Last summer, a friend in the basketball world sent me a brochure about an organization that puts together popular pursuit challenges in major American cities. The way the game works is that you're locked in the trunk of a car, your hands bound with tape, then you're taken to a undetermined location. After you escape, you have 12 hours to get back to "base" -- with no phone, no money, just the clothes on your back. And there are also agents of "the enemy" chasing you down through the city; if they catch you, you're driven to yet another undetermined location, and you have to start again.
"You should do it, Kyle," he said.
He knew that I'm fascinated with contests like this. Paintball never did it for me, it's too much of a constrained arena. I like the games that are played against the backdrop of other people's everyday reality; as I make my rounds, I think it's neat that some of the people around me might be making sport of those same surroundings. I loved watching "Road Rules" when I was in college, and I'd watch "The Amazing Race" if I was ever home. One of my favorite movies growing up was "The Cannonball Run." Crap, I even watched "Wacky Races."
For the past 20 years or so, I've played my own game every year at this time. It's called The Last Man In America To Know Who Won The Super Bowl, or just "Last Man." It's a game heavily reliant on tactics, organizational skill, and evasive procedures. The object is to go as long as possible without obtaining a small piece of pervasive data. Mastering this game requires a careful balance of hiding and plain-sight activity, enough of the latter to make sure that things still get done. It's mental paintball. And I'd like to believe that I'm the world's premier player.
At 8 p.m. Eastern, the calculated position of halftime of the Big Game, I begin the lockdown procedures. I turn push notifications off on my iPhone, so blue popups won't invade my life. I log out of my e-mail account, say a silent goodbye for a while. The Knowledge will have to find alternate ways to find me.
I turn the television to TCM, the anachronistic movie channel where everything happened long ago, and mostly in black and white. Even Robert Osborne's host segments are taped. They're playing Fellini's 8 1/2. It's the first scene, where Marcello Mastroianni is trapped in gridlock traffic, his car filling up with smoke. He finally escapes out of the sunroof, and flies away on the wind.
This is my nightmare too, and my strategy.
As the 9:30 p.m. mark passes, I slip into slumber on the couch. Sleeping ain't cheating, it's just running the clock.
Monday is the toughest. The Knowledge is on everyone's minds and lips, on the cover of every newspaper. The Super Bowl is the lead story on every news program. ESPN? Forget it.
I plan to spend this day holed up in Rhode Island, getting as much done as possible in preparation for my trip west -- with the least amount of human interaction. I order lunch from a delivery service -- Chinese, not pizza -- and I get to work.
I call Roni, the good friend and graphic designer who's helping me with the Bally's Dream storyboards and artwork. "E-mail me at this other address," I say. "I'm not using my regular e-mail for a while."
"Why, are you locked out?" he asks.
"No, I'm just staying out of it," I explain. "I'm trying to be the last person in America to know who won the Super Bowl. I know, from experience, that there are people out there trying to get that information to me."
"Oh... kay," he replies.
Roni works at a prestigious design firm in Philadelphia, with a lot of Hollywood clients. He rolls in different circles than I do.
"You know, it's not that hard to stay away from that," he says after a pause. "I didn't watch the game, I was working on some freelance projects last night instead. Nobody was talking about it in the office this morning, and I had to ask somebody who won. I'm actually compelled to tell you right now."
"A lot of people are," I sigh. "You wouldn't believe it. So I understand that compulsion."
To a traveler, nothing is worse than a shut-in state. Standing at the window, looking out at a world with a heart full of mistrust, one can wonder why. What's the point. It's like the 21st mile of a marathon, when it really starts getting mental. The madness sets in. What am I doing in this race? Why am I running? Wouldn't it be easier to just stop? Glory is for suckers, and it fades anyway. Have a seat, stretch your legs, have a tall cool glass of something... it'll feel great.
Night falls, and I carefully plan my single errand of the day. The post office. Providence's main station is open until 9 p.m. on weekdays, and they have one of those Automated Postal Service machines that weighs your packages and generates bar code stamps. I have 10 parcels to send, so it's going to take a while. But when I arrive, there's a major problem.
I'm ready for this eventuality too. I pull my winter hat over my ears, underneath which are earbuds, which are in turn connected to my iPhone, which is blasting out the most head-splitting, evil, hellish Norwegian death metal from my MP3 collection. The line snakes around the post office lobby; large male strangers are talking congenially to each other. I know what they're talking about.
Twenty minutes pass. I approach the counter, survey the scene. There are five clerks, three men and two women. I size them up. The one on the end, a tall and thin black gentleman, about 6-foot-5... he looks like trouble. A sports fan, most probably. So when I'm the first in line, and his station opens up, I pretend to have to tie my shoes. "Oh, go ahead," I say to the lady behind me who's carrying a large Priority Mail box in her arms.
It's not a racist act at all; in fact, its more of a sexist one. I know that while preparing 10 packages for delivery, the friendly conversation might drift to American-Style Football. I'm not taking that risk. The next station opens up -- it's an older lady, curled white hair, hunched slightly at her computer. If she has The Knowledge, she isn't compelled to share. She thanks me for helping mark the packages with the "First Class" rubber stamp, and I'm safe. Twenty-four hours and counting.
I've learned not to travel the day after -- too dangerous. So on Tuesday afternoon, I depart north to Boston's Logan Airport, concealing my destination and itinerary to all. I leave the rental car in the lot, keys in the ignition and tank full, and speed over to the shuttle, headphones in. I check two bags with Southwest, show my ID and ticket to anyone who wants to see it, run my shoes through the X-ray machine, and I'm safe to the gate. Forty-two hours and counting.
I have a long nine-hour flight to the west; I'm due to arrive in the inland Northwest city of Spokane at 10 p.m. local time. There will be sleep, I assume, and reading, and headphones. What I fail to include in the plan is the stopover.
Southwest tickets don't list them, leading one to believe that a flight might be direct. But at 7 p.m. Mountain Time, we land in Denver. After five hours of peanuts and ginger ale, this is the only chance for Spokane-bound passengers to eat an actual meal.
Airports are fraught with peril in this game. There are newstands bursting with color periodicals, TV screens with CNN over the seating area at every gate, each with that infernal scrolling ticker. You can't walk past the airport sit-down restaurants, there's ESPN everywhere.
There are other, more subtle dangers too. As I sit at Gate C46 waiting to reboard the plane, eating an oversized bag of trail mix from the Sky Snax outlet, I see someone sitting across from me wearing a black ballcap with a gold fleur-de-lis. It looks new and crisp, was it just purchased? The man wearing the cap is a wide, oozing, jowly character with a stippled beard and rectangular glasses; his face bears a vaguely smug expression. Is this a clue? Or is he just a "real fan," proudly wearing his team's colors bravely in defeat? This debate drives me to lunacy. I know I have to get on the plane, and out of airports altogether. My armor is deteriorating, I can feel it.
To avoid The Knowledge requires running from it. You can't get farther away than the inland Pacific Northwest, far away from all the pro outposts. It's a state of blue fields and fake underdogs and the Collegiate Version. This is a place to find safety for a while.
To break through to Wednesday is an accomplishment, to be sure; but a new challenge awaits. The Knowledge is no longer front page news, but the weekly magazines are out now -- Sports Illustrated, USA Today Sports Weekly. They will offer their readers big-picture feature stories about what it all means, flashy collectible color covers, and over-the-top lionization of the winning team and quarterback.
But driving down a chalkboard road through a quilt of hills and mountains, I know I'm in a place where none of that matters. Out here in the old stagecoach towns of eastern Washington State, ringed by ag stores and small farms, subsistence off the land is far more interesting. It's an hour's drive to the nearest Wal-Mart if you want that sort of thing.
I'm headed to the University of Idaho in Moscow, one of the twin college towns that straddles the state border. Moscow is a place where half the residents are students, and all the signs are in Helvetica. Moscow reminds me much more of where I went to school -- Eugene, Oregon -- than any Napoleon Dynamite kind of town. It's not really Idaho, it's Northwest through and through... right down to the Les Schwab tire stores.
I have a game tonight at Idaho. Because of the trail of hints that I've left, I figure that anybody trying to figure that out already has.
I order a "last meal" of veggie tacos and horchata at San Miguel's restaurant in downtown Moscow, and prepare for my ultimate fate.
But the people at Idaho are very polite about it. I'm seated on press row next to Travis Mason-Bushman of Vandal Nation, and he's running a live chat during the game. I'm tweeting through the web interface, my browser window at the very bottom of the screen to cut off the incoming, endless stream of real-time information.
"People were typing, 'tell him, tell him,'" Travis says after Idaho's furious yet failed attempt to complete a comeback against their southerly WAC rivals from Nevada. "I just couldn't bring myself to do it."
Afterwards, Travis and I have a coffee in a late-night shop in downtown Moscow, where they're playing all of the post-OK Computer Radiohead albums on shuffle, very loudly.
"They're not even talking about it on TV anymore," he explains over the din at 2 a.m. Pacific time. "They're on to spring training, pitchers and catchers reporting. They're even talking about the NFL Draft. In the 24-hour news cycle, the Super Bowl is yesterday's news. Everybody's moved on, it's crazy how disposable everything is."
Seventy-seven hours and counting. I have another game tonight. It should be obvious where it is, what it is, and why. If my streak survives that, I still have to face my public eventually. There's a Chat Block every Friday at 2 p.m. Eastern (11 a.m. Pacific), and I can't expect everybody to be as yielding and gracious as the nice people at Idaho. Every game ends, and each performance is defined by its outer boundaries.
It'll be good to get back to the real world, I guess. I wonder what people have been putting in my e-mail and text box and The Form™, what's been posted on Twitter or the Bally Club. I'm sure some people have opinions about The Robot, and I'm sure I'll soon find out what they are.
I've been told that my game is stupid, ridiculous and pointless. But isn't that the very definition of a game? Isn't that why we play? To leave the mundane world of unmeasured progress behind for a while, to enter an arena with a scoreboard and a time clock, where every move matters... to compete against minutes and hours, an opponent, oneself? The true madness is not to play at all.
"Last Man" is over at 4 days, 2 hours, 49 minutes. The news was delivered Thursday night by West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich at the Saint Mary's-Gonzaga game.