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Hikers, you've got mail!

Page 3 of 3 -- The letterbox searcher eventually reaches the grave of Eugene Maloney. ''Take the small stone out of your pocket, say a prayer or whisper a kind thought into the stone, and leave the stone on the headstone for Gene. If you could water the flowers, too, we'd surely appreciate it," the directions continue before adding the final clues that lead to a letterbox hidden nearby.

This letterbox belongs to Carol Ames, who grew up in Framingham and now lives in Worcester with her husband, Ken. She placed the box in the cemetery on their wedding day, May 29, 2004. Her father died in 1999, at age 69.

''My dad, Gene, loved to walk in the woods, including this cemetery," Ames, 36, explains in her directions to the letterbox. ''He walked every day, to loosen bad neck and back muscles and soothe a busy mind. The walk he couldn't take, however, was with me on my wedding day. This is for him."

Ames said in an interview that a number of people ''have written very nice notes in the log book" and also apparently watered the flowers, because they survived all through last summer.

As the pastime has grown, letterboxing has taken on the attributes of other hobbies.

There are gatherings of devotees where personal stamps are exchanged and stories shared. Some letterboxers become competitive, trying to reach various milestones of boxes placed and found. A few have a goal of placing a letterbox in all 50 states.

A number of variations have also sprouted, including virtual letterboxes that exist only on the Internet, and ''hitchhikers," items within letterboxes that the finder takes and then leaves in another box. ''There's endless creativity, endless variety," said Zerquera.

Wilmot, 29, and Nelson, 28, of North Attleborough, who both grew up in Wrentham, decided to check on their ''Wetland Wonders!" letterbox recently at the Crocker Pond conservation land to make sure it was intact. The box is one of about 30 the two have planted in several area towns over the past couple of years.

''I'm curious to see who found it," Nelson said as she prepared to open the box.

The two logbooks inside contained the stamps of about three dozen other letterboxers. The most recent visit was by ''Bubba's Family." The stamp created by Nelson and Wilmot, who go by ''Amy & Jay" on the Web, was made from a small block eraser. It has the raised image of a frog on one side and a dragonfly on the other.

Nelson got some turquoise ink on her hand from the stamp pad as she displayed the items in the box. ''That's the sign of a letterboxer," she said.

A nature educator for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, she said she learned of the hobby about two years ago and was instantly taken by it because she has had a longtime interest in the outdoors.

Wilmot, a machinist, said the hobby gives him another reason to scout out trails where he can pursue another interest, mountain biking.

They also like that they can do letterboxing together. The clues to a box they once placed on the top of Sweatt Hill in Wrentham ended, ''P.S., Jay loves Amy and Amy loves Jay."

Ned Bristol can be reached at nedbristol@msn.com. 

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