I have regrets

Yes, even a glamorous bug photographer such as myself has regrets, hard as that may be to imagine. This particular one manages to be forgotten for long stretches of time, but then returns with a stab of pain that can affect the rest of the day. I’m talking, of course, about Squirrel Level Road.

On a stretch of Interstate 85 in rural southern Virginia, overpasses are often marked with the names of the roads that they uphold, I suppose to assist people with determining exactly where they were in the ancient times before pleasant but stilted voices emanating from behind a minuscule LCD screen told us the most inefficient ways to get someplace. One such overpass is, or at least was – it’s been many years since I’ve been in the area – plaqued with the name, “Squirrel Level Road.” Not, perhaps, the most enigmatic name attached to a thoroughfare, but nonetheless one that always captivated me. First off, it might depend on how you look at it, but aren’t all roads at squirrel level? How, exactly, do you determine the level of a squirrel? Do you take the average, the mean, the median, or simply the most recent level at which you see a squirrel? Or is the road named after the squirrel level, that handy tool found underneath the crowbar and monkey wrench? Maybe it’s simply the counterpart to Squirrel Hilly Road on the other side of the county? The questions abound.

My regret is that I have never actually been on Squirrel Level Road – I feel that’s one of life’s experiences that should not be dismissed. Just once, I needed to pause in my travels, find the appropriate exit, twist along among countless meandering back roads, and triumphantly reach Squirrel Level Road, perhaps take a pebble or discarded beer can as a souvenir (don’t tell anyone.) I’m quite sure that Squirrel Level Road did not have its own exit, otherwise I would have stopped immediately the first time I saw it – you don’t let opportunities like that go to waste. It was probably, in fact, kilometers from the nearest exit – Squirrel Level Road is not where you would find a Burger King and a La Quinta, or even a sign that said, “Clean restrooms.” While Virginia has its share of big cities, southern portions of the state, at least, can be really rural. On my drive through in 1990, as I was moving from New York to North Carolina, I found myself getting drowsy and wanted to stop for a caffeine perk, taking the next exit. I-85 is a major road, so any exit should have easy access to a gas station or a convenience market, right? Yuh huh. I drove for quite a while seeking any kind of civilization, trying to ensure that I could remember my way back, and eventually happened onto a gas station that looked like Goober Pyle still worked there – except, not at that particular time, since there wasn’t a soul to be found. What could be found was the Pepsi machine, an ancient artifact that dispensed glass bottles cap-first from behind a long narrow glass door, and had the bottle-opener situated handily right alongside. Alas, it was out-of-order, and I returned to the moving truck and eventually the interstate with no need of caffeine anymore, because I was magnificently irritated by that time.

I was to repeat this kind of activity perhaps twenty years later, this time when coming down from Ohio, but I can’t recall if I was in Virginia or West Virginia at that time, not that there was any distinction. What I needed then was a restroom, and I took the next exit that actually had a town listed, even visible to my right as I came down the off ramp. A small town, of course, but even small towns have restrooms, clean or not. I drove into what appeared to be the center of town, but could tell from the buildings that I was headed in the wrong direction for a gas station, instead seeing two churches and a barber shop. Turning around, I began following the road that paralleled the interstate, figuring this one had to produce such amenities soon. What I stumbled onto, I believe, is the place where all of the small town churches are built, because I passed no less than five more of them on a stretch of road that couldn’t have been two kilometers long, making the ratio about one church for every six houses. I don’t want to give too strong an impression of Podunkville, because I passed a tanning salon as well, resplendent in unpainted cinder blocks with a gravel driveway sporting very few weeds. The gas station never did materialize, and I returned to the interstate to try the next exit, which in turn displayed no signs of civilization at all, nor even electricity. I pissed in the weeds.

It occurs to me now that it is perhaps for the best that I never tried to find Squirrel Level Road. Not just for the reasons above, though they’re certainly compelling by themselves, but for the very idea that Squirrel Level Road should be a mystery. It is, quite likely, nonexistent, a will-of-the-wisp luring bold explorers into some inescapable fate – I admit I have never found anyone who hailed from Squirrel Level Road, nor professed to having even seen it. But even if it is not some supernatural harvester of mapless travelers, it could simply be one of those extradimensional portals, open only to a select few; the reason why I cannot find anyone who knows the road is that those that have found it never return. Which could be good or bad – while it’s easy to scare ourselves with thoughts of giant marauding rodents seeking revenge for that potato chip fakeout we pulled on campus so many years ago, it could also be a magnificent place where all the woes of our former existence are left behind. Squirrel Level is not something that we reach, but that we can only aspire to, an absolute that draws us forward. Perhaps Squirrel Level is not to be found by looking, and only those who do not seek it can stumble across it when it is most needed. Or it could be that one does not go to Squirrel Level Road, we can only come from it, forever behind us.

Or are these all just those things that we tell ourselves to feel better? Are you, the reader, looking at imaginary me in disgust right now, finding me pathetic for not having sought out Squirrel Level Road and for trying to excuse this oversight? Have I even branded myself by admitting that I do not know Squirrel Level Road, preventing me from hanging with the cool people? Because, you know, I would’ve found Squirrel Level, but I had commitments every time. Or is there, like, a First Rule of Squirrel Level Road Club?

I’ve never been so torn writing a simple blog post…