When I tell a waitress in Troy, Vermont that I'm looking for covered bridges, she nods thoughtfully and suggests a few country roads. This is not the first time she's been asked for these sorts of directions by someone with Massachusetts plates.
"Wish I could go with you," she tells me, punctuating her wistfulness with a smoker's wheeze.
She seems genuine, which is an astounding tribute to the lasting appeal of something so simple. Once practical -- the bridges were designed so that their roofs would protect their floors, thus saving towns the trouble of replacing them every decade -- the bridges have become the ultimate symbol of New England's uncompromisingly quaint backyard despite the fact that there is nothing intrinsically interesting about them.
I find the bridge I've been directed toward at the end of a long dirt road and listen as a Ford F-150 plays the wooden notes of the slightly separated boards. The driver waves as he passes, presumably on his way to a dairy farm. There are a lot of dairy farms.
The river isn't deep or wide, but it has clearly been persistent: Looking down from the middle of the bridge, I can see that the stones at the bottom have all been rolled smooth.
One end of the bridge, which sweats a musty eau de oak, frames another farm further up River Road. Through the other end, I can see a grove of maple trees flashing yellow leaves in a seasonal call to caution. I take a few pictures then find myself lingering.
I can see why bridges like this are so closely associated with New England. They borrow the manners of the people, doing their jobs without bringing any attention to themselves. Covered bridges are, in essence, well-camouflaged infrastructure. "I'm just another barn," they seem to say, unwilling to take credit for helping the men in trucks get from real farm to real farm.
I know why the waitress wanted to come. Unlike roads, highways, off-ramps, overpasses or even other varieties of bridges, covered bridges make you feel like your nowhere by reminding you that you are someplace very specific.
I repeat the question I asked her several more times to several more small town waitress -- I've concluded that women slinging greasy coffee have an eye for these things -- and I always get a directions. I'm led astray more than once, but then I find another where I didn't expect it to be.
Stopping to take a picture of a famous bridge in Bennington County, Vermont, I'm splashed by a the water streaming off a big rig's mud flaps. This truck isn't headed to a farm. It is headed to a city. On the other side of the little covered bridge, I'm safe from that kind of splashing.
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