterboxer that the site was about letterboxing, but it’s such a big, unwieldy word to use in a domain name. All the good domain names were already taken (letterboxing.com, letterboxing,org, etc.) Adding qualifiers (e.g. worldletterboxing.com, globalletterboxing.com, etc.) really made the name much longer than I preferred.

    This is when I hit on the idea of a ‘brand name’ website, the same way the word Xerox became synonymous with copying. It would be harder to get off the ground initially, but it could give the website personality in the long run. In the past, when I created new programs used internally where I worked, I’d name them after foreign cities I had visited such as Odessa and Kariba. I also started researching mythological characters looking for something that would be applicable to letterboxers—like the god for finding lost objects if one existed. There were also a couple other restrictions I put on the name—it had to be something that people could remember easily, and it had to be something people could spell without a dictionary! (I liked the idea of using Odyssey as part of the name, but when I had to use a dictionary to make sure it was spelled correctly, I knew I couldn’t use the name.) And, of course, it had to be an available domain name.

    Ultimately, I settled on Atlas, the mythical man holding the world on his shoulders—it could be a synonym for World! I really wanted to stress the global nature of the website with support for over 200 countries. An atlas is also a collection of maps, something you’ll often find littered on the car floors of letterboxers everywhere. Atlas was short and easy to spell and remember. It was a perfect fit.

    It still needed more than that, however, and eventually I remembered that a quest is another, less-common name for ‘letterboxing.’ Someone had mentioned Valley Quest boxes or something on the talk list, and it clicked. Hook the two together, and you’ve got Atlas Quest. And—most importantly—the domain name hadn’t been taken.

    It took about a week of brainstorming before I finally settled on that name, and another week before I committed myself to it by updating the code base to use that name. For a brief time, however, the website almost become known as World Letterboxing using the domain name at http://www.worldletterboxing.com/ (And, so far as I know, that domain name is still available if anyone else wants to give it a shot!)

    Who would you say are your major letterboxing heroes and how have they influenced the letterboxer you’ve become?

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have letterboxing ‘heroes’ per se. I try to keep in mind that no matter how famous or well-known a letterboxer is, they’re still just people that put their pants on one leg at a time. But I have had significant influences, the biggest one being Der Mad Stamper. The first boxes I found were planted by him in the Columbia River Gorge—stamps that I just marveled at when I first found them. I vowed that someday, I’d carve as well as that. (Later, I even replaced a couple of boxes from that series with virtually identical carvings to the originals, which was a very satisfying moment for me. I could finally carve as well as the master carver!)

    Later, I found Der Mad Stamper’s Spirit of Dartmoor letterbox that, at the time, used a new technique for multi-colored stamping. Well, in the stamp world, I’m sure it wasn’t unique, but for the letterboxing world, it was. And I loved the results. I started painting found stamps with all sorts of colors to give them new life, and eventually started planting boxes where I recommended using multiple colors. (I also wrote up directions for how to do it online since—at the time—such directions did not exist. It’s gone through several modifications since the original version, but the most recent version can be found at http://www.atlasquest.com/tutorials/stamping/)

    Trial ‘n’ Error and Evil Glenn inspired some of my more wicked clues such as the infamous walking tours. =) I’ve never much been a fan of having to decode clues at home—I just want to print out the clue and hit the trails. But several of their clues had me counting things while actually on the trail that would be used to crack the clue, and I loved it! It was evil and diabolical. Knowing there’s a letterbox lurking in your midst, having the clue for it in your hand, but having to jump through the hoops to get it.

    In another clue, he leads you in circles for what seemed like hours, until you wind up within spitting distance of where you started for the final location of the letterbox. I really enjoyed those clues—teasing you the whole way and requiring letterboxers to jump through totally unnecessary hoops. And I started adopting that attitude for otherwise easily accessible boxes of my own.

    The Paisley Orca planted the first boxes I learned that were accessible only by boat. I never did rent a boat to nab those boxes, but they got me thinking about other ‘untraditional’ methods to hide boxes. In caves, underwater, on cliffs, high up in trees, etc. I still dream of hiding a box hundreds of feet high in a tree, but I don’t have the necessary equipment or technical skills to pull it off. Not yet, at least! I did hide a box in a cave, though it’s not a very big one and requires no technical skills. The underwater box idea I couldn’t figure out how to reliably keep the contents dry. On a cliff—I’ve got some ideas about that, but I haven’t done that either. =) Paisley Orca’s boat-accessible series has inspired me, though I haven’t done much about it yet. On another note, in case you’re wondering what prompted me to include the ‘boat-only accessible’ attribute on Atlas Quest, this was the series that inspired that little bit. While I may not have found any boat-accessible boxes, I really do want to encourage them because I think it’s a great idea!

    A book by Ryan Carpenter . . . . what would you name it and why?

    If I wrote a book, it would probably be about my adventures on the Appalachian Trail, and I figure a good name for it would be Another Walk in the Woods in tribute to Bryson’s book.

    Now if someone wrote a book about me, I think a fine name would be You’ve Got to be Crazy!!! =)

    Ryan's Green Tortuga Stamp

    Related Links:

    Atlas Quest

    Ryan's Hiking Adventures

    Ryan's Photo Pages