In Praise of Transverse Rumble Strips

“The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquility to make meaningful connections–with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds” 

Carl Honoré (b. 1967; In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed)

Come on. Fess up. Did the title of today’s post give you whiplash? Or did you find yourself asking, “What the hell?” before you virtually ran to your virtual dictionary?

Well, if you won’t fess up, I will. I had to run to my virtual dictionary. Not once. Not twice. But  three times. After all, I grew up in the coal mining region of Southern West Virginia. What the hell could I be expected to know about rumble strips, transverse or otherwise? Thank you for cutting me some (coal) slack.

Back in the late 1940s when I was born, West Virginia coal camps generally had one road going in and the same road going back out. The winding, single lanes were memorably narrow.

Once, when I was about four or five, I was walking up the narrow Cherokee Road to a playmate’s home. I had almost reached my destination when I saw a humongous black snake sunning right smack-dab in front of me, just a few feet away, extending himself all the way across the road. For a moment, my bare feet froze on the tarred surface, softened by the sun. But then the curious little boy in me lifted my feet and set me free. I tip-toed to one side and looked up the bank into the weeds. Then I quieted myself to the other side, leaned in, and stretched my eyes down the rocky drop off to Windmill Gap Branch below. When I realized that I could see neither the snake’s head nor its tail, I knew that it was time for me to hightail it back home and get my mother. And that’s just what I did. By the time the two of us returned to where I had seen the snake, it had crawled off to wherever it was going before I came along. It was nowhere to be seen. Luckily, my mother knew that I would not make up a tall tale like that. As we walked back home, she shared some of her own childhood black snake tales, but that’s copy better left to another day and, perhaps, another post.

The narrow road’s tarred surface was always lots of fun even when black snakes did not impede my childhood journeys. Solitary summer hours found me walking the road, searching for small tar bubbles. I knew just how hard to press my toes so that the surface would slip and slide back and forth above its liquid soul without it spewing forth like a minor Mount Vesuvius, burning my toes.

And then, of course, with any luck it might be a summer when Ashland Coal Company resurfaced the road with a new layer of tar. Word traveled fast through the coal camp when resurfacing was going to happen, and I knew exactly where I could go to get a bird’s eye view.

All that I had to do was walk a short way up the road–past the Caprinis, the Knights, and the Wilcoxes–go up the steps with stone walls on both sides winding along the road, and climb up my favorite bean tree in the Monarchy’s front yard. Bean trees were all over the coal camp, in all the  yards, planted years earlier by the coal company as a tip-of-the-coal-miners’ hard hats to ornamental landscaping. The trees are spectacular with large, heart-shaped leaves–big enough to umbrella a child in a heavy rain–and with showy, trumpet-like white flowers with purple and yellow throats–fragrant enough to take a child’s breath away on a misty morn. After blooming, the trees are covered with inedible beans, growing as long as 18 inches and anywhere from a half inch to an inch in diameter. Some people call them cigars. Either way, the tree–Catalpa bignonioides–is a member of the Catalpa family, and the beans/cigars are part of its prominent appeal.

The Monarchy’s bean tree was especially appealing to me not only because it was an easy climb but also because one of its branches extended halfway or more across the narrow, soon-to-be-resurfaced road. Sitting on that branch centered me right above the soon-to-unfold drama.

I can still see as vividly now as I saw then the truck edging closer and closer. It had a huge tank that stored and heated the tar and a distributor that spray-nozzled the tar onto the road.

Creeping along behind was the paver machine with several rollers that spread the tar across the road. Then came the machine with steel drums that compacted the surface.

But the equipment did not impress me nearly as much as the hissing steam that rose steadily from the surface and the smoky, oily smell that subdued even the fragrance of the bean tree flowers. Everything that I could see, seated there on the branch–skinny legs dangling–seemed coated in wet blackness. The road. The equipment. Even the clothes that the workers wore and even their hands that waved to me were all in stark contrast to their tanned faces, flexing wide smiles at me, the coal camp kid in khaki shorts and starched, spread-collar, white shirt, watching and smiling back from a bean tree branch just above all the men and all the action.

And even in times when the narrow road was not being resurfaced, it was always the perfect time and the perfect place for playing the perfect childhood game: hopscotch. Some chalk. A road. A kid. Some other kids. Some others, kids at heart. That’s all that it took. For joy. For exercise. For math. For putting to good use that one road in, that same road out. And here’s the good thing. Even a child like me could count with ease, using both hands, the cars coming in and going back out. Little wonder that our hopscotch patterns were nearly as permanent as if they had been stamped indelibly onto the road’s surface.

Unlike me, though, you probably weren’t born in a coal camp in the late 1940s. So you probably know all about the transverse rumble strips that I didn’t know about as a child.

But don’t be too hasty to agree, lest your eagerness embarrass you.

I’ll spare you by willingly embarrassing myself. Growing up, I missed out on rumble strips, but as an adult, I’ve heard their songs and felt their vibes.

Yet, until I started writing this post, I was not certain what the dang things were called. I had to virtually run to my virtual dictionary to find out.

Now I know. And, in case you don’t know, let me bring you into the know, too.

Rumble strips. Alert strips. Sleeper lines. They were first used in 1952 on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway as safety features, alerting drivers who veered outside the lanes. Shoulder rumble strips as well as center line rumble strips cause sounds and vibrations, with intensities in direct proportion to the vehicle’s speed. Reminder: slow down. Reminder: be attentive.

But don’t forget about  transverse rumble strips–the ones that perhaps gave you whiplash at the beginning of this post.

Sometimes, they’re temporary rumble strips, put down across the road to alert drivers to something ahead that may require a full stop, usually road maintenance.

Sometimes, they’re permanent, alerting drivers to an unexpected stop sign or intersection ahead or to a significantly lower driving speed.

Down through the years, I’ve had lots of experiences with shoulder rumbles, center line rumbles, and temporary transverse rumbles.

Truth be told, though, I can only think of one village that uses permanent transverse rumble strips, coming and going.

It’s one of my favorite places to visit. Actually, it might be my most favorite place. Mind you, though, it’s not my favorite because it’s known as the “Nation’s Horse and Hunt Capital” with fox hunting, steeple chases, and multi-million dollar estates. It’s not my favorite because of all the rich and famous people who have ties there, including Jack Kent Cooke, Robert Duvall, John F. Kennedy, Paul Mellon, and Elizabeth Taylor.

It’s my favorite for one reason and one reason only. Getting there requires me to slow down. Getting there requires me to be attentive.

It’s about 62 miles east of my home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. You’re probably thinking that I can get there in an hour. I can’t.  And that’s what I like about going there. Getting there requires me to slow down. Getting there requires me to be attentive.

Oh, I suppose that I could whiz along at 70mph on the interstate and get there faster than I do. But I don’t. I take the state roads: 55mph, slowing down from time to time to 35mph or 25mph, as I drive through some of the Valley’s  blink-and-they’re-gone small towns.

But what I like is when the 55mph slows to 50mph for a long spell. It’s then that the magic begins. It’s then that I start seeing the dry stack stone walls flanking the road, frozen in time, as perfect now as when farmers first stacked stone on top of stone for miles and miles. It’s then that I start seeing gaps in the walls here and there, perhaps the work of animals, though more likely the work of Nature. It’s then that I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

And then 50mph eases into 35mph as I approach Aldie, dropping to 25mph as I  continue through the village. Then, the calming speed pattern repeats itself as I come into Upperville.

It’s then that every fiber of my being becomes more relaxed, more alert, more attentive, quivering in my heart and my soul. It’s then that I say out loud–for me and me alone to hear: “How civilized. How incredibly civilized.”

It’s then, continuing a few miles further to my destination, that I drive across successive groupings of transverse rumble strips.

It’s then that I can actually see people and cars and dogs with heads sticking out car windows, unlike the fast-moving blurriness of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

It’s then that I know. I have arrived. I’m in Middleburg, Virginia.

Soon I’ll meet my good friend Frank–from long, long ago, but not from so far, far away–and sometimes his wife Barb. We’ll meet where we always meet for lunch: King Street Oyster Bar.

And if we’re aware that we’re seated in the village’s historic past and present, midst horse country, steeple chases,  fox hunts, and the rich and the famous, we never talk about it. I doubt that we’re even aware. I dare say that we’re not. Some things–like old money–never show, certainly not in Middleburg.

We’ll talk of this and that–of everything and of nothing, but always of the brininess of the oysters on the half-shell, so fresh that the ocean’s saltiness washes over our conversation.

Soon, always too soon even when it lasts for hours as ours always do, it is done. Lunch is over. We hug, then walk our separate ways, always turning around to wave, at least once, sometimes twice.

Then I start my journey home, driving back out the same road that I drove in, crossing over the rumble strips, noting the increasing speed limits. 25mph to 35mph to 50mph. And I say out loud once more–for me and me alone to hear: “How civilized. How incredibly civilized.”

When my journey morphs mysteriously to 55mph, I start to see the misty Blue Ridge Mountains rising up in the western sky. My heart quickens as I push down on the gas pedal, eager to get back to Edinburg and make the slow, bumpy drive up the one-lane-in, same-lane-out graveled road that always brings me back home.

Once again, the transverse rumble strips have worked their calming magic. Once again, I am at peace with myself and the world, as much as I was when I was a coal-camp child.