Interstate Route 495 is one hundred twenty-one miles of pavement connecting the bottom of Massachusetts with the New Hampshire border. Round the clock, hurried drivers weave around and between each other before sliding off exit ramps to homes, shopping and work. But the road was not always there, and I remember that.
Before the highway, where it nips the southeast comer of Harvard near the Bolton border, the landscape was thick with trees, and inside the woods, at the bottom of a hill on the gravel path they called Brown Road, my family had a hidden farm. Since my father was not good at fences, a menagerie of farm animals including cats, dogs, chickens, ducks, horses, goats and one hundred pigs could be wandering around the barnyard at any time. But in 1957 we weren’t worried. Dad would say, “Where they gonna go?”
We were two young brothers filling days riding our ponies, Tex and Mickey, through a forest sprinkled with abandoned apple orchards and silent pastures, all part of our neighbor, Charlie Zink’s, Bolton Ponderosa. We enjoyed getting lost, like Tom and Huck, discovering secret trails and more interesting places.
In the winter we played hockey in the woods on a swampy patch that froze early. While our breath smoked, my gloves got soaked from snow and my fingers stung, but there was no stopping, and we played until it was too dark to do anything but shuffle home. And there was the hill where we built a ski jump just high enough to feel like we were flying.
That was before the road. They had told us it was coming, but no one could have known. It crept, stealing into our consciousness, with a few quiet surveyors, and then rough chainsaws and giant Perini Construction bulldozers with tracks over my head. Before long, spikes of light burned through the thick cover from two savage swaths they’d cut. When they were finished, Eisenhower’s highway had left scars. Charlie Zink’s tarpapered sawmill made way for the Sugar Road Bridge, our father’s farm was cut in two and the orchards and pastures were gone.
A lifetime later, I drive one of the millions of cars that pass over the buried farms. And when I do, near the “Entering Harvard” sign where Brown Road ends behind the fence, I can’t stop a quick look for the spots I know. Our hockey swamp is 300 yards from the fence, and an old apple tree stands near a piece of stone wall marking the edge of our pasture. One of my father’s trucks still sits in a pine grove, right where he left it when it wouldn’t go. I could take you there.
When I’m shoveling snow, and my gloves get wet and fingers numb, I think about that different time – before the road. About the places we skied and skated and rode our ponies and squeezed a childhood from the woods.