Muddy Awards: The Best of the Worst
Fay Brook Road in Sharon. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Baker Hill Road in Lyme. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Brighton Lane in Croydon. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Cross Road in Strafford. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Gee Hill Road in Royalton. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Mud season descends upon the Upper Valley each year, whether we like it or not, bringing with it a pleasant wave of warmth but also laying waste to the dirt roads so common around the region.
Frost, which has spent months underground, begins to thaw, and when it does it turns some well-traveled rural roads into a sort of paste molded into slalom runs threatening to trap any car foolhardy enough to attempt passage.
The Valley News solicited reader recommendations for the road most bedeviled by New England’s infamous fifth season, and we went out to the trenches to crown the very first Big Muddy. Sharon’s Fay Brook Road was the winner, if that’s the right word, but four other routes earned honorable mentions.
Fay Brook Road, Sharon. About 4 miles.
Though all the roads on this list can be summed up in one word — blech — Fay Brook Road earns the first Big Muddy for the Heart of Darkness-esque trip drivers have to take to conquer it.
It starts innocently enough, with a blacktop entrance giving way to unimposing, flat dirt. Complacency begins to set in, and the hypothetical driver, who hypothetically has very little experience traversing Upper Valley roads during mud season, figures Fay Brook Road ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Then, the first bumps and hills arrive. The road narrows, hugging Fay Brook, which looks like it would gladly accept cars navigating the torn-up curves. The elevation changes and slick bends prevent a driver from getting any sense of how long this adventure will last.
When the road finally — finally — clears, after several miles and multiple instances of wheezing tires, Round Robin Farm stands in the middle distance, flanked by farmland, hallowed ground at the end of the mud tunnel.
“Growing up here, it’s something you get used to,” said Dan Robinson, a longtime Sharon resident who owns the farm, shrugging off one of the nastiest roads in the region.
When he was young, Robinson said, he would get two weeks of school vacation during mud season, as Fay Brook Road became nigh impassible. But what some might see as a vicious, no-nonsense road, he just sees as something “you learn to live with.”
Cross Road, Strafford. About 2 miles.
Driving down Cross Road is like piloting a bumper car through a rainstorm. The road is marvelously cut up, eschewing hills and potholes for a couple of miles of near-constant slipping and sliding. The few houses on the street are set far back from the road itself, mostly out of sight, giving it an ominous feel.
Also, it’s within spitting distance of its big brother, Fay Brook Road. While the two are technically in different towns, they’re both part of the same network of back streets that weave, like rural synapses, through the GPS-proof areas of the Upper Valley.
The only positive, really, is that the road crosses the Sharon town line and leads straight into Route 132, which is like silk after sandpaper.
But good luck getting there.
Baker Hill Road, Lyme. About 3 miles.
Baker Hill Road was easily the most unpleasant drive of the many roads sampled for the Big Muddy due to the constant ruts and bumps, all of unknowable depths.
Most of the bangs and bounces are insignificant. But about a dozen minor grooves give way, without warning, to holes that seem to extend all the way into the Earth’s mantle, throwing the front of the car forward and producing a sound like dropping a bowling ball onto a wood floor.
Apparently, in the recent past, the road was much worse.
“This was a pit last year,” said Bryan Roth, a Lyme firefighter and 14-year resident of Baker Hill Road. “The ability to hold any weight,” he said, “there wasn’t any.”
The school bus wouldn’t travel the mucky road in 2012, so Roth’s wife, Kristin, had to walk the mile or so to Goose Pond Road to pick up their kids in the afternoon. (In the morning, the road was usually firm enough to drive on in their car, she said.)
Standing on his front porch recently, Bryan Roth recalled last year’s mud season. “Everything,” he said, “let loose all over.”
Gee Hill Road, Royalton. About 3.5 miles.
This road, a roller coaster bisecting the water slide that is Russ Hill Road, wins a place in our contest for its sheer variety of obstacles. Highlights include unpredictably steep hills, single-lane narrowness and a cut-up section filled in with large rocks that bounce up against a car’s belly.
Factor in all the small farms that crop up roadside — along with their heavy equipment, which churn up the pliable dirt when they cross — and drivers will no doubt be in for an interesting trip.
Perhaps, then, the best way to combat this gooey road is to view the trip as something of a game, the way Jenny Lane does. Lane, who has lived on the road for about a decade, said one of the best ways to emerge from mud season undaunted is to “just go for it” and enjoy the ride while it lasts.
“I think it’s kind of fun,” Lane said. “It’s an exciting place to live. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”
Brighton Lane, Croydon. About one-half of a mile.
In the grand scheme of April-averse Upper Valley roadways, Brighton Lane is the Little Road that Could. It’s short, sure, but makes up for its lack of length by barely even pretending to be a road when everything softens.
At its most agreeable, deep tire treads make for an unpredictable ride. But more often, trenches of mud arrange themselves in weird, abstract formations and glom onto vehicles’ undercarriages.
Patty Whipple lives at the end of the dead-end road and parks her car on Route 10 during mud season. She takes her landlord’s truck down Brighton Lane while she waits for the ground to dry up, she said.
It’s probably a smart move. As a reporter zigzagged down a totally straight stretch, moving at the whim of the mud, a pickup truck waited at a safe distance. When the two vehicles passed, the truck’s operator put up a hand — perhaps as a wave, perhaps as an indicator that, during mud season, we’re all in this together.