Navigating by roadside anomaly
Years ago, I visited a small town in cotton country called Rolling Fork, Miss. On the highway south, I’d passed by a house decorated with giant dinosaurs. Approaching town, I’d made a wrong turn initially and wound up on the west side of the Mississippi River in a place called Transylvania, replete with a vampire bat painted on the civic water tower. Back on the other side of the river, I asked a Rolling Fork resident how to get to where I needed to go.
“Well, you go out to where the railroad track used to be, then you hang a right,” he told me.
I didn’t want to appear stupid, so I followed his directions. Sure enough, once I got to the edge of town, there was a big mound running underneath the road where someone had literally picked up the rails and ties and taken them to wherever trains still needed to go.
Despite markers, street signs, GPS co-ordinates and other methods of marking location and directions exactly, I suspect humans still like to organize themselves spatially by observing anomalies along roadsides: giant apples, inukshuks, broken bridges, decrepit barns with Bible verses indicated on the boards and front doors of houses painted with too-bright colours.
Years ago in school, I met someone who travelled along the same stretch of highway to get to what is now Ryerson University. She mentioned that the true measure of whether you’d driven most of the way to Toronto from London was a terrible-looking house on the hillside to the north of a bend on the 401 highway. From the road, the ranch-style house looked like it had never been painted, its filthy grey boards appearing ready to fall off its frame. I was surprised as hell, never thinking that anyone else had invested that place with the significance I’d been giving it for the past 20 years. Someone eventually graced it with a splash of orange paint that didn’t really add much to its esthetics, but it probably helped provide a more distinct road marker for a new generation of drivers.
I’ve probably travelled that strip of the 401 between London and Toronto more often than any other highway and it seems particularly rich in roadside landmarks.
There’s an outcropping of the Niagara Escarpment on the south side of the highway near the city of Milton that I recognized long before I knew what an escarpment was. As a pre-schooler, I knew it simply as “The Rock.”
On the north side of the 401, near the Highway 6 exit to Guelph, ladies and gentleman, we have the illuminated neon Schneiders sign featuring a Pennsylvania Dutch girl beaming about the fine quality of the company’s wieners and deli meats. Erected in 1861, the sign is known to locals as the “wiener beacon.” Rumour has it that when the sign was refurbished in 1980, the ribbon-cutting ceremony featured local luminaries slicing through a string of wieners.
Heading further west to Cambridge, there’s a giant four-poster bed advertising the wares of Mennonite Furniture and Gifts, Inc. If your destination is downtown Cambridge, head south. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you pass a three-storey rocket on your left at the Satellite Motel.
Some landmarks are transitional in nature. Near the overpass formerly known as Highway 2 to Woodstock, some enterprising soul had once burned the word “Rambo” into the grass on the hillside. It took nature three years to reclaim it.
Follow that road up to London through Woodstock and you’ll pass an iron statue of a Holstein cow, the Springbank Snow Countess. I found out later that the Countess was famous because she had produced a lifetime record of more than 4,100 kilograms of butter fat. To me, she was famous simply because her statue stood by the roadside.
Canada, of course, is a country filled with local anomalies that will provide landmarks and guideposts for generations to come. I have a photo album filled with them and would be happy to show it to anyone personally.
Just drive up north past the giant rooster, hang a left at the house where I used to live, then pass by the spooky place with the fence where the weird old guy used to feed the raccoons. Park on that spot on the road where the old brick pokes out through the asphalt. I live in the house by the fire hydrant.