I wake up between 3 and 5 am each day to write, as everyone is asleep and there are no electronic distractions other than family and friends in Asia. Yesterday, I walked into our laundry room to feed our cats and saw a 1200-piece puzzle that we created, framed and hanging on the wall. In an instant, that puzzle made me think about navigating the unknown and about paper maps.
Not that long ago, the ideas for adventure and exploration that drove Columbus, Lewis and Clark and John Muir all began with a paper map that had lots of open spaces on it that didn’t contain a description of what was there. In Columbus’ case, the Iberian Peninsula was on the right side of the map and the West Indies were on the left. There was reference to a lot of water and a few words in between and not much else. To complicate his scenario, the map had never been used for navigation, but was based on new hypothesis that the world was round. Lewis and Clark had a similar roughly drawn map, with St. Louis on the right and the Pacific on the left. The cartographer started with known borders to his map, and he assumed that there was a navigable path in between. The president commissioned them saying, “this is most likely not a map but a guess. Please correct it and fill in with information you discover along your journey.” They took three years to get back to him on what came with the Louisiana Purchase.
It hit me that the tools that these men used start with a skill we develop each time a do a jigsaw puzzle. We start with the boundary of the puzzle, as they all have a straight edge and assume that the remaining pile of pieces must go somewhere inside the perimeter. Even before we put the last piece in, the patterns we visualized at the beginning are apparent and the assumptions we made about putting all the brown colored pieces together are proven to be partially incorrect. When the final piece goes in, we see only in retrospect what the real patterns were. Haven’t we all put pieces in group only to discover that they really didn’t belong together in the final puzzle?
Jigsaw puzzles are a wonderful tool that parents have at their disposal to teach their children that every explorer has a pattern that they start with, but it takes practice to be good at it and develop the courage needed to change course when evidence convinces us that we are wrong. After all, how many times have you tried to put the same piece in the same spot, even though you know it didn’t fit that last time you tried it?
There is a magic thing happens, at the end of a really tough crossword puzzle that probably deserves its own book. Here it is: we never want to do the puzzle again.
We claim that we have navigated its mysteries and have been to the promised land at the end of the journey. We claim to have figured it out, and it is now time to explore another one.
When I do a jigsaw puzzle, I am developing some of the most critical parts of the brain that great explorers use as they expanded their horizons. I start with places I know-my car, a road, a country, etc. Then, I add pieces that must have a place in the middle of my puzzle, and I deliberately try to get them to fit. In my case, I pick a trail, a river system, or a mountain range that I want to visit. A long time ago, I crossed Crete on foot, and I chose not to follow trails or roads. I started on the southern coast and walked north. I had a lot of water and food, and I knew that there was a northern coast that should take me 5 days to reach. By the end of the second day, I had encountered a family of sheep herders at a place on my map that was not marked, and they invited me into their company for a meal. I spoke no Greek; none of them spoke any English. That was a ‘Lewis and Clark meets the Lakota Indian Nation’ moment for me. Sure, they had lived there for years, raising their livestock on the sides of the mountains on inland Crete, but my map didn’t have anything listed other than open space. I assumed that I would find a path, but I didn’t expect to overnight with a family along the way. When I neared the other side, I hitch hiked to the end in the back of a pickup truck filled with fresh milk in 150-liter metal vats. Those puzzle pieces had no place before I started. It was only on the bus ride back across the island that I saw all my inside puzzle pieces fit together. My map showed all that land as lightly inhabited forests.
Anyone who travels the country and planet know the truth that there are no visual signs of human impact in most places. Trek Utah or Manitoba or Texas or Pakistan, and it is obvious that humanity does not inhabit most places. It is in those untouched spaces that adventure is born and developed. As a culture, we are losing the skills not just of doing puzzles but of applying what the jigsaw puzzle teaches us.
When we replace paper maps with smart phones and smart maps, we fail to see the jigsaw puzzle and the lessons it teaches. We get instead are roads and points of interest that Google defines as interesting (Capital G in Google). For example, the forest on the side of the US2 in Wisconsin doesn’t show up as explorable, because no human decided it was a point of interest, and it only appears on our screens while we are driving next to it. Once we leave it, it is gone from our navigation platform. We never get drawn back to it and ask, “I wonder what was in there?” like explorer’s experience. The jigsaw puzzle has both its outside pieces and the inside patterns worked out by someone else.
I live to explore, to test my meddle and see what I can do and what is out there to do. Sometimes, I get on my bike and traverse a mountain pass alone, just to prove to myself that I can do it. Once in a while, I write a song and create a melody to give myself some affirmation that I can still create new patterns. I am convinced that it keeps my aging in check. I have no evidence that these roadmaps that I create are credible, so I validate them the best way that I can. I take the greatest risk a man can talk as I set out into the unknown.
Today, though, all young and some old people come with smart phones, and the self-sufficiency that comes from a smart phone has altered human patterns of exploration. They falsely conclude that the online reviews and wayfinding tools inherent with their GPS are giving them the equivalent of Lewis and Clark. Alas, they aren’t. How many of us have sat through a conversation where the speaker’s biggest obstacle with their journey was the wrong turn that google maps insisted they take along the way. That isn’t a journey. It is a passive hand off of a life skill. We all need to learn how to navigate with joy and not let the inherent fear of the unknown be bigger than it is.
I look at a map and see things differently now that I have this new insight into my crossword puzzle. I can see a need to get off of roads and out of airports more than ever. I want to see more of the real Earth. I want more puzzle pieces in the middle that I don’t understand.
Navigation is as much a philosophic endeavor as it is action focused task. Puzzles help us develop that skill. When I lead a tour, I am acting as a map for people who want to explore the middle of the puzzle. I act like the border pieces. When I take my children down a river for a few days or hike though New Zealand or the Rockies, I am letting them see all the puzzle pieces from above and let them think about what it means to them. I don’t hear their answers; but I am not asking them the questions, either. They are both courageous men, so I know my efforts worked.
What is your current jigsaw puzzle? What are you doing with the middle pieces? I hope you fight to find where they go.