Traveling Maine’s roads in spring is like taking part in an archaeological dig in some far-off locale.
Instead of ancient shards of pottery and fragments of bone, however, the sides of Maine’s back roads, once blanketed by snow and ice from passing snowplows, but now melting in a long-awaited spring thaw, reveal the last six months of our collective history. And what interesting – and sometimes disgusting – history is uncovered.
Last week, our ditches began their annual transition. If you walk, run, bicycle, or glance down while driving, you’ve noticed the plethora of stuff slowly being unveiled as each sunny day brings more melting revelations.
Lots of it is just trash, ejected from passing vehicles: Cans, bottles, entire bags of household garbage, flattened coffee cups, cardboard boxes and plastic bags.
While eating Wendy’s fast food the other night, I noticed a little picture on my bag of pigtailed Wendy dutifully throwing her garbage into a wastebasket with the words, “Please don’t litter.” Ironically, on my way home, I saw a bag of fast food lying on the ground beside the roadway. Obviously, these litterers don’t heed Wendy’s plea.
But some roadside debris is unique. I’ve found a canvas bag filled with music CDs. Last week, I saw a car bumper and a speed limit signpost. It was doing little good lying there telling me the limit was 35 mph. I’ve seen plastic letters from a roadside business’ readerboard sign strewn about. Was that bumper from a crash? Was that signpost the result of a drowsy driver? Were those letters the work of a blizzard? Such mysteries.
Maine in early springtime – otherwise known as mud season – isn’t a pretty picture. Everything looks horrid. Where once were powdery roadside ridges running toward the horizon are now melting berms of crusty snow covered in dirt, oil, fallen branches and sand. Lots of sand. Sand designed to make winter driving safer is now covering the first 10 to 20 feet of roadside, a litter littoral zone where anything goes. The once-gritty sand that cost taxpayers thousands is now useless dust, trampled to the point of pulverization by drivers, waiting for spring rains to wash it deep into the woods or through culverts.
Roadside observations reveal more than just excess sand from plows. Plows leave their mark all over during winter only to be revealed months later. Many yards, with snow cover gone, have visible impacts from their plow services. Edges of driveways are sheared off and clods of rolled grass provide proof that those reflective orange poles the property owners set out in the fall didn’t work too well.
This time of year is also best for redeemable can and bottle hounds. I, too, walk the streets for money, and find plenty of it right after spring thaw, otherwise known as canning season. We can-vassers have a can-do attitude, in fact, and trudge down deep ditches looking for those omnipresent 5-cent returnable soda and beer cans and hold out hopes for the rarer 15-cent liquor bottles.
Redeemable bottles go fast, though. You must be quick. As soon as the snow starts melting, eager canners are out there collecting as the retreating snowpack reveals the last six months of bottles thrown from vehicle windows. A speedy spring thaw means canning season could last but a week. A prolonged thaw can bring a slower reveal and longer period to collect.
Collecting lucrative stuff from the roadside is taken to a new level in city snow dumps. Some folks make it an annual priority to inspect Portland’s snow dump for stuff left over under the melting pile. Coins, watches and other valuables scooped up by city plow trucks and transported to the snow dump is a veritable trove for these stalwart treasure hunters.
Yes, the sides of Maine’s roads are pretty nasty this time of year and it comes just as we are recuperating from a long winter, struggling through mud season and bracing for black fly season. Despite their literally redeemable qualities, early spring ditches are dead places, ugly and make the commute more depressing.
But just when you think things couldn’t get worse, good Samaritans, including abutters, Scouts and Earth Day volunteers, show up to clear the debris. Mother Nature does her part, too, with April showers washing away the dust from roadside bushes. By late spring, like clockwork, roadsides transition from a monochromatic mess of man-made debris to a green bounty of natural growth.
In a matter of weeks, this transition takes us from the dead season and the way life shouldn’t be to the return of life and the way it should be. And this peculiar rite of spring is always well worth watching.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.