My small hometown in upstate New York is one with a mighty sprawl through winding avenues of pines, up and over hills and alongside mountains. Neighborhoods, grocery stores and restaurants are awkward distances from one another without sidewalks in between.
Needless to say, it's less-than-walkable.
The brave souls that do bike or walk the just-too-long-to-walk but just-too-short-to-drive distances traverse the narrow shoulder. With cars whizzing by, more often than not above the mostly 45, 40 and 35 miles per hour speed limits, they tiptoe the white line barrier between road and road-turned-makeshift-sidewalk.
Traffic is isolated to the long morning drop off and after-school pick up lines managed by crossing guards and recently updated traffic lights to ensure a smooth flow; plus construction projects and the occasional tractor slowly puttering back to its origins.
Having grown up in a town with these characteristics, one of the unexpected joys of my summer was living right in the heart of Middlebury with everything within a short walking distance and the same small-town sounds filling my ears each day.
Ironically and unexpectedly considering the size of the college, my move from the teeny tiny campus to the proportionally teeny tiny town of Middlebury resulted in a personal transformation of sorts. Possibly a testament to my terribly timid driving, the town of Middlebury has made me a more aggressive driver.
All of my most frequent destinations — work, Shaw’s and campus — were minutes from my door by foot. And even my less-trodden stops were just around the corner: the Vermont Book Shop for perusing, Little Seed Coffee Roasters for caffeinating and the Post Office for mailing.
Do not be fooled by Middlebury’s size! Or that of other similarly-populated towns. Underestimating the difficulties of their traffic could lead to minutes wasted while attempting a low-visibility and lightless left turn, or missing one of its scattered and unusually placed “one way” signs.
These streets can often require the nimblest and trickiest of driving maneuvers. I performed a number of three (two-to-six) point turns, and my own modified version of parallel parking on the street (into spots that most would determine could be easily pulled into).
The characteristics of Middlebury’s traffic infrastructure are undoubtedly unconventional; the town touts an interesting intersection between the Co-Op, the Middlebury Inn and Merchants Row. The three businesses make the points of what I consider a traffic triangle, a deviation of the more popular traffic circle, a light where you can go left on red and drive on, a few scattered one way streets, I generally dreaded the rare occasions in which I found myself opening the door, turning the ignition and driving away in my trusty silver Subaru Legacy.
What more often than not came next was a choice between attempting a light-less left-hand turn and patiently waiting for the cars with less than ideal visibility to go by, or taking an inconvenient right with a slightly longer and less direct route.
Historically a more timid driver who cautiously waits to turn right at any intersection, I even hesitate to go right on red (I firmly believe it is a choice and there is no shame in choosing not to), so after minutes of patiently waiting for my turn to come, I usually shifted tactics, accepted defeat and chose the latter option.
But even that inconvenient right hand turn proved challenging at times. Depending on the time of day, the hustle and bustle of Middlebury’s workforce sped by me, leaving little room to squeak in the line, as walkers and bikers also complicated my easier-option maneuver.
Needless to say, my hand was forced, and I embraced Middlebury's quirky driving characteristics. Which certainly wasn’t a bad thing. I am both a more competent and confident driver.
I also learned to embrace the unconventional. You might learn something you hadn’t known, realize something you hadn’t noticed before or notice a new perspective.
While my newfound confidence is nowhere near that necessary to take on any New York City Streets or the New Jersey Turnpike I can confidently say I am prepared to conquer the roads, turns and quirks of any small-to-midsize-town’s traffic infrastructure.
I don’t mean to mischaracterize my driving. I wouldn’t say I’m an aggressive driver; just a more aggressive driver.
I’m even ready for the Middlebury traffic triangle.