I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore

by Nori Odoi

When Roger and I moved from Lawrence, Kansas to New Bedford, Massachusetts in the early 80s, New England was just a tangle of lines and labels on the US map to me. The cluster of six tiny states has a total area that is smaller than the size of Kansas itself. I thought of Boston as a center of intellectual life, and I knew Massachusetts was famous for the Pilgrims and the beginning of the American Revolution. The rest of New England existed in my mind as vaguely romantic names, with great fall foliage and white steeples. I imagined it to be like the Midwest, but not as flat, with better views of the ocean.

You take the high road

My first wakeup call was as we drove through the streets of New Bedford—so narrow that they would have been considered alleys in Kansas City. New Bedford was incorporated as a city before the territories that became Kansas were part of the US. We drove by buildings old before Kansas finally became a state. But peeling paint and tilted silhouettes spoke of better days—it was hard to believe that this was once the richest city in the world—back when oil meant whales instead of wells.

That weekend, as we drove along the Cape Cod Canal on our way to explore the Cape’s National Seashore, I saw a sign that said, “Rotary ahead.”

“Wow! Business must be really important here if Rotary Clubs get such big billing!” I said.

“Strange,” Roger said. “This doesn’t look like a very built up area. Why would they—What is that!”

Ahead of us the highway opened into a gigantic asphalt circle packed with two lanes of cars driving round and round at a dizzying rate. We came to a dead stop. Fortunately it was the slow season for tourists, and there was no one behind us.

“Now what?” Roger said. “How do we squeeze in there?”

“I’m just glad you’re doing the driving. Interesting. This loop of road looks round—do you think this is the Rotary?”

Somehow we survived the Sagamore Bridge Rotary after which all other rotaries seemed doable. I felt a twinge of sadness when the gigantic traffic circle was finally replaced with the Sagamore Bridge Flyover in 2006. Instead of dumping the drivers from Route 3 and the drivers from US Highway 6 into one huge congested traffic morass, the Flyover allows Route 3 drivers to continue via overpass directly to the Sagamore bridge and the Cape. US Highway 6 flows smoothly under Route 3, and drivers can take an exit to cross the bridge. The Flyover simplified traffic, reduced gridlock and increased safety, but the Cape lost a place of distinction and high adventure.

When I feel nostalgic though, I can always drive through what my friends call the “Rotary of Death” on Fresh Pond Parkway in West Cambridge. It is a relatively small rotary which nonetheless is heavily travelled, containing two lanes and joining three major roads. Although there are clear rules of the roads regarding who has right of way, many drivers seem not to know them or, worse, follow totally opposing ones. Discussions on the internet have proposed the best way of travelling through this rotary is to take some other route entirely.

Do your own thing

Traffic in New England often has a metaphysical feel rather than a logical, analytical one. In Boston, I was once given directions that included driving down a certain one way street.

” Isn’t that the wrong way on a one way?” I asked, feeling confused.

“Don’t worry,” my guide said. “It’s only for a block. Everybody does it.”

Another time, while driving in the heart of Boston with a friend, I signaled that I was changing into the right lane.

“What are you doing?” he said in horror. He reached over and flipped off my turn signal. “If you signal, other drivers will cut you off! Just get into the lane you want—they’ll get out of your way.”

Then there was the night somewhere in Massachusetts when under the orange glow of a harvest moon, I sat at a stoplight and watched as a driver backed his van quickly and expertly up a highway entrance ramp. Since then, I’ve become quite alert when entering highways.

Signs, Signs

Possibly my most confused moment was when I came to an intersection with a stoplight in a small city in Massachusetts and saw a sign that said, “Obey Traffic Signal.” As I sat in the left lane waiting to turn, I pondered the reason for posting a sign that seemed so unnecessary.

When the signal light facing me turned green, I saw that the lanes of oncoming traffic were packed with cars. Patiently I waited for them to go through the intersection before I made my left turn.

But the cars didn’t move. Instead the cars behind me began to honk. Then the cars facing me began to honk. Red-faced, I made my turn, trying not to see the upright fingers of drivers in the surrounding cars. How was I to know that “Obey Traffic Signal” meant to make an apparently suicidal left turn in front of oncoming traffic when the light turned green?

The “delayed green signal,” where the signal light facing one direction turns green before the signal light facing the other direction does was fairly common in New England, though I had never encountered one in Kansas. I quickly became adept at this, turning left briskly whenever the oncoming traffic remained stopped after my light turned green.

Several years later, I returned to Kansas City for a visit. To my surprise, I was deafened by the screams of my passengers as I turned left in front of an oncoming car. It turned out that the driver had just been dawdling when the light changed. We all survived thanks to a well-applied bit of acceleration, but when I tried explaining the concept of delayed green, none of my passengers were sympathetic.

Another road sign that I found confusingly indirect was inscribed “Thickly Settled.” These signs seemed quaint and poetic until I learned that this actually meant that I would receive a ticket if I drove faster than 30 miles per hour. It indicates houses and other buildings are located on average less than 200 feet apart.

When Roger and I finally drove to Maine for a well-deserved vacation, we found the signs to be refreshingly to the point. In fact, we were surprised to find signs at the entrance to the Maine Turnpike explaining the rules of the road. “Signal when changing lanes,” “Dim lights for oncoming traffic.” We joked that Mainers believed outsiders needed a drivers’ education refresher course.

The Maine Turnpike is the main North/South thoroughfare in the state. It was the second superhighway built in the US when it opened in 1947. It was dubbed The Mile-A-Minute highway, because at that time, Mainers were astounded to be able to drive at 60 miles per hour.

It is quite a revelation after the highways in Kansas, which are often flanked by endless, rolling cornfields.You can literally see for miles on either side—all the way to the horizon. Not so the Maine Turnpike. Here dense walls of tall pines are broken by tiny glimpses of twisting brooks and sunlit ponds. It is a magnificent, scenic road to travel—but for people used to driving in the Midwest, it often feels a bit claustrophobic.

Separated by a common language

The various Massachusetts accents were sometimes difficult for me to understand, but it was in Down East Maine that I met my match. Roger and I had gotten lost wandering the back roads, and he finally agreed to stop for directions if I did the asking. We saw two older gentlemen sitting on a park bench, and I hopped out.

“Excuse me,” I said politely. “We seem to be lost. Which way do we go to reach Bar Harbor?”

One of the two men then went into a long dissertation on the best path, gesticulating emphatically and occasionally joined in by his companion. The sounds were clearly English. I smiled, thanked them, and walked back to the car.

“Well. Which way do we go?” Roger asked.

“I have no idea. I couldn’t understand a word either of them said. Let’s just keep driving. Something will turn up.” I waved and smiled at the two friendly gentlemen.

Home at last

Roger and I finally went our separate ways, but New England and I bonded permanently. Some years later, I moved to New Hampshire. I now live near Peterborough, New Hampshire in a peaceful area, quiet except for the occasional sounds of planes on a flight plan for Manchester Airport. I’m a member of a local CSA, which I explain to my Kansas relatives as being “Community Supported Agriculture.” CSAs allow  people to buy a share of the farm harvest at the beginning of the year so that they are supplied with fresh organic produce throughout the growing season. My home is not far from one of the two original CSAs in the US—the Temple-Wilton Community Farm.  I buy my eggs and milk from a local farm and shop at the nearby Farmers Market.

My car has become stuck in the snow several times—each time people soon stopped, helped me free myself, then drove off, content with a few words of thanks, knowing that they have helped a neighbor they had not previously known.

I’ve grown used to the forested coziness of New Hampshire, and when I travel to the Midwest, I miss the low, ancient mountains that dot the landscape. I like the plain-spoken directness of so many New Hampshire residents, their feisty independence, and determination to make their own way. My Midwestern relatives have started to grumble about the way I pronounce my words.

Still sometimes I miss the vast vistas of the Midwest. When I do, I go to the ocean and look east. I imagine that if the air was only clear enough, I could see all the way to Ireland.

But when I look landward, instead of corn fields, I see deep woods of pine and oak, sometimes white-washed capes and the occasional mansion, sometimes granite outcroppings and glacier carved lakes. I’m not in Kansas anymore.

“Ah,” I sigh as peace fills my heart. “It is good to be home.”