Ancient Ways and Rides to Nowhere

When I was a young lad, prior to obtaining a drivers license and having a vehicle at my disposal, my father would ask me from time to time (usually on a weekend) if I would like to come with him on a drive to nowhere. 

I rarely declined this opportunity to spend some time with him and at the same time have an adventure exploring areas of Cape Cod that most people, even natives of the area, would ever get to travel.

We lived in the town of Barnstable.  It was a township that consisted of seven formally named villages.  The largest was Hyannis, with others named: West Barnstable, Centerville, Marstons Mills, Cotuit, Barnstable (village), and Osterville. The name of the village of Osterville had an interesting history as it was originally name Cotacheset, which was as close as the white settlers could come to the Wampanoag name for it.  Later, as an oyster industry grew up in the village it was changed to Oysterville.  Then, as my grandmother told me, someone made a map and left the “y” out making it Osterville ever since.  As a side note there is another Oysterville in Washington state.

Along with the seven “official villages” there were other areas known to the natives as Cumaquid, Wianno, Seapuit, and other names.  It was like they were secret names that only a “real” Cape Codder would understand.  Much like calling hard shell clams quahogs.

Back to the villages.  In those days, prior to the Cape’s population density becoming the equivalent of Manhattan, the areas between each village was sparsely inhabited and primarily were woods made up of scrub oak and pitch pine trees, with a smattering of sassafras and white pines that were left over from the days when the forests consisted of massively tall stands of white pines.  In the spring you would often find asparagus growing wild in the sand of the roads’ margins.  Asparagus liked the salty soil from the winter efforts to deal with snow by spreading salt mixed with sand.

My father would take me for exploratory rides on the windy roads between the villages in his cars.  One of his first was a 1952 MG-TD.

1959 Phil's MG TD with Jim in it

Later he moved on to various forms of VWs such as the iconic Beatle and the VW bus.

As he and I transversed the paved roads that originated from deer trails and consequently meandered all over the place with quick curves and reverse banked sweepers, I learned to enjoy the feeling of the freedom of these roadways.  Houses were very infrequent and mostly we had the road to ourselves.

Then there were the ancient ways.  These you might call dirt roads, but they weren’t simply dirt roads at all.  They were actual roads that just were never paved.  The road our own house was on, was not paved until I was starting fourth grade.  Prior to that it was simply sandy dirt.

My father knew all these ancient ways and in traveling them I also came to know them all by heart.  They would lead to all kinds of places in the woods that were broken up only by the swaths cut through them to accommodate the power lines that distributed electricity around the Cape.  My father knew these road because he, as his father and grandfather before him, had worked on the volunteer fire department in the village and therefore was enlisted to help with fighting the forest and brush fires that occurred with regularity in the summers on the Cape prior to World War II.  The fire departments had specialized fire trucks known as “brush breakers”.  They had large steel tubing welded on their fronts to allow them to crash through brush in order to get close to a fire.  These trucks carried some water, but relied on fresh water ponds and the ocean as sources of water to extinguish the blazes.  The fire truck’s pumps had to deal with the intake of some sand from the bottoms of the ponds and from the sandy salt water from the ocean.  The pumps that came with the trucks lasted less than an hour in those conditions so his father, my grandfather, invented a fire engine pump that was not phased by these challenges and would work for many long hours.

Consequently these ancient ways were important in the control of the damage of forest fires and were known well by the firefighters of that era.

These ancient ways were what my father enjoyed traversing and his VW Beatle was particularly adept at negotiating.  Its air-cooled engine never had to concern itself with overheating the radiator (it had none) and with the rear engine over the drive wheels you almost never were wanting for traction on the sandy roads.

We explored these ancient ways which lead us to some very interesting spots.  Sometimes they would take you to a long abandoned cranberry bog that was now a favorite spot of the wild life.  One trail we took brought us to a cleared swath of the boundary between our township and the adjacent one.  We stopped and went on by foot to explore this blazed trail as wide as two bulldozer’s blades.  As we walked along my father spotted Indian arrowheads that had been exposed by the bulldozer’s efforts.

Another time we followed a road that went up a hill deep in the woods only to come to a mysterious government controlled area surrounded by a metal fence topped with barbed wire.  We could see from the fence perimeter a white concrete block house next to a huge rectangular lattice work that we supposed was some kind of early warning radar.  Over the years that it was situated there we would come across aluminum strips of chaff that was used to confuse radar in WW II.  We assumed that it was used to test the capabilities of the installation.

When I finally obtained a drivers license and a vehicle to exercise my license in, I also transversed these ancient ways to the delight and trepidation of my friends that I took for rides.  I developed my skills in speed and learning how to deal with the changing grip of driving on sandy dirt roads.  I found that I could drive through several of the townships on the Cape with these roads as my primary route, only occasionally having to cross a paved road.

Most of the paved roads of the time had no lines painted on them, unless you were in Hyannis or on Route 28.  Stop signs were few and far between, also.  Instead you knew that a vehicles on a main road had the right of way over you entering from a side road, so you just stopped naturally.  Traffic lights were also infrequent interruptions as you drove about the roads between the villages.  Some of you may wonder how a person could navigate these windy, narrow roads without the guidance of white or yellow lines marking the lanes and the perimeter of the roads.  Think about this: in the winter snows it would all be hidden from your view as a driver in any case.  So drivers understood how to navigate without the help of painted lines.  It was natural.

In fact, as a young driver you reveled in the driving experience in the snow.  You would seek out a large parking lot not in use (usually a beach parking lot) to head out to where you could deliberately get your car into a spin in the snow and learn how to manage the slides and spins.  It was wonderful to experience.

Jonathan Leonard and James Leonard cousins

Times change and the Cape has grown into a nice spot that has attracted many people who, even in the density of its current population, find it attractive.

While I do miss the “old” days, I feel fortunate to have enjoyed the experiences that those different times afforded a spirited driver.

This entry was posted in Automobiles, Cars, Great Roads, Life and Cars. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ancient Ways and Rides to Nowhere

  1. Noel says:

    That takes me back! I didn’t really get to experience the “old Cape Cod” as Jim did, but the ancient ways were still a treat in the early ’70s. I drove on many and my parents actually lived on one for a few years. Very few people used them and it was great fun to blast down an 8 or 10 foot ride unpaved road at 50 or 60 mph with woods and brush on each side. Especially in the dark. It gave one an appreciation for traction (or lack thereof) and how much fun a car could be at relatively low speeds. I did some of the same in the California desert, where if you screwed the pooch it could be a long hike back to civilization.

    Nowadays the Cape is just a Boston suburb and some of the ancient ways are paved developments with houses packed side by each. Not the same. Not as good. Sometimes the past really is better.

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