You'll find a true devotee at the intersection of a state route and the information highway
They carry the love of the road to an extreme. No street sign or highway exit is too ordinary not to photograph, no map too out-of-date to satisfy their curiosity. They're called road geeks, and no, they don't do an asphalt-eating act at the circus. Some mourn unbuilt highways, others dream of new ones. They tussle, online, over such questions as "what's the ugliest freeway?" and "should I-95 in Fairfield and New Haven be converted to a double deck?" Basically, if it's on a road, somebody somewhere is listing, photographing or complaining about it.
Certain obsessions seem to come with a bad case of dandruff - "multiplex" geeks collect pictures of roads that carry two or more route numbers, like "I-84/Route 6." Construction geeks haunt projects like the Big Dig.
Then there are the "road end" geeks. These guys were the first roadies I came across.
One day - back when just knowing how to use a computer was enough to make a pretty good living - I was sitting working at wasting time, and wandered into a bulletin board where some similarly inclined idlers were discussing roads. Someone mentioned a "State Ends" page, which, thinking the worst, I clicked on. It turned out to be a bunch of photos showing a numbered route sign or two at some stage of disrepair or tilt. Nothing else ever was remarkable about the scene, maybe a hardware store or a dusty-looking intersection in the background. I found a road I grew up near, clicked on it, and there it was, more or less like it was in the '70s - the sign was a little beaten up, and the guy who lived at the corner, or whoever, had finally put a fence up. I stared at the photo for a good two minutes, without knowing why. Here was a turn I had taken hundreds, thousands of times, on a bicycle, in a car, once on a motorcycle when I returned for my high school reunion. How many others had come to this same intersection - for the first time, the ten thousandth time, the last time - en route to fortune, obscurity, despair, triumph? It had been the conduit of my life and that of everyone I had grown up with.
Is that what road geekery is about?
Connecticut might not seem like the best place to get on your road geek freak - at least not compared to, say, someplace in the Sun Belt, where big highway projects rule. Three centuries of development have made the process of transport planning in a small, urbanized Northern state a bruising, expensive process, almost impossible. "Highways are sprouting like weeds in North Carolina, Illinois and Texas, and you wonder what the difference is," says Scott Oglesby, one of the Internet's pioneering roadway historians. Oglesby, who grew up in Marlborough and Glastonbury and is now married and lives and works in California, was one of the first on the Web with a road geek website back in 1996. His "Connecticut Roads" is the leading online source for the subject.
"The first thing is, Connecticut is very built up in some of its urban areas, which just makes it a lot more expensive to acquire new right-of-way. And you see more of home rule, where each town really has a big say in what happens ... There's often not a lot of regional cooperation, and it's very easy for one town or one group to just shoot down or hold up one thing indefinitely."
Plus, road construction can be hazardous to a politician's health. In the early '50s, Governor John Davis Lodge built what is now I-95 over powerful opposition from Fairfield County - but after fallout from the process, Lodge lost his re-election bid. More than one observer has attributed the governor's subsequent nervous collapse to the struggle over the turnpike, which, as any road geek will tell you, now bears his name.
And so Connecticut is noted for the number of half-built or abandoned highway projects: One CT-geek website is titled "Highways to Nowhere." Everyone has a favorite orphaned project - whether it's I-291, the long-proposed beltway around Hartford, or the extension of I-384 to Providence, replacing "Suicide 6," or the completion of Route 2 from Norwich to Westerly. The synthetic geology of highways isn't hard to find, and there's a lot of it - you just have to know where to look for the expressway stubs, the cleared and shaped dirt ramps, ramp slots, and half-constructed roadbeds and rock cuts.
The fitful history is a part of Oglesby's nostalgia. "I can look back on these wide-ranging plans from the '60s and just have the point of view of `Wow, that's really cool, all the things they were planning.' But I do not regret that some of them weren't built, and I think some we're better off without."
Finding a couple of qualified local road geeks to lead our smoggy pilgrimage was just a Google search away. One was Douglas Kerr, webmaster of something called Gribblenation.com (lots of state ends pages!). A recent graduate of SUNY-Oswego now taking business classes and living in upstate New York, the tall, cordial Kerr looks like he enjoys a beer or two.
The other was Owen McGaughey, an Oglesby disciple whose "Nutmeg Roads" website is, on the surface, typical. To my invitation for a Sunday-morning drive, he sent a polite e-mail response accepting, with one request: Would it be OK if one of his parents came along? It turns out Owen McGaughey, road geek, isn't old enough to drive yet. A personable 15-year-old from Marlborough with an interest in martial arts, he started playing with maps when he was 3. "His sense of direction is unbelieveable," says his dad, Gary. "It's almost like we've got MapQuest in the car." He's proud of his son's knowledge. "Basically, he would like to make improvements, because he gets very frustrated with the way things have been engineered."
What's Owen's biggest frustration with the roads around Hartford? "I-84 in Hartford. Rush hour it's stopped both directions. For two hours it's crawling ... And every weekend, when people are coming home to New York from Boston, and vice-versa, the ramp from I-91 North to the Charter Oak Bridge is backed up for like, a mile."
How would he improve it? "It should be fully rerouted ... If you look on a map, where 84 comes into Hartford, if you continued it straight across, you'd hit the Charter Oak Bridge. You might be able to put 84 underground, underneath those roads. And then take the Charter Oak, that already connects up to 84 - you'd have to widen that section, and then just get rid of the part of 84 that goes through downtown. The Bulkeley Bridge was constructed in 1908, way before I-84, and you could reconstruct Connecticut Boulevard in East Hartford, which used to go over the Bulkeley into downtown Hartford."
Owen perked up soon after we entered Hartford on 84. "Before we crossed the river, there was a flyover, I don't know if you noticed it - that ramp on Route 2 used to come in on the left side of 84, and if you wanted to get from Route 2 to 91 you'd have to cross over 84 and you had about a half a mile to do so." At Exit 46 he says: "The next exit is the vestige of the formerly proposed 189 expressway, which was going to go through the west end of Hartford and continue through to North Bloomfield. If you take these ramps, you can see the little stubs on the ramps where they were going to plug into 189.
"The next exit here - on the left, Flatbush Avenue, is another vestige - it's a long ramp. And that was going to be a highway that was going to loop around from 84."
"484?" says Kerr.
"No, 484 was back there - the Asylum Street exit, that's another vestige, that was going to connect to the Whitehead Highway, and connect up with 91. It would have gone under Bushnell Park - right in front of the Capitol. Here, this is another vestige - this would have hooked up to where 5/15 splits off from the Berlin Turnpike, and becomes a highway, and heads towards 91 - it would have plugged in there."
Would he be interested in becoming a highway engineer or an urban planner? "I've wanted to be a traffic engineer for several years. But I've thought about it, and maybe not. Because there are a lot of people who are against sprawl ... And I wonder if there will be as great a need in the future as in the past?"
We pulled over on the shoulder about half a mile in front of the big stack at Exit 39A on I-84, which if you drive under this monstrosity every day, you're forgiven for not knowing that among road geeks it's Hartford's single most famous feature. We step out of Kerr's SUV, and McGaughey shouts over the traffic. "The first bridge is not in use - that was going to be the 291 main line up to Avon. The top level - the one in front of us that comes this way, that's not in use; the one behind it is, it's coming from Route 9 towards New Britain." Fortunately, a state trooper comes by to move us along.
The afternoon brings more adventures and a torrent of information from Owen, including his thoughts on alleviating the congestion on Route 9 in Middletown ("have Route 9 go over the Connecticut River, north of Middletown, go around Portland Center, and then come back over the Connecticut River south of downtown Middletown") and an excursion down through Wethersfield - "they have these new types of streetlight heads here," he says, "I think they're low sodium or something" - into Glastonbury, going east on Route 2. "This part was widened to three lanes each way in 1989 - oh, and this is the official end of 94.
"New London Turnpike over there is Old Route 2 ... Where the town line of Glastonbury and Marlborough is there's this ridge ... they built the highway over this old road, which was very curvy, they called it the 'Ten Curves region' - at least once a year there's a major tractor-trailer accident." Pulling off Route 2 into Meshomasic Forest, Owen guides us over an abandoned roadbed, past an ear-splittingly loud shooting range, as he details his ideas about rebuilding that section of road.
What is it about Connecticut roads? Oglesby has an idea. "Connecticut roads seem to have a lot of history crammed into a small area. You could even say part of the fun is that not all the plans came to fruition, and so it's a bit of a treasure hunt finding out more about some of these obscure highways.
"I like how roads tie everything together geographically. They help unite us through many different topics. If you're interested in history, politics, engineering, photography, traveling - interesting roads overlap all those."
Is that why Owen McGaughey knows how many alternative-route "A" signs there are on I-84 around Hartford (38), or why the big green signs on the Merritt Parkway are so oddly painted with zig-zag edges (it's to pay tribute to the original wooden-plank signs)? Maybe, maybe not. But to true road geeks, such mysteries of the ordinary are what connect the past, present and future.