My new book is about roads — roads as a powerful force that change the world, including the people on them. I traveled six transformative roads, in six countries, with people to whom they mean something.
Meanwhile, I tried hard not to think about the one piece of road I own — our driveway. It was in terrible shape. Already bad when my wife and I bought our house, some 15 years ago, it had only gotten worse. It's a short driveway, maybe 25 feet long, paved with asphalt. The asphalt long ago started breaking into pieces. It had two distinct channels, where cars' tires passed over it, and toward the bottom, close to the garage door, indentations where the previous owner's van must have sat when it wasn't in the garage. I picture the van there on hot days, indenting the asphalt. Shoveling snow from the driveway was a kind of nightmare, as every few inches the snow shovel would snag on something loose.
It was the worst driveway on the block, an embarrassment.
But paving is expensive, the kind of maintenance you can defer. More significantly, I'm afraid, for me: paving is a very heavy symbol. I write about the good and bad of roads in the book — they are absolutely key to commerce, to the economy, to progress. But every road, no matter how helpful, does something bad (more on this in tomorrow's post). And pavement is the symbol of this badness — of air pollution, the loss of nature, the death of plants and animals, the loss of ground that can soak up rain.
Sure, I could write about roads. But did I have it in me to pave?
My passive neglect came to an end in December when the doorbell rang. It was a paving guy. He'd been driving down our street and, well...couldn't help but notice our driveway. I know, I said. How much? He'd have to measure, but thought he could come in at less than three grand, closer to $2,500. When? Well, how's today?
And so it happened.
While his guys paved, I watched and talked to Justin Lenihan. He had a paving company upstate but now there was snow on the ground there, so he had come down to the city and was trying to drum up a little business ("Do you know the neighbor on the other side, next block down?"). He had two red trucks. One was a dump truck that his four guys filled with the pieces of my old driveway. They didn't need a jackhammer or anything to break it up — they just scooped it into wheelbarrows.
The other held hot asphalt. There is art in its application, and I watched as Justin's guys spread it out zone by zone and tamped it smooth with shovels, a roller, "tamp shoes," and a gasoline-powered "vibratory plate tamper." The air was cold and filled with steam and the smell of the asphalt and of exhaust. They didn't have long to work: once the asphalt cooled, it couldn't be reshaped.
There was some hot asphalt left over, so Justin asked if I wanted anything else paved. I thought about the muddy path from the driveway to the woodpile area and, before I could stop myself, said, Yes — over there. They covered the mud as well as some flagstone; later I noticed they'd paved right up to the base of a wisteria vine that grows up the corner of the house. And still they had asphalt left over. Well, there's this little area by the garbage cans. Done — and they surrounded a couple of fenceposts I'd dug in last year, as well. How would I ever replace them, now, if I had to?
Justin asked if I thought the neighbors would appreciate him filling in some of the many winter potholes on our street with what remained of the asphalt. I said absolutely, and watched him leave my property with gratitude and as well as relief. Because here's the thing: paving had reminded me of shooting a gun. You feel really powerful when you do it — it's fun, even addicting. But there are so many potential downsides. You should do it only when you really have to.
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Ted Conover is the author of several books including Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) and Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and National Geographic. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. He lives in New York City.
Books mentioned in this post
Ted Conover is the author of The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today