The Road to Exurbia

[All photos by James Barilla, except as noted]

Each year, by his own calculation, my dad drives as many miles as the circumference of the earth. He gets up while the dawn mist is still clinging to the hemlocks and the horses are still crunching grain in their pails, settles into the car with a travel mug of coffee and a book on tape, and makes his way from a tiny hill town in Western Massachusetts to his job in a city near Boston. He’s been doing it for over 24 years, which means he’s been rotating the earth longer than many satellites.

He lives on a dirt road, not far from the boundary of the state forest. It’s the kind of place where mountain laurel grows in gnarled thickets under the canopy of oak and maple and you can’t see your neighbors. Moose wander up to the barn to make eyes at the horses, coyotes yip to each other at dawn and snakes seize wood frogs under the porch. It’s a place where you can swim in a clear pond in summer and amble across its frozen surface in winter.

“Days like these,” my dad will say on a summer Saturday evening, sitting contemplatively on the deck after an afternoon swim in a nearby lake, “this place feels like a little bit of paradise.”

Two Acres and a Car

What is an exurb? Is there only one kind, or do different sub-types appear when you look more closely? In 1955 the social historian Auguste Spectorsky defined the exurb as a landscape of second homes and estates well beyond the outer suburbs, yet still connected to the city as a source of employment. 1 A 2006 report by the Brookings Institution identified communities that “have at least 20 percent of their workers commuting to jobs in an urbanized area, exhibit low housing density, and have relatively high population growth.” 2 At the height of the ill-fated housing boom, the term exurb became synonymous with sprawl, with the explosion of cul-de-sacs and big box stores in the middle of farm fields and houses soon to be abandoned.

Is my dad’s small town an exurb? According to the Brookings study, nearly half of the nation’s 10.8 million exurbanites live in the South; fewer than 5 percent live in New England. The exurban South is growing fast, thanks to the availability of zoning-free open space and a regional population explosion. Cities in the Northeast already have established bedroom communities, suburbs that should limit exurban growth. Surprisingly, however, Worcester, Massachusetts, where my dad works, ranks eighth in the nation among exurban metro areas; its 20 percent exurban population puts it right behind Birmingham, Alabama, and Knoxville, Tennessee. My dad’s long commute is more typical than I had imagined.

Western Massachusetts does not resemble the metastasizing landscapes we’ve come to recognize over the last decade, the frenzy of bulldozers and stoplights, the clusters of KB Home or Toll Brothers signs pointing toward levees outside Sacramento or into hardwood copses north of Raleigh, the subdivisions tamped into Florida citrus groves. The history of my dad’s town, and perhaps more importantly, its ethos, the communal imagination of what it means to live there, sets it apart from the kind of exurb you might see in the national news.

Or at least, that’s what I would like to think. Yet if I take a closer look at the town in light of the Brookings criteria, I’m hard pressed to argue with the report. Most of the people I know commute to work. Housing is low-density: during the last speculative real estate boom-and-bust, in the 1980s, the town voted to create a two-acre minimum lot size. And it doesn’t take much development to create high population growth in a small rural town. Recently, one person who’d purchased land when it was cheap decided to retire elsewhere, carving the wooded property into parcels with road frontage. Realtor signs hash-marked the roadside, and now dirt driveways appear at regular intervals along a stretch of road that had been woods. Not the same in density or scale as a swath of new housing outside Dallas, but a subdivision just the same.

The Trouble with Manure

Currently, the town is embroiled in a minor controversy, played out on the municipal listserv, about a local pond that has been purchased by the town and preserved under a conservation easement. Where there used to be a clothing-optional beach and a gunshot-pocked No Trespassing sign that everyone ignored, there is now a small gravel parking lot and an info kiosk explaining the rules and regulations. No hunting or fishing, no visiting after dusk, no amplified music, and — this is the proviso that has sparked the controversy — all dogs must be leashable. Not on a leash, but leashable.

Carrying a leash while your dogs romp on the beach is a better deal than you get most places, which is probably why the place has become a favorite for dog walkers. Last summer, the barking, splashing, shaking canines often outnumbered human bathers. The controversy isn’t about the number of dogs, though, but rather what they leave behind. Does a dog shit in the woods? Well, yes. And apparently on the trail, on the beach, pretty much everywhere.

What happens when someone in a wheelchair has to roll through excrement on the trail to the beach? The online ruckus that erupted says more about the dynamics of small-town life than about the facts of the original complaint. Quickly it became clear that this wasn’t about dog shit so much as the identity of the community itself. Who has a right to shape that identity? What does it mean to be a “local”? On one side were those who suggested, somewhat tremulously, that maybe the dog owners should think about picking up the poo and putting it in a baggie and taking it home, which is what responsible people do when they walk their dogs in the suburbs. But this isn’t a suburb, others protested. This is the wild, and there’s too many rules already. What’s the world coming to when you can’t let your hunting dog sniff around the woods without being forced to tramp around behind him with a leash and a baggie?

Manure is the flashpoint of exurban consciousness. Wherever a housing development sits beside a factory farm, and the sweet smell of corporate agriculture wafts over someone’s dream of crisp fresh air, regulations are sure to follow. But the exurban sensibility is more complicated than that. People want rules to protect their experience of isolation from industrial-strength manure, but they also want to be free of the regulations that drove them out of the city in the first place. The fundamental paradox of the exurban mindset is marked by this conflicted desire for regulation and freedom, which plays out in a fantasy of original wilderness, a vision of a simpler time when the pond didn’t need regulation because there weren’t so many people and dogs using it.

Horse manure, it should be noted, doesn’t seem to raise hackles. Horses are the exurban mascot, and seeing them standing around in a small pasture is a sure sign that you’ve reached the frontier, the place where there’s room enough for an expensive hobby. But before they became exurban trophies, horses were working animals. This layer of town history is buried now, but it’s there if you know where to look. Some of the old dirt roads, like the aptly named Stagecoach Road, still bear the signs of dependence on horses for transport: the hills are graded in a series of steps meant to keep the coach wheels from rolling backward as the steed strained to the top.

My parents have two horses in the barn right now, and they used to have three. To my knowledge, nobody has ever grumbled about the horses leaving piles of manure on the side of the road. Not surprisingly, the distinction between horse and dog waste made its way into the online discussion. One resident noted that horse manure was far easier to scrub off a wheel than dog turds, and didn’t smell as bad, and tended to break down more quickly into something less noxious.

The Pond

I remember the pond as it was — no rules, no designated parking, a barrel stuffed with trash and a fire pit glittering with broken beer bottles. I remember my wife’s first visit to town, several years before we were married. I took her to the pond one morning for a glimpse of sylvan serenity, only to find a neighbor splashing ashore to retrieve his clothes, giving my wife a full-frontal introduction to town life. I remember this version of the pond with nostalgia, and with a vandal’s guilty conscience.

One summer a gang of us discovered a piece of plywood that covered the outtake at the bottom of the earthen dam. We spent days diving down through the temperature gradient to the cold murky bottom and tugging at it bit by bit, then exploding to the sun-warmed surface with gasping, adrenaline-stoked faces, exclaiming about how powerful the suction was as first a sliver and then a wedge of open pipe appeared. It was like watching a mouth open slowly into a silent silver scream. As a parent, the memory of this adventure makes my gut shrivel in mortal terror.

We were all aware on some level, I think, of the risk. I could see one of us being sucked by the limb into the drain and pinned there, see the rest of us tugging in vain — but that awareness was part of the thrill. Which of us would dare to dive down again as the gap widened? Who could stay down the longest? We treaded water and waited for those at the bottom to surface, knowing that something terrible could happen, something big enough to interrupt the doldrums of summer vacation. One afternoon, one of the oldest and strongest came up red-faced and bug-eyed with excitement and oxygen deprivation — we’d done it! He’d yanked the board all the way to the side, and now it was half-floating near the bottom, and the outtake was wide open.

What did we do? I don’t remember exactly, but I imagine we jumped on our bikes and rode like hell out of there. Then we came back to see what we’d done, fearful and exultant. At first there was nothing to see. The pond looked the same, although the board sat in a clump of waterweed at the edge of the dam, drying in the sun. We could hear the chaotic rumble of water shooting out the backside of the dam into a tangle of brush, a secret that would slowly reveal itself. We watched, triumphant at first, then vaguely dismayed, as the level of the pond dropped over the course of several weeks, until finally it looked like a reservoir in a drought year — a glistening, heat-fissured mass of pale green weed and grayish muck, veined with garnet-necked lily pads, a streambed emerging like a coiled umbilicus from the upper end.

Our mission then was to save the pond. At least once, we tried diving down to block the outflow again. But we were half-hearted about it. Summer was ending, the days crisp, the nights cold. We were heading back to school. Since nobody was responsible for managing the place, it took a long time for someone else to discover what we’d done and do something about it. The pond was still empty, an open wound, after all the leaves had turned and the sky was the color of galvanized steel. I never found out who put the board back, but whenever I hear people complain about rules in town, I think about what we did.

Growing Stonewalls

Like most of the state, the town had a local economy at one time: agriculture. At its peak, over a hundred years ago, the town had as many residents — about a thousand — as it does now. I had a friend who would follow stone walls through the woods until he saw a scattering of broken glass, often blue or amber, among the lichen-crusted rocks: the farm’s trash pile, now a midden of old medicine bottles from the days before paper labels, the contents embossed on the glass itself. Often there were air bubbles in the translucent glass, and I sometimes wondered if the air inside was itself a relic of that other century, preserved like an invisible insect in amber. These ribbons of stone run the length of my dad’s property, an archaic idea of order now hemmed into a coarse fabric of trees. Seventy years ago, the age of the trees suggest, this forest was field.

Why did the farms disappear? Turn the soil, and the contrast with those communities still farming the rich alluvial bottomlands of the Connecticut River Valley becomes instantly clear: this is clay, low in fertility, low in porosity, low in just about everything that makes a farm productive. What doesn’t look like the stuff on a potter’s wheel is usually granite; ledges, boulders, plates and scarps are everywhere. This land was good for growing stonewalls.

The result is what a failed experiment in living off the land looks like, a town left behind after a great tide of former farmers picked up and went elsewhere, either west for better land or down into the mill towns to look for work. “The period of agricultural abandonment,” historians call it, which in Massachusetts began around 1880 or so. Like the worn-out farm Aldo Leopold purchased in Wisconsin, this isn’t pristine wilderness. It’s an evolving landscape, and it looks pretty good, actually, if you prefer the dense green solitude of a maturing hardwood forest to the pastoral charms of farm and field.

In the wake of agrarian failure, what remains? The exurb is one possibility. The practice of the wild is paid for by a job in the city. Thus my dad’s commute: 17,470 hours, more or less, or two years of his life spent driving back and forth to this rural town. To live in the exurbs you need a car. If you want to get food, you drive. If you want to work, you drive. Take the kid to the doctor? Get in the car. Which isn’t so different from life in the suburbs, except in the mythology that justifies so much car time. The idea of the place seems to be that you have left the suburbs behind, that you are living on a frontier that is getting wilder and more remote with each passing year. And in some ways, this is the truth. Black bears have returned in great numbers, swatting bird feeders. Fishers pounce on cats, and moose loom in the driveway. Gray wolves have come back too: a farmer shot one in a town not too far away, after it preyed on his sheep.

[Photo by Ken-ichi Ueda]

More and more people are moving to this place, drawn to the idea of living somewhere more wild and remote than the place they work, drawn to the novelty of living in two worlds. And yet, wild means less likely to offer a living, remote means more miles on the road, driving back to the metropolis.

My dad has not calculated the number of gallons of fuel he’s consumed in his twenty-odd years of back and forth. But I imagine it as a pond at this point, waist deep, pearlescent and simmering. Every year it gets a little deeper.

Tapping the Trees

Boiling sap has a distinctive smell. It’s the smell of early spring in a time of olfactory barrenness, no sign of life in the branches, the ground a patchwork of crusty old snow, and yet life stirring in the stolid trunks of the old sugar maples. It smells like fresh sweat, a sweet sulfurous musk, damp and warm. It tastes a bit like tears, except the faint hovering flavor is sweet instead of salty.

When I catch that scent, it takes me back to the seasons when my dad and I made maple syrup. The roads of this small town are lined with sugar maples. They stand in front of stonewalls, marking some forgotten farmer’s pasture. Sometimes, riding my bike through the woods on a discontinued road, I’ll pass through an alley of sugar maples and catch a glimpse of a stone foundation or a tiny cemetery, gravestones from the outbreak of smallpox in 1833, secluded now in the forest.

We began sugaring with sap that was going to waste. As a class project, the private school in town where my dad worked at the time had tapped some roadside trees with an auger and set out galvanized buckets. But nobody was really interested in getting out there every day to collect the sap. When we began on a warm day in early spring, the buckets were literally running over with sap; it drained down the side of the pails to the ground. I remember lifting the steel lid, unhooking the brimming bucket, and pouring the sap with its flotilla of moths and box elder bugs into a garbage pail. When we reattached the pail, the steady drip resounded through the steel, like a quickening pulse.

We had a two-burner propane stove on the tiny porch of our “shack,” and we’d leave the sap steaming in the morning in a big pan. Gradually, as the water boiled away, the sap would begin to look and smell a bit like antifreeze, resinous and sweet. When we’d collected enough of this liquid, we’d sugar off the rest on the stove inside, watching the mercury climb the stem of a liquid thermometer until the tiny bubbles in the syrup began to gather, then dance, then percolate in a frenzy as the syrup almost, but not quite, caramelized. If you waited too long the syrup would harden when it cooled, brown and crisp and sweet. You could pour a bit of this overcooked syrup into a clump of snow outside, brushing away the snow fleas first, and it would harden into clear tentacles that broke into shards inside your mouth. Early in the season the sap was clear and the syrup was a translucent amber. Those first jars tasted like nectar, something that would drive hummingbirds wild. By the end of the season, the buckets were a stew of drowned hornets and pollen and bud casings, and the sap was milky, like water poured off boiled potatoes. The air was full of the smell of melted snow and unlocked earth and new leaves, and the syrup was dark and thick as molasses.

[Photo by Charlie Kellogg]

How much could we produce? We made 24 quarts our first year, lining them up in the bottom of the fridge from dark to light. It took about 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, all of it hauled back to the house in our Volkswagen van. When I consider how people might make a living in this small town, I think about the hours of work we put into the creation of this syrup. It would be even more work if instead of propane you used the town’s other widely available resource, scrap wood, to provide the heat for boiling the sap. Certainly, you could use more efficient methods than our buckets — these days you are likely to see flexible green tubing draining all the trees to a central tank, rather than trees ringed with galvanized pails. And certainly we only tapped a small portion of the town’s sugarbush, so there’d be more trees to go around. But as with most wild-crafted resources, there are limits to the number of people it can support. If you drill too many holes and drain too much vigor from the trees, they start to decline. A handful of people might be able to support themselves, in part, on what the town’s trees might yield. But not very many.

Walden on a Hill

What comes after the exurb? What is the next layer of town history? I’ve been hard on my dad, and by extension the town, but that’s not the full story here. Like many in the hill towns, my dad is an ardent environmentalist. He’s the one who first calculated the miles he drives, who sorts his trash into persnickety piles of recyclables, who ambles around in the half-light of a single low-wattage bulb with the thermostat set at 58 degrees in winter. “Some environmentalist you are,” he’ll grumble at me, when I’m home for a visit, pulling a cardboard cereal box out of the trash or thumbing the thermostat back down below 60.

Perhaps what makes this town feel different from an exurb is that most residents are actively searching for an alternative, even if they haven’t found it yet. Many are back-to-the-landers who moved to the hills in the 1970s; what was the leading edge of green then is now implicated in the problems it once challenged. This year the town voted to hire a food sustainability coordinator, whose job will be to find ways for the town to meet its own food needs. There’s been talk of purchasing the now defunct private school and turning its buildings into workspace for residents, so they don’t have to commute.

Right now, another controversy is brewing on the edge of the town common, where one resident wants to demonstrate the viability of living with a minimal carbon footprint by renovating his barn into an apartment that will have no electricity or indoor plumbing. This isn’t a demonstration of how the power of new technology can make the green lifestyle as comfortable as life in a suburban tract house. There will be no solar panels — light will come from the sun during the day, and kerosene lanterns at night. A composting toilet will deal with human waste. As for bathing … well, the occupants will presumably haul water in buckets from an outdoor well, heat it on the woodstove to a temperature they can stand, and then pour it over themselves.

I can think of many objections. Haven’t we already tried living like this? Isn’t this just another version of Thoreau’s cabin in the woods? Official objections have come from the town’s Board of Health, which has refused to grant a permit for a residence that doesn’t include modern conveniences. It’s a health hazard, a violation of state codes on fire safety and waste sanitation. You can’t live like Thoreau in modern Massachusetts. This isn’t the 1970s: you can no longer expect to make a Waldenesque demonstration project right on the town common. As with the pond, the layers of town history come together here like shifting tectonic plates, the belief that anything goes colliding with the belief that rules should govern acceptable behavior.

In my view, the problem with the cabin on the common is that it doesn’t address the exurb’s primary feature: the automobile. Living off the grid in the woods and driving a car to work are compatible fantasies. Both offer illusions of independence and self-sufficiency. Cars allow us to get away from other people, to live according to our own schedule, to retreat to a small hill town on the western frontier. A cabin at the center of town may not have a flush toilet, but it has road access.

Let’s say I live in my dad’s town and have no vehicle. Let’s say it’s winter. How do I get to the post office, or the general store? I can walk two miles each way from my dad’s house, which isn’t so bad for someone my age, though there are some steep hills. But there are no sidewalks, and no streetlights, and the side of the road is heaped with snow. Best to make it back before dark. Or maybe I don’t need to go out at all. Maybe I could just stay home until the isolation, the true price of living without a vehicle in a place like this, begins to take its toll. With a car, you enjoy solitude. Without it, solitude is imposed upon you by the character of your surroundings.

Could it be any other way? That’s the ultimate question: what can you do to transform a community modeled after Thoreau’s Walden, a community stitched together with dirt roads? It’s a question that matters deeply to me: I grew up here. I love these woods and streams. I often imagine going home again and raising my kids so they would learn to love these things too. But I can’t reconcile myself to a life behind the wheel.

Thoreau had another idea about how to live a satisfying life in the natural world, less famous than the cabin in the woods: walking. He was an advocate of sauntering out from the house on foot, passing through pastures and wood lots and winding along riverbanks. I try to imagine what it might be like for my dad to commute on foot. He’d have to start early, trudging through the center of town in the early morning light. If it was spring, he could listen to the dawn chorus as it rose from the roadside trees. He’d hear the spring peepers trilling among the skunk cabbage in the vernal pools, hear them fall silent as he approached. But the sounds of spring wouldn’t be foremost on his mind. What he’d notice most of all would be the circadian rhythms of cars, their pulse rising and receding through the unfurling leaves. As he stepped into the gravel verge, he’d see his neighbors at the wheel, waving as they hurtled past, one version of time and distance and community roaring past another.

By nightfall, he’d be there.

  1. Auguste Spectorsky, The Exurbanites (New York: Berklee, 1955).
  2. Alan Berube, et al., “Finding Exurbia: America’s Fast-Growing Communities at the Metropolitan Fringe” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2006).
James Barilla, “The Road to Exurbia,” Places Journal, September 2011. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 09.07.2011 at 17:07

    It's a sad to have to choose between living in crowded cities and dull suburbs and being able to enjoy the wonders of exurbia but thereby condoning deep-sea drilling in the Gulf, puncturing the Arctic floor, and enabling the tar-sands to be exploited and pumped across the continent.

    Short of taking the bus, which seems not a popular way to go, all the Waldenesque virtues come at the price of one great vice: oil. Gasoline to get there. When the cost of oil escalates, driving up the price of gasoline, are the Exurbians going to change their habits or will they join the chorus clamoring for "more cheap oil"?

    And what about global warming? Will climate change-affected exurbian life in the future become dystopian, a constant battle to repel refugees from warmer climes? What if -- or rather, when -- the trees start to wither and the pond dries up? What do we do? Drive less now, consume less fresh water now, to preserve it for a future in which access to these wonders will be more difficult?

    I deeply empathize because I grew up on a California shore that was similarly uncomplicated and pristine. Now it is unrecognizable except for all the cavorting young financiers and their sports cars. We -- those of us from the neighborhood -- never found the way to preserve what was beautiful and iconic. We're left with nothing.

    It all makes me very sad. It's good to record an era before it passes. But what then?

  • 09.12.2011 at 01:52

    The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) put together a booklet called, "Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities."

    The publication offers some solutions to some of the problems brought up in this essay.

    A PDF of the document can be downloaded from the ICMA:

    Here's a summary from the rural blog Daily Yonder: