Wednesday, February 8, 2012

In (reluctant) defense of Route 12A

Where I live, in Lyme, N.H., the occasion of a passing car is rare enough that my two dogs and I simultaneously lift our heads – me from writing, they from napping – and glance out the window at this intruder into our pastoral landscape of rolling fields, red barns and wooded hills. It's lovely here, though a little quiet – an authentic working landscape would have more children, more tractors, more sheepdogs barking and metal clanking and men cursing. But nonetheless, it's pretty, and an escape from the clamor that increasingly passes for our American landscape.

And then, five days a week, I drive half an hour south to work on Route 12A in West Lebanon, where our newspaper offices are located. A recent letter to the editor described Route 12A as a “scar on the face of the beautiful Upper Valley,” and our columnist noted that instead of incorporating the beauty of the adjacent Connecticut River into a walkable downtown shopping area, the great river is hidden to everyone but K-Mart employees on a cigarette break. Everyone loves to hate Route 12A. The stretch of mini-malls, chain stores and fast food joints has been blamed for everything from backed-up traffic to environmental depravity to the homogenization of regional differences and small-town culture.

I couldn't agree more. A year ago, psyched to return to peaceful, scenic northern New England – which I remembered fondly from my last stint in Chester, Vermont – I followed the directions to a job interview and found myself, quite bewildered, at a Dunkin Donuts in the midst of the faceless gridlock of Route 12A.

Now, instead of leisurely lunch-break strolls around a shaded village green lined with local bookstores and cafes, I risk getting hit by an angry driver while dashing across the street to Best Buy. My resolution to eat healthy lunches is continually challenged by the scent of McDonalds french fries wafting on the breeze. I hate it too – but in a way, I secretly, begrudgingly accept Route 12A.

For one thing, residents of the picturesque and slightly-pretentious towns upstream would be remiss to think that their communities would be as thriving as they are without the commercial properties downstream. Many people in the Upper Valley aren't from here: they move here from the metro-south because they want to escape just the kind of hectic, consumer-based lifestyle that 12A represents. But if that were truly the case, they'd move to the Northeast Kingdom or northern Maine. The fact is, those places are remote and rural in a way the Upper Valley is not; here, you can pay good money (or be lucky enough to inherit) land that looks and feels rural, but without the inconvenience of having to drive an hour just to buy groceries.

The high quality of living and relatively strong job market combined with a still-intact rural character is what attracts many people to this region. But such strengths require a degree of population, and our population is sustained in part by the corporations that line 12A. It would be wonderful if all the money poured into the national chains were instead diverted to community projects and local entrepreneurs, but the fact of the matter is that the Walmarts and Staples of the world sprung up to fill a need and they aren't going away. For every Upper Valley resident who never swears they'd never park their Prius in front of Walmart, a dozen others will tell you they couldn't live without it. And even the die-hard Co-op shoppers sneak into Shaws for deals on wine and beer or plastic cups and potato chips for a party. I know, I've interviewed them there.

When I think of Route 12A, I think about my trail building experience in the northern Rockies. I spent a summer doing conservation work and maintaining hiking trails in Idaho, and one of the things that stuck with me is the concept of a trail as a purposeful scar. It's a scar, sure. But it focuses the damage in a single, concentrated corridor instead of letting it spread out unhindered across the land. Imagine a broad, flat valley flanked by mountains. To cross the valley from one range to the next, people will take a multitude of routes, some wandering north, some south, some veering toward water sources, others meandering toward the prettiest views. The valley floor will become trampled; alpine flowers crushed into mud by a stampede of boots.

The process of building a trail is intrusive and violent. But it concentrates the inevitable human impact, sacrificing one narrow strip for the greater good. That's how I think of 12A and our northern New England culture. By condensing the inevitable big box stores into this one ugly place, we're saving the many rural towns, working farms and independent businesses elsewhere in the region. 

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