Read Old Man Scanlon

Route 44

24 November 2013


U. S. 44

Stuck in traffic, Cheryl asks, "What's the longest word you can make from Silverado?" So I'm on it, and we toss words back and forth. She's a nerd, which will be no surprise if you subscribe to the birds-of-a-feather theory. As a nerd, I am not in the least disturbed by such questions—they delight me and remind me that I'm a lucky man. Yet even after twenty-five years she is still capable of astonishing me. This summer we were visiting Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Catskills, off Route 44 in Kerhonkson, New York. In the back seat, my grandchildren and niece, glued to their hand-held devices, learn from Siri that this Route 44 is the Route 44 that passes through our home town in Massachusetts, and we are at its western terminus, 237 miles from its origin near the Atlantic. I am gobsmacked when Cheryl informs me that we are now in honor-bound need of one day driving it from end to end.

Because I've never breathed a word of it to anybody. Because it's just so outré. Because if I were to keep a bucket list, it would include doing exactly that—as part of driving the length of every numbered route in Massachusetts. I could try to justify it on the grounds that seeking out new places and exploring are quintessentially human activities, but the fact that I could not do otherwise than to drive them in numerical order puts the full-scale project irretrievably beyond the pale. But now that the cat's out of the bag, I'm thinking we could start with a single route, a minor highway where speed can take a back seat to curiosity. It would be good to get closer to the ground, so to speak, and let journey trump destination. Maybe we will do Route 44.

Route 44 will never be the eastern incarnation of the legendary Route 66—there is going to be no stream of quixotic westering Kerouac wannabes heading from Plymouth, Massachusetts to Kerhonkson. Nevertheless it has its shunpiking charm. Over the years we've already traveled many of its miles, though not in a single day, which I'm sure strict bucket list rules would require. The rolling bucolic stretch west of Hartford, in particular, is lovely, an attractive alternative to nightmarish I-84.

There is, however, no romance to Route 44 near our town, set in ordinary flat southeastern Massachusetts, unless you count the maniacal red-headed hitchhiker ghost reputed to ply his trade along its edges. Heading east toward the ocean, it passes the long-shuttered dog track, where, to dodge family engagements, I once spent a Thanksgiving evening betting on the greyhounds, but that was before I became a responsible bourgeois adult. There's an oxygen distributor and a propane dealer. An asphalt contractor. Bars. Miniature mom and pop used car lots. They're prosaic businesses, not consumerist yuppie boutiques. A sort of marginal greyness pervades, free of any irrational exuberance. If these enterprises are prospering, they are not flaunting their success. This is a utilitarian highway, fitting, I think, for Yankeedom.

Cheryl and I are tempted to believe it's more than coincidence that this road bisecting our town begins a stone's throw from the Atlantic beaches in Marshfield, Massachusetts and ends a stone's throw away from a Victorian resort in the Catskills—two of our most favorite places on earth. It's only seductive nonsense, a lying artifact of our pattern-seeking brains, but sometimes it's best to ignore that.