The View From Away: You can't get there from anywhere

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Maine is the best place I’ve lived. Love the scenery, the coast, the people. But loving Maine doesn’t make it perfect.

Take the roads. No, seriously, take them. Rip the entire system out by the roots and start from scratch. Please. It wouldn’t be that hard. In the top half of the state you practically would be starting from scratch. There are Interstate 95 and a road around the edge. What’s up with that road around the edge, by the way? Are they trying to keep us out or something in? Makes me wonder if Steven King has been writing fiction all these years or if he’s an investigative journalist that nobody believes?

Let’s talk about down here in Forecaster country, where the roads look like a web built by a spider who spent too much time in an Army drug experiment. How about we try, say, oh, I don’t know – a grid system? Two sets of parallel lines set at ninety degrees to each other. It worked for the Romans and every other civilization since the invention of the wheel. Why not give it a try in Portland, or better yet, the area around Portland, where the roads are laid out like there was a law against straight lines? I asked somebody how far it was from Windham to Falmouth, and he said it was about 10 miles as the crow flies. That’s great if you’re a crow. In a car, it’s more like 30, on a road that’s laid out like Windham and Falmouth were hiding from each other.

Whenever I float my crazy “straight road theory from Away” among my Maine friends, I get the same answer, “Hey, it’s better than Boston.” Granted. Our street system is better than the worst layout in the western hemisphere. How is that a virtue? Why do they even bring it up? It’s a known fact the Bostonians weren’t even building streets. They were building a labyrinth. If you dig a hole under North Church you’ll find the fossilized remains of a Minotaur.

OK, I know a grid is never going to happen. Maine’s roads are what they are. You could even argue that it’s part of the charm, if by “part of the charm” you mean “one of the reasons hundreds of ‘summah people’ run out of gas in the middle of nowhere and spend a miserable night re-evaluating their materially successful but emotionally bankrupt lives while suffering from exposure.” But surely we could change a few of the really, truly crazy things. At least in Portland itself.

We could pick a speed limit and stick with it. Sure, sometimes you have to slow down, like in school zones or near hospitals. But whose idea was it to change the speed limit on Congress Street every six blocks for no apparent reason? You need Dramamine to drive into town from the Maine Mall. Does this sound familiar? You’re doing 30 mph, suddenly it’s 35, no, it’s 40. OK , got it, 40 – and now it’s 30 again. And every time it changes somebody passes you on the right and gives you a dirty look while your inner ear is doing cartwheels. I exaggerate to clarify.

Were there meetings about this? Is there any conceivable reason for it, or is some bitter guy in a windowless office at city hall exacting revenge for being stuck in a dead-end job? If so, it’s probably the same guy who decides to change street names randomly. I’m not a cartographer, but I’m pretty sure there’s no geographically sound basis for turning Congress into Johnson Road for a block and then Maine Mall Road for a block and then something else. “You’re Lost, Stupid Avenue” or something, I’m not sure.

Being sure would require seeing a sign with the street name on it. Most places I’ve been in Maine don’t deign to tell you what street you’re on, only what streets you’re passing. I don’t get this. Maybe some governor was a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle; so he decided we should all have to drive by Sherlock Holmes’ method of deductive reasoning. You don’t tell people where they are, only where they’re not. Once you’ve eliminated all the streets it is impossible to be on, that street which is left, however improbable, must be the one you’re on.

The examples of this madness are legion. Rural roads with roundabouts designed for the sole purpose of insuring that no matter how little traffic there is, nobody will be sure when or where they’re supposed to be going. Signage that doesn’t tell you what road you’re on, only the road you’re going toward. It’s like the work of gremlins.

My sense of logic hates all this, but I can’t help but smile at the pure Maineness of it. This is how Maine’s roads work: if you don’t know where you are, it’s your own damn fault, and if you don’t know how to get someplace, you probably shouldn’t go there.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at mikelangworthy@me.com.

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