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Save our nameless roads

Essay by Paolo Bacigalupi

Rural Life – May 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

THERE ARE PLACES in the West where roads have no names. Places populated solely by stumpy sagebrush and vesicular basaltic stones. Places where five mile strips of dirt terminate at isolated farm houses. The names for these places make their own sort of wasteland sense: 2300 Road, N80 Lane, C-½ Road, O90 Drive, J50 Road, 3750 Road. Numbers and letters strung together at capricious random.

My wife and I have moved back to one of these places after long hiatus. We used to live in cities where street names mattered, and in subdivisions where developers wanted us to believe they mattered.

In the cities, there were broad streets with portentous names: Massachusetts Avenue, Lincoln Avenue, and Broadway. In the subdivisions it was Foxbrush Circle, Aspen Lane, and Red Cloud Trail; monikers evoking open space sacrificed at the alter of urban expansion. There were no foxes, nor any trees, but the names remained, like tombstones marking graves.

But we have escaped those urban pretensions. In our new home, there are only number strings and alphabet soup selections. I live on N Road. N as in Nancy. No, not even North. Just N. That’s right, the letter N. It does too exist. Stop asking questions and send me my mail.

My mail still arrives addressed to North Road.

The people who live here ignore the road appellations entirely. When giving directions they say, “You know where Walker’s place is? We’re the next road on the left. Drive down it until you see the big cottonwoods on the right. We’re the white house with the white barn.” Who needs a street name and a number, when the best description is which mesa you live on, or the color of your roof? Who will admit that they live at 35345 T75 Road, anyway? It sounds like the coordinates for a bombing run.

Of course, there are some who try to use the address system. When I was growing up here, an ambulance once pulled up to our house. EMTs rushed out to ask if we were 4530 N Road. “Well,” we said, “we’re 3637. Do you know whose house you’re going to? Eberle’s? Swayne’s?” They didn’t know. We couldn’t help them. They climbed back into their boxy chariot and set off again, their faces grimly set. Who knew how long they would cruise dirt byways, looking for an address which existed only in the minds of surveyors? Were they on the right mesa? Were they even within 20 miles of that desperate soul who had called for help?

I sometimes think of that emergency vehicle, searching along O Road and L Road, or if it strayed far enough, 4250 Road. I imagine it, 17 years later now, still cruising the dirt lanes, its blue and red lights flashing dully under thick dust mantles. Inside, the EMTs, desiccated by thirst, clutch the steering wheel with bony hands. They peer through the grit-encrusted windshield at the gravel ahead, still questing after that mythical address.

NOW THERE’S A MOVEMENT afoot to change the names of our roads. A movement to make our roads accessible. The roads will have new names; real names that make them clear to ambulance drivers. The letter/number strings that mark our land as fit only for timber sales and coal mines will disappear. And in their place? Names chosen by the people. Brochure names. Names that make real estate values rise. Mesa View Drive, Sage Road, Bear Creek Lane, or something worse. Tombstone names for graves to come.

There are ways to tell that the place you love is about to die. Canary in the coal mine indicators: things like coffee houses and Chinese restaurants, a new focus on customer service, and rising land prices. Our road names are just the latest sign of apocalypse.

Roads that defined us as backwater and irrelevant will suddenly have attractive new identities. The small town that I grew up in, that hardly deserved to appear on maps, will now have many come-hither points of reference. We’ll sip espressos on Sunshine Mesa Road, and eat Kung Pao Chicken at Piñon Pine Circle. The place that was nowhere near anywhere will have arrived, and most people will call the new democratic names an improvement.

Me, though, I’ll resist the encroachment. I’ll fight this onslaught of developer-brochure names and the loss of isolation that will inevitably follow. I’ve got my new address already picked out.

My road will be named Dead End.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives outside Paonia, Colorado.