History, Road Trips

Learning to see

In case you can’t tell by my recent posts, I have the Michigan Road coming out of my ears. Most of my road trips take me places I’ve never been, and my Michigan Road trips have been no different. If you look back at my early trips, such as along the National Road in western Indiana, most of the photos are of roads and bridges. But as I took more trips, photos of old houses, downtowns, signs, motels, drive-ins, old gas stations, and churches started to appear in my writeups. I started to see them and appreciate their connection to the road. If you look through my Flickr set on the Michigan Road, you’ll see most of these things in my Michigan Road photos. Actually, I’ve focused on them.

My most recent trips along the Michigan Road, however, have been along a segment I know well. I’ve driven the road from my home near Michigan Rd. and Kessler Blvd. in Indianapolis almost to Rochester dozens and dozens of times over the years. When I set out recently along this stretch to take photographs, I was surprised by how much I found that I had never noticed before!

It started less than a mile from my house when I encountered this 1840s farmhouse, which is for sale. (Click on any photo to see it larger in Flickr.)

1840s farmhouse, 64th and Michigan

Then, three blocks north I saw this home, which I learned was built in 1852 by the Aston family and served as an inn for travelers on the road.

Aston Inn

I’ve driven by these houses countless times. But while I’ve certainly seen them out of the corner of my eye as I sped past, I never really noticed them. I was too busy going to work or to Wal-Mart or wherever. But now that I’ve really seen them, I really see them every time I drive past.

And so it went all the way to Rochester. I saw century-old churches and rotting storefronts and homestead farmhouses that I may have only vaguely noticed on all my previous trips along this road. I have been zoned out enough for so long on this road that I didn’t even notice an abandoned old alignment until just recently. I live for abandoned old alignments! How could I have missed it?

Sycamore Row

When the Michigan Road was built in the 1830s, this land was marshy and hard to travel. In those days, the state of the roadbuilding art was to “corduroy” such roads, laying long logs across it one after another. The logs would roll, and horses could lose their footing, but it was better than getting stuck in the muck.

The roadbuilders used sycamore logs so fresh that new sycamores began to grow out of their ends. The corduroy road is long gone, but the sycamores that grew from them still stand. A historical marker proclaims this Sycamore Row.

Sycamore Row

Deer Creek is at this alignment’s end. Today, the Michigan Road jogs left and then right around Sycamore Row, crossing the creek on a modern bridge. I’m betting that at some point in the past, the bridge at the end of Sycamore Row needed to be replaced. Instead of closing the road to replace the bridge, a bypass was built with the new bridge at its end. Since this alignment is one lane wide, and the road probably wasn’t widened to two lanes until the automobile era was in swing, I’d guess that the old bridge was of stone or wood, and the realignment happened in the 1910s or 1920s. Sycamore Row was left to remind us of this bit of Indiana history. (Update 8 Mar 2010: I have since learned that this alignment served through the 1980s! It used to stretch edge to edge between the sycamores. Oncoming semis had a very, very tight squeeze through here.)

Several years ago, driving by here I thought I saw a historical marker out of the corner of my eye. “I ought to stop someday,” I said to myself, but I didn’t until just the other weekend. What a shame that I couldn’t see!

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7 thoughts on “Learning to see

  1. very cool way to illustrate the point. i think in order to see sometimes i have to be willing to turn my head toward what is along the side of the road, instead of only looking straight ahead of me. thanks for the thought provocation.

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  2. I’m so glad you mentioned the “corduroy” technique! I think it was on my trip to Ohio near Old Washington I saw a road called corduroy, then I started wondering if there could be a connection..
    Great stuff!

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