Where the roads have no name

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Where the roads have no name
One of Norman Arsenault’s many annotated topographical maps shows a segment of an ancient road.

Over decades and centuries, Vermont has become filigreed with rural pathways that hardly anyone but the law can see. Norman Arsenault, a seventy-four-year-old retired forester, has turned discovering them into something of an art form.

Sooner or later, every road comes to an end—but not in Vermont. In other states, a road that goes unused for a reasonable period of time is legally discontinued; in Vermont, any road that was ever officially entered into a town’s record books remains legally recognized, indefinitely. It doesn’t matter if the road has not been travelled in two hundred years, or if it was never travelled at all, or if it was merely surveyed and never actually built. Any ancient road that exists on paper—unless it has been explicitly discontinued—is considered a public highway in the eye of the law.

As a result, over decades and centuries, Vermont has become filigreed with rural roads and pathways that hardly anyone but the law can see. In 2003, a couple in the town of Chittenden was denied permission to build an extension onto their home when an independent researcher, hired by the town, discovered an ancient mail route passing right through their property. In the tiny hamlet of Granville, a survey revealed a long-lost, invisible throughway passing through the wooded front yard of a mountain home; a pending lawsuit may open the road to traffic from timber-company trucks. In 2006, prompted by a groundswell of complaints from Vermonters unable to obtain title insurance for their properties or to keep snowmobilers out of their flowerbeds, the state government passed Act 178, which aimed to brush away the infrastructural cobwebs. The act gave the towns until February of 2010 to identify and map any potential ancient roads within their borders; these would then be reviewed by the state and added to Vermont’s official highway map over the next five years. Any ancient road not added to the state map by July 1, 2015, would be considered discontinued.

The Act’s passage inspired a kind of statewide archive fever. Interested citizens, outdoors enthusiasts, industrial forestry advocates, and concerned homeowners began visiting town-records offices and poring through vaults, shelves, and filing cabinets stuffed with yellowing and re-bound handwritten notes, property transfers, mortgage deeds, and step-by-step narrations of particular routes across the landscape dating back as far as the seventeen-nineties. In a few cases, the ancient road under review actually predated Vermont’s statehood.[]