It is pothole season where I live in America’s Pacific Northwest (everywhere else in America, as near as I can tell, is buried under snow). But here it’s a different story altogether: it’s warm, wet, and potholes are everywhere. It’s as if our roads have a bad case of adolescent acne.
This is a season, I am sure, that is much beloved by auto mechanics. They’ll be working overtime just replacing shocks or struts or whatever the heck holds the wheels to the body of our cars (not something about which I am expert). You come limping into a repair shop and you get smiles so bright you need sunglasses. Potholes are their friends.
I don’t know about you, but I am fascinated by potholes.
(I know…it doesn’t take much to fascinate me…)
I have been looking into the science of potholes—I’ve heard, though I cannot confirm it, that there is an entire department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on this very phenomenon. From what I can understand (which ain’t much, since I didn’t go to MIT), a pothole is caused by water lurking in the soil structure beneath a road. The water undermines the surface pavement. I’m thinking, you know, water is water and pavement is way stronger, but apparently not. Who knew?
The science notwithstanding, here are the questions that keep me up at night: First, why do potholes pop up, or rather down, in exactly the same places every season, year after year? Ever noticed that? No? Well, your car has: While you’re busy texting or doing something else illegal when you should be driving, your car lurches through one hole after another. If you weren’t on your iPhone or whatever, you’d be able to hear it cry out, poor thing.
Now, let’s be fair and give credit to the good folks in public works departments who do their best to fill these perennial holes. Can you imagine a more thankless job? Fill them one day…the holes are back two days later. Why? It’s a complete mystery. No one, including the researchers at MIT, really understands this phenomenon. It’s like wormholes in space or something; it’s beyond human comprehension.
Second, in many places in our nation, the roads and driveways are paved only with gravel. We are arguably (very) the most advanced economy in the world but our rural roads are little better than China’s. But never mind, because here, too, we have a conundrum (a big word for problem): responsible landowners and county workers across the land repeatedly fill the holes which appear in gravel roads and lanes, at no small expense, season after season. But the holes reappear in precisely the same places within days. Which raises the deep existential question: where does the gravel that was used to fill the potholes actually go?!
I asked my pal Richard about this. He’s an internationally famous expert in environmental and land use planning…and he has a gravel driveway. His answer was typically scientific: “The new gravel gets sucked down straight to hell.”
I don’t know a great deal about gravel or, for that matter, hell (yet) but this seems to me a perfectly credible answer.
Third, let’s consider a much smaller but no less baffling version of this very same phenomenon: When Spring comes I begin the process of re-potting the root-bound perennials in the pots and planters on my deck. And as I do, I am confounded by a question every bit as baffling as the matter of potholes: when I remove last year’s plants from their pots, so as to divide and replant them in fresh potting soil for the new season, I discover that last year’s potting soil has utterly vanished, replaced by solid root balls. Where did it go? I mean, you know, dirt ain’t cheap anymore!
Ever the intrepid researcher, I interviewed the wise and deeply experienced owner of my local garden center. I figured she’d be the expert, right?
“I have no idea,” she said. “It’s just like the potholes in my parking lot.”
Isn’t it the first law of something or other that matter (like dirt) and energy (like filling potholes) can be neither created nor destroyed? Okay, that law was propounded by a French guy, Antoine Lavoisier, a pretty sissy name, if you ask me. He probably didn’t fill potholes or repot plants back in the day. But if he’s right, where’s everything go?!
If my pal Richard is right, and he nearly always is, or sounds like he is which is always good enough for me, I’m thinking Hell must have some pretty terrific gardens, what with all our potting soil heading down there every year.
Will North is an internationally published novelist. His latest book, the first in his Davies & West mystery series, set in Cornwall, England, is called “Harm None.” It is available from all the major online booksellers.