NHPR’s Word of Mouth is doing a show on “abandoned” things so I went to visit and walk an abandoned road in Keene, NH to work up a story.
Quicktime or Download
As I drove down the last stretch and got close, I started thinking about how a story about an abandoned road might go. What was there to make of a mile or so stretch of pavement that once upon a time was called Washington Street?
I could track the whole thing, front to back. The sound as I got out of the car. The key. The seatbelt. The door opening to birds. That faint transition from inside to out. Machine to world. Town life to wild life.
How there’s a gate, makeshift and irregular like several gates fell together and no one could figure out what. Two white poles, red striped, 10 feet tall. Heavy crossbeams over half of it. Cut pipes and chain dangling across the other side. I’d put in the sound of the chain as I passed onto the road. By the sound of my footsteps, I’d show how the real road and the abandoned road went right together.
I learned initially about the abandoned road from Allen, who grew up in Keene. He says the people that walk the road don’t really want it to be known. To match that, Allen doesn’t want me to use his last name.
Allen: And I have friends who say they remember driving over it and I can remember as a boy driving that road with my father. I just think it’s great that they left it and didn’t totally close it off.
The river, always close, is soon the road’s shadow, running right beside it, about the same width, for the rest of the way. The river noise is like a static. No burbling music. Just a thrash of white noise that stretches out like a tablecloth beside the road.
Allen says that even though he tried to find out about the road, not much was clearly known or remembered.
Allen: But I couldn’t find out exactly when it was abandoned and exactly when they built the new highway, Route 9. So I went and talked to Alan Rumrill at the Historical Society and he said that he was quite sure it was in the early 70s.
The last cars to drive this road: Chevy Impala’s, Ford Galaxies, Plymouth Roadrunners, Nova’s, Fairmonts, Pintos, Coronets. The old late 60′s early 70′s cars with their bulky metal shells. Inside, radios playing the Rolling Stones, Ziggy Stardust, Neil Young’s Heart of Gold.
There are bugs and dragonflies and I might say it was a little humid. I put on sunglasses not from the sun but from the green bright leaves.
A warning somewhere in the story about the poison ivy everywhere. Allen, who’s a gardener and amateur botanist, lists off the other plants. Purple trillium. Jack in the pulpit. Red elderberry. Solomon’s seal. Rare things too like rose moss, blue stemmed goldenrod. The poisonous white baneberry, called doll’s eyes.
The area, Allen says, is famous for its garnets. Granite ledge rises up on one side, veined with feldspar. Inside the feldspar Allen says, tiny and perfect, blood red garnets
Allen: They’re peppered all through there. It’s as if somebody took a shot gun and shot them into the stone
At three quarters of a mile, the river begins to roar and down a steep bank I stand before heavy waterfall that dumps out through a chokehold tower of stone into a wide pool.
En plain air is what a painter might do and how I decide to write this story with a pen and paper. Set their easel up if they were here and paint the road’s coal and purple elephant skin – the tree bark colors of the road. The too green leaves below a not enough blue sky loose with long peninsulas of smoke and white knots, and blimp-sized cumulus popcorn. The black yellow of the painted lines of the road beside a tea brown brook, the water rushing from glassy to snow white.
The road not at all apocalyptic. No old grocery carts or tumbleweeds. With the earth burrowing up through the tar, cracking it along into pieces. Both sides going under leaves and needles and the center split with an upward axe of grass.
En plein air I write, happy to remember the fancy French. I write down that I want to write the whole thing here at the end of the abandoned road but not say so. I sit where the road dies in the manner of ocean waves reaching up the sand with round arms, and write down what I remember of my plans, what to include, what not to forget.
To start with the sound of the car, the engine, the keys, the door, go into footsteps and river and falls – and end with the sound at the end of the road, if there was a sound that wasn’t me, and certainly not the sound of writing. That’s my plan anyway unless something in the abandoned road says otherwise, somehow insists that intention itself, secret and planned, be displayed side by side like the cars that once drove here might be as against the loss of the name of the road itself.