There is no reason for me to travel Liberty Road anymore.
There are thousands of roads just like it across America. It has four lanes that winnow down to two near my house, and once it crosses over Liberty Reservoir and the county line, it becomes known simply as Route 26. Its traffic lights are countably finite, and none of its intersections are particularly memorable. It’s newer and smoother in some places, but most of it is made of the simple pebbly asphalt that reminds me of the 1980s.
There’s no physical reason why Liberty Road should have made any impression on me. But it was the map of my childhood.
Liberty Road was the main thoroughfare of our family’s life. When we went to get groceries on Saturday morning, Liberty Road took us there, whether it was to the George’s down the street when I was very young, or the Giant further into town when I was older and George’s had gone out of business.
When we went to visit my grandparents in Virginia, Liberty Road would take us to the highway. And when it came time to pay a visit to the dentist — well, Liberty Road didn’t know it was time to throw up a cataclysmic traffic jam.
Driving down it felt like home. I couldn’t draw you a map of it, but somehow I knew its hills and curves instinctively, like a half-forgotten story or a two-day-old dream.
I missed Liberty, too. When we drove home from my grandparents’ house, I would look longingly at the green signs planted along the highway, waiting for it to come. It was called Route 26 there, though I always thought of it as the Liberty Road exit.
I really only understood its breadth when I learned to drive. When I went to take the test for my learner’s permit, I discovered that the MVA was just a cruise down Liberty into the outskirts of Baltimore. It was astonishing.
And most of my first long car trip, to my aunt’s wedding in remote Thurmont, was spent on Liberty’s far-flung parts. It was there that I began to understand the relationship between time and speed, how the number 20 on a roadside sign meant less than 20 minutes if I was driving 70 mph.
But eventually things changed. The word “efficiency” sounds snappy, like fresh plastic and wet paint. Efficiency gives us shorter waits and French fries that taste better. It gives us less expensive computers and toys that don’t break when we bash them against our heads.
Efficiency also destroys places like Liberty Road.
I don’t remember when 795 was built, exactly. An old road map that my parents have, published in the mid-80s, shows it in a half-born state, before it became truly useful. And efficient.
795 is a mini-highway that connects Carroll County’s largest city, Westminster, to 695, our Beltway. It boasts a speed limit more modern than 695′s stately 55 miles per hour, and once you’ve arrived at the Beltway from 795, you don’t have to worry about merging.
(It’s called the Northwest Expressway on green highway signs, but no one calls it that in conversation. It is always a number.)
I was already spending less and less time on Liberty. My understanding of the world was expanding past dentist visits to be avoided and strange stone houses seemingly abandoned beside the road. My friends no longer lived a jog away from my house, and so it no longer made sense to use Liberty Road to reach all those places. 795 was so much faster.
The last reason for me to travel Liberty Road disappeared when a fire forced Randallstown Public Library to close. It happened while I was away at college — just one more item of interest for my parents to relate to me when I came home after finals.
It didn’t affect me much at the time, though it felt strange to hear that the place that felt the most permanent to me — I can remember staring at the engraved 1969 in the cornerstone by the entrance and thinking that it must have been forever ago — had been destroyed in the space of a night.
But I had more than enough books to read at college. I didn’t miss the library until now, when I’ve graduated but still have a desire to open a book and see clutters of ink I’ve never seen before. So because the Randallstown branch is closed, I go to the Towson Public Library, a 20-minute drive from my house when I use …
795, of course.
That’s the funny thing about efficiency. It never hurts you. It always changes things without you really noticing. And you do like what it leaves behind.
I like 795. There’s nothing better than ripping through it late at night, when nearly no one is on the road and you’re wishing that you were in bed and already asleep. And there is something lovely about seeing a subway car flying beside you into the sunset.
But I find myself returning to Liberty Road on nights where I don’t want to go blindingly fast. On nights where I don’t need to get home just quite yet.
So I take the highway exit labeled Route 26, roll down the window, and stay in the right lane. I observe the speed limit on Liberty Road unconsciously. Speed on the road for me is normally a complex calculation involving traffic densities, day of the week, time of day, personal vehicle condition, and whether I feel that the driver behind me is a good person.
But Liberty Road has already taught me all it needs to about speed and time. It teaches me now about memory.
First come the places on the outskirts of Randallstown that I remember seeing but never visiting: the plaza with Maria’s and Murray’s. Both of them are restaurants, I think, though they look more like supermarkets from the road.
Then the Bagel Shop where we came nearly every Sunday and waited in the car while my mother retrieved a dozen bagels that were still warm to the touch. She made sure that the onion bagels, which both she and my father liked (but not my sister and I), were put into a separate, tiny bag.
A few blocks from there is the pool-selling store with a tiny, never-used kidney pool out front that always seemed unreal to me. And then the Burger King where the first crown was put on my head.
Liberty curves upward to the Old Court Savings & Loan, which collapsed in a spectacular scandal when I was perhaps 10 years old. On the opposite side of the road, the Pizza Hut that still looks like the gas station it replaced.
Further down the road is the Akbar Restaurant, where at the end of our first and only meal there, the owner sat down at a table, scratched his head over our bill, and decided that my sister could eat free. She had eaten one bite of her food and decided it wasn’t for her. Opposite it is the Loring Byers funeral home — but even now, it slides away from my vision. I’m not ready to see it.
(I’ve never been to a funeral.)
It flows further and further on, past supermarkets, pet stores, and 7-Elevens, until it reaches Carriage Hill, the apartment complex where my family first lived when we moved to Maryland. There live my only solid memories that my sister was not a part of: being pushed on a swing by my grandmother. On the night before we left, I remember sitting on a rock while the first deviled egg I’d ever eaten in my life digesting in my stomach.
(I never ate another one for years and years.)
Cross a few more hills and you reach the turnoff for my house. And even though part of me would like to just turn around and do it over again, I take the turn, to bed, to parents, to home.
Motion is important to memory. You never get to hold onto moments as long as you’d like, not even the ones you think you’d rather forget. We erect 795s in our lives all the time, and we love them dearly.
But Liberty Road will always exist. And so will all our memories.