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.
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.