New England Roads – Unsafe at Any Speed

This blog will discuss my travels, starting with my home region of New England in the Northeastern United States. The username is a very weak attempt at humor, since if you knew me you would know that I never hitchhike except when walking a trail that is not a loop.

About two years ago, seeking peace and quiet, good places to walk the dog, and some water for kayaking,  I moved to Central Massachusetts. Really just seven miles away from Eastern Massachusetts, but New England is like Olde England in that it is composed of towns and villages, with very different “cultures.” I expected to make some adjustments in that the public transportation network is a bit different and I knew that there tends to be slightly more snow and harsher weather. What I didn’t count on was the lack of safety for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists in New England in general and Central Massachusetts in particular.

An important day each year that usually occurs sometime between Halloween and Christmas is “the first snow”, that is, the first snowfall that “sticks” or stays more than a few hours. New England, like most of the USA, is a land of commuters by personal automobile, and outside major urban centers, public transportation is limited and inconvenient, or non-existent.

My bicycle is over 10 years old now, a reliable brand but very heavy and impossible to fit into my small car without dismantling. The only time I tried to ride it in the past five years, I was very much out of shape and overweight, and fell. Therefore when the chain slipped to the extent that it required professional care, I happily put the errand on the back burner. So bicycle incidents will be those that happened to other people. These unfortunate crashes will be subject of another post.

Born and raised in a driving culture where the difficulty of the written and practical exams made even the best students fearful (our class valedictorian got a lower grade on the driving test than any other test), I was reasonably confident that I could handle the challenges of New England, although I remembered an ugly incident in my student days when we were driving to a Halloween party and another driver knocked out the driver’s side mirror on Storrow Drive. There may have been a South Asian person in the car, our school was and is very diverse. I figured that there would be fast drivers, tailgaters, and perhaps still some people who didn’t appreciate non-pale people, although it is the 2010s and not the 1980s. Driving in 2016 New England will be covered in another post.

Walking is my favorite exercise. As well, recently I seem to be going through a stage where I make a lot of mistakes (yikes, early onset dementia?) although it could be stress. For example, in driving for thirty years, I have run out of gas four times: in my driveway at home, at a border crossing when there was too much traffic and the gas stations weren’t open (maximum embarrassment, nice border guards, though), on an off ramp when going to get gas, and in my parking spot at my building in Central Massachusetts.

The last two incidents have happened in the past week. My twenty-something sons are seriously concerned, and I have to redeem myself or at least figure out what is going on. The gas gauge may well be broken, evidently the new digital ones can break in the same way that the old ones could. Or I may simply not have put enough gas in lately, trying to spend only small amounts of money, and the gauge is confused. This post will focus on my experiences walking in New England to purchase a gas can (I don’t normally carry one in the car for fear of being rear-ended. As well, I saw a sign saying that it is illegal to carry a gas can in the passenger compartment of the car). Normally, I have the AAA, but in cutting back on expenses, combined with having an extremely reliable car, have dropped the coverage.

The first time this week was on an off-ramp on the 495, about 1000 yards from a gas station. It was daylight, therefore a simple matter of putting on the hazard lights, carefully walking down the ramp to the station, buying the “emergency” 1-gallon can that was available for about $12, putting gas in the can and walking back. The hard part was opening the can and putting gas in it. I got gas all over my hands, fortunately not my clothes or I would have had to throw them away. The attendant let me know that if I washed my hands a bunch of times they would stop smelling like gas. When I finished putting the gas in the tank, a woman in scrubs stopped her car, and got out to help (thank you!) and I gestured that I was OK and she went on her way. It was a little awkward at the business meeting that I had later and I explained the situation and the other person was very understanding, something similar had happened to someone in their family.

The second time was in my parking lot. I had a complex day full of errands. I had noticed the problem with starting the car over the weekend, and planned to deal with it early Monday AM. On Monday, though, I got caught up in some administrative matters and didn’t finish up until noon. In thinking about the car, I remembered a couple occasions when it didn’t start, such as failing to hit the re-set switch on the anti-theft device, and did simple troubleshooting to eliminate those causes. At this point there was about two inches or five cm of snow on the ground. Combining two errands, I walked to a cafe in a nearby town for lunch. The walkable town had about five banks, but not the one I bank with. I badly needed to make a cash deposit. The fees for wiring money were too high, and banks generally only do it for their own customers. I confirmed this by asking at the Bank of America branch. Hmm, I thought, better get that car situation sorted out and then get to the closest branch of my bank. I spent another 45 min. or so looking for the gas station that I thought likely had a tow truck, and made a wrong turn at one point. Thank goodness for smartphones! Here’s the thing: it turns out that I could have solved my problems by checking the train schedule. There was a branch of my bank two stops away, though it wasn’t the closest branch. Didn’t think to do so, though, since I associate trains with high fares from the outer suburbs to the inner suburbs or the city. Instead, I decided to walk to the closest branch and figure it out from there.

Well it was an interesting walk. The new rail trail was partially complete, and the light played on the snow in a delightful way. There was a lot of new construction around, near which the sidewalks were torn up, so it was a little dangerous, especially when trucks were speeding (which was often). I thought maybe I would get teal-shamed, since I had pulled my trademark tealish scarf out of the closet, and this was early December, still a bit soon after the election, but only one guy driving a big town sand truck was obnoxious. The others were only speeding too fast around curves in icy conditions brought on by the first snow. There were also non-professional drivers speeding driving big SUVs as well. Normal for Central Massachusetts.

The beautiful walk continued, and an amazing fog developed just prior to sunset. I wanted to take some pictures, especially of a historic mile marker on what had been the Boston Post Road (I think) but of course with the cold and the new operating system the battery was dead. So, on to the bank branch which conveniently was located in the same complex as a Staples and a grocery store. This part of the walk was hampered by icy sidewalks, and I was walking on the grass, that was OK, I had duck boots on.

Finally reached the branch and made the deposit. Whew. Then on to Staples to sort out the phone battery. There are some good products for this problem, to be researched in the future, but Peter at Staples was so nice that he let me charge using his charger. While waiting, I perused the maps aisle and saw that my favorite brand had a map of Central Massachusetts, ignoring that pesky Eastern part with the angry, pro-pale people drivers entirely. Sold! Nicely warmed up, I went to the grocery store, and bought dinner and another few day’s groceries.

Now to get home. Recently I had a security scare in my apartment, which mainly turned out to be a careless dog sitter. So I don’t tell anyone exactly where I live. However, I live very near another grocery store, so I decided to try to get a ride there. Not crazy about Uber or Lyft, I haven’t downloaded either app, so I called a cab company which quoted $20. I could do a lot with that sum, and  decided to walk home.

Now here’s another thing: because of the security scare, I am now somewhat afraid of the dark, like one of my sons was long ago. No flashlight, and I did not want to make another unnecessary purchase. On the other hand, I had driven that route many times, and practically knew it by heart. While walking, I noticed some interesting and useful small businesses that I had always been too busy to go to and browse. One was an auto parts store. Aha, maybe a cheaper one gallon can. Nooo, same price but the sales associate had good advice for my gauge problem. Another was a ski store. Having recently met some fitness goals, I would like to take up skiing again.They were having a XC clinic, and a kind salesperson named Joyce showed me the snowshoes. Snowshoe technology has really developed since I tried them back in the day as a teenager. When I mentioned that I was on foot because of the car issue,  Joyce offered me a ride home. Amazing! I didn’t take her up on it because she was in the middle of a shift, and home was not that far away. Since it was so dark, I decided not to mess with purchasing gas to put in the car and shelved that task for the next morning.

Now came the tricky bit. Crossing roads in the dark, and dark roads at night without a flashlight. I decided to go against “conventional wisdom” at least as I understood it, and walk on the same side as the cars, to take advantage of their lights and avoid being blinded by them. When a speeding (of course!) car or truck went by, I got off the road entirely. I stopped at a familiar store to pick up a drink and break up the journey.

When I got to the train station (!) I knew I was about 40 min from home, an easy walk. Near the train station, a man in a sedan did not stop at the pedestrian crossing, so I gave him the “Seriously?” gesture. He was nice and apologized, saying that he did not see me, which was reasonable, since I did not have a flashlight. Once the sidewalk started again, the problem was drivers who did not realize that their high beams blind pedestrians. Or maybe they did not see me. I sang my favorite song to keep my spirits up, maybe that was a little over the top since it was a walk in the suburbs and not a true hike.

With relief, I got to the complex, and a neighbor stopped to offer me a ride because the sidewalks were so icy. The day ended with tired feet but gratitude for the kindness of strangers and friends, and a nice supply of groceries. As well as some lessons learned.

As for the skill set of Central Massachusetts drivers and sidewalk clear-ers, further thought is required. There was a drought this summer, though snow is allowed to pile up and be polluted by vehicles in the winter. Seriously? In the next posts, we will look at cycling and then driving with regard to the problems and solutions.





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