Roads reach out, but paths lead home

Statue of road god

The winged god Mercury represents far-flung travel.

Another means to understand how roads differ from paths, besides looking at one person’s modern-day commuting, is to look at the dissimilar pasts of highways and walkways, both factual and mythological.

The road/path distinction bubbles up in both myth and history. Ancient Greeks had the god Hermes (later Mercury to the Romans), who had his opposite in his aunt Hestia, goddess of the hearth.

Hermes was the god of routes and travelers. With wings on his sandals and on his helmet and on his magic wand (the Caduceus), he swiftly carried messages from the gods down to humans and promptly conducted the human dead down to Hades. He thus traveled easily between worlds above, at, and below the earth’s surface. More than that, he engaged nations as the witness of treaties, and he served individuals as the god of markets. In all these matters, he can be seen as reaching outward, along distant routes, to link disparate parties.

Opposed to his wide roaming sat Hestia (Vesta to the Romans). When Zeus went out, driving a winged chariot, all the other gods, arrayed in squadrons, followed him except Hestia, who alone remained home and who came to represent it. She was self-sufficient, the warm fire in each house, in each temple. Her force did not roam outward like Mercury’s, but instead attracted inward, inside, toward her resting place by the hearth.

As J.B. Jackson noted in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, the historic development of roads and paths seems to divide along this fault line of outward-reaching versus inward-attracting.  “[T]here are almost everywhere two parallel systems of roads, one of them local and centripetal, the other

Seated god of paths

Hestia, goddess of the hearth, stayed near home.

regional or national and centrifugal…” (p.22) The great road systems of the pre-Columbian Inca, the Anasazi, and the Romans of two and three millennia ago reached out from central points to link disparate places over great distances, much as today’s national highway systems do. These long, straight-line roads were engineered to disdain local topography, driving forward through marshes, over rivers,

and into hills. They also disregarded existing towns and markets because they were primarily designed for military, ritual, and official use, welding outlying territory to the imperial or spiritual center.

In each locale, farmers were obliged to seek means other than the restricted-access, long-distance highway to reach their local markets. Similarly, town merchants and their nearby customers had to seek alternate routes. As Jackson saw it, “The rural traveler will devise another way of traveling to the village, and this will consist of paths and trails and primitive roads beaten by local traffic and closely adjusted to the topography and soil, changing when the roads become impassable or according to the season. Thus there evolves what we might call

Two systems sketch

For millennia, long, straight road systems have existed alongside but apart from short, meandering vernacular paths.

a vernacular road system: flexible, without overall plan, but definitely centripetal; a system which is isolated, usually without maintenance….” (p. 23-24) One might summarize by saying: All roads lead to Rome, all paths lead home.

Over time, governments saw their interest in connecting their official road networks to the local path systems. The Romans ultimately extended their axially straight routes and grids down in scale so much that their roads surrounded individual, rectangular fields. Contemporary American governments have done the same, connecting the Interstate highway system down to city blocks. But, in general, the rule remains:  Extensive roads—the few, the farflung, and the mighty, used by governmental couriers, the military, and heavy transport—stand in polar contrast to intensive paths—the many, the nearby, and the minor, used by local producers, buyers, and just plain people.

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