Puzzle Box 4: A Long Awaited Opening

Posted on October 27th, 2010 at 10:29 pm by


The Anniversary Card

The Anniversary Card

[Author's note: This post is the last in a real-life story that ultimately took a full year and four chapters (1, 2, 3, 4) to tell. Read them all, then browse through the other surprising puzzle box stories that have popped up along the way.]

The Box Opens
The big news we’ve been waiting so long for has arrived.  Nearly a year late, my friends finally opened their last wedding gift – the very first Reverse Geocache™ Puzzle.

A year’s a long time, so let me refresh your memory.

Last autumn I flew to Paris to attend my old college buddy’s wedding.  In my suitcase I carried a curiously carved wooden box, a container I had constructed for the couple’s wedding present.  To add a little spice to my gift, I outfitted it with a GPS and some special circuitry that prevented it from being opened anywhere except on a certain romantic island far away in the English Channel.

The gift was delivered with no explanation about how it might be opened.  Indeed, I never revealed anything at all about it – not even that opening it was the objective.  The box itself was their one and only source of clues.

It didn’t provide many.  When you press the silver button on a Reverse Geocache™, the little blue display tells you basically just one thing: a distance.  Theirs read simply “Attempt 1 of 50: Distance 391km”.  If you find this unsettlingly insufficient, well, you might not be cut out for puzzle quests like this.

When I got back home I wrote an intimate article about my funky little wedding present.  Over the next few weeks I watched with amazement as hundreds of thousands enjoyed the sentimental story of the wedding gift that couldn’t be opened, on my site or in the dozens of newspaper articles, conference presentations, blog postings and podcasts that sprang up afterwards.    Suddenly it seemed alarmingly likely that my friends would simply stumble upon one of these before they had a chance to unravel the puzzle themselves.  It was exciting to guess what would happen.  Could the Internet be trusted to keep the “big secret”?  Or would I one day get a note telling me that the whole adventure had been sadly spoiled?

That note never came.  Instead, the other day I received the following casual reply to an unrelated email:

Funny that you chose that moment to write, because as it happens I was then in Bréhat with a certain mystery box of hand construction among my equipage.  As designed, once properly positioned, it opened with very little ceremony.   Christèle and I were both touched by the contents and hope to make use of the Firebowl and Marble Slab certificates later this year.  The Ishiguro books might be good for the next road trip.  But the real fun, as you guessed, was the puzzle itself.  There’s some pretty cool and clever design in that little box!  I was happy to see that you’d designed a backup power option into the thing, but you’ll be glad to know that it didn’t end up being necessary, even after almost a year of waiting. Chris

 Not necessary”?  Ha!  If you’ve read my original article, you’ll remember that just hours before handoff that “backup power” proved vital in rescuing the accidentally sealed box.

Dropping the Bombshell
The box finally open, there was little need for any more secrecy.  It was finally time to drop the bombshell and tell my friends that their wedding gift was world famous.  Here’s how it worked out.

About this time I had been preparing a presentation on puzzle boxes for the World Maker Faire in New York.  Knowing Chris planned to visit Texas shortly afterwards, I commissioned a giant “Happy Anniversary!” card from my daughter which I brought with me.  As people streamed through my booth at the Faire – and the experience of watching their eyes light up as I told and retold the story of the magic box is worthy of an article of its own – I asked them to sign it just as if they were best friends.  When you read all the wonderful things people scribbled in and around Rachel’s ornate “Happy Anniversary Chris and Christèle!”, you realize people do think of themselves as intimate friends and supporters of this young couple.  We all do.  There is something about how this little box resonates and plays with people’s emotions that is quite subtle and fascinating.  It draws them together and changes perspectives in ways that I am still at a loss to completely understand.  Grant McCracken expressed it well when he wrote that “[…discovering the puzzle box] is as if something has operated on the tumblers of consciousness.  Something seems to click.

And so, at a cozy table at the Firebowl Café back in Austin, our year-long saga finally ends.  It’s one of those wonderful October days that Texans look longingly forward to all summer – sunny and clear but crisp and evocatively cool.  When we meet – for the first time since his wedding so many months ago and miles away – Chris looks puzzled, perhaps a little apprehensive.  This is understandable.  I’ve asked for this lunch meeting to tell a strange story – a story, I’ve advised him, which will require “about an hour” of his undivided attention.

It took nearly two.  His response was just what you’d hope and expect: surprise and amazement yielding to quiet delight, and finally the inevitable series of questions and suggestions for how the magic of the puzzle box might be kept alive.  Before we parted, I unrolled the delicious anniversary card on the tabletop.  I got word from France some days later that his wife Christèle, astonished at finding herself the unwitting center of our story, was particularly delighted by the card and the outpouring of happy wishes from a bunch of crazy American strangers.  Thank you, Rachel, for drawing it.  And thanks to everyone at Maker Faire who took the time to sign it.  I think it will be something our friends treasure for some time, right up there on the shelf beside the famous elephant box.

Thanks also to Nathan Seidle and the great people at Sparkfun, who have been extremely supportive of this project from the very beginning.

And thanks to all you on this mailing list, too.  It’s the terrific support and feedback from you all that keeps that “magic” alive.

Next time I’ll share some of the amazing quests people have been putting together with commissioned boxes.  Stay tuned!

 Mikal (at) arduiniana.org

"Fretwork" - an October commission

"Fretwork" - an October commission