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    On the Road
    by Jack Kerouac
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    Blue Highways: A Journey into America
    by William Least Heat-Moon

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Blue Highways: Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey

Unfolding the Map

When do we have bad luck, or good luck?  Or is there luck at all?  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) writes about the ill-timing and bad luck of Judge William Hancock during the Revolutionary War, I will reflect on my feelings about bad luck.  Hopefully, you won't feel that you came across this post by way of bad luck, but if you want to feel lucky and find the spot where all this occurs, please take a risk and look at the map. Why the horse at right?  It's New Jersey's state animal.

Book Quote

"Judge William Hancock, wealthy and influential, had no luck at all in his last year.  In 1734 at Hancock's Bridge, a few miles northwest of Greenwich, he built a grand house that he later had to flee from when militiamen took over south Jersey.  On the night of March 20, 1778, as Tories regained the area, the Loyalist judge elected to slip back; he didn't know that nearly a hundred revolutionists were bivouacked in his house.  They captured him.  Hancock probably would have been safe in the hands of his enemies had two hundred green-coated Loyalists not decided to retake the place that same night.  They surprised the patriots in their sleep and bayoneted them even as the men begged for quarter.  In the dark mayhem, Hancock's confederates killed him too.  The house still stands, a monument to the judge's ill timing."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 12

Hancock House, mentioned by William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways, in Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey. Photo by Smallbones and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey

When is something truly bad luck?  When is it a random occurrence that strikes one?  What role does choice play in our bad luck?  Or, is luck just luck and there is no good or bad about it?

I remember the stories I was told as a child.  Don't let a black cat cross your path or it will lead to bad luck.  Don't walk under ladders.  Don't let a pole pass between you and someone else.  Don't break a mirror or open an umbrella indoors.  Step on a crack, break your mother's back.  If you did any of these things, then you would be hit with a flood of bad luck.  I guess if I had done all of those things at the same time, I would have been inundated by a tsunami of bad luck.

I think that sometimes true bad luck happens.  We somehow fall into the seemingly random patterns of the universe and we end up in a place where bad things happen.  For example, I might leave the house and get into the car at a certain time on a certain morning.  I might drive down my street and just happen to hit the intersection at a stop light at the same time as a habitual runner of stop signs (there seem to be many on my street at one particular place).  Result, major fender-bender.  That person may just happen to not have insurance, and therefore I not only lose my car to repairs (or maybe totally) but my insurance also takes a big hit.

That happens, and will happen quite a few times in our lives.  Sometimes, it is simply an annoyance, like being stuck in airports for hours on a day where storms cause major disruptions in air travel, or an accident on the freeway snarls people up in traffic.  Sometimes it is more serious and leads to monetary loss, or minor injury, or broken relationships.  Once in awhile, this randomness could lead to serious injury or death because one is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I'm reminded of the recent shootings in a theater in Aurora, Colorado and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

However, I do find it interesting that sometimes what is blamed for bad luck is just the endpoint of a series of choices that we've made and that if we trace those choices back, we can most likely find the point where the choice took us down a path that guaranteed that bad things would happen.  For example, I once met a woman who complained about her bad luck in men.  Her life was a series of relationship disasters.  And yet, if you look at the choices she made, and the actions she took in those relationships, one could easily see that her "bad luck" came always by her choices.  The men she picked, the actions she took once in the relationship, all led to bad endings.  Is that really bad luck?

We have to acknowledge that conscious choices play a part in a lot of what we call bad luck.  I believe that most of what we call bad luck is the intersection of three elements:  the information we have, the patterns that we get ourselves locked into, and the level of risk we are willing to take.  These three things guide the choices we make.  A gambler may complain about her bad luck in gambling, but a gambler relies on all of these things.  She looks around the card table and reads the other players while taking into account her own hand.  She has certain ways of playing certain hands and therefore a pattern emerges in her playing.  She also may be a risk-acceptant or risk-averse person.  If she is a risk-acceptant person, she may play a bit more loosely, a bit more recklessly.  All of these elements add up to the choices she makes in her play, which will have an effect on her winnings.  In essence, this is not luck.  Luck may play a small part in the equation, but most of the outcomes will come down to her decision to fold or stay, raise or call.  Often, you will hear a card player say that they "should have" done something else, indicating that they made a decision that led to the outcome.

If I look back on my life, and I could see all the instances where I felt myself victimized by bad luck, chances are that I could examine my choices and find that it was my decision-making and not luck that led me to most of my difficult circumstances.  Sure, bad luck has happened to me, but not in the quantity that I would like to think.  I have not been victimized regularly by the universe.  The universe has no desires, wishes nor feelings - it just is.  It acts according to its laws and patterns automatically.

We, on the other hand, are not automatic.  We make choices based on information, our own patterns, and our sense of risk and that means that many times, we will make wrong decisions.  If there's anything that I've learned, it's this:  One is better equipped to head off "bad luck" if one makes decisions with more information than less.  The more you know about any situation, and the more you know about yourself, less randomness will accompany your choices and therefore, the better your luck.

Musical Interlude

I happened to find a list of songs about bad luck.  You can find the list here.  And here's two off the list.  The first is by Social Distortion called Bad Luck, because when you have bad luck nothing embodies it like some distorted electric guitar.  The second is a rhythm and blues song by Earl King from New Orleans called Mr. Bad Luck, because New Orleans, in my opinion, sits on the boundary of all that we understand and don't understand in the world.

If you want to know more about Hancock's Bridge

Discover Salem County: Hancock House
Revolutionary War Sites in Hancock's Bridge
Wikipedia: Hancock's Bridge
Wikipedia: Hancock House

Next up: Salem, New Jersey


Blue Highways: Ubly and Port Huron, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

After traveling through Ubly and arriving at Port Huron, Michigan, we come to another crossroads where William Least Heat-Moon has to make a choice.  While fate isn't riding on his choice this time, the symbolism of the crossroads means that sometime, somewhere, we all reach an intersection and must make choices that do have real significance in our lives.  To find this intersection, take your soul to the map, and if someone is there with a contract for you to sign, you'd best resist the temptation.

Book Quote

" I headed east through Ubly, then down the edge of the Thumb, past more shoreline houses, to Port Huron....

"I had to decide. Either the eastward route through Detroit, Toledo and Cleveland, or it was a shorter northeast job through Canada...."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 1

Port Huron bridges at night. Photo by Suzanne and hosted at City Data. Click on photo to go to host site.Ubly and Port Huron, Michigan

This is a difficult post.  It's hard when LHM just mentions a place without any kind of description.  Ubly and Port Huron, both possibly nice places (I've never been to either), are just glossed over as he tries to decide his next route.

One of life's little crossroads confronts LHM in this quote.  Crossroads are a very good symbol for all choices in life.  One can face literal crossroads, like LHM, in which he has to decide whether to take one route over another.  Or one can face a metaphorical crossroads, in which choices need to be made.  Either way, there are often unknowns that will be faced by taking one route over another.  Sometimes, if taking one way or the other leads to knowns, the choices might still not be clear.  One way may be better than another.  One way may be more difficult.  The supposedly easy way might have traps and snares we aren't aware of.

In LHM's case, it's a simple choice of moving through Canada or the US.  I've faced that choice before on driving trips from Milwaukee to the East Coast, depending on which way I've traveled.  Sometimes, I would take a route along Interstate 80 through Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  However, if I found myself in Detroit, I would have to make the same choice LHM did.  Do I head around Lake Erie to the south and go back to I-80 or go through Toledo and Cleveland?  Or do I just cross the river at Detroit into Canada and head across to western New York north of Lake Erie?  Often the shortest distance was through Canada.

If you're LHM, your choice might be based mostly on this factor.  You're writing a book about blue highways - those smaller, two-lane highways that are rarely traveled.  You're also trying to avoid big cities, and the southern route after Port Huron lies through Detroit, Toledo and Cleveland - all pretty major cities.  Canada would seem pretty attractive, and it would cut time off your trip.

Something that's pretty interesting, however is that by doing so LHM will completely avoid Ohio.  He missed Ohio the first time around, and if he chooses to go through Canada, he'll miss it again.  Ohio is known as "the heart of it all," but LHM's choices will cause him to miss the heart by traveling outside the "body" that is the U.S.

In reality, then, LHM's choices will have an effect on his trip.  He will either have to negotiate large cities or go out of his way to avoid them, or he will cut off a part of the United States in favor of speed and a little bit of a foreign country.

Physically then, a crossroads is a literal intersection.  Most of us don't really pay attention to them.  We pass intersections all the time.  On a city street, I never think about all the intersections I pass.  I usually have a place in mind to go to and a route mapped out in my head.  But think about it - if I have a hesitation, or I if I don't really know where I'm going, an intersection becomes much more interesting and much more dangerous.  My choice might lead to riches or ruin.

In a metaphorical sense, the crossroads has come to symbolize an intersection not only in the physical realm, but also a place between worlds.  This place can be natural, supernatural, paranormal, or anything we subscribe to.  I was just watching a Twilight Zone episode a couple of weeks prior, entitled Little Girl Lost, in which an intersection of dimensions causes a little girl who tumbles out of bed to disappear through a doorway into a different world.  That intersection is a crossroads.

There is some potential danger involved with the crossroads.  Some Christian superstitions have the Devil appearing to people at the crossroads at midnight.  Borrowing from West African and voodoo tradition, Papa Legba shows up at the crossroads.  The danger from these meetings is that a deal may be struck where one sells one's soul for something one wants.

A famous story is involves the bluesman Robert Johnson.  He supposedly was a mediocre bluesman until one night he met the Devil at the crossroads, and exchanged his soul for a better guitar.  From then on, the legend goes, he was the best blues player alive until his untimely death by poisoning at the age of 27.  Hear a wonderful radio show, called Radiolab, explore the legend of Robert Johnson:

Another famous story about crossroads involves Oedipus, whose tragic fate began at the intersection of three roads when killed his father.  This act, very symbolic in that he could have chosen another metaphorical life road, led to his marriage to his mother and eventually his downfall and blindness.  Contrast this with Heracles, who stood at the crossroads and had to choose between Pleasure and a life of ease, or Virtue and a life of hardship and immortality.  The ever-so-good Heracles chose Virtue.  How many of us would do the same?

From these stories, it can be see that danger can lurk at the crossroads, but also hope.  The Christian symbolism of the cross represents, of course, martyrdom but also hope and resurrection.  I've made choices at my own life's crossroads, and sometimes have chosen the wrong way and have paid dearly for my choice.  At other times, I've heeded my choices and chosen wisely, and have benefitted.  The next time you come to an intersection, treat it with some respect.  After all, it may not seem to be representative of anything, until you realize that every choice you've ever made, easy and difficult alike, as come at an intersection of paths.

Musical Interlude

As mentioned above, the legend of Robert Johnson is such that the crossroads, the devil and his amazing blues guitar playing is the stuff of legend.  Enjoy the Crossroads Blues by this master of the Delta blues.

If you want to know more about Ubly and Port Huron

City of Port Huron
Port Huron Museum
Port Huron Times Herald (newspaper)
Village of Ubly
Wikipedia: Port Huron
Wikipedia: Ubly

Next up:  Sarnia, Ontario