Thursday, April 17, 2014
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This Weeks Show




There’s an activity that gets you outdoors.  It taps your creativity.  And it challenges your problem solving skills.  It’s called letterboxing.

Lisa Lazar explains, “It combines art and mental puzzles and hiking, and I just thought, ‘Sounds kind of perfect for me!’”

Here’s how it works:  You follow clues to places where letterboxes are hidden.  When you discover a letterbox, you take the stamp you find inside and make an impression in your personal log book.  You also stamp your own personal stamp in the letterbox’s log book.  Then you repack the letterbox and discreetly put it back in its hiding place. 

After a while, you can assemble quite a dazzling portfolio of stamps in your log book.

Lisa says, “I really enjoy the idea of just making these little tiny pieces of art and just kind of giving them away to strangers.”

Legend has it that letterboxing began more than 150 years ago in a remote location in England, when a man hid his calling card in a jar.  Then people began leaving self-addressed postcards in the jar, using it as an informal mailbox, or “letterbox,” as the British say.  But it wasn’t really until the 1980’s that letterboxing actually caught on, first in its native England, and now in the 21st century here in the United States.

“There’s a lot to like about it.  There’s the wonderful location that you may not have known about,” says Lisa.  “Finding a really wonderful little object.”  And, she adds, “Seeing the world through someone else’s viewpoint.”

Lisa and three of her friends are searching for letterboxes in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park and the Oakland Rose Garden

Meanwhile, across the bay in northern Marin County, chiropractor and avid letterboxer Dr. Heidi Law is introducing me to the sport.

She explains, “It can take some people hours and hours to just create the stamp alone.  And then there’s finding the right box, creating the log books.  You have to post the clues.  You have to go out and hide them.”

Heidi carved a terrific stamp for me, to go with my new trail name: backroadrunner.  The stamp is a roadrunner in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

She also planted a series of boxes just for us.  She calls the series “Walk 4 Marfan 2.”  It and her original “Walk 4 Marfan” series were partially designed to draw attention to a rare connective tissue disorder called Marfan Syndrome. (For more information about Marfan Syndrome, go to: )

The clues to finding the boxes involve a character named Marvin, who always confuses left and right.  So every time the clue says go left, we have to go right, and vice versa.

Following this “opposite” behavior leads us to a lovely open space area I hadn’t seen before.

The first clue points to a big oak tree, where I have a little trouble following Heidi’s precise directions.  But eventually I locate the correct branch, and find a letterbox carefully camouflaged underneath. 

We do the appropriate stamping, which can get a little messy.  But if you don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty, letterboxing has much to offer. 

Heidi likes to design elaborate boxes that she plants.

Lisa, our East Bay letterboxer and a professional artist in real life, is known for her beautifully carved stamps and her cleverly hidden boxes.

Lisa’s friend Kathy Norris has a fabulous log book and a great sense of humor.

“My husband and my son come along with me sometimes, and we’re called Team Tysonosaurus, so we have a little stamp with a dinosaur on it,” says Kathy.

Kathy planted a box for the others to find, called “Once bitten.”

She explains, “The stamp for it is a cookie with a bite out of it.”

And then there are the clues, which are posted on websites such as and

Some of the clues are very short and cryptic, such as this one from Oakland: “Follow the unpaved path that parallels 7th Street, towards San Francisco.  Start counting.  You’ll have to stop at 24.”  We even found one clue written in Latin.  Another involves a long list of trivia questions about the movie “Vertigo.”  The answers will enable you to decipher a location in San Francisco.

Heidi’s clues are a little more straightforward, but I’m still having problems solving them.

Heidi says letterboxing is a great way to get kids out in nature.  She’s had many enjoyable outings with her god-daughter.

And usually Lisa’s friend Mark Berkeland can be found letterboxing with his six year old daughter.

Mark says, “If I were just to say, “Katie, let’s go on a hike,” and we’d be out there hiking for an hour, she might get bored.  But if there’s a goal -- there’s a piece of Tupperware at the end here, with a rubber stamp in it, we’ve got something to aim for.”

Heidi is helping me create a stamp.  I’m trying to make it look like a compass.

This stamp will be part of what’s called a hitchhiker, which is a letterbox that fits inside another letterbox, then hitches rides with folks who transfer it to yet other letterboxes.

I put it in the next box I find and start it on its mysterious journey.

If you go letterboxing, there are certain rules of etiquette you need to follow.  It’s all pretty common sense stuff, such as: tread lightly and minimize your impact on the earth, put the boxes back the way you found them, keep them well hidden and don’t let others see where you put them.

“Leave it the way you’d like it to be left if it were yours,” advises Lisa.

Other than that, have a terrific time, as we did.

Lisa elaborates, “Go out with your stamp and your curiosity and hopefully you find something, hopefully you see something new.  And you leave a little impression and get a piece of printmaking to take with you and it’s kind of wonderful.”

By the way, a few months after we filmed this story we got an e-mail telling us that Doug’s hitchhiker had been found in a letterbox in New Hampshire, and was on its way to Massachusetts!

For more information about letterboxing, check out the websites:  and


Bay Area Backroads Deck

Bay Area Backroads Deck

This portable deck of 50 fun outings, based on the successful Bay Area Backroads book by host Doug McConnell, makes it easy for native Californians or tourists to jump in the car, pick a card, and discover the road less traveled.   More >>
Green Apple Books >> >>


Oakland & Glide Memorial

Oakland for Free

Today we met with Serena Bartlett, a travel guide writer for “GrassRoutes Travel” to get her picks on the best ways to enjoy Oakland for free.  GrassRoutes Travel is an independent publisher of travel guides that strives towards local and global exploration in order to promote peace.

Serena Bartlett’s picks were:

Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve
On Skyline Blvd. between Broadway Terrace and Snake Road in Oakland, CA

Free Tool Library:
Temescal Tool Lending Library
5205 Telegraph Avenue
Oakland, CA 94609

Free Art Classes:
Rock Paper Scissors Collective
2278 Telegraph Ave.
Oakland, CA 94612

Free Cheese & Olive Oil Tasting:
Ratto’s International Market
821 Washington St
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 832-6503

For more information about Serena Bartlett or GrassRoutes Travel:
GrassRoutes Travel
632 60th Street
Oakland, CA 94609




Glide Memorial

“I’ve never been on Backroads, but I’ve been on urban streets,” says Reverend Cecil Williams.  “And I’ve been on urban corners.  But never on Backroads.”                 

You might not think of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District as a Backroads destination, but there is one spot here that attracts visitors from all over the world.  It’s a place where some inspiring individuals are really shaking things up.  It’s called Glide Memorial Church.  Sunday services here are called celebrations, and everyone is invited to join the party.

“I don't care what you got, what you believe, where you're goin' when you get there.  The important thing is to keep on lovin' -- use the power of love,” exhorts Glide’s Reverend Cecil Williams.  He’s a real live urban legend.  His social and political activism over four decades has helped shape San Francisco, and has brought major, positive changes to the Tenderloin, and to his church.

“Justice, compassion and peace.  You can’t do it unless you got all three there,” he says.

Glide Memorial has been around since 1931.  It was the gift of a Methodist philanthropist named Lizzie Glide.  But when Cecil Williams arrived here in 1963, he found a nearly dead church.

He recalls, “It was 35 people here.  And no life at all.  So I said, ‘I wanna bring life to the church.’”

Cecil revived the church with the help of Janice Mirikitani, who started working at Glide in 1965.  They were married in 1982.

Janice says, “I never thought I'd walk in a church, because the church was just not the place that felt like a good place for me to be.  I felt rejected by my traditional church.  And when I met Cecil, I said, ‘This is a different place.’”

The church changed radically over the years, reflecting the people and the times.

“It was the antiwar movement, there was the civil rights movement.  It was a time of movement.  And I think that that's what Glide is about.  It's about movements.  Today we hope that Glide is about movement,” says Janice.

In the late ‘60’s, Cecil even had the cross removed from the sanctuary.  He says he wanted people to recover from pain and suffering, not dwell in it.                                        

“Some of the folks walked out on me.  Some of the folks said, ‘You've gone too far.’  Some of the folks said, ‘My God, you must be out of your mind!’” he says with a smile.

Under Cecil’s and Janice’s leadership, Glide has been way out in front on controversial matters, including the struggles for gay rights and women’s rights.

Cecil agrees, “You know, we've always been out there, sort of searching for how we can free people.  There it is: The church must free people.”

Today, Glide is something of an emporium of human needs, with nearly ninety programs that span three buildings and all age groups and situations. 

Some of Glide’s programs focus on helping addicts kick their habits.

Every December, Glide gives out 10,000 bags of groceries, each containing the fixings for a complete holiday meal.

It’s almost impossible to follow Cecil and Janice around without folks stopping them, some needing to be comforted, others wanting to express their gratitude.

Janice tells Cecil, “You've worked very hard to create community here. You've worked very hard to say to people, ‘This is a place where you belong.  You have a place here that is yours.’  And that, I think, is what community's about.”

Glide’s Ensemble is a microcosm of that community.

Cecil says, “It is a group of people who are committed to singing from their souls.  And now we've got good musicians working with them.  And I mean good musicians.  That band is hot.

The Ensemble performs at Sunday celebrations and other events.  It’s one of many ways Glide is lifting people’s lives.

A block away from the church, the Janice Mirikitani Family, Youth and Child Care Center provides a safe place for the children of the Tenderloin.

Janice says, “It makes me cry every time I come up here because you think about kids in urban America, particularly in an area that is blighted like the Tenderloin, and for them to have a rooftop playground is really phenomenal.”                                                                          

The kids here come from all different ethnic backgrounds, and they share their cultures with each other.

Janice says, “When you learn it as a young person, we feel that that's the beginning of tolerance.  That's when you really do create a world where people understand that we're all the same underneath the color of our skin.   And we all beat with the same kind of heart.”

The center has programs for all ages, including the Glide Teen Choir.        

Meanwhile, in yet another building, on the other side of the church, the Cecil Williams Glide Community House provides housing to people who might otherwise be homeless.

Cecil points to a success story, “When we walked in the door of this building, the woman that was standing there with application in her hand and her son standing close by said, ‘I want you to see this.  I'm now going to college!’  She's going to college!  My God, I never expected her to go to college.”

The building houses nearly 200 people, with another 2,000 on the waiting list.

From the rooftop patio, Cecil says, “Poor folks have an opportunity to look at the skyline, and can see a lot of the city.”

Lining the patio are several glass panels that represent Glide’s many facets: “Love”, “Compassion”, “Stand” [for justice] and “Walk That Walk”, which is Cecil’s signature slogan.

Janice’s and Cecil’s work has attracted national and even international attention.  Other church leaders travel here to learn Glide’s successful methods.  But the biggest impact is right here in the Tenderloin, where a neglected neighborhood is slowly being transformed into a vibrant, harmonious community.   

Glide Memorial Church is located in downtown San Francisco, at the corner of Ellis and Taylor.  Everyone is welcome at Glide, whether it’s for spiritual fulfillment, to help out as a volunteer or simply to enjoy some terrific music.

For more information:

Glide Memorial Church
330 Ellis Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 674-6000


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