The longer you live in a place, the more its finer points come into focus. First, you might just know there’s an island named Chappaquiddick, but very soon you know the names of its most mentioned features, like Wasque, the ferry, and the dyke bridge. After you’ve lived in a place for longer, the shared history and common names for things start to reveal themselves, maybe by being overheard or referred to in conversation.

It doesn’t take long after you’re on the Vineyard before you hear about Vineyard Haven’s Five Corners — that first free-for-all intersection. (Even after they’ve lived here for years, some people don’t seem to realize there’s a stop sign there so that some cars actually have the right of way.) I don’t remember hearing the term ”five corners” for a Chappy location until ten or fifteen years ago. That’s what some people call the intersection also known as “Blow Your Bugle corner,” where the eponymic granite rock sits.

This is at the corner where Litchfield rejoins the main road at the “second big curve,” the first 90-degree curve being where the dirt road goes off straight toward the dyke bridge when you’re heading up from the point. As I’ve mentioned other times, not many people still use the term “the point” for the area where the ferry arrives on Chappy, but it was called that until recent times.

Roads on the island haven’t been referred to by their official names for all that long — not until the enhanced 911 came into use in town. Before that, roads were often called by the feature of land where they ended, or a prominent landmark along the way, or by the name of a person living there or a family who had lived there in the past.

When I was a kid, the main road, or Chappaquiddick Road, was just “the road” or for a more specific designation, “the tar road.” Now I often call it the “main road.” I was giving directions on the phone to someone who is coming to Chappy for the first time next summer and I told them to come up the main road about two miles from the ferry. If you’ve ever gotten off the ferry on Chappy, you know there can be no mistake about which road to take, but this person e-mailed me back asking if I meant Chappaquiddick Road — because they were trying to find it on MapQuest. 

When I looked at the MapQuest map, I could see the problem: the virtual roads are a world apart from the actual roads. On that map, all the roads look equal as if they were all the same-sized paved streets — not to mention that many of them are named wrongly or missing names altogether.

While we do have numbered houses and street names here, they can be hard enough to find in reality, especially when so many of us don’t (won’t?) post house numbers. No wonder locating a Chappy road seems to be beyond the capacity of even the all-knowing Internet.

Just like people acquire nicknames, houses get them, too. The Chappy Hilton was where the Sands family entertained lots of family and guests in the 1960s; the OK Corral, now gone, was called that for the way its layout and stockade fence resembled a western fort; the Drive-In Theatre house was one of the first out-of-the-ordinary architectural designs on the island; the Triple K Ranch referred to the first initial of the last names of the three parties involved in building this ranch-style house.

Not everyone knows that the tiny house next to where the road curves after it goes up the “first big hill” is called “the ferry house” because it actually used to be one of a cluster of buildings down at the point.

Roads acquire or change names over time, but they also change shape like the course of a river does. One of my brothers pointed out to me that the dirt road back toward our houses used to be completely straight fifty years ago, but now it has all these curves in it. When you drive a road every day, you don’t notice that a bush or tree is gradually, year by year, moving the road away from it as a result of us trying to pass it without scraping our cars. The power of a scratchy old beach plum bush or choke cherry to change a road makes me think of how a plant has the power to crack a rock.

A reminder about the next community center potluck: Wednesday, March 5 at 6 p.m. for hors d’oeuvres and 6:30 for dinner. Marvene and Bob O’Rourke will be the hosts. All are welcome.