Friday, January 7, 2011


Who among us hasn't succumbed to the temptation to see if there's a better way from A to B than the obvious; or been sucked up by a malevolent on- or off-ramp; or simply taken a wrong turn, and wound up somewhere between east of Eden and the dark side of the moon, desperate to get back to civilization?

Should you find yourself leaving the Twin City Mall on the Leominster/ Fitchburg line in search of Route 2 East, you will come immediately upon a sign offering you Route 2 West - Athol - Greenfield, and nary an indication of where Route 2 East might be. Directly to your right you will see an apparently well-traveled piece of asphalt that looks to be a frontage road for Route 2. It isn't. If you follow it you will drive past untold suburban bungalows and then into open country -- woods and fields, stone walls and narrowing pavement. It can easily be an hour before, in accordance with directions from whatever persons you come upon, you find yourself backtracking on that same road, muttering an impolite opinion of the futility of human affairs when you pass the Mall on the left. A few hundred yards past the sign for Athol and Greenfield is another sign, directing you to Route 2 East - Boston. Make a large mental note not ever again to turn right at the exit from that mall.

Similarly, when you come out of the Leominster train station and turn right, you soon fetch up against the light just below the railroad bridge. It must have happened that that light was green when I approached it; as with the light at Route 60 coming off Route 2 East in Arlington, that's a rare event. Usually, you have abundant leisure to look down the hill to your left and contemplate a traffic snarl of the kind to be found in small cities that haven't quite adjusted to the automobile. The road straight ahead leads approximately west, the direction in which you want to go. If you yield to the urge to see if that road could provide an alternative to the snail's pace visible on the left, you will wind through what seems to be a huge suburban cul-de-sac: plenty of roads, but none that go anywhere. In the end, you creep ignominiously back on the same road and come to the same light, where there's nothing for it but a right turn onto the overburdened bridge you were trying to avoid.

Another what-if-we-go-straight-at-the-light occurs on Route 2A coming out of Fitchburg (or trying to -- nobody should ever go to Fitchburg if there's any decent alternative). I investigated that road once, about twenty years ago. Like the non-frontage road from the Mall, but longer, it winds through the countryside and eventually leads to some part of north central Worcester County that I had never heard of and didn't want to visit. I had warned my husband and son that this might happen when I asked their permission to undertake a potential wild-goose event. That didn't stop them from ragging me about my choice of routes at every turn unproductive of anything but more countryside.

Then there's that chain of what I think Boston calls "parkways" -- Fenway, Riverway, Jamaicaway, Arborway. Attractively designed and landscaped, these roads curve gracefully around and about from Back Bay to the Arnold Arboretum or thereabouts. Side streets are few, signs and markings all but nonexistent. There's no place to pull over and squint at a map, and even if there was it wouldn't help because you can't figure out where you are. On one attempt to get to Jamaica Plain I wound up at a pay phone in Dorchester explaining to my friend that we weren't going to get to the event we were aiming for because I would be lucky if I was ever seen again. Do not ever set wheel on that necklace of parkways without a GPS or a native guide, or both.

Possibly the worst road to get kidnapped onto is the ramp that separates itself from the Central Artery just north of what I think of as the Wishbone Bridge, with its blue lights and many cables. If you don't resist the magnetic pull of that left-hand exit, you find yourself on a bold sweep of elevated highway that swings around 360o to see you under the bridge and on your way to the airport. The word airport sends me into fight-or-flight mode. When I found myself, about midnight, in the clutches of the airport ramp, I bailed out at the first exit I came to.

Bad mistake. Precipitated into what I think was Chelsea, I crawled along streets of multi-family houses, many boarded up, all dark and silent, punctuated by commercial buildings that might have been warehouses. Occasionally a corner would be faintly illuminated by a dismal-looking bar with an Irish name; then back to the streets of bombed-out dwellings and warehouses. Seldom have I been as glad to see anything as I was to come upon a sign for Suffolk Downs, which I knew was in the same universe as Route 60. I got home to Medford very late and very tired and with a wholesome and enduring horror of that left exit to the airport.

Sometimes "lets see where this goes" reveals a superior route. West of the Meadow Glen Mall, I once went straight instead of keeping to the right on Route 16 in the Medford/Arlington direction. To my surprise, the road went straight as could be desired, at right angles to its cross streets (if you take that for granted you come from some place other than Boston), until it dropped me tidily into Powderhouse Square, Somerville. I haven't had occasion to go that way often, but once or twice it has saved me.

But mostly these explorations leave one lost in space, vowing by all one holds sacred never to go that way again.