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The Way Roads Shape Us by Elizabeth Glass Turner

I’ll bet there are roads you could drive blindfolded if you really needed to.

Maybe it’s the road from your house to the entrance of your subdivision, or the route you take to work, or the circuitous path you carve in your daily routine – stop, start, turn, pause, start again. The rhythm of acceleration, brake, the swing of the vehicle as you round a curve – commuters, too, know the rhythm of train stations and bus stops, so that travel becomes second nature.

We see the construction workers and construction equipment so big it nearly qualifies as a building on treads that squelch their way through mud and we think we build roads; oh, maybe not you and me.

But our proxies are out in all weather spreading hot asphalt and leveling hills, that’s us – that’s Our Civilization Out There Building Roads. We think we build the roads.

I think the roads build us.

Recently I returned to central Kentucky, where I had lived for several years. I’d been away a while, and when I came back I was confronted with a new highway snaking through the rolling horse farms where an old one used to be; safer, undoubtedly, but out of sync with the old drive.

It was disorienting. I found glimpses of familiarity in unfamiliar proximity and proportion. Finally I discovered remnants of the old highway remained, running parallel to the new installation, and immediately pulled onto the original road. My body relaxed. Here was a landmark. There was a familiar farm. I knew the curves of the aged tumbling stone wall that marked old boundaries. The lift of the hills, the force of the turns – it was almost like muscle memory.

Hikers will tell you to leave your surroundings as untouched as possible, to preserve nature, to protect wildlife. But whatever trail you take, you won’t remain untouched. The path itself will have shaped you in some way.

Maybe that’s part of the reason that, over and over again, God reminded the Israelites to tear down the high places – those elevated perches of idolatry. Those paths needed to grow over and be forgotten. Those trails needed to be neglected; new roads needed to be established. Those muscles needed new memories. We hear stories of absent-minded drivers accidentally driving to their old place of work, or their old house – the same principle.

We think we shape the landscape, but the roads are shaping us.

How is it that the angle of a foot planted on a sidewalk can feel familiar? But it can. And the angle of the soul is similarly directed and shaped.

What roads are shaping you? The sentimental route to a loved ones’ house? The familiar trip to Sunday worship? The freeway journey to your job? The worn path trailing down to a beloved grave that you tend? The swaying course of a city bus to night class? It’s best to be mindful of what roads are shaping you. Roads can be sly, shifting you this way and that when you’re lulled into complacency.

Once, while driving, I mindlessly followed the person I was supposed to be following, only to look up and discover I’d been led past a Do Not Enter sign and was driving headfirst into oncoming traffic.

Examine your roads.

They shape you when you’re not looking.

And as pilgrims, we’re called to be mindful travelers.



This archival post originally appeared on Wesleyan Accent in 2014.