Cabin Fever, Country Roads

            Your neck hurts.  Your shoulders ache.  So does your butt. 
And that car you so lovingly readied for the winter, the one that carried you safely to work over icy patches and along roads yet unplowed?  It’s not feeling much better.  It wasn’t made for the Evel Knievel stunts it does each day along some north-country roads that pitch and plunge, twist and turn, bubble and boil, and even cave in.  Abundant water (which, by the way, people in plenty of other places would pay blood and treasure to have access to) flows over, under, around, and through the highways and byways of the north country this time of year.   Miniature streams flowing under paved roads swell and shrink as they freeze and thaw, rising into bumps and falling into depressions that stress the asphalt above them.  Road beds, like a lot of the substrate in New Hampshire, also give birth to rocks each spring, raising them up from the bowels of the earth and rolling them around under asphalt that only last summer seemed like a satin ribbon by comparison.  Now it is more like a big, old-fashioned washboard, and you and your car are getting scrubbed.
            The blessing of so much water is also its curse, and we water-based life forms take what we get:  it expands when it freezes, then carves itself miniature waterfalls when it thaws and pours from roadside banks, flooding ditches prepared for it last season by attentive highway crews. They know what can happen when the ditches overflow this time of year, spilling water out onto the roads into shallow puddles that freeze and thaw capriciously when temperatures cluster around 32 degrees.  And there is always black ice.  It looks like only wet road but is slippery enough to send even your all-wheel drive skating into a tree.
            Like people weary of winter, road surfaces get tired.  When they get tired, they crack.  When they crack, the cracks fill with water that, freezing and thawing, turn cracks to fractures.  The fractures create puzzle-pieces of pavement that pop loose under the wheels of vehicles.  Once this happens, the pieces roll aside and disintegrate, leaving holes.  The holes then fill with water that agitates and washes out subsoil already loosened like quicksand by water dribbling through it.  If you’re not paying attention, bobbing and weaving slowly among them, your car’s suspension can distort, its wheel-rims dent, and its tire-seals break.  As for you, at the end of your commute your aching tendons and ligaments feel about as resilient as soggy tissue.
            But there’s still good reason to be out and about.  It’s well known among north-country folks that a pilgrimage is one of the easiest cures for cabin fever, the springtime ailment that comes from staying cooped up during winter months.  With the rising price of fuel, the cost of  a pilgrimage also rises, but it’s still cheaper and perhaps even more environmentally friendly than anti-depressants or a beer-can-shooting spree on the back forty.  And a tour of north-country main roads this time of year can reveal natural wonders—including a few potholes and bumps—that make a pilgrimage worth the time and expense.
            A field trip along a loop of State road from Littleton to Lancaster to Gorham to Berlin to Groveton and back on a pleasant early-spring day can cure what ails us this time of year and remind us why we live here.   When all is said and done, the roads are in pretty good shape this spring.  On the other hand, Route 135 from Littleton to Lancaster and Routes 110A and 110B from Milan to Dummer can provide a good education about what winter can do to road surfaces. Allowing an extra half hour in addition to the two and a half hours Mapquest advises means you’ll enjoy some of the most spectacular landscape New England offers—and at a time when there are very few other rubberneckers on the roads.  If you drive under the speed limit and take your time to notice things up close and far off,  both your car and you will be the better for it.
            Route 135 from Littleton north through Dalton and on to Lancaster includes about ten miles of some of the roughest road on the trip.  Severe washouts closed the road altogether for several weeks after Hurricane Irene.  Extensive repairs to shoulders and surfaces took months.   New roadside ditches are now doing their job, but the patches in the road’s surface, where drainage was improved, shifted over the winter, creating a roller coaster that can only be driven safely at speeds well under the limit.  The road from Dalton to Lancaster offers idyllic views of the Connecticut River as it thaws.  A few oxbows hold the ice, but most of the river is wide open and sparkling in the sunshine.  Ducks float in shallow puddles in the fields, and there are even three hardy souls in an inflatable boat among the usual spring flotsam in the river, which, though high, stays well within its banks.
            A leisurely cruise from Lancaster east along Route 2 begins so smoothly you’d think it was summer.  Recently resurfaced, the road is smooth and firm. About four miles out, there’s some evidence of potholes past.  A string of shallow depressions, previously patched, have sunk again, creating little bumps that tickle your tires and jiggle the coffee in your cup.  No damage is done, and, unless you’re going fast enough to get airborne, you barely notice them.  But if you stop and study the pattern, you can see the record of how water behaves on a slope, collecting in one depression, doing its damage, then flowing downhill to the next and the next and the next, creating a series of miniature lakes in a line.
            Traveling east from Lancaster to Gorham, the road is smooth and even, so you can cast your gaze to the left, where the poplars’ upper branches are greening up.  To the right, the mist of melting snow softens craggy outlines of the Presidential Range.
            Route 16 from Gorham to Berlin is similarly smooth until the town line, when your tires begin to thump rhythmically over manhole covers.  Like the Connecticut, the Androscoggin is well within its banks this year.  Just north of Berlin the fabled boom-peer islands are high and dry, artifacts from the days when they separated the logs of two companies floating them downriver to the paper mills. 
            There is still a crust of snow in the shadows along Route 16 north of Berlin.  The BUMP signs in Milan on Route 16 are overstatements.  Customers at the checkout counter at the Milan Village Store, also on Route 16, claim Route 110B, whose junction is just beyond,  is impassable.  A brief inspection of its northern end, about a mile from where it joins 110A, shows why.  It is a museum of potholes, bumps, and faults worthy of a minor earthquake, and the only way to appreciate them all is to travel only slightly faster than walking-speed.  Route 110A is a little better, passable with common sense.  Just past its intersection with Route 16, though, double yellow lines in some places  look like broken ribbon-candy, and baby potholes have hatched among intricate patterns of cracks.
            The surface of Route 110 west from Dummer to Groveton is so smooth it raises heat mirages in 66-degree temperatures.  Route 3 south from Groveton is gently rippled in places by a few hiccups and thank-you-ma’ams—nothing that interferes with driving the speed limit.  Off to the left the Presidentials rise again, even mistier in the distance.  With a few stops for pedestrians in shorts on crosswalks in Lancaster and Whitefield, you can be back where you started, via Routes 3 and 116, in a little over an hour.
            At the end of your pilgrimage, your fever-inducing cabin feels stable and far less confining than it did just a couple of hours ago.  When you sink into your padded chair, your muscles remember the jiggle and thump of tires on the road.  That massage chair you’ve admired in spring-sales flyers no longer seems so attractive, but you have begun to appreciate what it takes to keep north-country roads driveable.   You think about sparkling water, returning birds, and mountain snow melting in the sun.  You can now look forward joyfully to spring cleaning.

1 comment:

MJC said...

Nice essay! I would add even more praise for Rt 110. Its entire length (from Berlin to Groveton) is a North Country gem--high quality end to end. And once past the old Knights of Columbus building in Berlin, Rt 110 even rewards bicyclists by offering them a great shoulder on both sides.