On the gluttonous maw of Martha’s Vineyard roads

My folks, of the hippie stardust that landed on the deer-ticked dunes of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1960s and 70s, have lived down the same driveway in Aquinnah for the entirety of their five decades there. Locust Lane was a notoriously treacherous gash of gravel and sand that crept through the forest towards Pancake Hollow that down the years had swallowed buggies, pickups, and UPS trucks whole. Its prominent center hump, steep grades, loose stones, and tendency to flood which turned it into a bayou in summer and a solid glacier in winter meant it was only reliably passable by high-set 4×4, Subaru, or toboggan. All others were at their own peril. They always said it kept the Jehovah’s Witnesses away if nothing else.

Yet The Old Days eventually do come to an end. Locust Lane had to be improved when Mom and Dad built a new house on it in the mid 2000s. It’s been graded, wrapped, sealed, and hydrologically engineered to the point that a Triumph TR3 or Zamboni machine wouldn’t have a problem paying the folks a visit. Reports of Saturday morning proselytizers are yet to be confirmed. Our road wasn’t, however, the last of its kind.

Whether it was exceptionally rough, long, steep, narrow, confusing, or a combination thereof, the rowdy road seemed to be nearly a prerequisite of living on the Vineyard at one time. Everybody lived on one. The Deity of Tailpipes received endless ritual sacrifices there. But they weren’t always just residential driveways; they were the old byways, the ancient King’s Highways, the former post roads and stage routes that linked farm to village or mill to baker in days of auld lang syne. They cut through the scrub oak of the great outwash plain, traversing lines of property and town, wending around wetlands and splitting off here and there. They’ve been subject to improvement, but many remain as living museums of The Way It Used To Be. Nowadays they feed secluded subdivisions, tucked-away plumbers’ and carpenters’ shops, and boat landings, in various states of leaf-spring-busting disrepair. They dissect the landscape and connect the main roads in mysterious ways. Those in the know might use them to bypass the thrombosis of summer tourist traffic, or, in my exuberant and I-no-longer-condone-this youth, as rally stages. These are my favorites, the greatest of the island’s back roads.

Clay Pit Road/east pasture road, aquinnah

In the confounding climb from Lobsterville Beach up to State Road near the Wampanoag tribal lands, this densely wooded and somewhat creepy old labyrinth was home to the late author and socialite Yvette Eastman. She lived to be 101. Yow! The road is rough and sandy in parts, but its real treachery comes from the narrow, blind corners and sheer number of forks and diversions along the way, whichever one you choose first invariably being the wrong one. There’s always two-way traffic on this severely one-laned path in the summer, making this more of an off-season drive. In winter, the big hill on the Lobsterville side will be unsummitable in slippery conditions with your average all-season-tired car. It’s a slow, deliberate slog through the coastal woodlands, but an interesting puzzle for those of sound mind and reversing skill. Maybe it’s what kept Mrs. Eastman alive.

flanders lane/old woods road/abel’s neck road, chilmark

Not for the low-chassised among us, this ancient and muddy way runs mostly parallel to the Menemsha Crossroad until it turns due south, linking the outskirts of Menemsha to a stone’s throw from James Taylor’s house at Quitsa. The northern section is wide enough to allow parcel delivery vans to squeeze by opposing SUVs, provided one pulls over, but once the road turns left into Old Woods, forget it. The mossy banks will be massaging your rocker panels. Its deep wheel ruts and washed-out, stony pits will make a Golf or Accord groan in protest on the best days. Loose rocks will bash your oil sump and differential. If there’s snow or ice, you’ll need every inch of your ground clearance and every bit of traction coefficient your Michelins can muster. I clocked innumerable passages of this road in my bicycle-riding kidhood and my teenage years of stress tests on Mom’s black Forester.

weaver lane/Winyah lane, tisbury

People who, in their Sisyphean efforts to get the hell out of Vineyard Haven, find themselves around the Hines Point area and don’t want to deal with Five Corners, or are at Five Corners and don’t want to then suffer the kick-him-when-he’s-down State Road/Edgartown Road/Look Street intersection, and who feel Skiff Avenue is a cop-out, could head down to the end of Lagoon Pond Road and swing their 4Runner or Outback through the white gate and trundle their way up this old tractor path. With its surfaces of sand, stones, and fractured tarmac, it’s a picturesque cruise along the lagoon and away from the bedlam. There’s a steep and rugged hill that requires careful piloting. It dumps you out next to the old telephone exchange building, and from there one can bomb on to Edgartown or take the back way up-island. Or, if you’re feeling especially brave, you can turn right just before Goodale’s pit onto the dreaded…

head of the pond road/stoney hill road, tisbury/west tisbury

Christ. This is for the real knuckleheads. The true wheelmen, the flag-draped freaks of old. It’s a bipolar gauntlet of heaven and hell into the heart of the temperate forest. Best taken with a dose of cyclizine and four wheels driven. Bring the IH Scout or the Land Cruiser or the Unimog for this. From the Vineyard Haven side, it starts as a gentle paved road that passes the alpaca farm, but by Thimble Farm it devolves into a narrow dirt helter-skelter of rocky ravines and undulations that are positively biblical. These aren’t mere potholes or puddles. These are sub-Saharan sedan-swallowing gullies, unfathomable abyssals, pointing you straight to Jesus on the ascent, to Hades on the descent, and to Meineke as the undercarriage tears off in between. Once–if–you pass the mayhem, you open up to a glorious Nordic pass of well-maintained dirt track fit for Colin McRae, may he rest in peace, that weaves past the former Chicama Vineyards and the cohousing. Naturally, my young and rapacious right foot pressed the envelope of the physically possible back here. Winter was my time. I pictured myself at the helm of a smoking two-stroke Saab, 1961, yowling, ring-a-dinging through the white forest, dancing over the ditches and through the sweepers to the swoon of the onlookers. Or as Petter Solberg in the WRC Impreza, heroic rooster tails of snow arcing from every wheel and scaring the owls off. You’ll end up, as luck would have it, in West Tisbury by the Kingdom Hall.

I once had a good friend and the girl he was truly smitten with in the car one snow day’s afternoon, and I went up Stoney Hill. I figured a winter wonderland drive would set the mood. There was a good foot of virgin snow on the ground, with drifts several feet deep. The stuff Subaru ads are made of. Of course, I was absolutely barreling down the bad section, wide-open, riding the crests of the ravines, full beans, wheels sawing to and fro. I then augered the Forester smack into a snowbank. They screamed. No matter. Full astern, the differentials sending power every which way, the crackle of a boxer-four on the boil, and we were back to the races. We sailed through the glistening woods in delicate four-wheel drifts. Their romance never did blossom, but hey, not for lack of trying on my part.

Author: Bunny Butler

I'm the last of the good old-fashioned steam-powered trains.