Earlier this year, Tracy Staedter of Discovery News asked Michigan State University doctoral candidate Randal Olson to use science and mathematics to derive the perfect American road trip.
Olson had previously garnered some attention by computing the most efficient way to find Waldo in those “Where’s Waldo?” activity books, charting all the locations where the illustrators previously hid Waldo, predicting likely future placements and determining spots on the page you’d want to prioritize when scanning.
As an encore, Staedter asked Olson to apply his efficiency formula to a U.S. road trip visiting all 48 contiguous states and focusing on stops at national landmarks, historic sites and parks.
For Maine, the destination point was easy enough for Olson and Staedter to settle on — Acadia National Park — but the question became how to get there quickly and, by extension, what parts of Maine to drive through on the way.
On his website, Olson described the problem this way:
“If you’ve ever used Google Maps to get the directions between two addresses, that’s basically what we had to do here. Except this time, we needed to look up 2,500 directions to get the ‘true’ distance between all 50 landmarks — a monumental task if we had to do it by hand. Thankfully, the Google Maps API makes this information freely available, so all it took was a short Python script to calculate the distance and time driven for all 2,500 routes between the 50 landmarks.
Now with the 2,500 landmark-landmark distances, our next step was to approach the task as a ‘traveling salesman’ problem: We needed to order the list of landmarks such that the total distance traveled between them is as small as possible if we visited them in order. This means finding the route that backtracks as little as possible, which is especially difficult when visiting Florida and the Northeast.
If you read my Where’s Waldo article, you’re already aware of how difficult it can be to solve route optimization problems like this one. With 50 landmarks to put in order, we would have to exhaustively evaluate 3 x 1064 possible routes to find the shortest one.”
If you were trying to solve that problem on your home computer, Olson wrote, it would take you until “long after the sun entered its red giant phase and devoured the Earth.”
Thankfully, Olson employed a mathematical shortcut to get us a solution more quickly. The result was a 13,699-mile nationwide drive that would take a little more than 9 days in a car (that’s just driving time — the entire trip would presumably take longer, as you’d be stopping and visiting sites along the way).
In Maine, the trip would come up Interstate 95 from New Hampshire, split off onto 295 around Portland and Falmouth, reconnecting with 95 again in Augusta and taking it over to 395 in Bangor, then to Routes 1A and 3 to Mount Desert Island.
Again, Olson was computing this as the most efficient way to get to Acadia and then back on the road again to the next state’s signature landmark — in this case, New Hampshire’s Bretton Woods. On the way out, the road trip takes Route 100 from Augusta to Winthrop, where it connects with Route 133, then 219 and then 26 to Bethel.
If you were taking this mathematically perfect American road trip, where else in Maine would you stop along that route? Would you get off Route 295 in Freeport to visit the L.L. Bean flagship store? Maybe stop in at the Maine State Museum in Augusta or Sunday River just outside of Bethel?
Leave ideas for your perfect Maine road trip in the comments below.