Ken Jennings

Maphead

From Chapter 9: Transit

[Image of Maphead cover]

The road atlas has become inseparably tied to that uniquely American ritual of liberation: the road trip. When I think about a driving a route across town, I picture the actual landmarks involved, but when I plan a trip any longer than an hour, my mental imagery is plucked straight from Rand McNally. In my mind’s eye, highways aren’t black striped with yellow. They’re bright blue ribbons with red borders, stretching across a landscape white with absence: literally the open road. National forests are mottled blobs constructed, if I think hard enough about it, not out of trees but out of a lime-green cerebral cortex of tiny, winding convolutions. There are trees too, of course: one evergreen apiece in every state park, right next to a little green triangular tent.

In fact, road atlases have become such a Pavlovian bit of shorthand for travel and independence that some mapheads can satisfy their wanderlust without ever leaving home, just by opening a Rand McNally road atlas. Meet the participants in Jim Sinclair’s annual “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” a mail-order contest he’s held every February for over forty years. They travel a circuitous course across America from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Statue of Liberty (or the reverse route in odd-numbered years) all without ever leaving their armchairs or kitchen tables. The journey is made entirely on maps.

For the last forty years, Massacre HQ has been the Sinclairs’ sixties-era rambler just north of Pasadena. It’s a rainy, misty day in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains when Jim and his wife Sue invite me inside to what I can immediately see is a grandparents’ house straight out of central casting: public radio classical music playing quietly somewhere, shelves lined with Garrison Keillor and Agatha Christie hardcovers, grandkid photos on every flat surface. The only difference is Jim’s home office, which has metastasized to cover the whole living room. The pool table is now piled deep with boxes, envelopes, and stacks of reference books. “We have paper boxes for end tables now,” sighs Sue, who sits across from us on the plaid sofa, near her quilting basket.

“I liken the Massacre to skiing, in that when somebody tries it, they’ll either get it right away and like it, or they’ll say, ‘What’s this for?’” says Jim. He’s a serious, professorial-looking man in his late sixties with white whiskers and a deep, gruff voice. “I’ve given up feeling that anybody would like it, because I know that most people don’t have that kind of mind.”

I know that Jim means that not just anybody can get into his contests, but you could be forgiven for wondering if he meant that not anybody is capable of understanding them. See, map rallying is a strange and byzantine pursuit, even harder to describe than it is to master. As a kid, I would see regular ads for the Massacre in Games magazine, and I imagined the event as a freewheeling scavenger hunt through the atlas—exactly the kind of thing I would have loved at that age, though I never actually signed up. The reality of the event, I see as Jim and I peruse last year’s contest booklet, is very different.

Here’s a sample step from the third of the rally’s eight legs, this one between Paris, Ontario and Eden Park, Ohio:

8. After having gone through U.S. 24 shield on page 51, turn on highway whose number comprises two digits and that is upon a limited-access highway in the direction that’s toward nearest other unnumbered interchange.
If you can parse and negotiate that instruction correctly, you must then answer a multiple-choice question about your chosen route:
Q27. Which among these do you see first?
a) Bowling Green
b) Ohio Tpk.
c) Pemberville
d) Scotch Ridge
Questions like these are the equivalent of the manned checkpoints at a real road rally: they test whether or not you’ve followed the course successfully. Jim and his collaborators cleverly “fail-safe” each step of the way, so that even when you miss a turn or a trick, you generally get looped back onto the correct route without ever realizing your misstep.

The devious traps built into each step typically rely, in equal parts, on careful observation and on hair-splitting interpretation of the contest’s rules. You might think a “road” is the same as a “named highway,” for example, but not in the Massacre: here, they’re very different. (A road is the line on the map, and it may carry one named highway, like “Interstate 25” or “Iowa 42,” along its path, or several at the same time, or none at all.) “Course-following”—how to navigate the road between the end of one instruction and the beginning of the next—seems like a simple concept, but in practice it requires a set of four tie-breaking rules of decreasing priority, each so complex that even the word “on” comes with own Clintonian three-paragraph definition. Even punctuation matters: a place name without quotation marks refers to the place itself, but with quotation marks, it refers to the map text labeling the place. And so on.

This level of precision can sometimes make the Massacre seem airless and technical to clueless newbies like me, but Jim insists that’s not the goal. “We try to make the rules correspond to reality,” he tells me. “We try to keep as much verisimilitude as we can, to have people actually feel like they’re on the road, going from this point to that point. They’re seeing landmarks along the way. They’re watching for turns.” For longtime participants, much of the fun lies in the in-jokes and regular “characters” that pop up en route, adding some color to the otherwise legalistic proceedings. The most beloved such regular is the Old Maltese, a grizzled coot often spotted near his cabin in Malta, Montana. The Maltese is Jim’s alter ego in the yearly contest, and the Sinclairs still get phone calls at home every February asking if “the Old Maltese is there.” (Participants are encouraged to call or write if they don’t understand the rules.) “I always say, ‘He’s not in, but can I help you?’” says Jim.

These recurring traditions have kept the same players coming back to his contests for decades. They are a devoted bunch. Nancy Wilson, a retired ER nurse from Petaluma, California, has been playing in the Massacre for over thirty years. She once scheduled a trip to Liechtenstein just so that she could postmark her Massacre answer sheet from the tiny Alpine country. (Jim makes sure to recognize the top score submitted from each state and country.) Bart Bramley is a professional bridge player from Dallas (the American Contract Bridge League player of the year in 1997, in fact) and a four-time winner of the Massacre. His near-sightedness has been getting worse in later years, but he’s put off getting the LASIK surgery that would cure his myopia in minutes. Why? Because now, without contacts, his vision is clearest when he’s looking at objects practically touching the tip of his nose—the perfect distance for map rally purposes. “I can examine the map from about one inch away and see everything,” he says. “If I got LASIK, I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore.”

But time has winnowed away the faithful. Around three thousand players entered the Massacre each year at its early-nineties peak; last year less than five hundred sent in answers. It’s tempting to point to this decline as another apocalyptic sign of How Americans Hate Maps, but instead Jim blames the death of road rallying, the sport whose fans made up his core audience. “We used to ask them their age,” he says, “and in the seventies the answer would come back in their mid-thirties. Then they next year it’d be late-thirties. Then it would be close to forty. It was obvious that we were keeping the same cohort.” “Every once in a while we’ll hear from somebody saying their father or their mother has passed,” Sue adds. “I think they’re letting us know, not only to stop the mail, but to say their late parent really enjoyed it.”

“It’s bittersweet,” Jim agrees.

“Or we’ll hear from someone who says, ‘My eyesight’s not good anymore.’”

“We don’t dwell on it.”

“But it is sort of nice, that somebody thought enough of us to take the time to write.”

Sometimes a caller will even tell the Sinclairs how much they enjoyed finishing the contest with Mom or Dad one last time. Most solvers play alone, but others evidently make the Massacre a February family tradition. As a map lover, this sounds like an idyllic way to spend quality time with the kids. I imagine three or four generations of delighted faces crowded around an open road atlas. There are steaming mugs of hot chocolate in my mental picture, and for some reason everyone is wearing sweaters. That’s for me, I decide. This year, the Jennings family will be driving its first annual map rally!

* * * *

Not long after I return home from California, a big white Priority Mail envelope shows up in the mail from the Sinclairs’ address. I eagerly rip it open, and find a Rand McNally road atlas (with a “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” logo custom-printed on the cover) and a route booklet. The introduction is signed by both Jim and “the Old Maltese,” who wish me luck. That evening I gather Mindy and kids together and explain that we’re going on a cross-country drive...through the atlas! The reaction I get is excitement before the ellipsis and a suspicious scowl afterward, like I’d just told a room full of kids that I was going to show them some awesome magic tricks...using science!

We open the atlas to northern California and find the Golden Gate Bridge, our starting line. “This is boring!” Dylan complains. “When are we going to be done?”

“Most people take twenty or thirty hours to finish the course.”

“Thirty hours?” he groans theatrically.

“Wow,” says Mindy. “This is just like being on a real car trip with Dylan!”

Twenty minutes later, the mutiny is growing. Caitlin is singing to herself on the floor under the table; Dylan is making loud explosion noises and playing with a toy army man wearing a parachute. I’m squinting at a map of southern Oregon, trying to count the lakes I’m passing along U.S. 395. From a car this would be easy; in the atlas, it’s surprisingly headache-inducing. For one thing, I’ve resorted to a ruler to measure the distance from each lake to the highway. (By Massacre rules, I can only “see” things that are less than a quarter inch from the road). Also, I’ve just realized that instruction 16 placed me “upon” this highway—not on it. This is apparently a crucial distinction. I leave one finger to mark my spot on the map while flipping through the rules to try to understand the subtle differences between “on” and “upon.” Suddenly Dylan launches his paratrooper into the air and it lands right on the atlas where my finger was carefully tracing.

“Dy-lan!” I bellow, in full-on Dave-from-the-Chipmunks mode.

“Wow,” says Mindy. “This is just like being on a real car trip with Dad!”

* * * *

Thus ends my ill-advised attempt to try a thirty-hour map exercise with two small children. Perhaps, like John Spafford, I’m doomed to be the last map geek in my own gene pool. I grouchily scoop up my road atlas and my grievances and head off to my office to continue my virtual road trip in silence.

For the next few weeks, I doggedly spend an hour or so every night on the Massacre. (Now I know what it “massacres”: your free time.) My kids learn to leave me alone when I’m hunched over the road atlas muttering things like “Go left on 191, then go right on unpaved road when you see ‘191’ in Wyoming,” and moving my finger slowly across the paper as if all the highways were Braille. It turns out that, despite my fascination with maps of all kinds, I am really, phenomenally bad at map rallying. At one point during the second week, I find myself in west Texas when I can infer from the directions that I’m still supposed to be in Colorado. When I finally figure out where I went wrong and get back to the Rockies, it takes me a full hour to inch my way from Cañon City, Colorado to nearby Pueblo. That’s longer than it would take me to actually drive those forty miles.

I begin to secretly hope the whole thing will turn out to be a prank, like those elementary-school tests in instruction-following that march you down a list of pointless, labyrinthine directions only to end with something like, “Ignore all the previous steps. Leave your page blank except for your name at the top, and hand it in.” But as the days stretch into weeks and I wind my way through Kansas and Nebraska, my hopes dim. So does my vision. Every time I go back to re-check my answers, I somehow wind up following the same deterministic instructions onto different highways entirely. Theoretical physicists take note: the Massacre instructions appear to occupy some kind of nexus of quantum-level uncertainty. Schrodinger’s Road Trip. On a road trip, when you start to lose it, you should pull over for the night. Jim allows rookies like me to mail in answers after only completing four of the Massacre’s eight legs, and in the end that’s what I do. Stranded in South Dakota, doomed never to “see” the Statue of Liberty at the finish line, I admit defeat and mail in my answer sheet.

Three weeks later, I get an email from “the Old Maltese,” letting me know that I finished in first place! Well, I finished first among first-time contestants who, like me, wimped out halfway. All six of them. Still, my final score of sixteen isn’t bad—that’s sixteen missed questions out of forty-eight. As in golf, lowest score wins. Bart Bramley is one of six entrants this year with a perfect score of zero, handing him his fifth Massacre win. Maybe the LASIK will have to wait one more year.

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