Tag Archives: highway

The Road Not Taken

road to nowhereWe do not think of roads in pieces but as ongoing lengths – we even refer to them, in stories and songs, as ribbons of highway. It is almost as if, if you kept driving, a road would keep appearing under you, as needed, fabricated out of whole cloth over empty land to ensure your continued travel. When we think of roads in sections, it is usually the landmarks to the roads’ sides that we refer to – seldom (other than potholes or known construction barriers) do we consider the roadway itself. Like electricity when we flick a switch, it’s just there. And, in most places, where one road ends another comes off it. A road does not, it seems, in and of itself, have placeness, though its environment may.

That is why a so-called “road to nowhere” is so jarring, and intriguing. For, by the very nature of its stopping, literally dead in its tracks, it seems to go against “nature,” but also, by its causing us to stop dead in our tracks as well and to demand consideration of the absence of its “roadness,” it creates placeness.

Famous, of course, is the “road to nowhere” that was built to connect to the “bridge to nowhere” envisioned as connecting Ketchikan to Gravina Island, in Alaska, the scandalously wasteful, pork-barrel nature of which may have added fuel to the disenchantment with and ridicule of Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate and voice of right-wing Republicanism (a road that, itself, seems happily to, finally, have gone nowhere, although the trip took longer than the projected 15 minutes).

Regularly, on the way to doing some tasks near Norristown, Pa., we have found ourselves quite suddenly and surprisingly on another such derailed road. You come off an exit from a bridge, rolling down the chute, and then you find yourself facing not the straight lanes you expect but instead a chain-link fence that diverts the road you are on to make a hairpin turn sending you off rather quickly in the opposite direction. But, before you leave the area, you can spy, behind the chain link, the road that might have been: multiple lanes go off a short distance, ending in a jungle of overgrowth – and it is as if one had reached the end of the earth before falling off, or disappearing into the wild. From up above, looking down from an overpass, you can see the abrupt disappearance of highway even more clearly. It … just … stops.


Having had our curiosity piqued by this odd sight – a circumcised highway imprisoned like a white-collar criminal, without any indication why – a little research uncovered the backstory. Apparently, a link was imagined between two routes, to ease commuting, and, given the grand name of Schuylkill Parkway, the work was begun. And then funds ran out, right in midstream. And so, today, stands a monument to the “dream” of interlocking paths to make suburban sprawl even more conveniently sprawling, and an indictment of pouring tens of millions of dollars into a useless folly and not having the sense to spend a little more and give it usefulness. Better to let it be pointless is the logic, it seems. And should it ever come back to life as a project, how wasteful it will have been to let everything crack and crumble, with more millions needed to bring it back up to baseline buildable again.

But, if one rolls down that exit ramp, and instead of making that sharp turn and continuing on in the opposite direction, if one were to pull over and park in what would have been the road’s median – well, it is a whole different place to be. Indeed, it is a place. If no other cars are coming, one has the great, eerie pleasure of walking on a wide, deserted highway, as if all the world were gone but you, as in some Twilight Zone episode. But even better is to walk to and squeeze through the chain link, and you are in another world: A road almost never used that, in very short fashion, ends. Here, and in few other places, the highway can be looked at as a piece, as the way you might see light as particles and not rays if you had the tools to do so. It is wide and clear, but a snippet … and, in some way, sad, in the way something that does not achieve its potential is a sad thing. And, if you step farther into the stunted road, you can almost feel the quiet, and you can yourself feel like a thief, or a time traveler, or someone (Twilight Zone, again) whose time-metabolism is different from those on Earth, and that there might be cars zipping all around you, but you are out of sync with them, and thus unaffected. It feels like a place of unintentional but no less powerful art. Not holy, not spiritual, but insistent, and resonant with arslocii vibes and possibilities.


It is like a movie set and, in fact, the city or county or state could make some money off this white elephant by making it available to filmmakers to use for car-chase and -crash scenes. Sometimes, a motor-vehicle agency puts out parking cones in this space and performs some sort of test or driving contest; it could be the perfect place to teach driver-ed classes. Or to turn into a recreational area – there is plenty of room for basketball and tennis courts. Or make it a performance venue, or show movies outdoors during the summer. Make this thing that goes nowhere be its own destination. Sometimes, nothingness is the perfect place for anythingness, because there are no restrictions, rules or preconceived notions. Sometimes, the place to start is the place where it all stops.

road end

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The Yield Sign: Give Way. Speed Up.

Our world is dotted with signage. Daily, we are bombarded by advertising, street, warning, directional and traffic signs – all in place to attract our attention and give us instruction of one kind or another. I have had a lifelong fascination with the “yield” sign. Back in my 4th- or 5th-grade classroom, our teacher asked if anyone knew what the word “yield” meant. Now, I was not one of those kids with a persistently raised arm, but I decided to give it a go. I was clueless as to what its definition was and I probably had never used the word before, yet alone heard others use it in conversation, but I deduced its meaning based on my observations of how people behaved wherever yield signs were posted. I answered, “Give way.” This was a significant moment for me in the powers of observation and deductive reasoning.

The yield sign originated in Tulsa, Oklahoma, based on a collaboration between a traffic engineer and a police captain (Rice and Riggs) around the mid-20th century. Originally it was a keystone shape in yellow and black and, over the past sixty years, has changed into a triangular target design in red and white. The thinking behind creation of a yield sign was that often a full stop wasn’t required, but rather a cautionary slowing and merging, especially where a less busy “feeder” street intersected a busier “collector” street. Yield signs became de rigeur on highways and expressways at the points of one-way intersections, such as on-ramps. Always found at points of convergence where one fork has precedence over another, they create a kind of road hierarchy.

If you asked a child of 9 or 10 now what yield means, based solely on observation, they might likely guess, “Speed up.” That is the interpretation so often expressed by drivers faced with the triangle. So, who’s place is it to give way? Obviously, it is still the one with the yield sign, the one entering the flow of traffic. For those who have never experienced traffic circles, they operate in pretty much the same way – entering traffic slows (or stops, even) for the traffic already in the circle. Of course, on highways there is an unstated courtesy of the car in the slower flow lane to move over to the left, if it is safe to do so, to accommodate the newbie entering on the right. But that is not always possible or sane to do, depending on traffic volume. And it is not the law, in contrast to the stated yield sign.

As cars have been made more adept at reaching 60 mph in 10 seconds or less, is it mainly for the purpose of breaking the laws of yielding the right-of-way? Americans don’t like to yield – they like others to yield to them: their land, their labor, their property, their sense of self. Apparently, on the roads, too, letting others yield is the preferred method. No one wants to give an advantage to anyone else, and it is reflected daily on the road as the yield signs are ignored. I guess the question is: Why do we still have yield signs if they mean nothing? Granted, they are one of the most attractively designed signs on the road and I would hate to see them disappear. Moreover, we still do need the yield sign – maybe even more so today than in the kinder, gentler, more naive times when it was devised. The problem comes in when drivers choose whether to obey them.

A place can be a point of convergence, or a choice (in this case, both); and a sign is a wayfinding device or an enforceable rule: the physical manifestation of a law that is supposed to protect us from our worst selves. Yield signs, for me, have a kind of placeness, marking a juncture, acknowledging crossing paths, suggesting union, showing that there are others in the world and that, sometimes, you must surrender, slow down and merge. The yield-sign lesson that day in grade school, perhaps, had that element, too – of learning to give way, not only when traffic merges but maybe in other situations as well. These days the message seems to have lost its meaning. Or maybe the problem is that no one knows what those red-and-white triangles mean. And, too, it reminds me that it is not only a traffic-control device but also a moment of understanding and reason, a place of awareness and the artful grace of acquiescence. Too bad not every driver had that moment in the classroom.

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