The Roman roads, that covered some 56,000 miles of the ancient world and connected the firths of Scotland with the Euphrates, were marked off every thousand paces with a milestone.
The roads were written out like mathematical sums, solving the insoluble spaces. They added themselves to language and to mental landscape as surely as to geometry, to sciences of measurement and motion. “To lay out a road, the linesman set out with a surveyor’s poles, a line which was called rigor was laid down, and the straight line was corrected by the surveyor until it was ‘in line.’” Thus rigorously in their laying and their going they delineated the journey. Mile by mile by mile, they measured out the chancy mountains or lands silvered with olives.
But one day in a consequential July we find the twenty-fourth mile moved—casting the whole equation into doubt.
We went down into Switzerland this morning (I wrote on a page of fine blue squares torn from the lab book I'd brought for the archaeology) after our breakfast of dry bread and jam, following the descent of the Roman road out of the clouded mountains of the Grand St. Bernard Pass to the nearest village, Bourg St.-Pierre. A town fragrant with wet hay, wild thyme, camomile, and fennel, which grow wild there; where I crushed herbs with my clunky hiking boots wherever I stepped. A town made for photography, with shutters the ice-melt green of the lichen on the stone crags next to them, and splendid red-headed chickens in a grand old stone structure with a screen door, grand as what is left of the Norman castle and Charlemagne’s impossibly high bridge spanning the cloud. A hospitable town where we were given homemade cassis and local cheeses late in the morning in a room above what was at one time hospital, jail, and stables.
In the middle of town is the Roman milestone, a white column capped with marble and inscribed with Roman numerals and Latin that I can’t read anymore. Latin! Who ever would have thought I’d come across Latin again one day, outside the schoolbooks I labored over back in seventh grade in Santa Fe in that sunny low-roofed classroom with box elder bugs on the windowsill, sure it had nothing to do with life or love or who I’d come to be. I remember thinking of it (dry old Latin, all about phalanxes and footsoldiers and decorum) pressed between pages like brittle flowers that have lost their color. But all these years later I’m sorry not to have teased out a little fragrance. XXIIII [sic] is all I can make out.
And even that turns out to be wrong. It turns out that the milestone has been moved down from the Pass. It marks the distance not from Bourg St.-Pierre, where it stands, but from Mons Jovis, back up the steep drop where we’ve dropped from, back up into the clouds, where the temple was to Jupiter, storm god of the mountains, before the Christians chased him out and built their monastery with appropriated pieces of temple marble and carted off the column too. (The phalanxes powerless to prevent it.)
The roads all crossed there: Celtic, Roman, Medieval, Napoleonic. But the roads are gone, now, except for the modern highway for the bright red tour busses which is closed by snow ten months out of the year, and the scars of avalanches which too look like ways down from the mountains. The bedrock is a cicatrix of vanished roads. The exact course of the Roman road—the one we’re looking for—can only be guessed at, in the tumbled fall of rock like a dry river bed, like the arroyos in New Mexico that carry vestiges of thunderstorms and flash-floods.
And so the displaced milestone measures something other than linear distance now. It marks a different kind of journey, into ambiguity and flux and loss.