British fantasy authors, who wrote a lot of the books I grew up reading, tended to write about roads as though they were living things--not planned out and built by human hands but somehow existing as a natural phenomenon, like rivers and streams. Moreover, roads were seen as almost sentient--you didn't take a road, it led you somewhere, or sometimes, misled you. In these books, "the open road" is an intoxicating lure, tempting you to leave everything behind and wander whither the path takes you.

I've often heard the story that Boston's roads weren't plotted out, but evolved from cowpaths. This tale is probably apocryphal, but I remember watching my college campus, Framingham State (then College, now University) redoing its lawns and walks. I thought at the time, "what they should do is put in no walks, just smooth down the bare dirt everywhere, let the students loose on campus for about two weeks, and then pave the places with the most tracks and plant grass everywhere else." They'd be certain to have walkways on the fastest and most efficient routes possible between the buildings.

No one ever thinks of doing that, of course.

But what makes a road a road, and how long does it have to be where it is before it's a legacy element, so ingrained a part of history and the environment that it couldn't be changed?

We often forget our own history, and this is particularly true for those elements of our surroundings that last a long time. In New England towns, the main thoroughfares have often followed the same route for centuries. If you look up old maps, you can recognize the roads by the bumps and curves and turns they make, even if everything else is different--if a state forest has now grown up where there was once cleared farmland, for example (or vice versa). It's not easy to change the boundaries of a long-established roadway--straighten out a curve or change a bridge crossing. A lot of property owners are usually involved.

New roads can be troublesome, too. I lived in Pepperell, Massachusetts from 1989 until 2016. When I first moved there, it was like the Wild West for developers. The economy was booming, many regulations were rolled back during the "greed is good" 1980s, and 40B was giving developers carte blanche to bully towns into approving huge subdivisions and condo complexes as long as they made a feint toward making a few "affordable" (which weren't really) housing units. It seemed that every Pepperell Annual Town Meeting included several wrangles with developers looking for variances and special deals. Most of these developments included new roads and often shared driveways (which saved the developers money). They made expansive promises. They dismissed concerned residents as NIMBY snowflakes. They got every concession from Town Hall who were dazzled by visions of tax revenue from all those luxury homes.

They lied. A lot.

Then it all dried up, when the crash came in 1999. Suddenly there were no more big plans coming to Town Meeting. A lot of these developers went bankrupt or just abandoned their projects. Towns were left holding the bag.

Having seen all that (and voted against it) going on in Pepperell, I wasn't the least bit surprised to get to Winchendon and observe that the same thing happened here. I wasn't a bit surprised to hear that someone put in a whole development, for example, and somehow failed to notice a great big utility pole right where the end of their road was supposed to go (gee, where did that come from?).

In a way, those old fantasy authors were correct: roads do grow like trees, new branches coming off the old trunks. But it's the old trunks that define a town and its history. When you can look at a map drawn in 1868, or 1790, and recognise byways that you drove or walked on yesterday--that means something. Whoever lives on them now, and whatever they have become, as a town we owe something to the roads that our past traveled on toward the future.

Inanna Arthen