Volume 1 Number 4

MYTHOLOG

Autumn 2003



Where the Old Road Runs

Charles Lipsig

I was fifteen miles from home when I got lost.

I hadn’t figured on saving time by taking the back roads, but with the highway crowded with Memorial Day vacationers rushing to get back home, I’d at least be making steady progress. I’d rather drive hours out of my way than sit in stalled traffic for even twenty minutes.

Besides, it was a game--a challenge. Think you know all those maps? I’d asked myself, as I set off, just as the sun was setting. It was an eighty-mile trip from my nephew’s wedding in Bancester to home in Port Sterling. Well, here’s your chance to prove it.

I did fine for the first sixty or seventy miles. Back roads crossed highway after highway without me missing a turn I had planned. Every so often, I’d crest a hill and see the glowing pale yellow and bright red lines of heavy, nighttime traffic below me. Then I’d laugh and turn the stereo up another notch or two.

On top of one hill, the view was just so incredible that I pulled onto the shoulder, got out, and looked around. Spread out before me was a black and neon tapestry. I could see a couple of highways crossing, just a bit to the southeast of me. The lights of some development were east of me. The glow from Port Sterling was to the northeast. Beyond that, north, Lake Oswechen was a dark sheet, spread across the Earth, broken only by the waterlogged stars that were the lights of passing ships. Along the horizon, from the south to the shores of the lake, red and yellow lights of radio towers dotted the sky. A slight trick with my eyes, and I could imagine they were extra planets, just rising in the night.

I enjoyed the view for about ten minutes, then got back in my car and drove on. I’d have to come back sometime during the daylight, I decided. The view might be less awe-inspiring, but it would still be quite spectacular.

About fifteen miles from where I lived was a crossroads with maybe a dozen houses, called Hadrian Junction. I drove through it, on Hadrian Road, then started counting right turns. Halfmoon Road, one, I thought. I saw Lakeshore Road head off to the left. Salk Road, two. I drove a little further, then signaled for a right turn. The distance to the turnoff was further than I thought and the signal was on what would have been an embarrassingly long time, if there had been anyone behind me. Finally, I saw another road going off to the right--Humphrey Road, three--and I turned onto it.

I’d been on this road a few years earlier. It had had broken pavement then and I worried about just how bad it would be. But this was a fine, smooth road and I was glad they had fixed it. Speed Limit 45, said a sign. I took my car up to fifty and flipped on my brights. It would be a straight shot for three miles, then--

Suddenly, the road veered to the right. I braked and turned the steering wheel to the right. The car skidded, sliding too far to the right and onto the shoulder. I overcompensated, cut back across the road, bumped heavily over a ditch, and finally got the car stopped, five feet from the front porch of a house.

I turned the engine off, put my forehead to the steering wheel, and said a quiet prayer. If I hadn’t had my brights on, I wouldn’t have seen the curve soon enough and gone off the road at a much faster speed than I had. I might have gone straight into the house.

I must have miscounted the roads past Hadrian Junction. Humphrey Road did not veer to the right, like this road did. I knew that from the maps.

Dogs were barking and lights were coming on in the house. I managed to finish my prayer and had unbuckled my belt, when a cigarette-scarred, male voice came from the porch. “I got my rifle right on you, kid. Just come on out of there with your hands empty and there won’t be no more trouble than there already is.”

I obeyed, quickly. I saw the silhouette of a man, holding a rifle in the doorway. “Sorry, sir--” I started to say. Then a flashlight was shining in my face, nearly blinding me.

“Ain’t no kid, Greg,” said matching, gruff, female voice.

“Guess not, Dana.” My vision cleared enough that I saw the rifle lowered a bit. “Mind telling me how the Hell, you nearly ended up hitting my house.”

“I made a wrong turn somewhere,” I said. “I thought I was on a different road.”

He considered for a few seconds, then said, “Well, you seem harmless, now that you ain’t driving. You’re a damned fool, I guess, but ain’t we all? You hurt?”

“Only my ego.”

“Heh. Dana, go call Bax, will you? He’ll still be up. Tell, him to get his wrecker over here. No need for the police.”

I wasn’t sure about that, figuring my insurance needed a police report, but I wasn’t about to argue with a man holding a gun on me.

“I’ll put some coffee on,” replied Dana. “I figure we’ll be up a while yet.”

“Good idea.” He lowered his gun further and offered a hand. “Greg Peterson.”

“Scott Wilks. Wish we’d met under more pleasant circumstances.”

“I can think of worse. I met one of my buddies while diving for cover in 'Nam.” He grinned, though the smile didn’t reach his eyes. Then he put the rifle down, settled himself in a chair on the porch and offered me another. “You said you was looking for a road and missed a turn?”

I sat down. “I think so.” It explained why it had seemed to be a long time between Salk Road and the turn I made. It didn’t explain why I didn’t remember this road with a curve in it. I guessed I hadn’t memorized the maps as well as I’d thought.

“What road was you looking for?” Greg asked.

“Humphrey Road.”

“Ain’t no Humphrey Road ‘round here.”

“Well, what road is this?”

“This is Woodworth Road.”

I was silent. I’d never heard of Woodworth Road. Obviously, I was lost, but I couldn’t be. I mean, I knew Hadrian Junction, if not too well. I’d been down that road, before. I’d looked at the maps when I’d planned my way back. I knew there was no Woodworth Road.

At least, I had thought there was no Woodworth Road, but I wasn’t about to argue with the couple who lived on it. Not with one of them having a rifle in reach.

“There used to be, you know,” said an older, cracking voice, as a small, slight silhouette appeared in the front door.

“Oh, mother,” said Dana, appearing behind her, carrying a tray with four mugs on it. She’d changed from night clothes to jeans and sweatshirt, to be more presentable, I supposed.

“Well, there was,” said the old woman. “Back when I was a girl, there was a dirt trail, a bit towards the junction, called Humphrey Road. Used to be a bit bigger with a few houses on it, mama once told me. One of the houses burned down, about the time I was born. The other neighbors left and the woods grew over it.”

Greg was laughing. “There you go, friend. You got yourself an old map.”

“Can’t be,” I said. “I’ve been here on occasion before and seen Humphrey Road. And I got my map off the Internet.”

He looked me up and down. My jacket and tie were off, but I still was in white shirt and suit pants. “Been to a party?”

“Yeah. A wedding.”

“Been drinking?”

“A bit. Not so much that I’m drunk.”

“I didn’t mean to get you pissed. I just meant that alcohol can play funny tricks on you, even long after you think you’re fine. I can see you still don’t like that idea, so I’ll drop it.”

“Well Bax is on his way,” said Dana, trying to change the subject. “Funny thing you should mention a wedding, Mr. Wilks. We got one to go to the day after tomorrow.”

We managed to chit-chat for about twenty minutes, avoiding anything controversial. Somewhere along the line, Dana’s mother poked her head out of the house to say she was going back to bed. Finally, the wrecker showed up. A man with a battered baseball cap pulled low, over eyes too bright for the time of night, got out and said, “So what’s the problem?”

With a wry grin, Greg pointed at my car, now in the glare of the tow truck’s headlights.

“I figured that,” said Bax. “Does it need anything more than a tow back onto the road?”

I got up and walked over to him, saying, “I don’t know. I was hoping you could tell me.”

“It could cost you.”

“I’m fine for money. Besides, what other choice do I have?”

Bax grinned and said. “I’ll give it the once over and see if I can find anything quickly.” He went back to his truck, grabbed a flashlight, jogged over to my car, and started looking under it.

A few minutes later, he came back out. “Bad news, I’m afraid. You got a snapped axle. My cousin’s got a junkyard next door. I can see if he has something to replace it in the morning. Otherwise, it may be a few days.”

“Nothing for it, I guess,” I said. “Let me get the cell phone out of there and see if I can wake anyone up to get me a ride home.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Dana. “You’re free to stay the rest of the night here. We got a spare room and bed.”

“I can’t do that. You don’t know me, except as the guy who just parked his car in your front yard.”

“Did you plan to do that?” asked Dana.

“No.”

“Then don’t worry about it.”

I was sleepy enough that I didn’t object a second time. I fetched my carryall out of my car’s trunk, then let Dana lead me up to a small room with a single bed. Its wood frame needed a new coat of finish, but it looked sturdy enough.

“I’ll get some bedding for you,” she said. “Then get some sleep.”

I looked out the open, north-facing window. The back of the house was at the edge of a hill and, from where my window was, I could see over the trees, down to the shore of Lake Oswechen, a few miles to the north. I could hear the distant, rising and falling roar of the waves, flowing in, breaking on the shore, and flowing back out.

“That’s strange,” I said.

“What is?” said Dana, startling, as she came back into the room with a couple of sheets and a blanket. “Oh, sorry. I opened the window this evening to catch the lake breeze. It was kind of stuffy in the house today. Guess you got air conditioner, where you live.”

“No. That’s not strange,” I said. “It’s just I can hear the waves on the lake from here. Usually I don’t hear them unless either a storm is coming or has just left. But tonight it’s clear.”

Dana chuckled, as she spread a sheet out on the bed. “That’s the Parkway. You’re right, though. It does sound like waves.”

“Parkway? What Parkway?”

“Lake Oswechen Parkway. See those lights down there?” She gestured with her chin, as she shook a pillow into a pillow case.

I nodded, dumbly.

“That’s the Parkway.” She put a top sheet and blanket at the foot of the bed. “Don’t tell me you don’t know about that?”

I nodded again, then managed to say. “Oh, yeah. Didn’t realize it came out this far.”

There was a silence, for a few seconds, then Dana said, “It goes all the way from Port Sterling to Bancester, you know.” Suddenly, she was wary. She’d just invited a strange man into her home, after he’d drove his car into her front yard and hospitality could only go so far.

I managed a smile and said, “Guess I should spend more time looking at maps, after all.”

I must have smiled and responded quite well, because Dana relaxed and said, “Yeah, I guess you should. Well, get some sleep. I don’t know when Bax will have the car ready tomorrow. Or if. Do you want me to close the window?”

“No. I think I’ll let the breeze run through.”

“Okay. Then, good night.”

“Good night. And thanks.”

Dana left, but I didn’t lie down immediately. Instead, I took another look out the window. Sure enough, down by the lake. I could make out a well-lit four-lane highway. Given the constant traffic in the wee hours of the night, it must have been well-traveled by day.

And yet, I knew there was no such road there. I’d lived in Port Sterling for all my life. I knew what the main roads in and out of it were. Had I gotten so lost that I wasn’t even close to home? Dana had made it clear I was between Port Sterling and Bancester and her mother had mentioned Hadrian Junction as being just down the road.

If I looked carefully, I could see Silver Point, where I’d gone fishing when I was a boy. Further down, there was Lighthouse Beach, where I’d taken dates when I was a bit older. Then there was the old lighthouse itself. I pushed my face into the screen. It seemed like the lights of Port Sterling were brighter than they should have been. I thought of removing the screen and sticking my head out to look, but I figured that was a good way to get myself tossed back onto Woodworth Road and pointed in the direction of Bax’s garage.

I tried to go to sleep, but I kept getting up to look out that window and watch the traffic move along the lakeshore that I knew so well--and didn’t know now. Finally, probably just before dawn, I fell asleep.

I woke, feeling a little disoriented before I remembered what had happened the night before. I started to go to the window to look, but I didn’t want to. Maybe that part, seeing the lakeshore different than I remembered, was a dream. If I looked I would know that my memories of the previous night hadn’t been a dream and I wasn’t sure I could handle it.

I changed and stepped out. Greg was coming out of his bedroom. “Morning, Scott,” he said, smiling. “Or afternoon, really. Dana figured we should let you sleep long as you needed.”

I glanced at my watch. It was just after one o’clock in the afternoon. “Thanks. I needed it.”

Greg nodded. “Well, Bax called. Said he’d found what he needed and will have the car fixed--” He glanced at a old grandfather clock at the end of the hall. “Fixed any time, now. While we wait, I’ll see if I can talk Dana into making you more than a pot of coffee.”

I had a pleasant enough brunch and, just as I finished, there was a loud honk as the wrecker pulled up. A few seconds later, my car was driven into the driveway and some kid--either Bax’s son or kid brother, to judge by resemblance--got out.

“You Wilks?” the kid asked.

I nodded.

The kid grinned and tossed me my keys. “Nice car.”

I smiled back. “How much, Bax?”

“Three hundred,” he said and made it sound like I was getting off cheap.

“Andrew Jackson good enough for you?” I said.

Bax grinned. “Jackson, Grant, Franklin, I take them all.”

At least money wasn’t different. Five minutes later, I had thanked everyone, got in my car, and drove off. At the end of Woodworth Road, I turned left, heading back towards Hadrian Junction.

I’d driven less than a mile, when I saw a road with broken pavement and “Humphrey Road” on its sign. For a second I thought of turning on it. Instead, I drove back to Hadrian Junction, took the county road back to the highway, and headed back to Port Sterling. Tuesday afternoon traffic was light, the roads were as I remembered, and I made good time getting home.

When I got back home, I pulled a county map out. There was no Woodworth Road on it. Neither was there Lake Oswechen Parkway. In the few months after that night, I drove through that area a few more times without ever finding Woodworth Road again. Where it had been were simply woods.

Maybe I need to drive a certain route to find it again. Or maybe I need to be going home from a wedding or need to have stopped to view the landscape or be traveling on Memorial Day or all of these. I’ve no particular reason to want to go back there--Greg and Dana were quite nice and hospitable, but I don’t miss them--so it’s not worth any extra effort.

In any case, that was a couple of years ago and I had started to wonder if it was all a very detailed dream or hallucination. But a few days ago, I saw something that’s sealed it for me. I was at Port Sterling City Savings Bank, seeing about getting a loan, when an old map, framed and hanging on the wall, caught my eye. While the loan officer went to check on something, I got up and looked at it.

The map was from 1854. And there, a few miles north of Hadrian Junction and a mile north of a line marked Humphrey Road was another line, named Woodworth Road. I double checked my up-to-date maps, yet again when I got home. It’s not on them. I guess that sometime in the past one-hundred and fifty years, Woodworth Road was abandoned and the woods grew up over it.

I’ll leave the explanations to those with more imagination about this sort of thing than I. But what I’ve seen is enough to convince me, for all and good, that Woodworth Road was not a dream.

Even before the trip to the bank, however, there had been something else that told me that it had not been a dream. Where I live, I can hear the crashing of Lake Oswechen’s waves, breaking on the shore, just before or just after a storm. Every so often, however, the sound seems more like that of trucks and cars on distant highway – especially, when the sky is bright blue and there isn’t a hint of bad weather in sight.


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