I grew up and came of age in the woods and fields outside of Atlanta, Georgia, where many of the gravel roads were also slick with red clay much of the year, especially the week after a good rain. To successfully keep a car on the road in those conditions, it’s better to keep the wheels in the ruts, where the ground is harder packed than the soft mud to the sides of the track. In fact, this is such a central part of life in Georgia, one friend’s way of saying goodbye was, “See you later. Keep it in the ruts.”
Keep it in the ruts. I’ve been thinking about this as we lift up the importance of widening the circle in our congregation, and becoming a truly welcoming place for people to be their whole selves. Keeping it in the ruts makes sense when we want to go where we have been before, but what do we do when we want to go someplace new?
To take this metaphor further, I recently learned that the world’s standard gauge (or width) for train tracks is 4 ft and 8.5 inches. This is called the Stephenson Gauge, named after English engineer George Stephenson who, in 1825, designed railroad tracks for the brand new steam engine trains to connect coal fields. Stephenson’s Gauge become the standard in England in 1846. In our country, we used a lot of different train gauges until Abraham Lincoln established this Stephenson Gauge as the standard in 1863. When the North won the Civil War, the South conformed to this standard too. Our railroads still use this standard gauge, and so do more than half the world’s railroads. All over the world, including high speed trains, the width between the two train rails is 4 ft and 8.5 inches. (1)
But how did Stephenson come up with this odd width? He literally got down on his hands and knees and measured the width of the wheel ruts made by the horse-drawn carts and buggies of the time. He figured that the new steam powered trains which were for carrying coal might also be good for carrying people, and some of those old roads could be fitted with these tracks.
The thing about those old roads that Stephenson measured in 1825 was that many of them were first made by the Romans over two thousand years ago after they invaded and colonized England. Those roads have lasted so long because they were made with layers of gravel and stone, and over the thousands of years that followed, the stones were worn down from use. (2) So naturally the horse drawn buggies from 1825 were constructed to have the same span between the wheels as the Roman wagons originally had — 4 ft and 8.5 inches, which is a practical width because it’s the width needed for two horses to be fitted side by side. (3) So English buggies had to match the width of those Roman wagons, otherwise the wheels would get torn up in the ruts from those old Roman stone roads. (4)
Keep in the ruts, remember?
So, to sum up, our modern railroad gauge of 4ft and 8.5 inches is derived from the road ruts made of horse-drawn carriages that were built over 2000 years ago by an imperial army that conquered half the world. (5)
Why am I telling you this story? — well, I think history is really cool. But why am I telling it to you today, on a day when we are lifting up the important spiritual practice of Widening the Circle here at Unitarian Society of Germantown? Because this story illustrates why it is so easy to keep doing things the way they have always been done. Our behavior and choices are literally entrained because the social systems we participate in survive by doing things the way they have always been done. This is why it is so hard to change a culture of an institution, whether that institution is a school, a government, or a church. This is why we keep finding ourselves in a rut when we want to shift our course. Because our systems are built to keep us in a rut, a specific direction where we don’t have to steer. This is why white supremacy persists, and all forms of prejudice and inequalities. It takes persistence, commitment and active participation to grab the wheel and shift the direction of our mission to Widen the Circle, and to include people’s whole, authentic selves. This is the spiritual practice of building Beloved Community, because institutions that DO empower people can change the world and literally save lives — much better than we can do as individuals. But it is not a standardized one-size fits-all. It is not convenient. AND it is the only way this congregation will truly become a safer place for all.
See you soon friends, and may you keep it out of the ruts.
(3) Ogata, Masanori; Tsutsumi, Ichiro (2006). “Origin of the world’s standard gauge of railway is in the interval of wheel ruts of ancient carriages”. The International Conference on Business & Technology Transfers. 2006 (3): 98–103.
(4) Snopes has disproven other aspects of a popular virtual web story that suggested that the space shuttle width is also based on these calculations as well as US history of railroads which for many years included other gauges for tracks. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/railroad-gauge-chariots/
(5) Another article that disproves the “Roman Chariots” angle of the urban legend but does not disprove Stephenson’s original standardization origin story. Lowell, Steve (2011). Roman Chariots, Railroad Tracks, Milspecs and Urban Legends New York, November 11, 2002: Defense Standardization Program Journal. https://share.ansi.org/shared%20documents/News%20and%20Publications/Links%20Within%20Stories/Urban%20Legends.doc