I want to tell you a story about a dirt road. It’s a simple story, as you might expect, being about a dirt road in a small town in Maine. The road doesn’t get plowed in the winter, and the rest of the year, it has puddles and potholes. It also has footprints and tire tracks. The footprints are from children, deer, dogs, and parents. The tire tracks, well, the tire tracks. That’s the funny thing.
The road doesn’t lead anywhere. It ends in a couple mud puddles and a small cottage, owned by the Sherwood family. The bay at the end of the road is called Joy Bay, which is separated from Gouldsboro Bay with a small sandbar that is visible at low tide and covered at high tide. Both bays are spotted in the summer with lobster traps. The end of the road often just looks damp and muddy, complete with those tire tracks, which are from the fishermen and clammers who come at dawn to work and the teenagers who come at night to kiss.
For almost forty years, my family has come down here, to the end of this road, to cook out, lie in the sand, swim, find shells, dig in the mud, walk our dogs, and talk long into the sunny afternoons and evening mosquitos, about anything and everything. Generations of our dogs have come up from the water here, covered in salt, and my siblings and I have shouted into hundreds of sunsets along this path, from our bikes, as we pedaled down to watch that sun sink into the water from the point of rocks where the road ends.
And as my siblings and I grew older, we began to carry their children down here. Even before the new generation could walk, we wanted them to at least know the breeze at the intersection of the bays. The same breeze we grew up drinking, it tastes like nothing we’d be able to explain to them. Now, the kids are getting taller, and they come down the road on their own two feet to gather their own rocks and feel their own salt. It is as timeless as it sounds. The road has been here since 1825.
This road’s story isn’t that simple, though. It has its own struggles. I heard that it washed out, once, in 1944 and had to be rebuilt. Today, its villains aren’t natural, though; these ones moved into one house along the dirt road sometime between our family walks, a long time ago. We can’t remember when exactly, but they hated the clammers and the teenagers and the dogs. They hated our footprints and the fishermen’s tire tracks and the children’s shouts. They hated people who used the beach and the people who watched the sunsets. They didn’t care about the town or about the families who built their hearts from the colored glass found on its shores. They said the road was private. They said it was theirs. They said no one could pass. They closed the road to the public.
I was in my first year of law school when the litigation began, and because I was taking a first-year property class, when my father started telling me about the closed road, I shouted things like, “easement,” and “eminent domain,” because they were the only words that I knew, and my whole heart wanted to take back the dirt road, for the clammers and the teenagers and the dogs and kids. I couldn’t do anything, really, though. We waited. My dad went to a town meeting and our neighbors called to share news when they had some. We kept sneaking down the road in the winter when the “owners” were out of town, and, finally, in February 2018, the Supreme Court of Maine said the road was ours. It was the town’s. It belonged to the clammers and the kids and dogs, and the court nodded at all of us when it wrote, “[T]he public has used the road for nearly 190 years” and upheld the constitutionality of the taking. “Taking” is such a cold word. Here, it’s more like sharing. For 190 years, we’ve shared this road. It belongs to us, and this time, for once, the private interest will have to keep watching as our footprints smile up from the dust of this simple, loving, little road.
You can read the court’s judgment in this case here.