A Proof of Murphy's Law

Morgan Shafter

It turns out that the brochures weren't lying: there is actually a place called Ithaca about two hundred miles northwest of New York City, and there are actual people living there, one of whom happens to be my aunt. How she happened upon this place is unfathomable to me, since it took my father and I over twelve hours, three sets of directions, and half a GPS system to get there. While the town slogan, “Ithaca is Gorges,” is just about too witty for me to stand, I still propose that it be changed to something that might better attract new residents, such as “Ithaca: where your in-laws can't possibly find you. Ever.”

The morning of the trip I awoke at 6 AM, once again cursing high school's vendetta against teenage sleep cycles. At that point, the prospect of traveling through beautiful upstate New York was still exciting and even suggested some possibility of upcoming relaxation. However, the sensation of a developing cold that I had felt the day before had blossomed into a sore throat, runny nose, and headache overnight, and I wasn't exactly gung-ho to take the test I had in economics that day either.

Nevertheless, I did manage to sludge through the school day with the help of my good friend DayQuil, and was off to the airport with my dad at a quarter to one. It was mid-November, and despite the fact that we were both native northerners, we arrived at the airport naïvely dressed in shorts and T-shirts, entirely unprepared to face the twenty-degree weather that was so eagerly awaiting us at Newark Airport. The plane was delayed a little over an hour, and so we didn't arrive in Newark until after six. While waiting in the baggage claim area, I wondered why I hadn't carried on my bag in the first place, since it was certainly small enough, and we wouldn't have had to wait around for it afterward. Fifteen minutes later, I realized there weren't any more bags left on the conveyor belt, and my dad and I were the only two people still standing there.

“Oh hey, would you look at that?” said the clerk in the baggage claim office. “Your bag is in Manchester, New Hampshire.” They were to forward it to our hotel, and I was rewarded for their mistake with a free flight voucher, which, though a considerate gesture, did not make a very good substitute for the toothbrush and clothes that I was now missing.

With my excitement about this trip now slightly dampened, but not yet completely crushed, we made our way over to the rental car service. Ithaca does have a regional airport, but flying into it is rather costly (because, evidently, they don't want you to come). That leaves the automobile as the only affordable method of getting there, and that takes, at a minimum, four hours from New York City. Before pulling out of the lot, my dad glanced at the various maps and directions he had printed out and realized they were all rather vague. He decided to rent a GPS system from the rental car company to make sure we didn't get lost in the middle of nowhere. I tuned the device to Ithaca and let it shout directions at him.

We started on I-80 a little after seven. We had stopped at a drug store to replace some of my necessities, such as NyQuil, that were now sitting in an airport almost three hundred miles away in Manchester, NH. My cold had been steadily worsening as the DayQuil wore off and my head felt like it was about to explode. Under the soporific influence of NyQuil, I began to slip in and out of consciousness for a few hours, hypnotized by the towering trees lining the highway that whipped by as we drove through northeast Pennsylvania past Delaware State Forest (that the state forest of Delaware was in Pennsylvania did not strike me as odd at the time). It rained intermittently and so, during the treeless patches along the road, I watched the windshield wiper sweep back and forth to the percussive soundtrack of the rain steadily beating on the roof of the car. My brain was gasping for REM sleep, but the highway's constant construction zones and their ever-fluctuating speed limits counteracted the entrancing stability of the rain and made the trip rocky and impossible to settle into.

Eventually, I was roused from semi consciousness by a faint beeping sound accompanied by my father's voice. “Morgan? Morgan, wake up. Something's wrong. Wake up.”

I yawned and opened one eye. “Whaaatt?” I groaned.

“I don't know. The thing is beeping. Can you take a look at it?”

The “thing” was the GPS system, and it was alerting us that its battery was almost out of juice. That was okay though, because the car rental service had thoughtfully given us the charging plug in case just such a scenario should arise. Now you're probably thinking at this point that this would have solved the problem, but you'd be wrong, because the plug they had given us, try as I might to jam it into the hole on the side of the unit, was under no circumstances meant for this device.

The battery quickly ran out and died. We were only halfway there. We had to make the rest of the way to Ithaca on intuition, since signs were a rarity and the directions my dad printed were impossible to read in the car, which had no lights inside beside the dim glow of the dashboard.

In what is perhaps the most convincing evidence to date of God's existence, we did eventually stumble upon an exit marked “Ithaca” around 11 PM. The exit to Ithaca, however, wasn't really an exit to Ithaca. That would be silly. Instead, it was an exit to a winding one-lane road that led to Ithaca.

I must here concede the possibility that my memory of this road has since merged with a NyQuil-induced nightmare I had along the way, but in any case it was lined almost entirely with dilapidated, and seemingly deserted, wooden houses, along with a graveyard or two. Exactly the kind of place you want to be meandering through at midnight. But probably the creepiest thing was, off this one-lane road amidst abandoned houses in the middle of nowhere, we passed a parking lot that was completely full. Not a spot to be had. The cars, I must assume, belonged to other poor weary travelers who had by this point given up all hope of reaching the fabled city of Ithaca, and done so tragically, so near to their destination.

But we were not to be dismayed. The road dead-ended right at that fabled city. Wait, no, not city. More like a town. More like a very small town. Bordering on a village. It looked nothing like how the carefully angled photos in the brochure portrayed it, as an up-and-coming small urban area. We drove around and around its tiny crooked streets looking for the hotel. Nowhere to be found. The only people up and around at this time of night were not-so-helpful drunk college students (the only excusable reason for living in Ithaca that I could divine is to attend one of its esteemed institutions of higher learning—Cornell University or Ithaca College—but even that's a stretch). Meanwhile, the effect of constant nose blowing since 6 AM had really begun to take its toll, and my nose started bleeding profusely. Eventually, after an hour of frenetically circling around, we found the hotel in “downtown” Ithaca and were finally able to climb into bed around one in the morning, after six hours in the car.

The next day I awoke feeling slightly better. We set out to my aunt's house, but daylight didn't make navigating Ithaca any easier. It took us over half an hour snaking through the little town until we stumbled upon her home.

“Ohmigod I haven't seen you since you were this big!” was my aunt's greeting as she opened the door, placing her thumb and forefinger parallel and about an inch apart. This seemed like a bit of an exaggeration to me.

We sat down at her kitchen table and had coffee while she babbled for a while before asking a set of what turned out to be rhetorical questions: “How was the drive? Isn't Ithaca just wonderful?” My dad and I glanced at each other and said nothing.

So visiting my aunt was nice, I guess. She gave us a tour of the town, which turned out to be somewhat charming, or at least as charming as a place can be with temperatures in the teens and a biting wind chomping at your face. It turns out that there is both a town of Ithaca and a city of Ithaca, the latter contained inside the former but separate from it (though I still find the term “city” rather misleading). The area as a whole is positioned on the south edge of Cayuga Lake, part of the beautiful Finger Lakes region of central New York. Little creeks and ponds adorn the town, with some waterfalls here and there among the hundred gorges of the town's slogan. Surrounding in the distance are mountains that look like the epitome of postcard photographs. None of this made the trip worthwhile.

This is perhaps due to the fact that some of the more breathtaking attractions—like the monstrous Taughannock Falls, which is over thirty feet taller than Niagara—are just far enough from Ithaca proper to have scared us from visiting, lest we be unable to find our way back to civilization. Instead, the nicest view we saw was from the top of a hill on the Cornell University campus (which is a small city in its own right) that overlooks Beebe Lake. The view of the campus below, stretching out into the woodland beyond with the mountains looming always in the distant horizon, was pretty and, most of all, peaceful (which was fitting, seeing that Ithaca is the North American home of the Dalai Lama, as my aunt later apprised me). And it was here, near the hallowed halls of this prestigious Ivy League institution, before one of nature's most brilliant showings, that my nose hemorrhaged once more, tainting with blood the gorgeous (no pun intended) panoramic scene before me.

The next evening, sitting in Newark Airport after missing our flight back home, was when I comprehended for the first time the extent of just how useless and unnecessary the trip had been. I had understood before coming that this excursion obviously would have been a better idea during the summer, when I was off from school, not sick, and the weather was warmer. However, for some reason, I did not realize until then the oddity of my dad coming on the trip, during which we visited only relatives on my mother's side of the family (we had stopped off in New York City on the way back to see some others) while she was sitting in the sunshine and dry weather. Moreover, we didn't even like my aunt very much, and after all, she was the one who had ostracized herself from the family by moving out to no-man's land.

I looked up at my dad to ask him about all this, but he was sleeping. And though I never did clarify the reason for the trip with him, I conjectured that there was no possible reason good enough to have made it worth all the effort, and so I haven't let him talk me into going on any trips that he's planned since, even at the expense of letting my free flight voucher expire.


About the Author

Morgan Shafter is a second-year student at the New College of Florida, where he is studying language and literature. He enjoys reading fiction and non-fiction of all types, but writes mostly humorous pieces.