It took a little scare on a winding, gravelly road in deepest France to finally realize why I have so much trouble finding my way around Fairfield.
I was making the short but tricky drive from my friend's house to his vineyard, a trip I have made dozens of times but requires concentration each time. As a van approached from the opposite direction, I observed the local protocol, inching over on the narrow road while waving to the other driver. I was feeling like one of the locals when suddenly, the road in front of me became unrecognizable.
Did I make a wrong turn, a potential disaster on those unmarked roads? I breathed easier when I rounded a bend and came to a reassuringly familiar cow pasture. I was on the right road all along.
That moment of roadway confusion felt no different from many similar episodes in my own town -- which led to an epiphany. Just as in French farm country, the road layout in Fairfield is obsolete, and smacks of anarchy. And all these years I thought it was me!
Am I the only one who has a problem with this?
I never got lost getting from point A to point B in my pre-Fairfield life. In the enlightened cities of New York and Tucson, the streets are straight, parallel, run north-south and east-west, intersect at right angles, and are often conveniently numbered. This simple but elegant arrangement, the grid, is what sustained me into adult life. Little memorization is needed; the rare wrong turn is quickly detected and corrected.
Finding your way in a centuries-old agricultural center like Fairfield is another story. The original settlers got off to a good start with four square blocks surrounding the town green, but then they blew it for future generations by leaving the rest of local road layout to the farmers, who simply created the easiest routes from their homes to their fields.
The farms have all but disappeared, but we're stuck with a 300-year-old haphazard web of old farm roads that have become our main arteries. Those 17th-century farmers apparently could not have cared less that here in the 21st century, we've got yoga studios, supermarkets, and pizza places to get to. We've got to hit the ground running, and we don't have time to gamble that a convoluted road named for a farmer or a hill will get us to the movies on time.
The town has valiantly tried to create newer streets in some semblance of order, but there's only so much you can do. Fairfield even added a few numbered streets, but 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Streets are tucked away in a quiet neighborhood and are of no navigational benefit.
As for the French, you'd think they'd have taken a lesson from the Romans, who preferred arrow-straight roads. There's a reason they conquered the world.
I live in the geographic center of town, which means that I've got to nail down travel routes in all directions. I generally have only a rough idea of how to get somewhere that isn't really, really familiar, so I've got to keep it simple. Here's how I break it down.
North: I was traumatized by this direction early on. With roads like Greenfield Hill, Hillside, Hill Farm, Duck Farm, Farm Hill, Mine Hill, and Verna Hill all in a tangled maze up there in the woods, how do you not get lost? And does anyone really understand how Congress Street and Cross Highway work? I try not to go north without a guide, but I can reliably get to the Merritt via Black Rock Turnpike.
South: After 37 years, it's a project that remains a work in progress. Before I'm too old to drive, I aim to learn which roads to take down to the Post Road for different destinations. I have familiarized myself with several that will deposit me onto the Post Road at various points.
But first I must decide which one of these is the best to take down to that four-mile stretch of Post Road (80 New York City blocks, as I see it); after that, it's whether I turn right or left. In other words, getting to a specific place on the Post Road involves a wild guess followed by a coin toss. That makes for slim chances of success on any given trip, which is why I lead the town in illegal U-turns.
East: Stillson Road to Fairfield Woods Road. End of discussion. I apparently made a good choice here, given all the people who join me in trying to get through the Morehouse Highway stop sign. I never go past Stratfield Road, because I heard you can fall off the edge of the Earth.
West: There is hardly ever a need to go this way. When I do go, if I'm not careful, I will end up going north, and you know what that means. If I can find Long Lots Road, I will emerge on the Post Road in Westport. Don't get me started on Westport.
Final random thoughts: "Shortcuts" are a cruel illusion and only cause trouble; it's unmanly to resort to GPS in your own town; my wife suggests that I need more practice, but this is a trick to get me to do more errands.
And it won't help to move to France.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.