2017-08-24 / Opinions


‘It’s getting hard to find dirt roads’
a southern writer

It’s so dry folks are spitting cotton as one old saying goes. So dry birds are making nests out of barbed wire goes another. Something about drought makes me think of dirt roads. When the land bakes and the barest winds stir, I see billowing clouds of dust trailing a car down a dirt lane back of Clifford Goolsby’s store. I don’t know whose car it was but I see it clearly. A dark sedan flies toward me, a contrail of powdery dust coating everything in sight, me included. I can taste it, earthy and dry. Then saliva turned it to mud and I spat it back whence it came. A dirt road.

“It’s getting hard,” said Robert Clark, “to find dirt roads.” He and I were discussing another big coffee table book on South Carolina we’ll be doing for the University of South Carolina Press, our fourth such collaboration. We were looking over photographs when we came across a photo of a sandy lane, what we call a dirt road. Dirt roads are an endangered species today, another aspect of the South fading away.

By the way, if you want to see a Robert Clark photo of a lovely lane, go to my website, www.tompoland.net, and check out the home page photograph. It’s a dirt lane on Edisto Island framed by live oaks festooned with Spanish moss and resurrection ferns. It’s name is exotic, Botany Bay Road.

Dirt roads add a romantic touch to coffee table books and fiction. I can’t recall reading a description of a paved road in literature. They’re just not interesting. Hemingway painted a beautiful though war-touched portrait of a dirt road in A Farewell to Arms.

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

There’s just something poetic about a dirt road. But now we insist on paving every one of them. Some day, somewhere, the South will have one last dirt road. I dedicate this column to that lonesome road to be.

I know some of you are thinking, “Yeah, well maybe you’ve never been mired to the axles on a dirt road turned into a quagmire by rain,” and I know some of you are thinking “I’d love to be stuck in mud on a dirt road if it means getting rain.” I have been stuck on a dirt road turned into a sea of mud. When I was a boy my family drove over to Carolina to see my mom’s brother, Donald. When we left it was raining and the car got stuck. Dad had me get out and push. I remember riding back to Georgia covered in mud. That was eons ago and I am certain that road is paved today.

Back when all roads were dirt, simple lanes made from whatever the earth offers, everyone was on equal, if uncertain, footing. Then gravel and tar came along. If you lived on a paved road you had a bit of status going for you. No dust, no mud, just the ding of gravel against the undercarriage, and then asphalt came along, that mix of refined crude oils and aggregate, and everybody wanted their highway paved.

A washboard lane makes a car skitter about and sooner or later potholes will develop. Sufficient reasons to lay down asphalt. What beauty we lose though. On my drive down I-20 to home, I used to see a dirt road winding through the pines not far from Graniteville. One day I came along and it had been paved. The vista no longer holds the same interest and I seldom glance that way anymore.

I used to love seeing a big yellow road grader come along, planning off the veneer of dirt, curls of clay gathering at both ends of its blade. That’s a sight I haven’t seen in a long time. You could smell the rawness of the earth too as the grader did its work getting rid of potholes and washboard ridges. We seldom think about it but dirt roads did a lot of good things for us. With credit to Lee Pitts here are some wise words that make a lot of sense.

“What’s mainly wrong with society today is that too many dirt roads have been paved. There’s not a problem in America today, that wouldn’t be remedied, if we just had more dirt roads, because dirt roads give character.

People that live at the end of dirt roads learn early on that life is a bumpy ride. That it can jar you right down to your teeth sometimes, but it’s worth it, if at the end is home, a loving spouse, happy kids, and a dog.

We wouldn’t have near the trouble with our educational system if our kids got their exercise walking a dirt road with other kids, from whom they learn how to get along.

There was less crime in our streets before they were paved. Criminals didn’t walk two dusty miles to rob or pillage, if they knew they’d be welcomed by five barking dogs and a double-barrel shotgun.

And there were no drive by shootings. Our values were better when our roads were worse! People did not worship their cars more than their kids, and motorists were more courteous. They didn’t ride the bumper or the guy in front would choke them with dust and bust their windshield with rocks.

Dirt roads taught patience. Dirt roads were environmentally friendly. You didn’t hop in your car for a quart of milk. You walked to the barn for your milk. For your mail, you walked to the mailbox. What if it rained and the dirt road got washed out? That was the best part, then you stayed home and had some family time, roasted marshmallows and popped popcorn and pony rode on daddy’s shoulders and learned how to make prettier quilts than anybody.

At the end of dirt roads, you soon learned that bad words tasted like soap.

Paved roads lead to stress and danger. Dirt roads more likely lead to a fishing creek or a swimming hole.

At the end of a dirt road, the only time we even locked our car was in August, because if we didn’t some neighbor would fill it with too much zucchini.

At the end of a dirt road, there was always extra springtime income when city dudes would get stuck. You’d have to hitch up a team and pull them out. Usually you got a dollar; always you got a new friend at the end of a dirt road.”

It’s a sign of progress when a dirt road gets paved. Or is it? We again show our dependency on petroleum and when cracks, holes, and wear take their toll, we lay down another layer of asphalt. Taxes, maintenance, and other issues such as speeding become a nuisance. Potholes, ruts, and ridges, you see, served as a kind of law enforcement. Speeding on a rough dirt road isn’t a lot of fun.

I hear that a dirt road can cost twice as much to maintain as a paved road. Perhaps that’s true. Even so, can we not leave a few dirt roads alone? Why not let them be reminders to younger generations that this is how things used to be.

One more thing. When a cloud comes up and those first large drops spatter against a dirt road you get a rich smell that’s the smell of life itself. You won’t get that from a paved road.

(Visit Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net or email him about most anything at tompol@earthlink.net.)

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