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Spare Parts: What’s in a name?

By Ernie Copper

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The experience of being on the road has been elevated to an art form. If you flipped on the tube right now you could probably catch a show featuring roadside diners, roadside art, roadside hotels or just really cool roadside people. With all that is going on along the side of the road, it’s easy to get distracted and take your eyes off the road itself. If getting there is half the fun, the road, be it concrete, blacktop, tar and chip or dirt, has to be at least a quarter of the fun and the road gets no credit for that.

I’d like to recognize the road, even with all of its imperfections, potholes and tar snakes, and give it its just reward. We can start with the most neglected, yet shockingly recognizable, “Road Less Traveled.” This is an imaginary road, featured in the 1920 Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” and taking it leaves you in the minority. Statistically speaking we can’t all be in the minority. But if you’re reading this you have no doubt taken a few roads like the one Frost described.

There are other roads, known across the nation. For decades, Detroit’s Woodward Avenue was the place to be seen and catch a street race. I’ve never been on the Mullholland Highway in Southern California, but I think it gave birth to the term “canyon carver.” There’s even a subsection of road on Mulholland called the Snake, near the Rock Store. No coincidence; there is an unbelievable amount of video from this area and it will serve you well if you are snowed in during the winter days ahead.

I have ridden the Tail of the Dragon, Highway 129 nestled in the corner of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and ending in North Carolina. This road is aptly named and popular for a reason. The 318 curves in the span of 11 miles with no intersecting roads makes her a temptress.

The Pacific Coast Highway is another top road with unbelievable scenery. I’ve had the good fortune to experience that first hand thanks to my affiliation with the good people of Thunder Press. This road may not actually go on forever, but your memories of her will. It’s like no place on earth.

But, like most of you, I spend a lot of time riding much closer to home and I’ve noticed we have some pretty neat, though short by comparison, stretches of roads here in western Pennsylvania with evocative names.

In Hermitage, Pennsylvania, there is Grapevine Hill. Grapevine was known back in its pre-pavement days for great sled riding. There was no maintenance on the road during the winter if there was a big snow and if you knew someone with a 4×4 it was open season. The glow of the trucks’ headlights would get you to the first bend; after that you were on your own. Many a sledder missed a bend back then and ended up in the woods. Grapevine has since been paved making it more suitable for bikes and cars.

And who could resist Hogback Road? In addition to a well-deserved name, this undulating ribbon of twisting, turning asphalt has the additional attraction of including trolls and spirits in its lore. In my wife’s day, the trolls rumored to be under the bridge on Hogback have morphed into reported hauntings and supernatural sightings today. The origins of either the trolls or supernatural sights are unclear but seem destined to remain intertwined with Hogback history.

The state park of McConnell’s Mills boasts a few great names and has an entire area called Hell’s Hollow. Before you get to Hell’s Hollow, you’ll likely come to one of history’s most spectacular bridge names, Breakneck Bridge. The name evokes images of travelers in Model A Fords careening across it on two wheels, though the most dangerous thing I ever did at the bridge was to rappel from it during my college days. Thankfully, my neck remains unbroken.

Another local road also takes its name from Lucifer himself: Devil’s Elbow Road. It features elevation changes mixed with a few turns and a name that’s right up there with the best of them. The road is short, the name is earned but there are no unearthly inhabitants.

There are roads, like Sky Hill Road, that have enticing names, but fall short of one’s expectations, coming close to the sky in only the strictest use of the word sky. Other roads names leave me baffled. I’ve never know what to expect from Vinegar Valley Road.

All of this got me wondering what the most common street name is in America. Apparently I’m not the first to wonder this and according to the U.S. Census from 1993, it’s Main Street, followed by 2nd. First takes a distant third. Park Avenue cracks the top 10 followed by several of the tree streets like Oak, Maple, Cedar, Pine and Elm. Somehow these streets don’t seem nearly as enticing as roads with names like the Guadalupe Pass, the Blind Lane or Trout Island Road.

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