Blog Deleted Scenes

Not Even Past

I saw strange marks in the asphalt: sharp gouges that looked as if dragons had clawed at the surface of the road.

 “Deleted Scenes” are small pieces of historical research that, through no fault of their own, were cut from the published Bike Battles book, or never made it past research notes.  But they live on as blog posts!  

This particular anecdote was cut from a very early version of what is now Chapter 3.  My editors — correctly! — argued that the transition to the first person at the beginning of a chapter of what was still supposed to be a work of scholarly research was too jarring.  The idea was to begin each chapter with an engaging vignette in order to appeal to general readership; later versions of the manuscript cut first-person vignettes in favor of brief recounting of historical narrative or popular culture, leaving personal stories for the introduction.  I think it worked well, but it meant that my personal stories didn’t make it in to the published book; many people at book events have asked about my own biography and experiences that brought me to write it.  Here’s one.

I discovered the claw marks nearly a decade ago, when I began bicycling on the quiet rural roads surrounding my new home. This corner of Wisconsin is part of what is known as the “driftless region,” sometime just known as the Driftless.  This is where retreating prehistoric glaciers failed to scour the geography flat, but instead left a corrugated terrain of steep bluffs and winding coulees, or steep and winding valleys cut out of the surrounding bluffs by erosion.  Because of this geological history, I was involuntarily conducting a close inspection of the asphalt, my sweaty head hanging down as I labored to climb the heartbreakingly sudden inclines. As I rode along, I saw strange marks in the asphalt: sharp gouges that looked as if dragons had clawed at the road surface. I couldn’t figure it out – what were these marks, and why were they so prominent at the bottom of hills?

Scratches and scrapes on the surface of a rural county road.
Scratches and scrapes on the surface of a rural county road.

As I spent more time on the farm roads, the explanation appeared before me at a slow trot. Amish — or Anabaptist — communities had come to the Driftless long before the automobile, and continued to farm with only limited use of electricity, telephones, or internal combustion engines. While the farm roads had been paved and graded for the needs and abilities of automobiles in the following decades, these farmers continue to use horse-drawn wagons on steel wheels or rubber-tired carriages without pneumatic tubes. It was their iron-shod draft horses, pulling heavily-loaded hay wains on lugged-steel wheels, who left marks in the asphalt as they dug in at the bottom of the steep hills.

Horse Shoe Nail, 2015
A square-ended, hand-made nail for horseshoes, stuck in a crack in the asphalt road, October 2015.  The scrapes on the surface surrounding it came from countless nails and horseshoes and steel-rimmed wheels.

The county highway is otherwise modern. Originally improved as a result of the early-20th century Good Roads movement, the road was carefully engineered in the following decades for the use of automobiles: hard-surfaced, cambered in curves and with a calculated incline and center ridge. Its width is uniform; regulated by state law and national engineering standards. Well-understood signage appears in entirely predictable places, articulating a set of rules of the road that are similar in the rest of the state and nation. Speed limits, painted lanes, stop signs, intersection designs and standardized numbering all combined such that “roads and cars operated almost seamlessly as two complementary parts of a vast, unified technological system,” according to historian Christopher Wells.[1] Only the claw marks, the occasional pile of equine fertilizer and my two-wheeled panting betray a history that pre-dates this system of automobile transport, stubbornly persisting in a landscape no longer built for them. At the top of the hill, a yellow sign with a silhouette of a carriage pleads with all users to “share the road” between them.

A "share the road" sign on a county road in Wisconsin, with an outline of a horse-drawn carriage.
A sign on a county road in Wisconsin.

In the decades after the decline of the 1890s bicycling boom and during the subsequent rise of the automobile, a new system of road traffic rules, signs and engineering was standardized around the needs of the car. While bicycles did not entirely disappear in this time, and indeed thrived in a few niche areas, there was no significant attempt to safeguard their inclusion in the newly-solidifying auto-centric landscape. Throughout the United States, cities and states altered their laws and infrastructure to meet the needs of the motor vehicle, and a nationwide Uniform Vehicle Code rewrote the rules of the road to accommodate and control the automobile while diminishing the bicycle as a vehicle. In this bike battle, cyclists were scarce, and the bicycle lost out to increasingly organized political and bureaucratic support for the automobile. Bicycles, pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles still had a theoretical right to the road; but the road itself was changing underneath them.

What was clear to me, as I sweated up the 13% grades on these county roads, was that no matter the physical and legal transformation of the road in the 20th century, the previous uses persisted.  Urban streets in particular had historically been legally used as marketplaces, playgrounds, public squares, driveways, trolley car lines, freightways, promenades and thoroughfares.  While one user was about to become far more prominent, these other uses persisted.  This was one of the central causes of conflict in the 21st century — while the road had been rebuilt in the popular imagination to serve only one user, its origins as a commonly-held resource continued.  In William Faulkner’s endlessly re-appropriated phrasing, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”[2]

— James Longhurst, October 2015

[1] Christopher Wells, Car Country, 75.
[2] William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951).