Unfolding the Map
Sometimes Murphy's Law hits, and things seem to gang up on you. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) touches upon a small example of Murphy's Law as he heads toward Taunton, Massachusetts, that I'll explore and reflect upon in this post. If you want to avoid pitfalls, get on the right track, and see where Taunton is located, orient yourself at the map. By the way, the drawing at right is trailing arbutus, the Massachusetts state flower, from Wikimedia Commons.
"Down state 115 southeast toward Taunton. I had to keep checking route markers for the northwest-bound traffic in order to stay on course. Rule of the blue road: the highway side to where you've been is better marked than the one to where you're going."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 4
A few times in Blue Highways, LHM refers to what I would call Murphy's Laws of the road. In case you are reading and are not familiar with Murphy's Laws, these are the humorous laws of the universe that seem to conspire against you at every turn. The main law, simply stated, is that "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong." Taken at face value, the law is a truism. Eventually, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. It is wrong to assume that something will go wrong at any particular time, but to assume that eventually, something will go wrong to me seems to me, at risk of sounding like Mr. Spock, to be a logical probability.
However, we as humans go through fits of believing that the universe can, will and does treat us like crap. I have had those times where it seems that everything I do, say, touch and attempt just doesn't work. There are times where I seem to hit my head on every object that is at my head's height at any particular time. I have gone days when I can't seem to say anything that doesn't offend, hurt or just come off as wrong. I have slogged through periods when everything I pick up, and then put down simply disappears, as if I have a strange magical power to send the object to a parallel universe where a mirror me, suffering through the opposite of Murphy's Law, is probably wondering where all the junk has come from.
But, what about Murphy's Laws of the road, you might ask. After all, Blue Highways is a book about the road, and LHM has had times where he believes the universe conspires against him. When he drove into mountains, he was turned back by snow...in May. When he needed gas, there wasn't an open gas station for miles and he drove, clenching his buttocks in an attempt to will Ghost Dancing to make it, until he got to a gas station with little more than fumes in the tank. A fuel line busted in North Dakota, causing a mechanic to tell him the van was about to catch on fire if he didn't get it fixed. Of course, you might say that these Murphy's Laws only came about because of him - he ignored the snow sign, he could have filled up with gas earlier, and he should have had the fuel line checked. However, we can also argue that he was operating in imperfect knowledge. The sign about snow didn't say anything about May. He was driving in the early 1980s, before the advent of GPS and smart phones that make it easy to know when and where the next 24 hour open gas station is located. He didn't know that his fuel line was cracked until the precipitous drop on the fuel gauge. But Michael, you may protest, he was driving on blue highways...the ones where you're more likely to have trouble and find less services. We can debate all about this, but ultimately, Murphy's Laws seem to depend on our attitude about the world.
For example, the law of the blue highway that he quotes manifests itself in the highly populated Northeast, in a particularly busy area of Massachusetts given its proximity to Boston. LHM doesn't like the busy highways, and prefers to avoid them. Therefore, the lack of signage on his side, and the plethora of signage on the other, is probably a product of his own stress level at dealing with the busy roads. There is probably just as much signage on one side as the other, but he cannot see it.
My Murphy's Laws of the road appear usually because of my own lack of attention. For example, in a few days I will get a rental car on a trip that I am making. And I will be willing to wager that the first time I stop for gas, I will pull into a gas station and park by the pumps only to find that the gas tank is not on the left side of the car, as it is on mine, but on the right side of the rental car. I will be annoyed, then I will get into the car and pull around to align the gas tanks with the pumps. If I were to put it into Murphy's Laws terms, I would posit the law thus: Whenever one is driving an unfamiliar car, when one stops for gas and pulls up to the pump, the gas tank will be on the opposite side. However, the "law" occurred simply because I refused to take time to check the location of the gas tank.
Or, here's another: Whenever one is in a hurry to get someplace, there will be construction or an accident blocking traffic and making one late. We've all had that happen, correct? In my case, I usually find that I'm late to begin with, and am simply seeking something to vent my rage at my own lack of attention to time. That damn traffic, I'll snarl. Yet if I had left 10-15 minutes earlier, it probably wouldn't have mattered so much. I might have even missed the accident that was clogging traffic!
The fact is that in my calmer moments, I realize that the universe is not malevolent, nor benevolent for that matter. The universe just is. It is easy to rail against it when things are not going our way. I will probably continue to do so when I feel like fate, chance and luck is taking a piss on me. In fact, I think that I have raged more against the unfairness of the universe throughout my life than I have thanked it for the good things that have happened to me. The universe is an easy target, and it cannot answer back. If all goes well after I rage, well I showed the cosmos. And if things continue to not go my way, I just provide myself proof that everything is out to get me.
The only thing missing from that equation is me, with all my choices and actions. That's just too close to home. I'd rather blame it all on Murphy's Laws.
If you want to know more about Taunton
Next up: Fall River, Massachusetts