Disappearing Fast — the Joy of a Dirt Road

  • Share
  • Read Later

One of the reasons that we bought the farm in the first place was that it lies a mile and a half down a dirt road.

It is true that in dry weather, a passing car or truck will kick up clouds of dust that settles over the house and coats our lives with a soft, fine grit, like beige baby powder. And it is true that in March when the ground thaws, the mud on the road used to get so deep you had to put the car in second, and overrev the engine, bulling, bucking, half-surfing and jounce-bouncing hub-deep along the ruts through obdurate goo. If you stopped, you sank, and it took a tractor to get you out.

What, then, is the charm of the dirt road? I don't know. But it feels better somehow than a paved road. Actually, I do know: What's wrong with a paved road is that it brings in more traffic, more people, more houses, and maybe, in the fullness of time, a development, a commercial strip, a shopping mall.

The last year or two, the town roads department has been experimenting with compounds, a gravel-and-clay surface, easier than dirt to plow and maintain — but not yet asphalt. That seemed a good compromise; the baby powder still fills the air.

But recently we left the farm, stayed away nearly a week, and drove back late at night. I turned my car off the blacktop... and instantly felt, instead of the familiar reassuring washboard under the tires, a harder, sleeker, smoother ride. The road under my high beams looked the same color as the clay compound (chalky gray), but my shocks didn't jump and chitter; the tires hummed underfoot.

Sabotage! They paved the road while we were gone! I saw the telltale slick black strips of tar at the margins.

The tires hummed for a mile in. Then the paving stopped, a half mile from our house. Well, we still have that. We're assured the roads people will not be paving any more for a while.

Years ago the man who owned the farm before us stood in the middle of the road, we're told, and turned back the tar trucks — ordered them to go somewhere else.

But perhaps it takes an eccentric farmer to object to paving. A hard road, well maintained, would reduce a working farmer's work, make it easier from him to bring crops and dairy cans and livestock to market. Maybe it is offensively yuppie of me to sit out here wiping dust off my computer screen and hoarding my elite seclusion. (On the other hand, I pay honestly for it by driving two and a half hours if I want to go to the city.)

I knew a farmer in Kenya once, who lived with his wife and daughter on a spread as remote as he could find, in Laikipia, up above Nanyuki, among elephants and giraffes and baboons and lions. He'd been a coal miner in England, and looked a little like a tougher, non-literary D. H. Lawrence — dark-browed, long-faced. He came to Africa, he told me vehemently, "because I hate the sight of a paved road! I can't stand it!" His black eyes flashed violently.

One of the reasons he liked Kenya, I suppose, was that, under a dispensation of neglect, the paved roads the British had built in colonial days were rapidly crumbling, from the shoulders in to the center line, and reverting to pot-holed track. I imagine my friend thought that if he could hold out long enough, animals and people would eventually have dirt paths again — a happier state, in his view.

But where my farm lies, the roads department is every bit as good as the British colonials'. It's a complex competition — the wild against the paved. The animals — coyotes, deer, foxes, beavers, fishers, bear, even a couple of mountain lions — are for the moment flourishing. But the tar trucks are prospering, too, fattening on real estate taxes, and they look as if they have their Darwinian agenda in order. I do not have any illusions about which species is going to win this one.