Rules of the Dirt RoadPhoto Credit : Tom Haugomat
The town we live in has approximately 16 miles of gravel road within its borders, and exactly zero miles of paved. If you exit our driveway and take a right, you’ll soon find yourself at the junction of the main road through town, the one that travels up and over the mountain on its way to villages of greater population and more pavement. Along the way you’ll pass the town hall (open four hours each and every week) and the old church I’ve mentioned at least a time or two before. If you exit our driveway and take a left, you’ll soon find yourself passing a “Road Ends Here” sign, and even though the road does not, in literal fact, end there, it is wise to behave as if it does, and take full advantage of the pullout on your right to execute a three-point turn.
The roads in our town are maintained by our road crew, whose name is Kyle (a different Kyle from the one mentioned in my previous column). They are not easy roads to maintain—steep, winding, bordered by hills that want to drain water across them—but Kyle is good at his job, and committed to the task. He was hired two years ago, when our previous road crew, Lucian, retired. Lucian was good at his job too, and though I’m not sure exactly how long he’d held the position, I do know it was a very long time. Lucian was—how to put this?—not overly gregarious. It took me about a year to abandon my quest to get a wave out of him, which is about six months longer than I held on to the possibility of getting a smile or at least a grin. When he wasn’t operating the grader or the town truck, Lucian drove a jacked-up Dodge Ram with a deep-blue custom paint job that included exquisitely rendered flames in a gorgeous shade of red; I think there might have been some stars in the mix too, but that could be wishful thinking. On especially fine summer days, he also drove a little Pontiac Solstice roadster with a removable top. And he had a nice old Chevy truck. Lucian’s vehicle choices made me think that perhaps he was sucking a bit more joy out of the marrow of life than his day-to-day demeanor suggested. I hope that’s true.
Kyle’s not much like his predecessor. He’s a smiler, and he loves to chat and catch me up on the condition of a particular intersection, the work that needs to be done along a particular stretch of road, or the status of the grader, which is nearly as old as I am and demands a certain level of tender loving care to remain functional (like me, come to think of it). Kyle’s a local boy—he grew up riding and driving the very roads he now tends—and I think this helps make him well-suited to his job. There’s a very particular intelligence that comes of being not just from a place but of it, and Kyle has that intelligence.
I love dirt roads. I think Kyle does too, though of course I’m sure his affection is tempered by the hassle of maintaining them. Certainly it’s tempered by mud season, those three or four weeks straddling April and May when the deep frost comes out of the ground and even the most carefully tended gravel roads turn to rutted sludge. I’ve long maintained that 80 percent of the wear and tear on our vehicles occurs during this month, and if anything, I suspect that’s understating the situation. How many times have I cringed at the torturous sound of gravel scraping against the underside of our poor old wagon? How many times have I extracted bits of broken body moldings, or rigged an exhaust hanger from a length of scrap wire? How many pounds of accumulated dirt have I cleaned from the inner surfaces of the rims in a quest to eliminate high-speed shimmies and shakes? The answers to all of these questions are exactly the same: A lot. A whole lot.
Yet for each of these trials there’s an accompanying compensation. There’s the tranquility of living along a gravel road, especially in the winter, when traffic going over the Mountain Road slows to a trickle. There’s the pleasure of walking or biking or even skiing along our town roads; often, I’ll travel for miles without being passed by a car or truck. There’s also the sense of community and companionship that comes of it: the travelers extracted from ditches and snowbanks (one of my favorite winter pastimes), the conversations that can happen between neighbors when there’s no traffic to worry about holding up. We’ll each sit there idling, driver’s windows down, and sometimes we’ll talk for a dozen minutes or more before going our opposite ways. If a car does pull up behind one of us, we’ll obey the unwritten code of dirt road socializing, which states that we have 30 seconds to wrap up our conversation and clear the path of travel. And if the car behind us honks, we don’t take it personally, because it can mean only one thing: They’re not from around here. It’s not their fault they don’t know the code.
I learned to drive on gravel roads, and I’m grateful for it. You learn a lot about how a car handles when you’re driving on gravel, what with the vagaries of road surface, not to mention the complications of weather. When the boys were learning to drive, we made sure we had a stick shift, in part because driving stick is still our preference, but also because we wanted the boys to learn how to use a clutch, on gravel, in a two-wheel-drive car. Of course, there are many excellent drivers who learn on pavement, with automatic transmissions and all-wheel drive, but I’m pretty confident asserting that with each of these conveniences something is lost, a certain sense of responsiveness, a connection to the act of driving that transforms it from just the thing you do to get from one place to another into an actual practice. I don’t know, maybe I’m just showing my age. But whatever the case, I’d take the boys out onto our snow-covered roads and I’d turn off the traction control and point them up the mountain, and we’d practice the light touch you need to get through those corners without too much wheel spin and also where to sneak a bit of extra speed to carry you over that final pitch.
Will we always live on a gravel road? I’d like to think so. At this stage of my life, it just feels like something that’s in me, like wood stoves and morning chores. But who’s to say? Maybe someday the compensations will no longer seem worth the complications. Maybe one of us will become too frail with age, or feel too isolated. In the meantime, though, I’m going to keep turning out our driveway onto that narrow path of gravel that Kyle keeps carefully plowed and graded, the one my sons learned to drive on, the one I’ve chased our cows down more times than I care to admit, the one that, if I follow it far enough, will take me anywhere I want to go.