On the Presumably Divine Providence of Medford, Oklahoma: Part I

Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. He brought the tribe of Benjamin near … and the family of the Matrites was taken by lot. Finally he brought the family of the Matrites near … and Saul was taken by lot. (1 Samuel 10:21)

            From the outset of the experiment, I was concerned primarily with the integrity of selecting a destination. In other words, I wanted the methodology or “choice function” I used to be on par with the apostles’ drawing of lots in Acts, with Israel’s selection of their first king, or, if you prefer, with the referee’s coin toss to begin a football game. I wanted, in the end, true randomness, to set up favorable conditions in which, according to the ancient scheme, the divine could manifest Herself.

            I discovered, very soon into the experiment, that this would be harder than I thought. I began my journey at Barnes & Noble Booksellers. Originally, I had the idea of buying a gigantic road map of the US and of asking a random person to point, with eyes closed, to a random spot on the map. I tried this in the store. I found the road map—

—and I brought it to one of the employees, a guy named James, who worked at the Customer Service desk. James was tall and barrel-chested. He wore, like me, tortoise-shell specs, had a scatter-plot beard, and had learned, in his training, the benevolent corporate way to smile. “I have a bizarre request,” I told him, leaning against the counter. He smiled and said okay. “I’ve started a new tradition this year…” I went on to explain my plan to travel to a random city or town in the United States every year. I needed his help, I told him, because I wanted a “random person” to select a “random location.” He seemed more than willing to help, as if he got requests like this every day. He asked me to open the map on the counter. The counter, separating us, though long and uncluttered, was no more than a foot wide. The map, opened fully, was, according to its own cover, about four feet by four feet.

            “I wanted you to pick from the entire country,” I said.

            “We can’t open it all the way,” James said, again, as if this were some kind of policy.

            I didn’t make a fuss. I unfolded the map as much as I could. It spanned both coasts, on the counter, but from north to south, only the country’s midsection was visible. James closed his eyes and extended a finger, smiling like a child being walked into his own surprise party. He dropped his finger down onto the map. We both leaned in to see where he’d selected. He moved his finger.

            “Portales, New Mexico.”

            “Portales, New Mexico.”

            As excited as I was to revisit The Land of Enchantment—I’d passed through the northern part of the state, years ago, on a road trip—I knew that I hadn’t allowed divine providence or true randomness to work its magic. I thanked James for his time, circled Portales on the map, and went to the store’s registers to pay. Initially, I wasn’t happy with James. Why wouldn’t he let me open the map all the way? Before I got on the long line to pay, I took my usual meditative walk around the store. What I noticed, scanning Literature and History and looking in the Jr. Section on my way to Religion and Philosophy, was that James’s admonition, that we couldn’t open the map all the way, wasn’t so much a power-grab on his part as it was a statement of fact. There really wasn’t a four-square-foot space in the entire store, where I could open the map; there were shelves and discount tables, piles of James Patterson’s newest, revolving displays of bookmarks and Moleskines, stanchions, and people in the café. Even the Jr. Section, which had more open space, generally, than the rest of the store, was decorated with little stuffed animals, little tables, little benches, little revolving shelves, and little Adirondack chairs.

            James was right.

            If I wanted my trip to be divinely sanctioned, I would have to devise a different “method” for selecting my destination.