Allies of a road less traveled

Howard: A quiet, winding lane has won the affection of residents, who are pushing to preserve the peace they find along it.

March 19, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Roads are built for getting places, but that's not always enough.

Sometimes, residents of Highland have found, the joy is in the journey.

Homeowners nestled around Mink Hollow Road in this southern Howard County town have grown to love the narrow country byway for its inconvenience -- its tree-lined twists and turns.

It has inspired at least one poem.

So when word got out that traffic engineers wanted to study the idea of improving the road, some residents reacted with all the force of parents protecting a child.

Envisioning construction workers widening and straightening the personality out of Mink Hollow, people signed petitions, mailed letters and turned out in force at a hearing last month to protest.

Regina Tesk, who has lived near Mink Hollow since 1979, penned a 13-line ode to the road: "To drive upon her, to walk or bicycle on her/Is to experience a joy and sense of peace."

Given time, roads in the region tend toward wider, straighter and flatter. Highland residents are defending the unexpected grace of a road that takes its time.

"If they start changing that road -- the truck traffic, the noise pollution -- oh, it just doesn't seem right," Tesk said, a hint of despair in her voice. "That road is one of the prettiest roads in this part of the county.

"It would be just like being robbed," she said.

In this, Tesk has another poet on her side. "Improvement makes strait roads," William Blake wrote in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" more than two centuries ago, "but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius."

Not everyone agrees that Highland's 3-mile slab of asphalt is best left alone. Some neighbors say Mink Hollow is dangerous in parts, and they've suggested that the county add shoulders or speed bumps.

Signs warning about limited sight distance haven't been enough to stop the accidents -- many mailboxes have fallen to out-of-control cars -- and at least one death.

"We see this as a deficient roadway," said Elizabeth Calia, a division chief with the Department of Public Works. "Sure it's usable, ... but is it really the safest road?"

Calia, who doesn't expect to study Mink Hollow before 2004, said the improvements would be relatively minor -- small shoulders, perhaps, and milder curves.

Anything major would displease Howard's Planning Board. After listening to more than a dozen impassioned residents last month, board members lent their approval to the idea of a study, but warned Public Works against changes that would ruin the charm.

They understand that a road can be more than a road.

"It's part of who you are, just like that house you live in is part of who you are," said Joan Lancos, the board's chairwoman.

Still, it's a rare thoroughfare that is hailed for its loveliness. None of the residents fighting against a proposal to widen Route 32 in western Howard has defended the highway on its merits. No one is writing sonnets to Interstate 95.

As roads go, Mink Hollow compares well: dark pavement that hasn't started graying around the edges, a fresh-looking coat of yellow paint separating the north and southbound lane and none of those annoying patches.

But it's the trip that appeals to residents.

Evergreens, white fences and hand-painted mailboxes dot Mink Hollow on either side, and through them a Sunday driver can glimpse mostly modest houses, rolling land and the occasional horse. A yellow sign notes that deer may cross unexpectedly. Another yellow sign says, simply: "Honey."

Children stand on the bridge that spans the Howard County-Montgomery County line and throw sticks into the water to watch them float by.

Residents have caught photographers snapping pictures of the view.

"It's got a great, warm, rural country feel about it, which I don't think is very typical around here anymore," said Jeannie Kenney, who's lived in Highland for five years.

Mink Hollow is the reason Michelle Hektor moved to the community in 1991. Every morning on her way to work at a store in Olney, she'd see a sign for the road, and then she started noticing the address on checks from customers.

Curiosity overcame her. She went to look.

"My husband thought I was nuts when I told him that we had to live on this road, and we were going to keep looking for a home until we could find it," Hektor said, laughing.

She loves the surprises tucked around the road's corners -- like the daylilies that sprout up, wild, in the spring. She hates the idea of Mink Hollow as a straight, wide byway, inviting people to race elsewhere.

"Now when you go around a turn, you see a tree that is fully orange in the fall, you see a creek," Hektor said. "It's just a wonderful road."

Tesk is convinced that Mink Hollow has a message to drivers hidden in its hills and sharp curves:

Slow down. Take a breath. Enjoy life.

"In this day and age, it's not such a bad thing to have that extra minute or two -- and that's all it is -- and just go peacefully along," she said.

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