When I was a boy…
Men working by command of the magistrate from a city so far away its grandeur was legendary came and built part of the King’s Highway, so that it ran past our village, not three miles distant.
It was our favorite subject for all the months the work of smoothing earth and laying cobbled stone atop was in view of the village, and then more besides. Long before it was done, we had already worn a path joining to it by the quickest way, and the fields on that side of the village were so well grazed they might have been the lawns of a manor-house – so spoke those who had been to Market – and the copses on that side of village were favored by the woodcutters over the copses elsewhere, though their trees grew broader and nearer the sawmill.
We talked of putting up a sign, by the joining of our path with the Highway, with the name of our village written on it and an arrow pointing the way – but there were none among us who could write, and though the little inn was full of discussions of it for a fortnight it was at last agreed that erecting a sign with only an arrow on it would be daft. But, said those who were ‘for’ the sign, we would conscript the first man of learning who stopped over.
We boys would go out to the Highway whenever we could find the excuse, on good clear days as many times as we could manage, and stand staring, hands shading our eyes, first one way, than the other, that we might be the first to discern any sign of Travelers coming past. Then we would run straight back to the village green, shouting about it as soon as the first house hove into sight, and in their own excitement our fathers would forget to whip us for this not-so-subtle admission that we had been out shirking chores. “No need to go out minding the Road when there’s the cow to be milked,” I heard almost every day of my childhood. But they were all as excited by it as I.
All sorts of people came by that Road, some even stopping over at the village inn – tinkers, and craftsmen, traders, and messengers, twice a year a circus with three big wagons, and once I saw, only once, a knight-errant on a war-horse, with his boy riding beside and bearing the lord’s standard, red and yellow and proud in the breeze that blew across the moors from the mountains far distant. I stood and stared longer than I ought to have before running back to tell the rest, and by the time anyone else got to the Highway he was just a man on horseback in the distance.
And we – as we got older – we went all sorts of places by that Road! It made getting to Market much easier, and more of us went now, with wagons full of things to sell and lists our fathers promised our mothers they wouldn’t forget (and that we must remember if they had more to drink than was right, and forgot) to buy, if any was to be had for a fair price. We could go to Fairs, and maybe, someday we could even go the other way, to the city that was so far away and so large and grand. The King’s Highway meant there was freedom, brought practically right to our doorstep, to go and explore the world anytime we wanted – even if we never did.
Most of us, as you may guess, did not. We were apprenticed round the village, or learned our father’s trade, and if things got hard we thought of the Highway, thought of running away, and the thought that we could have done it was enough.
Just as we might have been thinking of leaving in earnest, nearing the end of our apprenticing, the girls of the village were – quite suddenly, it seemed – indeed something worth looking at. We never stopped “minding the Road,” but now we took them with us when we could, and it wasn’t just the Highway we were watching. But still, if anyone spotted a thing moving, we’d all look and strain, run towards it maybe until we could make out what it was, and go running back to report the news, and the girls must keep up or be left to come as soon as they were able.
And we grew up, and were married, and had children to watch the Highway for us, while we busied ourselves with our crafts and talked of the Road at the inn come nights, and placed wagers on what it might bring on the morrow.
The Road, all roads, come up straight to my door. To work, I must go out on them, along with everyone else, and we all maneuver over scraps of pavement and scream at our neighbors’ cars because we cannot move as fast as we would like. The screams are ineffective; we are wondrously encased in metal and glass; we are all unheard. We are trees falling in the forest with no-one nearby. Conflicts arise between myself and another’s machine, but not between myself and another man.
Every day of every week of our lives we are travel-weary, without having gone anywhere. We are disenchanted, believing all places to be alike, because no place remains as it was – it is constantly being re-developed. We are always on the move and our homes are always changing and everything around our homes is always changing. We push even the hills over here, over there, put up buildings and later tear them out again. No place is allowed to have or to keep its own essential character; everyplace is the Highway. On every road might come every excitement at any time, so no excitement comes. On every road we might go every place at any time, but when we return to any place we find it has changed. Everything is always being made new, and so nothing is new. I live scattered over a thirty-mile area of heaving earth, trying to be somewhere that is somewhere.
Why is it there was something more honest about the horse, or even about the iron horse, than the present lines of thin-shelled dragons puffing fumes into the dark, vying for God knows what?
From my car, I cannot even smell the approach of rain on the wind.