People in southeastern Ohio talk about Colonel Ebenezer Zane like people elsewhere talk about Paul Bunyan, Lewis and Clark, or Johnny Appleseed.
Schoolchildren studying the state’s history learn about Zane and his perilous journey in 1796 to build the first road into the Northwest Territory. At home in their own backyards, when they tire of their PlayStations or soccer games, these children sometimes fill wagons with imaginary cornmeal, flour, salt, sugar, and bacon, heading out to carve their own roads through the lawn, behind the bushes, and into the yard’s far western territories of pine and oak.
Roads fascinated my mom. When she graduated from Oakdale High School in 1959, she went to UCLA to study civil engineering, planning to design and build roads. Eventually she’d change her major to statistics and end up developing missiles, but she always kept up her interest in roads.
On day trips to L.A., she’d point out the infinitely complicated cloverleaf interchanges where interstates and highways met, sometimes three or four at a time, twisting traffic here and there, back and forth, up and down.
“Isn’t it mind-boggling that if you follow the signs, you get where you need to go?” she’d ask me. “Look at all the directions these cars are going, and how they all end up in the right place.”
As my dad drove, we’d come into town on Highway 14, change to the 5 and then the 405, exit off onto the 10 or the 210, while mom kept up a running narrative about the intricacies of roads.
“Look, we’re going almost 360 degrees on this exit here,” she’d say. “Just amazing.”
The Zane Grey-National Road Museum begins with Zane’s Trace, following it as it becomes the National Road and then State Route 40. The model of the road, with its tiny people, taverns, houses, and cars, stretches along several walls of the museum, highlighted by a full-size Conestoga wagon, antique cars, a tavern.
Then, in odd museum logic, the visitor enters the world of the western writer Zane Grey, Ebenezer Zane’s great-grandson, complete with first editions, signed photos and posters, fishing tackle and guns, baseball memorabilia, and – to cap it all off – a life-size reproduction of the writer working at his desk in a meticulously reconstructed office.
The deadening, mummified atmosphere of a closed frontier hangs around the waxy Zane Grey.
Some remnants of that frontier, though, still exist outside of the museum: the occasional cabin sandwiched between Victorian houses in Zanesville, or the bear that somehow found itself wandering around the Comfort Inn a few years ago. The deer that leap across roads. And the roads themselves, endlessly criss-crossing the landscape, leading nowhere, everywhere, all at once.
Last fall, I had a series of restless dreams about trees greening in January, about unbearable heat, about trying to escape to Canada and finding the border closed.
“Great weather we’re having for December!” a local weather forecaster said cheerfully. “If this is the worst winter has to give us, we’ll take it!”
One afternoon, I rode my bike west on Route 40, pedaling past the museum and beyond the interstate, turning left on Zane Grey Road, and then heading up an interminably long hill, finally reaching a paved portion of Zane’s Trace.
The road runs along a high ridge, snaking past farms, fields, and trailers, dipping down into wooded hollows, and then rising again. As the warm wind rushed past my ears on the road’s high points, I looked out across the maze of roads below, listening to the faint, continual rush of semis, cars, and SUVs wafting up from the interstate. I felt like Ebenezer and his men must have, as they hacked their way through the thick forests covering the hills until they could finally see out for miles across the land below.
My mom would have liked Zane’s Trace, how it moves with the land, how it slopes, how it curves effortlessly along the ridge. And for a moment, it all felt like an awful, awesome inheritance – the road, the fields, the odd weather, the sky stretching like a soft blue baby’s blanket to the edge of the hilly horizon.