Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Perfect Road

Less than half a mile from my house is a magical road. Humphrey Boulevard hugs a wooded hillside as it twists and turns through the southwest hills of Portland. Several things conspire to make Humphrey what it is. Humphrey invites a brisk pace, one where you appreciate the elevation changes, turns, and bends. It’s not a road for driving fast. Go too fast and you risk missing the rhythm of the road. The pacing of the turns is brilliant, dictated by the land; some come quickly back to back others linked by gentle curves along the hillside. The pacing of the turns and changes of elevation have symphonic grace. Too fast and you miss it, wrapped up in going fast.

On Humphrey you can seldom see more than a few hundred feet down the road. Around some corners visibility is even less, down to twenty feet maybe less, your view blocked by the hillside. Short lines of sight conspire to make you feel like you are going fast. Glance at the speedometer and you realize 50 is really 30, adding to the magic.

At 1.6 miles long Humphrey casts a fleeting spell. But 1.6 miles is enough. It is an amount of road you can know. Each bit of uneven pavement, each dip, each hole. Greater length would not improve Humphrey. Mile after mile of perfect road decreases the potency, reducing its value, letting you take sections for granted knowing more will come.

To drive Humphrey in a topless sports car on a warm summer afternoon is as close to motoring bliss as I can imagine. Everything matters and everything is vivid. The exhaust echoes off the hillside, trees shade the road. Stone walls, lawns, driveways, then a hillside and steep drop off, a wooded section, an unexpected big house, more woods and steep drop off, two great back to back turns, then it’s over. I go out of my way to drive on this road. There are certain turns where I swear I can feel an infinitesimal amount of rubber shearing off my front tires, others when driven just right the weight shift from one side to the other plants the car perfectly for the exit. All this in second gear, under 30. Magic.

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