The country roads of my rural Wisconsin childhood were identified by letters: County Trunk T, Township Road L. These byways made bold, fountain-pen strokes through wooded valleys. They lunged down hills, dashed straight between cornfields, and occasionally traced the circular gravel driveways of farmsteads. They crossed the "T's" of crop-field entrances and dotted the "I's" of dead-end country lanes. They leaped across streams, then arced into woods with a flourish, or so it seemed from the back seat of my parents' Ford sedan.
I was learning to read and write then. As I practiced my letters one day, it dawned: County Road H must consist of two stretches of parallel road connected by a perpendicular, quarter-mile shortcut! And Highway P must contain a long, straight segment that turned right, curved sharply, then reconnected with the straightaway at its midpoint.
Suddenly, I was certain that the path of each road resembled the shape of its namesake letter. What other explanation could there be? (Even in retrospect, such a leap of logic seems, well, logical.) So satisfied was I with this rationale that it didn't occur to me to verify it - not that I knew how to do so.
Whenever I practiced my "M's," "N's," and "O's" on special lined paper, I imagined flying above the local landscape, deciphering pale crushed-rock "E's" and dull gray "T's" bisected with yellow dashes. What if they spelled out a message readable only from above?
But in reality I remained grounded, content to ride along in my parents' car. Sometimes, swaying gently, I'd peer over the seat, puzzling at the "S" curve in the middle of Township Road I. But I did not let it trouble me unduly.
In fact, the roads of my rural childhood needed no nomenclature. My parents drove me only to church, to school, to town for the rare shopping trip, and to the homes of aunts and uncles, grandparents and neighbors. Mine was a circumscribed world.
My father (and later my mother, when she earned her driver's license) seemed to point the car in the proper direction as if by instinct. I never heard them talk about which way to go or how to get there. I didn't wonder at this; I supposed that they had always known the way. I hoped that one day, I, too, would grasp these routes. If my knowledge ever failed me, the lettered signs along the roadsides would spell out the route.
As fall turned to winter that year, I printed and I read, more and more eagerly. One day I noticed my father studying an atlas. He told me he was charting the itinerary of some faraway relatives who would visit us that spring. Climbing onto his lap, I recognized the shape of Wisconsin on the huge page before us. As I sat quietly, mimicking his concentration, I realized that I wanted to see the page as he did. So I studied the black, red, and gray wiggling lines, all connected like the crackle glaze in the vase on my mother's dressing table.
As I pored over the map, I saw that some roads were named with letter-number combinations - I-94, Highway C43 - shapes too complex to reflect any directional reality. I asked him why those roads had such complicated names.
HE explained that hills, lakes, and woods influenced how roadways were built, and that the names really didn't mean anything in most cases. Suddenly, I didn't want to hear any more. I didn't yet have the words to tell him (nor could I bear to admit) that my own foolish theory had been based on typography, not topography.
The implications of that atlas overwhelmed me. I'd never dreamed there were so many routes, so many different ways to go. How would I ever know which roads to take? Where did I want to go? I climbed off my father's lap and went back to my storybooks.
Last year, I returned to Wisconsin for a visit. One afternoon I went for a drive. I dove into ravines, cut through coulees, and circumnavigated meadows. I rode along slowly, as if scripting in longhand that old childhood theory.
I thought of all the books I'd read, the letters I'd written in the meantime, and how many maps I'd puzzled over. Since childhood, I'd driven hundreds of highways and flown high above many more, just as I'd once imagined doing.
Late that afternoon, I happened onto Highway W. It zigged and zagged, then zigged again - spelling its own name! As innocence, logic, and chance intersected, I finally divined the message encrypted in that landscape. Like my parents, I knew which way to go.