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In This Place

Paper roads

Nantucket dirt road
Mary Bergman
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Not every public way is marked out here. I don’t worry about that too much. If you aren’t supposed to be someplace, there will most certainly be a sign warning you to keep off. Usually, there are many signs, increasing in size and intensity. Despite our heavily regulated visual landscape, these signs escape review. I try to imagine the alternative — old time-y wooden signs with hand lettering, in our outsized attempt to make everything here quaint.

I was walking to the beach a few Saturdays ago when I noticed an opening in the scrub oak and bayberry. That’s one good thing about the winter — certain paths that are otherwise invisible in the thick overgrowth of summer reveal themselves. I suppose I had never noticed this trail before because when I am walking this way in the summertime, I am weighed down with stuff: beach towels and umbrellas and way too many books for one afternoon.

I followed the path, as narrow as a deer run for a couple feet, before it turned a corner and opened into a tree-lined clearing. To the left and to the right peaked roofs peeked out from behind pine trees. This trail lead right through the middle of two subdivisions. It was the ghost of a road, the faint outline connecting one major road to the ocean.

Nantucket is full of paper roads like this, roads that exist on maps of land divisions, but were never built out. People traveled them on foot anyway. Some became trails, purchased and maintained by land conservation groups. Others get absorbed into abutting properties.

These not-quite-roads are a physical reminder of the island’s land booms and busts. They proliferate in Surfside, an area that saw a rash of land speculation during the years the island had a railroad. The tracks washed away each winter. They were built on an ever-eroding coast. The railroad was re-routed, effectively stranding those in Surfside. Land was cheap. (When is the last time you heard anybody say that?) Even into the 1970s, there wasn’t much between town and that part of the island. People who used to live out along the water’s edge describe two mile trek to town for groceries as an adventure that took them through “the badlands.”

We have a tendency to assume things have always looked the way they do now, or will always stay that way. The water will stay on its side of the line, and we’ll stay on ours.

You can learn a lot from reading maps, but even more from reading the landscape. There is seaweed in the spokes of bicycles parked at the Francis Street Beach. There are houses in Madaket and Cisco up on cribbing, inching back, and back, and back, from the bank’s edge. There are the scars of these old roads, places where the island expanded and contracted, like silvery stretch marks, faded with time.