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The Roads We Travel

- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterday's Island, 2004

Odology is the study of roads and motorways, from the Greek word odos, meaning road.

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 didn’t 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 aren’t 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. That’s 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. That’s 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 today’s planners don’t 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 Nantucket’s 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 Nantucket’s 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 didn’t move very fast. Our poor little sedan doesn’t 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-Moon’s 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 hasn’t 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 life’s 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