A Study of Roads, in Quotations

This is a fun piece I wrote for the Denali Citizens Council newsletter, which should be in your mailboxes by now. 

Roads are complicated. Even those roads whose travelers aren’t documented and surveyed, whose surfaces aren’t monitored for dust and noise levels, are metaphorically loaded. Think “a road less traveled.” Think “two roads diverging in a wood,” “afoot and lighthearted I took to the open road,” “the road is my home.” Think roadside attractions. Think good intentions. We mean a lot of things when we talk about roads. “Every day is a winding road,” Sheryl Crow sang, and she was only partly talking about driving.

Like a trail, once a road leads to a place, it’s harder to imagine an alternate route there. Two roads may diverge, but what of the space between them, or to the sides? Or of the woods themselves? A road may make some things clearer while hiding what surrounds it. “There is more to getting to where you’re going than just knowing there’s a road,” Joan Lowery Nixon wrote in a book I vaguely remember reading as a kid, which is somewhat about a train journey and also about orphans growing up in the 1850s, when the railroad defined the route West.

Roads and railroads share the history of snaking across the continent, reduced to lines on maps and transforming the places they reached. This is often called progress. Wendell Berry, though, conceived of that transformation as a kind of violence, writing, “The road is a word, conceived elsewhere and laid across the country in the wound prepared for it: a word made concrete and thrust among us.” He prefers paths: “The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.”

Some roads, we might believe, strive towards path-ness. We might devise studies to regulate and prove their path-ness. Some might question the studies.

Father Oleska wrote in 2002 about roads through the populated Alaskan wilderness, “To Europeans, a road is a social and economic path way established by humans for their convenience, prosperity and pleasure. They have every right to carve a road anytime, anywhere, as their needs and desires dictate. But for Native peoples, a road is a threat to the ecosystem that has nourished and sustained them for millennia. A road brings humans into an area they otherwise would not have had access to, and therefore noise, disruption and, potentially, the destruction of the plant and animal species…And if the animals leave, those who depend on their self-offering cannot survive there any longer either.” This passage was quoted in a 2005 document written by Hollis Twitchell called “Native Peoples and Wilderness Values at Denali.” Twitchell went on to use this view of roads to voice opposition to the then (and occasionally still) proposed North Access to Denali, where roads are especially complicated (and where all (proposed) roads lead to the same place).

I’ll leave you with one last thought, only partially metaphorical, from Aldo Leopold, who said, “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into the lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” Perhaps we can get farther—or at least somewhere different—when all routes are not imagined as roads.


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