On having a research department, even when they don't know it.


A couple of days ago, I caught a story.

This happens to me. I'll be walking or driving along, and something will occur to me, and I'll decide "huh." And the next thing I know I've got an opening, at least twelve scenes and a denouement in my brain, trying to claw their way out. And, because I was cursed by influenced by Hard Science Fiction, I then need to... oh, you know, do real honest to Christ research on the subject in question.

Now, this is not science fiction. If anything, it's Magical Realism, set in today's world. Something very Sean Stewart, with a soupçon of Hal Duncan for good measure.



It's a word.

Yes, it's originally from the French, but it's an actual, honest to Christ in-Webster's word now. It means "smidge."

No I couldn't "just say smidge." Jesus.


Lost my train of thought.

Oh, right. The story. It's a very contemporary story, and it's meant to actually be a road trip sort of story. In fact, it's meant to be a shunpiking story. Shunpiking isn't in Webster's but it's a fantastic word which should be. It means "avoiding major highways and interstates and turnpikes in lieu of back roads, secondary roads and the like." It means taking the remnants of old Route 66 instead of the thruway. It means driving through small towns and places instead of bypassing them.

That's what this story needs.

So I want to do it right. So I have a starting point and an ending point. And I have an internet. And if you look at our friend Mapquest, they have an "avoid Highways" feature to them! Score!

Only... said feature only works for trips of 250 miles or less. And even with interstates and highways, it estimates the trip I'm describing as over 2,700 miles.

Now, going step by step, leg by leg in 250 mile jumps is one solution to this problem. But it's not a good solution. See, the only way to effectively do that is to chart your course via interstates and then select waypoints along the way. You can then tell it to give you a shunpiker's route between those waypoints. The problem is, it's entirely possible that if you shunpiked across the country you'd end up far away from where the highways run, through the dead areas between major interstates. By using the highways as your guide, you end up less shunpiking and more tacking around the direct route -- you still end up passing through the major points serviced by those highways. It's just less convenient for you.

I checked the other driving direction services online, and as near as I can tell, those services don't even have a shunpiking function.

So, I've spent the last several days wrestling with this -- in my brain. I've been trying to either find a new service or find software that might do it without being unreasonably expensive for what, in the end, is going to be a single use or... I don't know. Something. Because I really, really want to do this right, and I don't see any good way to do it electronically.

This morning, the solution hit me. It had the triple advantage of not costing me anything (at least anything additional), giving me the route I specifically want, and providing me monumental amounts of research on the side, thus saving me time elsewhere in this process.

See, I'm a Triple-A member. I have been... well, practically forever. And once upon a time, before GPSes and the Internet, they were my route planners. If you're a member, you can call them up any time and order a triptik -- a printed series of flip maps with your route highlighted in orange highlighter, that someone has painstakingly mapped out for you.

I haven't used them for this in years. Between things like Mapquest and GPSes, I have lots more convenient ways to find routes to where I'm going. I'm sure they've had a sharp decline in these services over the years.

But now I had a project my GPS and Internet couldn't help me with.

So I called my member service number (not the roadside assistance number), and talked to a travel agent. And she cheerfully took the information I wanted down. I told her about the shunpiking, and she told me she could arrange all secondary and back roads with no problem at all -- where possible, anyway. And she offered to send along state maps and tour guide books with tons of additional information. All, of course, at no charge. I am a member, after all.

It is worth occasionally remembering that as wonderful as our Internet is, there are times the good old fashioned way is vastly better.

Things have been nuts. Catching up begins now. Rock on, dudes.


If you haven't yet, read Neil Gaiman's American Gods before you go: it'll give you a few neat ideas about places to see off the beaten path

I'm sort of an anti-shunpiker. Not that I have anything against shunpiking, just that I prefer the no-traffic light convenience of route 70 to the stoplights-every-ten-minutes nature of 40 for my traveling-across-the-width-of-Maryland needs. I'm pretty sure the trip from home up to school (about an hour and a half on 70) would take three times that via the shunpiker route that 40 would simulate. And 40 really isn't the shunpiker route anyway. It's hardly a secondary road.

Firefox 2.0's built in dictionary for text fields will now recognize shunpiker and shunpiking as words, on my computer, however. Because you're right. Shunpiking totally is Webster-worthy.

Triple-A is the awesome. I don't have it myself, mostly being that I don't drive just yet, but it has saved my bacon in the past, thanks to nonstandard use of their resources.

I was stranded in DC in the middle of the night with a friend of mine, and he had previously--on a whim, mind you--looked into how they pay their tow truck drivers. He figured out that, since the driver got paid either way, he could make creative use of the long-distance towing they offered.

So while I was pacing and fretting, he called a friend of ours that had Triple-A-Plus or whatever the fancy plan is, and then called AAA posing as him (don't try this at home!) to request a long-distance tow from our location back to Richmond. Except there was no car to tow. We had traveled there by bus from New York--after missing the only one that day that would take us back to R-town--and the only one who could pick us up from DC would be stuck at work in Richmond until like two in the morning.

So when the driver got there, we told him our story, and after an extra $20 worth of 'convincing', he hooked up our invisible car and we were on our way. Driver was totally awesome too. It was those life-story-learning rides.

hooray for the resources of Triple-A.

A couple of days ago, I caught a story.

Bundle up, get lots of rest, drink liquids to prevent dehydration. Don't go near any other writers or you might pass it on.


When we lived in Louisville, Kentucky, we had friends in Winchester we'd visit several times a year. I always wanted to, once, take US 60 back to Louisville instead of I-64 just to see what we could see. I even said so out loud once. But, since we usually left after it was already dark, it never happened.

Please don't call it "Travalon," please don't call it "Travalon," . . .

You should check out "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat Moon.

You should read his biography of Columbus also, but that's a different travel story.

Yeah the AAA triptychs are quite the nifty thing. And unlike LostQuest, they usually keep up on road construction. Which probably isn't a big concern for the shunpiker (new words, yay!)but still...

Also, for at least some areas, the database used for LostQuest is seriously corrupted. It certainly is for my hometown. It used to be just routing people off the major highway and through the middle of town for no reason whatsoever (it's even longer than staying on the highway, so it's not shortest route), but now we've had several truck drivers stop looking for a particular street. We get rather puzzled looks when we tell them how to get there. Seems LostQuest is now telling them to turn in exactly the opposite direction of where they need to go. The really bad part? One of the companies that makes the databases used by the internet map services is based here. Makes you wonder how they do for other areas.

BTW sounds like a neat story.

Um, Google says there's already "shunpiking.com" for Shunpiking Magazine, and it's already a wikipedia entry.

The reason the "avoid highways" only works for small trips is that finding the "best" path between any two points in a network is a VERY HARD problem in computer science, illustrated by the "traveling salesman" problem.

The longer the route, and more complex the network, the harder the problem, and important bit is that it gets much harder very quickly. Then when you add constraints like "avoid highways" it starts getting out of hand fast.

When humans eyeball it, they're using other information and heuristics to do it easier. Plus what the AAA girl might consider "off highway" will be different from what I'd come up with, and who says what's best?

The old Microsoft Streets & Trips had an "avoid area" where you could mark square blocks and it would route around them. Of course, being Microsoft, they dropped that from later versions. They also dropped the ability to keep permanent custom locations (such as your house). Grrr.

I'm a GPS/cartography nut, since I ride a motorcycle and I get lost walking to my own bathroom. I worship at the alter of Google Maps. I even have it on my wireless Palm PDA.

Caught a story, did you?

I think the worst part is how it starts invading your personal space, screaming at you to write it down when you're just not ready, darnit.

Or maybe the worst part is how you want to read it but you have to write the darned thing first. And placebos just don't work.

“ ‘You’re going in a cage.’ That’s what the Colonel said. ‘You made a mistake. We all understand why, but you made a mistake, and if you don’t pay for it, then the rest of us will have to.’
“He didn’t tell me it would be a cage without bars, without doors, without locks. A cage without escape.
“Five hundred thousand miles of bad roads. Every street that you avoid because it runs through a bad neighborhood. Every broken old track that you cross on the way to the job that you hate.
“I bet you have air conditioning, though. I don’t. Except when the windows won’t roll up.
“ ‘This country’s a faded map of forgotten roads. Now I’ve got a man who needs to be forgotten. In the old days, I’d let you rot.’
“A cage, he said. A car that nobody would want and a job nobody could do. They pointed me out the gate and kept their rifles up until I couldn’t see them in the mirror anymore. Maybe longer.
“I drive and drive. Sometimes I find things. Sometimes I find … strange things.
“I’m a prisoner of the roads.
“My name’s Burns. I don’t carry a badge now, but people still call me … the Lost Patrolman.”

Well, you know, it's one way to go.

I want a road trip so badly I can taste it. But alas, I promised no vacation this year. I need ocean.

Don't go near any other writers or you might pass it on.

Based on Rasselas's post and my brain, I'm guessing it's already too late. The man is crazy-contagious.

I am a fellow shunpiker! (Hey, I've turned it into an noun/adjective!) I love taking the back roads and byways, and even though I love traveling in general, I love it even more when I take the "Long Way Home."

In fact, I'm in the middle of something of a shunpiker expedition. I accepted a job offer in Portland, OR, and drove from Huntsville, AL to Cosby, MO to stay with my folks for the week. Starting Monday, I'll be shunpiking it from St. Joseph, MO to Portland, OR. Which is probably the 2,700 mile story odyssey that you're writing about, Eric. I could take notes if you'd like. I even got one of those moleskin books you were raving about eons ago.

Just curious, how much is a year's subscription to AAA cost? And is it one of those twelve step things? (Step 1: Admit you are addicted to driving. Step 2: Admit you're a bad driver and ask your car and the patrolmen's forgiveness for being such a bad driver.)

I highly doubt they do, but it would be really nice if AAA could do that for Europe. Trying to figure out how my characters are going to hitchhike from Milan to London has been a pain in the butt. Even Google Earth and Google Maps haven't been all that helpful, since their European information is woefully inadequate.

"Shunpike" is one of those odd words that J.K. Rowling collects and uses as character names; the "Knight Bus" in Harry Potter is conducted by Stan Shunpike. Given that the Knight Bus goes all the heck over the place, it's rather an apt name.

I don't like the word shunpike. Not that I don't like the sound of it or anything. It's just that I come from Idaho and we don't have turnpikes out here. I don't think I even knew what one was until I started studying history. The logic of it just doesn't work in my brain.

On a completely unrelated note, I was reading through the archives of snarks, having nothing better to do. And I found a couple of things that you might be interested in.

Item 1: Shortpacked. Remember the whole fear of Galasso having the potential to actually take over the world? Yeah. Current storyline.

Item 2: In your GPF YHMAYLM snark, you mentioned how First & 10 was so bad that you can't find season 1 on DVD. That is no longer the case. Take that as you will.

Aerin: Try viamichelin.com

Dude, you're leaving the most fun part of a trip to the AAA guys. Just have them send you a bunch of current maps and highlight your own route.

You understand I'm not actually taking this trip, right? ;)

What the AAA guys are doing is giving me a coherent 'found route,' which I can use to build narrative around. They're also giving me a starting point for information about said route. That's a fun combination.

Awwww, take the trip! Neil Gaiman did when he did American Gods -- he seems to be quite happy with the results :)

Gene Cash: The shortest path connecting two points is easy to find; there's a simple recursive algorithm for it. The traveling salesman problem is much more difficult; it requires the shortest path connecting N points. I don't think there is any known way to solve this short of checking every possible route, but there are techniques that usually give you close-to-optimal routes.

There's also a Mythos story called "The Shunpike," in _Return to Lovecraft Country_. I can't remember any of the particulars of the story, but that's how I first learned the word.

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