The Dying of Old Roads

It comes up occasionally, among antiquarians and history buffs, and those given to poking around in ruins and old documents: what sort of fingerprints our great civilization would leave on the land if it were suddenly to disappear, as so many civilizations of the past seem in retrospect to have done. How long would the traces remain? Some believe that our massive buildings, dams, and bridges would be the last of our works to stand, but I’m inclined to think that long after they have finally crumbled into dust a determined archaeologist with access to orbital views of the planet would be able to trace any modest country lane on its way from one place to another.

And yet, as long lasting as the impression of a road may be, whether in the gap between trees, a discolored strip of cropland, or a cut along the side of a hill, any owner of a driveway knows that at the time a new roadway is layed down it experiences its finest hour. As soon as the spreaders are packed back on their trailers, the trucks have pulled away, and the lines are painted it begins. Water starts to seep under the fresh, oily pavement, where it will lie until winter and then heave up at the first freeze with incredible force. Thousands of tires press down upon it with weights of 500 to 3,750 pounds apiece. At the edges of the road the roots of tiny grasses start feeling their way along, looking for gaps. The earth itself shifts as if to shrug off the unnatural hard coat she’s been given. By the end of a season, or two, the maintenance crews are out with fresh asphalt; patching cracks and potholes.

In New Jersey we have a number of places where the state or county has abandoned an old road to nature. The reasons are varied. Sometimes the road is simply not needed anymore. It may have been made redundant by the construction of a newer, safer way. In other cases different levels of government feud over which is responsible for the costs of maintenance, town against county, county against state, and the road languishes while the matter is resolved, if it ever is. In these cases a road is sometimes closed off, while in others, to the great delight of people like myself, the officials merely throw a sign up saying, in effect, “This road is in disrepair, so the risk of travel is yours.” Not that it isn’t ordinarily anyway. Government is well-insulated from the liability for bad things that happen on roadways.

Not long ago I visited two such roads whose history is a little different from the average transportation maintenance problem in the state. Forty-five years or so ago the Army Corps of Engineers began acquiring land in the Delaware Water Gap region to accomodate a proposed dam and National Park. The area was thickly settled by families who had been on the land for generations, and the story of their eviction and the subsequent fate of their properties is rich with incompetence and tragedy, and should be told in full some day. The area was well seamed with two-lane country roads. Nearly all of them, save a few main arteries, ceased to be maintained as roads when the Corps handed over control of the area to the National Park Service. You can find them on old maps, but when you visit them today you find they have been gated off, and given park-like trail names.

Most of these roads have truly become trails, their pavement having long ago crumbled, leaving just a few chunks of asphalt on the edges here and there to testify to busier days. Others, of course, were never paved at all. And then there are those, like Sand Pond Road in Warren County, and Old Dingmans Road in Sussex, that were maintained longer, but eventually suffered the identical fate. The traveller on either of these roads today finds the route in the middle of a long death, with faded lines still visible, along with large chunks of original pavement. But on Sand Pond especially the effects of water washing down the hill toward Hardwick have gouged great furrows from the road surface. Sand Pond is not a road to travel in a vehicle with little ground clearance.

If you do travel these roads today, and have a sharp eye, you may see from time to time the paneless windows of ancient farmsteads now abandoned, staring out from the wild growth of vegetation like so many dead and sightless eyes. Once these roads were witness to the daily passage of wagons heaped with grain and seed, Model T’s with their truck bed conversions putting to market and back, and the tramp of weary schoolchildren on their way back up the mountain after lessons. Now they slowly return to their earlier state, when they were nothing more than a gap between the trees where wagon wheels made a kind of track, and in time even that will fade as the trees and heavy brush reclaim the path. But even then the traces will be there, in faint lines and disturbances in the forest and meadows, for many generations to come.

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