Thursday, August 30, 2007

Never the same road twice

I never thought much about roads until a few weeks ago. What was there to think about? By definition, a road is nothing more than a strip of land artificially smoothened to facilitate the moving of people and goods from point A to point B. So ubiquitous are they that we routinely take them for granted until something happens to them, which isn’t often. And even then the road itself is usually only ancillary to the problem, as when a bridge washes out or an elevated section of highway collapses.

When I did think about roads it was more about traffic than the road itself. Walking from our house to the corner, birding along the way, is enough to maintain my enthusiasm for rural living, with the added benefit of providing a rejoinder for the fools who thought we were nuts to move here. The dearth of traffic is exhilarating and liberating. Having a virtually unlimited amount of time standing in the middle of the road to study birds without having to step aside for vehicles is in stark contrast to where we came from, where a similar feat (called a crazy stunt there) would be short-lived. As would you be.

Had I actually taken the time to think about roads I would have known that the subject is freighted with meaning, laced as much with philosophy as it is with mysticism. Frost’s depiction of two roads diverging in the woods comes immediately to mind, as does the adage about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road certainly parallels the hero’s journey as illustrated in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, his opus magnum showing the comparative themes of all religions. “The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer” reminds us that a road can appear to be one thing and actually be another when it says “And see ye not yon braid, braid road, that lies across the lily leven? That is the Path of Wickedness, though some call it the Road to Heaven.” And then there’s the high road, the low road, the lonesome road, the road to misfortune, the road to wealth—the list is as endless as the road itself.

Though Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, waxed poetic when he said, “You can’t step twice into the same river,” he adopted a more pedestrian tone in his discourse on roads. “The road up and the road down are one and the same,” he said, a statement that could have come from any highway engineer. Too bad that upon inspection it’s as riddled with holes as a rural speed limit sign.

He should have known better. His major tenet was grounded in the belief that permanence was an illusion, that transition was the only reality. But the road, no matter its direction, is anything but changeless, especially when the Kansas Department of Transportation throws up barricades, strips names of towns from road markers and directs traffic onto another route, as happened recently just north of Blue Rapids. The road then becomes something else.
It becomes empty.

Years ago I would have felt this to be a positive act. The less the outside world knew of us, the longer we sustained our small-town atmosphere—so my rationale went. What I failed to consider was the impact such a closure could have on our businesses.

Already, four weeks into a fourteen-month project, they’re taking a hit. Revenue is down, customers are fewer, and the road is silent and abandoned where once it was busy, a main arterial from north to south and back again. Belatedly I understood that the road is the lifeblood of a small town, and businesses the very heart, and when that flow is constricted, the heart grows weaker.

As one of those business owners, I watched out the windows as the flow of traffic trickled to an inconstant drip. And each morning I passed through those barricades on my way to a second job, and crossing them again several hours later was like entering a quarantined zone where only lepers and castoffs dwelled. “Local traffic only,” one sign read, unmindful that the selfsame road carried on to the edge of the continent.

Heraclitus was half right, as my tires sing to me each morning—it’s the same road on either side of those orange-striped barricades, the same oil-sand-gravel-dirt mixture that warps in the summer and heaves in the winter. But even as rivers are constantly flowing, constantly changing (even as I am constantly changing, for neither the river, the road, nor I am ever the same), it is never the same road twice. This week it’s closed, in weeks to come it will reopen. The town, and its businesses, will have changed, too.

And like Heraclitus disregarding millennia of myths, legends and tales, I thought that was it, the final word on roads.

Today while gassing my truck a shadow drifted across the empty road and passed soundlessly over me. I looked up and saw a flock of pelicans white against the blue sky, its members strung out in a ragged formation that suddenly broke apart into a lazy spiral that slowly reformed into a new configuration as it drifted over the town square. No other customers vied for my spot so I felt no hurry. I watched them until they folded into the blue and vanished like some mirage or illusion. Their road is one we cannot follow but it is ageless and eternal. Some things, at least, never change.

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