When is reporting a travel story not something to brag about? When you don’t know where you’re going. Several years ago, Yankee’s Justin Shatwell wrote about one particular journey that went awry. My editor and a longtime travel writer, Mel Allen, often hands out the sage advice to “get lost, but carry a good map.” […]
By Justin Shatwell
Apr 03 2017
When is reporting a travel story not something to brag about? When you don’t know where you’re going. Several years ago, Yankee’s Justin Shatwell wrote about one particular journey that went awry.
My editor and a longtime travel writer, Mel Allen, often hands out the sage advice to “get lost, but carry a good map.” Sometimes, this works better in theory than in practice.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s definitely good advice for people in our line of work. Good travel writing takes readers to places they’ve never been and shows them things they’ve never seen. When you write for a magazine that covers only New England and is read primarily by people who’ve lived here their whole lives, you rapidly run out of destinations that fit those criteria. So in order to find something new, sometimes you have to hit the back roads—the ones people instinctively avoid and that GPS units are programmed to ignore. With luck you might find a diner out there that serves the best home fries in the world, or a country museum with a collection of lacework made from human hair (true story), or maybe you’ll stumble upon an untouched natural vista that begs to be the centerpiece of a photo essay. On good days it all works out, but on not so good days you just find a heap of trouble.
This summer I was in the tiny village of Groton, New Hampshire, scouting the Sculpted Rocks Natural Area, a series of erratic boulders and small waterfalls that make for a beautiful (but technically illegal) swimming hole. I hiked awhile on the trails surrounding it. They were wide and probably used by snowmobilers in the winter. A trail marker at one of the intersections had a map of paths cutting all across the region.
After I was done exploring, I hoped to head southwest toward Enfield and Route 4, but unfortunately Groton sits on the outskirts of Cardigan State Forest and there are no major roads heading in that direction. The main routes in and out of town head northwest toward Dorchester or east to Hebron, and both of those options seemed tediously circuitous. So naturally I whipped out my trusty “good” map. (Great map, actually. Jimapco Road Atlases. Its slogan is “maps to swear by…not at!”)
The map informed me that I only had one real option, and that was to stay on the road I was on, Sculpted Rocks Road. It was a thin, pale gray line scratched through empty swaths of white that I assumed were forests. At some point, it would change to Province Road, and in five or six miles it would intersect with Route 118, which I could take south to Route 4. Perfect, I thought, and at first it was.
Sculpted Rocks Road is really very pretty. It’s sparsely populated and it has a decent canopy of deciduous trees. I immediately started imagining what it would look like in fall. I had also been assigned to find a scenic drive in the area, and this was looking like pay dirt: a quiet, colorful road leading to a tiny village. What more could I ask for?
My plan hit its first snag when I passed the “Not Maintained in Winter” sign and the pavement switched to dirt. Oh well, I thought, it should still be fine in the fall, and no foliage trip is complete without at least a few dirt roads. I assumed that by specifying that the road was not maintained in winter, the sign implied that the road was maintained during the other three seasons. So I soldiered on.
The disintegration of a dirt road is a hard thing to describe. It doesn’t happen all at once. There is no clear line of demarcation between good road and bad. It creeps up on you, little by little, and you find yourself trapped like a frog in a pot, not noticing that the water around you is starting to boil.
I’m not sure exactly when I realized this wouldn’t make a good driving tour. Maybe it was when the road narrowed to one lane. Maybe it was when I could no longer recall when I had last passed a house. Maybe it was when the road started showing signs of channels, indicating that on at least a few days of the year it doubled as a stream. At any rate, things were getting very Blair Witch very fast, and I decided there was no way I could send someone down this road in good conscience. And then it occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t be going down it either.
By this point, turning around wasn’t feasible. The road had grown too narrow and the margins too wooded. I knew I had to play out the hand I had dealt myself, and that’s when I saw it. On the side of the road, just a few yards in front of my car, was the same style of trail marker I had seen at Sculpted Rocks. “Shit!” I yelled loud enough for anyone within a mile to hear me—though by this point I was certain no one would.
You’ll find this from time to time in New Hampshire: country roads that double as hiking trails (or perhaps it’s the other way around). I had been on a few of these before, but only as a hiker, and in each case I had stopped to ponder why in God’s name anyone would be driving out here. Though the map had shown a clear path all the way to Route 118, I was beginning to doubt it. I started imagining the road coming to a point where it would continue on as a footpath into the otherwise impenetrable forest.
My worst fears were realized when I came around a corner and was confronted with a solid stand of trees. Beyond it, I could make out a fading sign that read “Bridge Out. No Passing by Order of the Selectmen.” I was stunned into utter silence. Just as the shock began to shift toward panic, I noticed that the road curved sharply to the right before the sign. I followed it and came to a second, shoddy-looking bridge. Next to it was a hand-painted sign that said something to the effect of “Private Bridge. Stability Unknown. Pass at Your Own Risk.”
I stopped and thought it over. Could I survive falling that far? The water wasn’t deep, so I wouldn’t drown. But even if I did survive, how would I explain to my boss that I crashed a rental car into a stream deep in the New Hampshire wilderness? The case for crossing the bridge was going poorly until I started thinking about all the potholes, curves, and steep inclines I had passed to get this far and how it would feel to do it all again in reverse. I immediately gunned it and was across the bridge before I had a chance to second-guess myself.
I wish I could say that the road got better after that, but it didn’t. Eventually I reached a point where I could no longer refer to the pits in the road as potholes, because to do so would imply that they were some kind of aberration—that they were damage to a thing that could be repaired. Here the holes had more claim to the space than the road. I was deep in nature’s territory, and nature abhors a flat surface. She was attacking the road the way a body rejects a transplant. The road and I were interlopers here, and I just prayed that nature would tolerate my presence long enough for me to escape before she reached up and snapped one of my axles in her fury.
By my estimate, I traveled about four miles of truly bad road. The trip took about half an hour. When I finally reached Route 118, a comically large cloud of dust swept around my car as I pulled to a halt. Cars were passing by on the smooth asphalt in front of me, their drivers smiling, enjoying their day. I found this oddly annoying. “Don’t you know what I’ve just been through!?” I wanted to yell. But what was the point? They had stuck to the roads they know and gotten to where they were going. I had taken the road less traveled and almost wrecked my car. At least you got a good story out of it, I thought, trying to console myself. Isn’t that the whole point of getting lost?
Yeah, I smiled. Yeah it is. I turned onto the road and drove away.
Justin Shatwell is a longtime contributor to Yankee whose work explores the unique history, culture, and art that sets New England apart from the rest of the world. His article “The Memory Keeper” (March/April 2011) was named a finalist for profile of the year by the City and Regional Magazine Association.