Traces

Trailhead: Richard Campanella. Electric Avenue: New Orleans' own Champs-Elysees was once extraordinary -- and could be again. New Orleans Times-Picayune (2018-06-10). (Courtesy of Rob Walker's The Art of Noticing newsletter, #61: Hunting for Feelings)

Go ahead and read that article and come back. I'll wait right here.

...

OK. A secret pastime of mine is paying attention to places where old bridges, roads, and railroad tracks show their haunted remains in the current scenery. It's almost an obsession to look at satellite images and see where railroad tracks used to be—that diagonal line of trees cutting across otherwise square cornfields, swooping into a small town, the 45-degree diagonal bending at the last moment as it intersects the town and matches up to the street grid.

In real life, there was the gully across the street from where I grew up in St. David where the railroad used to branch off the main line and go to the coal mines.

And there's the place in Lewistown where the railroad branched off the main line and crossed Main Street near the high school, and connected to some other line that must have gone into downtown and on toward Cuba—anyway, wherever the ends went, the middle used to cut across the edge of our yard. And at camp there were the remnants of old County Line Road, between Knox and Fulton Counties, now partially underwater since the dam for Lake Roberts was installed in the 1970s. (Bonus points if you ever found the remnants of the house on the east side, near Horseshoe Bend.) And the hulking grain elevators that you can see, a dozen at a time across the glacier-scraped middle of Illinois, giving away the shape of old rail networks that no longer exist. And there are the old mining roads and trails that I explored in Panamint.

Panamint City, Surprise Canyon Road ("Road")

I could wear you out with examples of old roads and bridge pylons and on and on. But it's not just the remnants themselves, but the remnants of design decisions that sprung up around them. In that New Orleans article, it mentions how the old canal and railroad still exist, not in their original forms (they're long gone), but in the shape of the neighborhoods around them, in the long empty stretch to the river where they used to lie, in the names of places that survive.

Here's another example: Tanner Howard. Native American routes: the ancient trails hidden in Chicago’s grid system. The Guardian (2019-01-17).

And in Manhattan, Broadway, which meanders against the grain of the rest of the island's grid, was once the Wickquasgeck Trail, where it was once a sensible route across swampy land.

Some traces weren't on the land, and their remains are getting smaller and smaller, forever and ever, amen.

So many of the reasons that things were built have since buried or lost or burnt or rebuilt or unbuilt, but their influence remains. I wonder about that from two sides. (1) Do the old roads tell us something that we're missing? We can knock down any hill or fill in any swamp now—we have the tools and we have the talent, etc. It's not quite Chesterton's Fence, since the fences are long gone, just the bend in the road where the fence used to be. (2) What are we—what am I—building today that will shape the layout of the future? Are we being good ancestors? (See also: The Long Now Foundation.)

I don't know if I'm the only one with this habit of finding the traces of old things in the current. It's not like I chose the habit, it chose me. There are people like Sarah Parcak whose literal job is searching for traces of old things from space—so maybe I chose the wrong career path.

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