Here's the thing about road trips: Even the bad ones are pretty good. And there's nothing better than a truly great one.
How do you guarantee that every trip is great? You can't, really. Choose the coolest destination you can think of, bring along great people, line up the perfect car, and things can still go flat—your best friend and girlfriend don't agree on the music, it rains every day, and when you finally arrive at Graceland, no one's in the frame of mind to enjoy it. The best you can do is maximize your chances.
Back in college, my pal Scott Rothenberger hit upon an excellent way to do just that, and one of the greatest innovations of the 1990s. Like many college-era ideas, it was born of a strange combination of boredom, limited finances, and restlessness. Unlike many college-era ideas, it's still brilliant 20 years later. Although admittedly, at the time, I wasn't quite sure.
It started with a phone call one night just before spring break. "Get the guys and grab the spinner out of the Twister box and meet me at the chicken shack off Nakoma Road," Scott said. "We're going on a road trip."
"Okay," I said, because when you're a guy in your early twenties, it's an act of treason against cool to show confusion or surprise. I hung up, dug out the Twister spinner, picked up our friends Tim and Dave, and drove the old Tempo out to meet Scott like it wasn't weird at all.
"Here's what we're doing," he said, unfolding a big map of the United States on the trunk. "I just bought a hundred bucks' worth of fried chicken. Put the Twister spinner on the map where we are and spin it. Whatever direction it points, we get in the car and drive along that line, eating chicken, until we run out of chicken. When that happens, we find the nearest chicken place, get more chicken, spin again, and head in the new direction. When we run out of chicken again, we come back home."
"Okay," we said, because see above.
"Right foot red," said Dave, already into the spirit of the thing.
So we set off (for Indianapolis, it turned out) with a simple Euclidean vector for navigation: given direction (determined randomly) and speed (chicken-dependent). And the Great American Fried Chicken Triangle was born.
Laugh if you want, but it's just about perfect, the rules easy and fun to follow. The idea is to get pleasantly almost-but-not-quite lost. The Triangle takes you places you never would have gone otherwise; without Scott's brilliance, I may never have seen General Patton's Death Car or visited Conway Twitty's Twitty City. I also probably wouldn't have seen Reno before Las Vegas, if ever, and it turns out that Reno is a far more interesting place. I might have gone to the Corn Palace—it's the Corn Palace!—but I wouldn't have stumbled onto roadside Amish doughnuts or Cincinnati's Skyline Chili.
Even if I'd visited these places on purpose, I wouldn't have discovered them, stumbling onto their glory thanks to the inscrutable, quasi-random unfolding of the universe. I certainly wouldn't have been pulled over by an Ohio state trooper who—after recoiling at the cloud of chicken fug roiling from my open window—said, suspiciously, "Sir, your car appears to be full of little bones."
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Put another way, road trips work better if you're willing to trade the idea of destination for the possibility of surprise. Think of the best things that have ever happened to you. You probably didn't see half of them coming. The Triangle lets you plan for absolutely no plan at all, which sets you up for a kind of permanent state of surprise. And surprise is one of the things that make life worth living.
Like most good inventions, the Triangle isn't set in stone. Later iterations, some years after the original outing, produced refinements: Eat one meal a day that's not fried chicken, because travel is nothing without new food. Avoid boring roads like interstates, but once the spinner indicates a basic heading, stick to it or you'll miss the good stuff. Also, resign yourself to the fact that you're probably not going to meet girls this way.
Above all, don't forget the cardinal rule: Keep driving until the chicken runs out.
Even now, in our evolved, hyperconnected world, cars are still the best way to travel. They make a wider, more interesting life possible. So get out there. Buy cheesy bumper stickers and take snaps of giant fiberglass dinosaurs and chase down interesting stuff from billboards. Hit the road, just make it a little more random than usual. Let the crazy wonder of the world sneak up on you.
And okay, I admit—you just might want to pack a balanced picnic basket at each point of your triangle. Most of us aren't in college any more, and that much grease, however delicious, probably isn't the best idea.
Still, Great American Whole Foods Triangle just doesn't have the same ring. And I had some of the best times of my life driving, not quite lost, across deepest America at the speed of chicken.
Think of the best things that have ever happened to you. You probably didn't see half of them coming.