The Roads We Travel
- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterday's Island, 2004
Odology is the study of roads and motorways, from the Greek word odos,
I was thinking about roads these past few weeks. Mostly it was because
my wife and I took a big trip up into New Hampshire and Vermont. We traveled
up to Hanover and Lebanon, NH and White River Junction, Vermont. I enjoy
the trip north as it means we get to get off Cape and travel through Boston
on some really fast highways. (The Big Dig is still a major wonder for
me.) We went through the urban sprawl of Essex County and Nashua, New
Hampshire. But once we turned off Interstate 93 and up Interstate 89,
the world changed a little. It was still four lanes of speeding traffic,
but it was a bit quieter. More trees encroached on us. One reason a car
feels like it is going so slow on a major interstate is because the "markers"
that indicate speed (buildings, poles, etc.) are missing. All we have
to compare against is the other car.
After spending the weekend in Hanover/Lebanon we traveled south through
a rural state highway and visited some of the small towns and villages
along the Connecticut River. These roads link these towns and villages
that were mostly linked by the River previously. Windsor, Vermont didnt
grow up because of the road; it grew because of the river. Until the nineteenth
century humans depended on water, not roads, to swiftly carry themselves
to other places. Rivers arent straight, but we worked to straighten
them out as much as possible. We then inserted the railroad an even straighter
form of transportation. However, while reading an Eric Sloane book (any
of them are well worth picking up) I took note of his comment that early
roads were designed to be level, not straight. Thats why so many
old roads travel along river banks, they were level. Unfortunately, someone
decided that roads should be straight shots, carrying people as swiftly
as possible to a destination. Thats why we have things like the
first modern superhighway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
So what about Nantucket? Here, most roads conformed to the landscape first.
They scooped around wetlands; they skirted around properties; and they
edged around farm fences. Milestone Road was one of the first major straight
roads, because it was designed to be the shortest route to Sconset. Polpis
Road was designed to access the little villages and waypoints all the
way to Sconset and therefore undulates along the costal line. In town,
roads were designed to fit into the spaces that were available between
buildings. They bend and weave back and forth through the town structure.
The Fish Lots are a perfect example of how these roads were shoehorned
into spaces. Today we barely have enough room to park a car and still
get through. Of course this is a combination of larger vehicle size, smaller
road design, and these tiny shoehorn streets.
Interestingly, Eric Sloane discusses the reason why roads are often seemingly
odd sizes. Many of todays planners dont recognize the sizes
of streets as relevant, however they have quite an orderly underlying
pattern. I am quite sure that if someone were to take a rule to any of
the streets in Nantuckets downtown he would find them to be some
derivative of the number sixty-six. Why is that? A survey chain was sixty-six
feet long. Each quarter chain, or sixteen-and-a-half feet, was a rod.
And therefore, most roads were laid out using this method. (Sloane also
noted that a mile is actually eighty chains and an acre is ten square
chains. It is amazing to figure out how our landscape is laid out with
these old devices.) Therefore many of Nantuckets roads are actually
designed around the size of these measuring devices.
Eric Sloane describes it bes in his book Our Vanishing Landscape:
"What we now refer to as a country lane was once the minimum width
for American private right-of-way roads. The lane land-grant was one rod
wide [sixteen-and-a-half feet], with an eight-foot roadbed. The same law
stated that private roads shall not be more than three rods wide."
Few of the early rod-wide lanes remain with their rows of stone fences
or tall trees only sixteen and a half feet apart. The foliage that converged
overhead to form a tunnel of green was an unforgettable pleasure."
As for the cobblestones and dirt roads of Nantucket, these are certainly
the best speed suppressors ever built. On our first visit here (in a moving
van) we bounced and jiggled over the stones with four people and a dog
all in the front cab! Needless to say, we didnt move very fast.
Our poor little sedan doesnt do so well either on these roads. We
bottom out on a regular basis and the Barrett Farm Road off Madaket Road
scared us silly! However, the stones and dirt were purposefully used to
be the best designed roads. Of course today we use macadam roads, named
after the Scottish engineer MacAdam who found new ways to pulverize stone
and combine it with tar.
But what is it about roads and roadways that is so interesting to so many?
I am working on a thesis about roadside places, like gas stations and
diners. Kerouac wrote about his road trips. William Least Heat-Moons
Blue Highways is an amazing book on this sort of travel. So many more
discuss roads and how they influence and change our lives. Do the roads
of Nantucket do the same thing? The tight little streets of the town perhaps
shade the feelings of the "townies" while the even smaller and
tighter streets of Sconset shade them differently. I believe they do.
Roads are interesting because they can be, and once were, outdoor rooms.
They have edges, beginnings, and ends. Unfortunately now they are often
spread open. Edges of the trees and scrub are trimmed back to provide
clearer views and increased speed. The Nantucket Planning Board has often
talked about revising its own guidelines to allow for a more traditional
street pattern, but it hasnt happened yet. Hopefully it will.
Until then I hope you think about the roads you travel on. Roads, streets,
and highways are interesting metaphors for lifes journey and should
be considered, not just used. As highways provide fast linkages to other
towns, I, as a modern Odologist, find that roads can often be fast links
to a past we may be watching disappear in our rear view mirror