A few years ago, my colleague Lara Wilson talked about her cabin in the Canadian Rockies, describing it as “The Best Place on Earth”. She may have even ™’d it. I told her about my family’s cabin in the North Carolina mountains, and we agreed that everybody, everywhere, should have a Best Place on Earth™ of their own.
Anyway, my dad gave me the coolest Christmas present – a jigsaw puzzle topographic map of the area where our cabin is. Interestingly, the U.S. Geological Survey doesn’t do topographic maps any more – satellite digital mapping (think Google Earth on steroids) has made such maps a quaint memory. But the USGS is clever enough to sell the maps as jigsaw puzzles – you can get the map centered around any address you like. And the centerpiece of the map is shaped like a house!
When I first turned the puzzle out onto our dining table, I panicked. The area is quite rural, and was more rural when the map was last updated in the 60′s. So lots of green and white, with contour lines everywhere (it’s in the mountains). I have to admit that the puzzle might have never gotten done if my mother-in-law (a puzzle genius) hadn’t visited. I begged for her help and she set about finding all the border pieces. In the two days she was at our house, she managed to build the entire border and even plug a few pieces alongside. How she did it, I’ll never know – recall that she was working without a picture.
When I finally decided to make a concerted effort to finish the damn thing, I knew I’d need help. So I went on the USGS website and discovered, to my delight, that they now give away high quality digital images of the maps. I downloaded the two maps of interest and got to work.
Words on the map began to come together (apparently everything in that region was called “Piney Creek” in the old days). A peak altitude (“2920″) was a wonderful treat since it usually locked a specific location. I learned the location of all the family cemeteries – I know where the Dollingers, Sullivans, Joneses (not mine, I don’t think), Weavers, and Baldwins are all buried. The Powers have three (count ‘em) cemeteries – all strung out in a neat east-west line. 
I learned the exact path of the Norfolk and Western railroad – long gone, but still remembered by a few older folks. When I was a kid, some of the track was still there as was the trestle bridge across the New River.
I got tickled when I put in the pieces that had the cabin, the house across the road where my grandmother was born, and some of my favorite fishing holes.
In the last week or so, I could see the “avalanche” regime of the puzzle solution approaching. 100 pieces left, 80 pieces, 50…
Lisa said “Will you be sad when it’s done?”
I said no; the earlier going was pretty frustrating. But as the pieces, quite literally, started to fall into place, the Best Place on Earth began to reveal itself. Roads connected, streams meandered, and I recognized the steep hills across the creek from where my cousin Rose Kirby used to live. I will miss that state of the puzzle, where I’d built the scenery, and each subsequent piece was a quick visit to some corner of the county.
I put the last two dozen pieces in this evening – they flew in almost on their own. I was also delighted to see that despite the thing being moved around the house for six months (poker games and dinner guests came and went), not a single piece was lost. Phew.
Lisa said, “So now you’re going to turn it out and start all over.”
When. Pigs. Fly.
In fact, I’m gonna get some of that puzzle glue and maybe even frame and mount it. It’s kinda cool to be able to run your fingertips over the Best Place on Earth™.
 There’s a pharmacist/dobro-player in the county named Mack Powers. I gotta stop in and see him – ask him which of the three cemeteries he’s planning to settle himself in when the time comes.