"Frightful roads. Perpendicular descents. Way not banked; the route is but a passage made through the forest. The trunks of badly cut trees form as it were so many guard-stones against which one is always bumping. Only ten leagues a day.” Gustave de Beaumont, travelling companion of Alexis de Tocqueville in America, 1831
A friend of mine is retiring this week. For the last three decades he has worked for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, most recently as a project manager. It would embarrass him if I named him, but I’d like to acknowledge him.
There is a saying that sex is like air. You only think about it if you aren’t getting enough. Another thing in that category is transportation infrastructure. Most of us only think about roads if they are rough or potholed. We only think about sidewalks if they are cracked and heaved. We only think about bridges if they are closed or restricted. Of course, we also think about all these things when they are being repaired, in which case we are generally annoyed by the delay.
I’d like you to think about these things differently. Please consider:
Roads, sidewalks, bridges, and anything else we walk on or roll across, are all in a constant state of decay. Every foot and wheel brings a surface closer to failure. A road is less of an object than a process, in a constant cycle of destruction and renewal. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but what it really despises is a smooth, impermeable surface. There is a cliché about the Golden Gate Bridge – by the time they finish painting it from one end to the other, the place where they started is ready to be painted again. This applies to road maintenance in any state. It is forever unfinished business.
We demand incredibly high standards of our surfaces. A half inch bump on a highway is jarring. Think of it; Two twelve foot wide lanes going for hundreds of miles, and along all the hills and curves it is supposed to be smooth within one part in a thousand. That doesn’t occur without a great deal of care, skill, and organization. Nor does it remain that way.
This brings me to my friend and neighbor. For all these years, in the heat and the rain and the cold, and in the hair tearing frustration of offices and administrators, he has been managing this unfinished business. He is one of those everyday unsung heroes who bring us what we expect. If he and his colleagues do their jobs, we don’t notice a thing. We walk, we drive, we ride our bicycles, and we think about something else.
I’d like you to do something for my friend as a little tribute. The next time you are driving or biking on a newly paved road, or walking on a clean new sidewalk, just notice it. Appreciate it. Think about Beaumont’s words. Marvel a little.
Have a good retirement, neighbor.