Over twenty-five years ago I received a short, hand-written note from a lovely lady I had met at a bird-banding event a few days earlier. I  perked up when I read her last sentence. “It will be pleasure when our paths next cross.” I reread it at least half a dozen times and then pondered it before reading it again.

As I had been divorced for three years, I was interested but had no idea of the status of this woman, named Nancy. Was she single? Partnered? Maybe she was cloistered. . . caught her on a day off from the monastery.

Even though emails were quickly becoming the societal norm, I chose to respond to her letter with a scribed letter of my own and soon we were pen pals. Over the course of a few weeks, going to the mail box was an enthusiastically anticipated endeavor, not unlike unwrapping a Christmas gift. We learned much about each other and we both discovered that we liked words.

Finally I asked her out on a somewhat non-conventional date. I took the chance and invited her to join me on a plant collecting outing on our family farm followed by lunch at my place. This was not collecting live plants but instead collecting foliage and flowers to put in my plant press. She curiously accepted and we strolled among the various species of June wildflowers. 

The following week I sent her another hand-written letter thanking her for joining me and it included a single dried blossom of a wild rose. She still has that now-tattered wild rose and together we have a fairly thick packet of hand-written letters. And, I might add, a diverse collection of dried flora.

This week we will be celebrating our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and it only seems appropriate to sit down today and write Nancy a “map letter.” The scorched corner is a touch to illustrate my heated love.

Map letters are special as they are typically fairly serious communiques about traveling through the trails of life. My children, now all parents themselves, have periodically received an appropriately timed map letter and I look forward to someday mailing such letters to my grandchildren.

At least a quarter of a century ago I had spied a stack of old topo maps in a dumpster and I unashamedly climbed in to retrieve them. Such is my love for maps. The sheets of stationary used in my map letters are cut from these old topographic maps.

When I reflect on the art and practice of writing a hand-written letter, no other person has been more of an influence than a dear late friend and work colleague, Charlie Johnson. Charlie was a dyed-in-the-wool artist and romantic. And I might add he was an ardent plant collector as well. He shunned computers and sneer at the idea of ever sending a cursed email.

Charlie being very fond of the famed Montana artist, Charlie Russel, might have been inspired by Russel’s practice of sending letters to friends that were augmented with watercolor scenes embellishing the pages. Today these are worth thousands of dollars. 

When we lived periodically in the Yukon Territory, Charlie would send me a couple of letters  from his Alaska residence each month. Often on the back of the envelope he would scribble one of his axioms: “One hand-written letter is worth 10,000 emails.”

I could almost hear his accusatory snarl. So with visions of my second grade teacher watching me practice my cursive writing, I practiced being a better letter writer. Over the years, we could have filled a herbarium with all the pressed botanical finds that we shared with each other.

He continually reminded me of the need to write letters. . . especially to him. So one day I decided to up my game and render Charlie into a flabbergasted friend. I had hired a local guy who sawed lumber to mill me a bunch of Sitka spruce for some renovations on our log abode. A thin scrap of spruce measuring roughly 10″x18″x1/8″ thick lay in the sawdust beneath the saw’s blade. I asked if I could take it and the miller said “Of course.” I had just secured my writing paper.

Using a black sharpie and a yellow highlighting pen, I artfully wrote and illustrated my note to Charlie. It was brief, bold and full of braggadocio. Slowly, I printed the following:

His Majesty Charlie,

I figured that this sheet of Sitka spruce is not only unusual, like you, but it pretty much blows away those cute little letters you mail to me.

To fully decipher this Sitka script you need to close your eyes and rarely run your finger tips over the fuzzy surface, study the clear grain and you will journey up the once tall, limbless trunk. Ahh. . . .but its the ragged edges I love best. For it’s at the edges of mountain cliffs, wild rivers, grizz boundaries and creative outburst that send my heart into overdrive. 

And don’t forget . . .you are one fortunate man. 

Love Tom

I tucked the Sitka note in in between two sheets of cardboard and sealed it with stout tape. The postal worker at the Whitehorse post office measured, weighed, gave a cringing twist to his face  and said, “This will cost you $25 dollars to mail to Alaska.” I paused and gulped. Of course a man has to do what he must and I nodded as I fished out the pretty Canadian cash. L

Charlie was humbled and nearly rendered speechless. However, he took on the challenge and later, for my birthday card, he chose a tanned front leg of a wolf to mail me with his brief, inflammatory greeting inked on the tanned side of the foreleg.

I could go on with each passing year of each of us trying to one-up the other in letter writing. But I have to say one of my letters might have set the gold standard. I intentionally stained the letter with spilled coffee, smeared mud on the totally wrinkled envelope and then shot a .30 caliber bullet through it and hand delivered to him in Utah by a local, scruffy muleskinner.

In penning a letter, there is no option of cutting and pasting or deleting to start over unless you want to start with a fresh piece of paper. Scratched out words are fine in informal shares. There is something more authentic to a hand-written letter. The ink, the scribbling cursive or bold printing become brief songs of original art.

Someone actually took the time to sit down and scroll you a personal message. I’m always surprised at the positive, heart warming feedback I get from friends or acquaintances with whom I have shared such a letter.

A handwritten letter is not ephemeral and is more of a keepsake than an email. That’s why I have a special folder labeled “Charlie letters” or “Kurt letters” and even one with “miscellaneous letters.”

But none of these treasured letters hold a candle to the shared pages mailed between my bride and me. I’m hoping we continue to be ardent pen pals.