November 2011 - Comments Off

A Letter to the Highways

Naomi Washer '12

Dear Adam,
I am going to tell you this because you asked. I am going to believe you will go the way I tell you. You could drive onto one of the ramps from the entrance by the West Farms Mall, but you will feel displaced. That car of yours will guzzle too much life out of the landscape. You will see a landscape built for cars, transformed by flora as exotic as any jungle.

Drive to the Holy Family Monastery. Park in the lot closest to trees. Get out of the car with what few belongings you’ve brought with you. You are about to walk a great deal. Enter the serene, wooded area next to the lot. You will see prayer stations arranged in a circle, designed and labeled as the ideal Path of Peace. You will see other humans at these stations, or walking gently side by side in silence. Your presence is no disturbance, though you are on a different path. Muted metal statues of Mary and Jesus rise up alongside Connecticut’s white oaks, a small kneeling place beneath each one. Continue walking. You will come to the image of a woman washing the feet of Jesus. Stretching beyond this, an unmarked path. Take it. A large wire fence lies trampled up ahead, slowly becoming buried by dirt and time and beer cans. Don’t worry—this is the right way. You will need a pair of solid shoes. Mounds of dirt substantial enough to be called a hill require a bit of careful footing. Last time, at least seven huge logs, just horizontal trees really, seemed to be blocking my way to the base area. A simple obstruction, if you have brought a worthy friend with you. Don’t let him make you turn back; don’t let him think this is a bad sign. Remind him there are flattened cans of Bud Light all along the path—someone would have cleaned them up if anyone monitored this place.

These are the facts: Across the border of West Hartford and Farmington, a four-level Stack Interchange lies almost completely abandoned, built as sections of Interstates 84 and 291. The ultimate goal was a beltway surrounding the city of Hartford. The hope was better roadways; less traffic. The highways themselves were built to completion, as were the majority of the connecting ramps, but problems soon arose. Trouble with reservoirs, just north of 84 in West Hartford, halted completion of those portions of the Stack. Homeowners (whose houses backed right up to the 291 section) complained of problematic environmental conditions. They did not want the deafening sounds of never-ending motion, of motorcyclists, teenagers revving their engines, music blasting, or cop cars. The people won this argument, and all plans for the entire Stack were terminated.

Diagonally crossing each other, one right atop another, each highway is visible from every other in the Stack. You cannot climb from one to the next. You must retrace your steps, back to the base area, to follow the ramp which leads to the next highway. The lowest in the Stack is just above the active highway. This one is my favorite. No, I can’t choose. Here, you should stand with your torso leaning over the guardrail. Clasp onto it, then allow your body to loosen and become a detail of the scene. In summer, which is the season I recommend you go, the metal protected by shadow will feel cool to the touch. Shadows elongating from the extinct highways above form patterns intersecting with the street art at your feet. Whether you stand in these shadows, or throw your upper body over the guardrail in the sun, feet firmly planted on cement, no face in any car will feel your face. You could scream even. I have tried. I have flung my arms, waving hello, inviting them to take a glimpse. But I know it does not work this way. When I’m in a car, zipping down I-84, I sometimes think I see the abandoned highways—every highway looks dingy on the outside. There is a moment where I am certain I have plucked them out of the extinct jungle of their recreated existence; plunked them down into the suburban sprawl of vehicles. Then I see a car speed across it, and I know my secret landscape has eluded me once again.

This is what you should do: lean over the edge of the guardrail on the lowest highway in the Stack. Hold on tight as huge trucks and semis hurtle right at you. The floor of this highway will rumble and the metal bar will shake, rattling your wrists. The trucks pass through and under you. It looks as though they’ll hit you every time.

On the middle ramp, the one with the most street art, an active highway curves toward and past you. You will be no more than six feet from zooming vehicles. Do with this knowledge what you will.

I know hundreds have been there from the sight of broken beer bottles and the evidence of graffiti: “So it goes” stretches out long and black. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” “I’ll take you blindfolded dancing under bridges,” “Welcome to Narnia. Please wipe your feet.” All those young people; all their pains told through spray cans of paint. I suffer this affliction too; all suburban kids I’ve known do—writing out another’s words with care, precision, before learning to push through them to our own description.

Only once before have I run into strangers here—a group of young, rowdy boys drinking beer out of green bottles at two in the afternoon. This was well before my imagination could see any pleasure in that. They were smashing the bottles on the colorful pavement after emptying each one.

Once, from here, I watched a plastic grocery bag snap itself from a car window, fly over and under several, then settle to the ground, only to then be flung every which way by the speeding semis. Another time, here, I dangled one leg off the slab of concrete with no guardrail, feeling the ease with which I could sit in this dangerous spot, laughing. All I need is wind from cars in summer.

What I wonder is if the children of those homeowners—the ones who ended the building process—know what is in their backyard. I wonder if those kids ever found a short trail down.

Look: if anyone sees you, you know what to do. And don’t share this with just anyone, okay? Last thing: I dare you to find the plant that’s gone extinct—they say it grows nowhere else but the abandoned highways.
                                    Till an undetermined time,
                                                          NAOMI

Naomi studies theatre, dance and literature, and loves to walk in Vermont.

Published by: in Prose, Volume 68

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