"There has to be something we haven't completed in this town."
"But our last primary quest was the discussion panel yesterday!"
"... then there must be a side quest."
It was 10am in Laramie, a small town in Wyoming dominated by the rather beautiful university campus. I was sitting with a friend at a round table in the centre of a bustling coffee shop, my hands wrapped around my cardboard mug of hot tea. Around us, people were laughing and chatting and bringing snowy gusts into the bright room each time the door jangled open.
No one seemed remotely perturbed that the town was totally cut off from humanity.
The previous week, I had been attending at workshop hosted at the University of Wyoming entitled "Habitable Worlds". Determined to prove that Laramie could be included in such a category, the weather had been great all week; cool, crisp air and the endless Wyoming blue skies. Until the last day. As the meeting wrapped up and attendees headed for home, the snow rolled in.
At 4am, I had awoken to find a message from the airport shuttle service I had booked stating that the two main highways out of town were closed until further notice. We were trapped.
"Maybe we actually died walking to that coffee shop in the storm last night," my companion suggested. "And this is Purgatory."
Realising my flight out of Denver was out of my reach, I'd texted the aforementioned friend who was planning to make the same drive to the city later than morning. We'd teamed up but were still equally stuck, bouncing between the only two roads out of the town. At each exit, we had met with a long line of lorries and few equally foolish cars who ultimately turned around to trail despondently back into Laramie. It was either a adventure game where you couldn't reach the next stage until you'd completed all the tasks in one location, or we were stuck in an unescapable limbo.
At this point in the proceedings, google started suggesting one of the two highways was open. We packed up and hit the road… only to end up behind a line of stationary lorries once again.
"That's why it's Purgatory," my friend said sagely. "There's hope, so you know it's not hell. But it comes to nothing."
I took a photograph of the signpost announcing the road closure as evidence to bring into work, if I ever made it back to Japan. I admired the skyline. The flat fields. The distant mountains. And still the line of traffic remained stationary. I posted the photograph to twitter.
"How many times have we attempted to leave?"
"No way to know. Time isn't linear in Purgatory."
My phone flashed up a twitter notification. Another conference attendee was also trapped in Laramie. Like me, she had a spot reserved on the airport shuttle which had been unable to leave.
"This could be our side quest," I pointed out as we twizzled around and headed back to town to add her to our car.
A short while later and our now three-person vehicle was skulking back to the queue of lorries. Based on estimates from the Wyoming roads website, one of the two exits was due to reopen considerably before the other. We threw our cards in with that option and joined the stationary NPC vehicles along the road. There was not much else to do but sit and wait.
"Did you pick me up as a time reference point?" our latest addition inquired when we explained the adventure game / purgatory theory to her. "So this attempt to leave is now distinguishable from the others as there's an extra person in the car?"
I mean, it was an advantage.
We eyed the car's illuminated clock. My flight was dead to me: the plane was due to leave in ten minutes and we were two-and-a-half hours from airport once the road reopened. With no more flights to Tokyo that day, my plan was just to reach Denver and start negotiations from there. Of my two companions, one was flying domestically and had managed to bag a provisional spot on a later flight. The newest addition to our escape team was wrestling with a borderline situaiton.
"What the probability..." she asked the travel company over the phone. "... that I'll still be able to rebook at that price in a few hours?"
If we started moving within the next 60 minutes and the roads were good, we would reach the airport comfortably for her international flight. Any further delays, and she would join me in being trapped in Denver for the night.
We eyed the stationary traffic. The snowflake patterns on the lorry paintwork brought to mind the unchanging backdrops of theatre sets. She rebooked for tomorrow and we all hoped that wasn't too optimistic.
"That should do it," I told her as she hung up. "Now you've paid to move your flight, we're bound to start moving so that was totally unnecessary."
We laughed. Then we started moving.
I stared as the queues dissolved away before us and a windy, but unobstructed, highway stretched ahead. "I don't know what you have to do in Denver tonight," I told our third party. "But game-play couldn't continue until that quest was arranged."