“The Road Not Taken” by David Orr. The Wall Street Journal, 9/5/2015.
“I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
The fact that one appeared less traveled is only the trivial reason for his choice. He could have chosen because one looked greener, smoother, or the weeds fewer. What is important is that one road was not taken. His point is that we make seemingly inconsequential choices every day with scarcely a thought, but each one leads to an entirely different life. Ever since he published it, people who have not read it assume it is in praise of the independent thinker, the one who habitually takes the “road less traveled.” They are wrong.
The narrator of the poem comes to a fork in the road, and has to chose which one to take. He (or she) apparently has no destination in mind: Which road leads to a place where he wants to go is not the question. He is traveling for pleasure with discovery as the only goal, just as in life. Both roads are pleasant, overgrown country roads equally appealing, but he has to chose, and he picks the one that appears slightly more overgrown, slightly “less traveled,” although, he tells us, there is really no difference. He plans to come back someday and take the other one, but realizes he probably never will since one road connects endlessly to another and another:
“Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
And so, here we are, almost at the end of life’s journey, and when we look back on how we got here, the road we traveled looks as clear and direct and unambiguous as a drive on an Interstate, when, in fact, it mostly bumbled randomly from unmarked intersection to unmarked intersection as if exploring the back roads of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
We will not go back. We have moved away from Lansdowne, discovered our spouse (waiting for us all along on that road we seemingly chose at random), completed our careers, and raised our children. We could not find our way back even if we wanted to. We could never remember all of the forks in the road or which ones we took. In fact, it seems there were no forks at all.