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The Missing Piece to Any Off-Grid Vacation

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

It’s become a bit of a ritual at this point, and one that I will only watch from a safe distance: our family rents a woodsy cottage for a few days, I turn the key to free the deadbolt, and then my wife blasts across the threshold to fire off room designations like a short-order cook with an organizing fetish. “The boys will sleep here! Coolers will go there! Bippity boppity boop!” And then she turns a corner to find a table, usually in a den or a screened porch, and her eyes widen to a severe pitch. “And HERE,” she screams, pointing at a poor table that’s like “who, me?

“Here! We will do puzzles!” Then we hear a thunderclap, the power goes out, and I check the freezer for an ice machine. “Sweet, we’re good on ice,” I say to no one.

Is this an exaggeration? Sure, a mild one. But don’t doubt me, reader; the gentle jigsaw puzzle is in many ways the glue that binds any off-grid family vacation, and my lovely wife isn’t crazy for thinking so.

A cottage retreat can be different things to different people, but most would agree that it should be quiet, unhurried and generally offline. For the life of me, I can’t imagine a better way to describe puzzling (which in this case means “the act of putting together a puzzle,” a definition you might find…puzzling). To my mind, puzzles are as essential to a cabin getaway as shouting “I hate white rabbits” into the smoky void.

I didn’t always feel this way. My parents have enjoyed puzzling as far back as I remember, which I only took as further evidence that one of us was probably living in the wrong house. If I remember one thing about my parents’ puzzle-building, it was being annoyed that a perfectly good table was usually being misused. (If I have a second memory of their puzzling, it’s the time that my younger brother approached my mom hours into a puzzle, smirkingly picked up one of the 1000 pieces, and swallowed it with an emphatic, “Gulp.” I do not know how he lived through this.)

Many cottage trips ago, I brought my puzzle baggage into the nascent courtship with my now-wife. I sneered at the table, squandered and covered in cardboard chunks of Van Gogh. “Sit down, you’ll probably enjoy it,” she said. I chortled, as I often do when I’m wrong. “Or maybe you’re just jealous of the puzzle? Is that it, am I giving the puzzle too much attention?” I sat down.

I don’t know how many hours we’ve spent puzzling since, but it’s a lot. It’s where we’ve had some of our best conversations and where we’ve laughed the loudest. My wife is laser-focused and generally runs point on the border; I’m more of an innards kinda guy, and also the full-time DJ (requests welcome). Before long, anyone else along for the trip is absorbed into our little puzzle party; to a person, each of us will say some version of, “I forget how much fun puzzles are.” Early in the coffee hours when it’s shockingly quiet, during a rainy day you’re determined to salvage, late in the evening when your brain isn’t good for much of anything else – any excuse to sneak off and click a few pieces together is a good one.

I’m sure some would say that puzzles are a metaphor for something bigger, but I don’t think they are. They’re simple, satisfying, and don’t require anything beyond your time. So, don’t overthink it: designate a table, spread out the chunks of Van Gogh. Border first, obviously. Lose track of the hours; that’s why you’re there in the first place.

And kids, please don’t eat the pieces. Trust me, Mom hates that.

August 2023

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