Kicked In the Asphalt

June 6, 2003

They say the best part of any trip is the journey itself. This should confirm that They is an idiot. Of course you should never trust anyone who’s named after a pronoun anyway, but even if you really love to travel, you know that the best parts of any journey are, in order of descending greatness, the actual moment when you arrive at the place you were going to, before you’ve had a chance to be disappointed because it’s not nearly as great as you thought it would be, the moment when you get home, before you realize you’re too exhausted to unpack even though you really should because if you don’t do it right away you won’t be able to find your toothbrush in the morning, and the first twenty minutes after you’ve finally managed to get out on the road and on the way to your destination.

Even though it’s last, that first twenty minutes has a special kind of exhilaration that you can only get after you’ve gone back at least five times to make sure that the toaster is unplugged. There’s an old Chinese saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – and that step is usually into the bathroom, because if you’re going a thousand miles you want to make sure you go one last time.

After twenty minutes or so you get into the worst part of any trip, especially a road trip, which is the long, monotonous void when you pass a sign that says, "Next Exit-3 Miles", and after what seems like a day and a half but is really two days you pass another sign that says, "Next Exit – 2 Miles".

No matter who you’re travelling with or how much music you’ve brought to fill those long gaps when the radio won’t pick up anything but static, the repetition of trees, fields, billboards, and the occasional glimpse of someone who looks eerily like Tolstoy standing on the side of the road with his thumb out gradually turns your brain to oatmeal. The only bad thing about travelling with another person is that on any trip of more than three hours you both know it’s only a matter of time before you fall into long silences broken only by the occasional, "Hey, look, we’re only ten miles from Red’s Reptile Ranglin’ Ranch."

When you’re on a long road trip and have to keep your eyes on the road, there are basically only two things you can do to keep your brain occupied: count the number of state license plates you can spot, and play the alphabet game. Looking for different license plates is not only educational (how would you know Utah was the "Beehive State" if it weren’t on the license plate?), but also gives you some idea of where you are. When you start seeing a lot of Illinois license plates, you know you’re in Illinois, when you start seeing a lot of Missouri license plates, you know you’re in Missouri, and when you start seeing a lot of Quebec license plates, you know you’re in Florida. The alphabet game, if you’ve never played it, works like this: you look for the letters of the alphabet, in order, on billboards and signs. The rule is, one letter per sign. And if you have played it, you know the letters you think you’ll get stuck on – the ones that give you the most points in Scrabble – are the easiest. To find Q, X, or Z, all you have to do is look for a Quick Stop, an Exit, or a Zoo, or drive through Xenia, Ohio, Quincy, California, or Zavalla, Texas. It’s always the letter you think will be easy that you get stuck on – something simple, and common, like B. And you can’t move on if you get stuck on a letter. You have to find that letter, and soon it will become an all-consuming obsession that will make the miles and hours slip away until that magic moment when you arrive at your destination – and find it’s right next to Big Bertha’s Beds, Bottles, and Boomerangs. That’s the kind of thing that can make the worst part of the trip one of the best – and vice versa.

Enjoy this week’s offerings.

A shepherd was herding his flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW advanced out of the dust cloud towards him. The driver, a young man in a Broni suit, Gucci shoes, Ray Ban sunglasses and YSL tie, leaned out the window and asked the shepherd, "If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?" The shepherd looked at the man, obviously a yuppie, then looked at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answered, "Sure." The yuppie parked his car, whipped out his IBM ThinkPad and connected it to a cell phone, then he surfed to a NASA page on the internet where he called up a GPS satellite navigation system, scanned the area, and then opened up a database and an Excel spreadsheet with complex formulas. He sent an email on his Blackberry and, after a few minutes, received a response. Finally, he printed out a 130-page report on his miniaturized printer and then turned to the shepherd and said, "You have exactly 1586 sheep."

"That is correct; take one of the sheep." said the shepherd.

He watched the young man select one of the animals and bundle it into his car. Then the shepherd said, "If I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my animal?"

"OK, why not," answered the young man.

"Clearly, you are a consultant," said the shepherd.

"That’s correct," says the yuppie, "but how did you guess that?"

"No guessing required," answered the shepherd. "You turned up here although nobody called you. You want to get paid for an answer I already knew, to a question I never asked, and you don’t know crap about my business. Now give me back my dog."

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