The Road

HERE is a dead road through the depth of the Connecticut forest. Like the mortal remains of some animal, which season after season shrink to smaller semblance of species until nothing is left but a few scattered ribs and vertebrae, so the dead road has diminished, now displaying only its hardiest principles even to a careful eye: the stone-slab bridge over the brook, the deep wheel ruts, and an occasional patch of decayed corduroy, the whole shrouded in briars and bordered by the dooryard maples of long-vanished homesteads. It is an ancient highway. If it stretched back into time as into the dark wood, measured not by miles but by years, we should be able to walk beyond history.

Our first, lap would take us back into coaching days, when this was the post road between Hartford and Boston. Unless the engravers romanticized their period — and few’ artists so treat their present — we should find ourselves in a jolly countryside. On each side of the road the forest has been pushed back to the hills. The sun pours over a plateau checkered with the varying greens of oats, rye, barley, and maize. Comfortable farmhouses are surrounded by orchards, where the grass is kept like a lawn by grazing cows which soon, when apples are ripe, will be exiled to less intoxicating pasturage. The dooryard maples, planted by grandsires early in the eighteenth century, are not yet fully grown.

But not everyone here tills the soil. We see a small mill for the making of spindles. For some time along the road we have heard the brawl of the mill race rushing between walls of Cyclopean masonry. The Spindlery has a fewmore years of prosperity ahead of it, for thus far Mr. Whitney has kept his cotton gin to himself. (Would that he and other inventive souls, especially that high priest of Ahriman, the inventor of the gasoline motor, had continued in obscurity.) If neither farming nor the making of spindles pleases us, we can doubtless find a humble place in the excellent coaching inn which we reach at the turn of the road. Here also is the cemetery of this highway village, facing the tavern like the skull at an Egyptian feast. . . . No, that is not quite just. The juxtaposition is unpremeditated and casts no grim cloud over the minds of the voyagers. Our fathers entertained their dead more casually than we; sometimes they tucked them in within a few yards of their house. Many an old dwelling is surrounded by headstones rather more decorative than the cast-iron deer of a later generation.

We turn again beyond the tavern, and, since we are traveling through time instead of space, we are not. surprised as the trees close in upon us, darker and darker, until we stand on a footpath amid virgin forest. To-day New England has no such trees; long struggle against axe and fire has exhausted the breed. The road — or the Connecticut Trail, as it has now become — is silent. Yet there are travelers, many going and coming like shadows, single warriors furtively moving from tree to tree, tribes on the march toward the south, war parties so hideously painted as to slay with fear before their tomahawks are out of their belt. Along this trail we could find paths leading everywhere, to Canada, to the swamps of the South, the Western prairie, and the isles of the sea.

But if we go on we shall push farther than any of these places or any point of the compass, for we journey through time, and the road goes farther back than the Connecticut Trail. Until the age of railways, roads were the most ancient of all man-made things. A son might wish a more splendid house than his father’s, but he would never dream of changing a road. It was not his to change, and besides, human feet most naturally tread where others have gone before. Our feet are our most conservative members, the quickest to note the change of an angle, the last to desist from protests against clothing. We may bewail the demolition of an old house or the construction of a new one, but even in these mobile days we more heartily bewail the opening or closing of a street. Not presidential years or t hreats of war so move a town meeting to frenzy as the project of a new road.

We may suppose, then, that this road is older than the Connecticut Trail. Who traveled it then? We may take a scholar with us (one at a time, please, for the sake of peace) and turn over theory as we turn over a stone with our walking stick — the one as grubby as the other. Or we may go with a poet and be

as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other.

But I strongly advise following the road in solitude. In the known we kneel to the gods of the known, but when we proceed into conjecture, let us, without benefit of anybody, create t he universe best pleasing to us. A man must share facts; his ghosts are his own.

However far back we journey, we shall at last find the road very much as it is now. For to-day, unless we search carefully, we shall discover few traces of its past liveliness. As if to make up for lost time, the short New England summer attacks the hills with the vegetable fury of a jungle. Were it not so, what Connecticut pasture would show forth so much as a thistle? The fern leaps from the ground unfastening its frond as it goes, like a belated guest tearing off his overcoat as he hurries through the front door. The briars spring at each other, joyfully wrestling into impenetrable thickets. No crack is too fine to escape t he eye of the twirling seed, and the rocks arc split asunder by the roots of trees. From the wild geranium of early summer to the last blue succory pinched half open by the October frost, riots of frivolous bloom sweep into every gully and field. Without doubt it was their invincible and offensive beauty which drove the sturdier Puritan out of New England to the more congenial austerities of Iowa, Kansas, and the like. To such eager growth the conquest of the ten-thousand-year road was not even sham warfare. It was a dress parade.

Yet, if we have soft soles to our shoes, we may still feel out the course of the wheel ruts. If we are equipped with steel nippers or the hide of a rhinoceros, we shall be able to force our way through to t he cellar holes of t he farmhouses and the tavern. Great trees stand on t he fireless hearths. The stone bridge still spans the brook, and the graveyard, though most of its stones have been overthrown or cracked, may still be found in the middle of the forest. If we would see these things, and perhaps meditate on them, we must hurry. The road was an ancient way and it was a good way, but it will not be found by our children. It is traveled no more.