Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tar, gravel, sand, dirt, mud

"Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue." Wall Street Journal

We've been a nation of road-builders, to the point that the asphalt and concrete have overwhelmed our cities - cutting off neighborhoods, fostering big box development, abetting the sprawl into the surrounding countryside. And there's little romantic about dirt roads to those who have to use them. One of the great rallying cries after World War I was that we needed to "get our boys out of the mud" with farm-to-market roads. Early in the 20th century, North Carolina earned the label "the Good Roads State" after the General Assembly approved a $40 million highway bond to pave roads connecting the 100 county seats. So there is something painful about watching this particular regression, as highway crews chew up the pavement they once laid down because it's just too expensive to maintain. We may have too many roads and too many ill-considered roads, but those who live past the end of the pavement know the cost of not having it.

While I live on a paved street in the city these days, I spent most of my life on one of those "other" types - from tar-and-chip to gravel to plain dirt with a strip of grass down the center.

The memories are specific: The first, gravel in my knees from falls taken from a road cruiser bicycle not designed for loose surfaces. Poor road maintenance in the winter because the plows would tear up the thin layer of tar. The smell of asphalt sprayed from the back of a truck. The slew and slither of braking on gravel. Dust that coats the cars, the houses, the wash hanging on the lines. Potholes filled with water. Gravel roads gullied and dirt roads turned to mud in stormy weather. The knowledge that the fire truck or ambulance would come a few seconds or few minutes slower than it might "on the hard road."

I had a spell of road-building, when I homesteaded a farm in West Virginia. There was a dirt path to the back side of the farm and a gate onto the hayfield where we built. The dirt lane - actually a state road, abandoned - soon wallowed out under daily use, and we spent the first winter excavating rocks and filling the holes so we could get the pickup truck in and out. That's when I became suddenly and horribly allergic to poison ivy that was rooted among those rocks. It was wet, cold, heavy work - better then than in high summer, but no easy task even for sturdy 20-somethings. It was easy to see why road-building had for so many centuries been delegated to soldiers, serfs, slaves, and convicts.

It may be practical to let some less-traveled roads revert, but it has emotional resonance like a padlock on the factory door - something's gone, and it may not be coming back.

No comments: