People fall off their stools laughing when you say “traffic” and “Martha’s Vineyard” in the same sentence. Muwahahahaha, you think you’ve got traffic? You’re nuts.

Honey, I know traffic. I lived in D.C. for 11 years, commuting by bicycle for several of them. I’ve sucked the exhaust of rush-hour traffic creeping over Memorial Bridge. I’ve woven in and out of cars, trucks, and buses speeding downhill on 16th Street, N.W., trying to get to work on time. Helmet, me? Hah!

More recently I’ve done my time on Boston’s Southeast Distressway, looking down through the window on a Peter Pan bus, wondering if we’ll ever get to South Station. Wondering, too, what sitting in that kind of traffic day after day after day does to the human psyche, and glad that I live here and not there among those crazy people who don’t know they’re crazy. When someone on Martha’s Vineyard grouses about having to wait 15 minutes to get through an intersection, I snigger.

We don’t have traffic jams like that, but we do have traffic: motor and non-motor vehicles moving along roads of various sorts. City people don’t acknowledge that some of our roads are roads at all. Some of them are dirt, for one thing, and many of the tertiary roads are single lane. Until fairly recently, many roads didn’t have signs on them. Some of them didn’t even have names. Our directions to each other would go something like “Take the third dirt road on the right after the State Road intersection — there might still be a hubcap leaning against the tree. About half a mile in, take the right fork near the big boulder . . .” When we had to call 911, we had our map and lot numbers ready.

Yes, I can see how names and signs make it easier for emergency personnel to find their way to the home of someone having a heart attack — people in crisis tend to forget map and lot numbers, and many summer renters never knew them in the first place — but improved signage was a mixed blessing. Time was, if a newcomer wanted to know which was the upper end of Lambert’s Cove Road and which the lower, she had to either listen carefully or ask someone who’d been here longer. Now that anyone just off the boat can read it off a sign, there’s no reason to ask.

Aid to navigation

Off-islanders take certain aids to navigation for granted, like traffic lights. With no red lights and green lights telling us when to stop and go, we have to figure it out for ourselves. And we do. Island drivers are big on eye contact. Three drivers whose hoods are all pointing into the same intersection will negotiate and yield right-of-way with eye contact and a quick wave of the hand. If you’re waiting in a driveway or parking lot to get into a steady stream of traffic, you seek eye contact with passing motorists. Usually within a few seconds, someone will slow down and either wave or flash you in.

When two vehicles meet nose-to-nose on a single-lane road, someone’s got to give way. We’ve worked out rules of etiquette for that. Single-lane roads of any length have got lay-bys where one car can pull over to let another one pass. If you’re approaching a lay-by when you spot an oncoming car, you take it. When two vehicles meet between lay-bys, the one who’s closest to a lay-by backs up. One car yields to two, two to three: on some of the best-traveled dirt roads, in summer you do sometimes encounter two or three cars in a row. A car or truck with a trailer in tow shouldn’t have to back up. Ditto anyone with possibly impaired visibility, like four bicycles stacked against the rear window. If the lay-by is sandy or muddy, the vehicle with four-wheel drive yields to one without because it’s most likely to get safely back on the road.

This common-sense system works well most of the time, even in summer. For many years, though, I’ve been convinced that SUVs sold in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut aren’t equipped with reverse. These people almost never back up. Perhaps drivers in those states don’t have to demonstrate competence in reverse in order to get their licenses? They don’t understand eye contact either. On occasion I’ve been nose-to-nose with an off-island SUV. It’s got a lay-by about 15 feet behind it. The nearest one to me is almost a quarter mile down the road. I wait, making polite but expectant eye contact. He doesn’t budge.

At this point I have two choices. (1) I can back up that quarter mile and graciously spare Mr. SUV the anxiety of backing up. Or (2) I can stare at the other driver till he gets the message: Want to get to where you’re going? It’s all up to you, bud.

I’ve sometimes exercised option #1, usually when there are screaming kids in the other car. Usually, though, I go for #2. I smile graciously at the other driver as I drive by.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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8 Responses to Traffic

  1. Betty Burton says:

    Have you ever seen Ted Hewett’s depiction of 5-corners? It’s been in the Gazette once or twice. Priceless.


    • No — I’ve got a friend who might be able to dig it out of the Gazette archives, though. Possibly my favorite island newspaper story ever was done ca. 1998 by Lisa Wangness, reporter for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. It was basically “a day in the life of Five Corners.” She started before 6 a.m. with words and photos and followed it through till late at night. Great concept, wonderfully done. Not long after, Lisa went on to bigger and better things; I believe she’s now working for the Boston Globe.


  2. susan robinson says:

    Two random responses. In Santa Fe there was a corner where the rule was, “Turn left at the sleeping dog.” This was probably not that long ago, and would work well near the village we exit when going into the mountains, variations could be “dogs,” or cows,” or “horses.”” Definitely in pueblos, where dogs are generally undernourished and parasite ridden and can’t do much besides sleep–except there are so many there. The mostg reliable weather predictor here is when the cows are huddled together in a canyone, but still that can only mean they THOUGHT it was going to rain–it doesn’t always come to pass because the wind shifts so much.

    We have two r********** in Santa Fe, which I use every Monday – Thursday taking home from running them eight miles away. These are disorienting,unlike stop signs. Each entering vehicle must yield right of way, but if’s impossible to tell if the vehicles that have entered from the entrance (out of 3) just to your left, are going to shoot on through to the continuation of the road they were on, or circle in front of you, so you pause uncertainly, and once in a while just guess, based on unspecifiable (nonexistent) clues. I think all this raises the flight or flight reflex and generally pisses all participants off. The sleeping dog works better..


    • Heh. I like sleeping dog “signage.” We’ve been wondering here what happens when an ambulance, fire truck, or police car comes down the road with lights flashing. We’re real good at pulling over, even when there’s no space on the side of the road, but what happens in a r*********? I don’t think there’s room to pull over, so do cars just keep going till they’re back on the regular road?


  3. Sharon Stewart says:

    In Ontario, if two cars approach a four-corner stop at right angles, the car on the right has the right-of-way and thus proceeds through the intersection first. If there’s a car at each of the four corners, though, even though the law still applies, it’s impossible to figure out who should go first. It’s likely to be the person who arrived there a second or two before the others. But in some cases it ends up being whoever is the most daring. In any case, eye contact is made all round, and there’s usually some hand waving and nodding, just like you mentioned.


    • Right (starboard!) has the right-of-way is state law here too, but I don’t assume anyone else knows it. We’ve got some amazing free-form parking lots here, like the one my post office shares with a small supermarket and a bus stop for the county-run bus service. Vehicles can be coming from almost any direction. You need to have eyes in the back of your head and proceed very slowly. If the person coming from the left side (port) shows no sign of slowing down, I don’t move. 😉


  4. Tom Hodgson says:

    My favorite long-dirt-road-with-laybys story is of a friend who lived about two miles in. He drove out to work every morning. One summer, his departure time frequently coincided with the arrival time of a black Mercedes, which didn’t seem to have reverse. When the Merc’s unbudging “manners” got the best of my friend, he was driven to “revenge”.
    Which was that he took a battery powered appliance with him one morning.
    As expected, the Mercedes appeared.
    T**** brought his truck up to the bumper of the other car, turned off his motor, reached down to the seat for his razor, and began shaving.
    That was the morning the other guy finally got the hint.


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