Friday, May 5, 2023

The Magic Circle and the Loop That Isn’t

Moving to a new city means getting lost at the strangest times. Like, while driving in a straight line. I was driving on Alps Road and then I wasn’t. I was dutifully driving straight and hadn’t noticed the street name had changed to West Lake Drive. Somewhere back there a ways it changed and my GPS was naively silent. Did I miss a turn? Nope!

Say you’re in Athens, Georgia, and you decide to find an address on Barnett Shoals Road. Barnett Shoals turns unexpectedly left at an intersection that will leave you on Whitehall if you don’t make the turn. But let’s say, just for fun, you do a U-turn to get back on Barnett Shoals, you will find several miles later, at a T-intersection with still more options, BSR turns unexpectedly back toward the way you were headed to start with. In fact, you’ll soon be in Watkinsville, three blocks from Simonton Bridge Road, which is what Whitehall turned into if you missed the turn that got you off Barnett Shoals in the first place. Stay with me here.

“One day through the primeval wood
A calf walked home as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.”

My first exposure to the poem The Calf-Path, written in 1896 by Sam Walter Foss, was a single-page insert into my first management course material package taken while was in the Air Force. I kept it with me until I moved to Athens recently, finally tossing it exactly 60 years after I took the course back at Bitburg Air Base, way, way back in a former lifetime. Dog-eared and often copied, passed on to my daughter, and proven time and again to be absolutely correct, it once again flashed through my memory as I tried to figure out where Timothy Road went. Not because I was curious where it would lead, but because I was driving on it and then I wasn’t.

“The trail was taken up next day,
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bell-wether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bell-wethers always do.”

But I don’t mind. Even with the University of Georgia in full swing, the local traffic isn’t bad and the countryside is just beautiful, turning even mundane address hunting into a scenic road trip. They're even fixing the famous loop that isn’t, the Athens Outer loop, sometimes called Athens Inner loop. It all depends on whether you are coming or going.

“And from that day, o’er hill and glade.
Through those old woods a path was made.
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged, and turned, and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath,
Because ’twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed—do not laugh—
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.

Are you going clockwise or counter-clockwise? How would you know? According to some local experts, it depends if you are driving in the inside lanes or the outside lanes and where you are going or maybe where you might have been. I don’t know how to tell the inside lanes from the outside lanes since there are both left and right hand curves on the loop(s). Which way you’re going is generally relevant on most roads, even if they are a loop(s) because if you drive all the way around at east once, you’ve usually covered all the points on the compass. Apparently, a loop is not necessarily a circle.

“This forest path became a lane,
that bent and turned and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.

In Athens, you still won’t have a clue if you did it on the Outer Loop or the Inner Loop because it still is the same road and it ends up where it began, the point where you have to get off the loop to stay on it. Yes, you have to get off the loop to stay on it. Believe it or not, the last exit, or the first exit, depending if you’re coming or going on the inner or outer loop(s), is number 10. It used to be exit 11 until they improved the numbering. Exit number one is on the other side of town.

“The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street;
And thus, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half,
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.

First, how far is it from the Outer Loop to the Inner loop? Not very far, I found out after my third week driving on them. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised to discover they are the same road. The Inner Loop and the Outer loop are halves of the same highway. Not like a highway cut serially in pieces by toll booths, like a pizza, but cut in parallel down the side like a sliced bagel. The SR 10 Loop highway is a divided four lane, limited access highway, just like any other divided highway you’ve ever driven on where two lanes go in one direction and the other two lanes go in the opposite direction, except the middle – median – of this oddly named road is an important line of demarcation of sorts: the name changes from one side to the other.

Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed the zigzag calf about
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.

The loop closest to town, by the width of the median strip, is the inner loop, and since we are in the United States and drive on the right side of the road, travels in a clockwise direction. The lanes on the other side of the median, the furthest away from Athens by about 100 yards, going the other way, counter-clockwise, comprise the outer loop.

Oddly, there is something naively appealing about this simplistic naming convention once you live here: Is it faster to get to where you’re going by the Inner Loop or the Outer Loop because simply cutting through town is out of the question during when the University of Georgia is in session. You can drive the entire nineteen and a half miles of the SR 10 Loop at the legal speed limit in either direction and still knock fifteen minutes off driving through town to get to the same destination.

A hundred thousand men were led,
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way,
And lost one hundred years a day;
For thus such reverence is lent,
To well established precedent.”

Just don’t get off on Highway 78. Highway 78 can be Atlanta Highway, which is U.S. Highway 78, but not SR (State Road) 78. SR 78 cuts through the middle of the loop on both the North and South side of the loop(s). The US 78 exit on the west side of town is number 18, the same one where SR 10 coming from Atlanta meets SR 10 Loop, also known as the Outer/Inner Loop that goes both clockwise and counterclockwise, depending on whether you are coming or going.

“A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun,
To do what other men have done.

According to Wikipedia, “Between exits 4 and 8, there is an eight-route concurrency, consisting of US 29, US 78, US 129, US 441, SR 8, SR 10 Loop, SR 15, and the unsigned SR 422.” Believe it or not, old-timers here still call the road the Athens Bypass.

They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.

They don’t mention if this is the Inner Loop or the Outer Loop because they don’t know which direction you might want to drive, and if you are a hometown fan of the National Champion University of Georgia Bulldogs because then you have to sit on the other side of the stadium regardless of how you get there.

They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move.
But how the wise old wood gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf.
Ah, many things this tale might teach—
But I am not ordained to preach.”

1896 – Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911)

I can hardly wait for the football season kick-off. Game day here must be something to behold.

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