Column: In praise of the unpaved road

  • (Jonathan Stableford photograph) Jonathan Stableford photograph

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 9/11/2021 10:10:05 PM
Modified: 9/11/2021 10:10:06 PM

Each year, as August yields to September, my thoughts turn to road repair. We live on the top of a hill and at the end of dirt road nearly a mile long, and with two other families we share the responsibility of maintenance. At the bottom our road joins a town road, also dirt, where year-round we see with envy the timely and artful work of the town road crew. The issue of public vs. private roads is complicated and ambiguous, but not in our case. We built this road in the late 1970s knowing that plowing and upkeep were burdens we would have to bear.

I’m not sure why late summer is the time we repair our dirt road, but it has been this way from the beginning. We were young and money was tight, and I suspect we just put off repair until winter and snow were just around the corner. Summer storms take their toll, with sudden and violent erosion, so there was also prudence in waiting until the wash-boarding is unbearable, and the gullies and grooves are so deep they can swallow a tire.

The repair process begins for me in late August as a passenger in the truck of the man who will do our work. He has already assessed the damage driving the hill to our house, and as we descend the hill together, he explains the options for what needs to be done. A formal estimate, always reasonable but never inexpensive, arrives in the mail a few days later; and in September the work begins.

This is also the time we pay our taxes.

From the next room my wife can hear my Sisyphean sigh, but, honestly, I love dirt roads. There is an integrity to the way they fit the land, often following ancient trails and wagon paths.

From a drone’s view, a dirt road is nearly invisible while a paved one looks like a scar slashed into an innocent’s face. When I run, a dirt road is softer beneath my feet, cooler than tar in summer months and dryer in winter. The footprints of deer and turkeys on dirt roads tell a story of recent crossings. Foxes mark them with scat, and swallowtails mining them for salt explode in glorious clouds when they see me coming. Drowsy snakes bask on dirt roads in early and late sun. Even the engineering of dirt roads interests me, the crowning and swales for drainage, the placement of culverts so streams can pass beneath.

I learned to drive in a Dodge pickup on a dirt road in Maine, long before I was legal. I sat on my step-grandfather’s lap with my hands on the wheel, and while he worked the pedals, I moved the spindly gearshift. When I was tall enough to reach the pedals, he took the passenger seat and barely spoke as I found my way. Thirty years later I did the same with my children, and whenever we left the house, they argued about who would drive down our road and who would drive up.

One winter afternoon, in a sabbatical year spent in Vermont, I injured myself with an ax and needed to go to the hospital for stitches. There were no other adults around to drive and none, it seemed, that I could reach by phone. My son at 10 was competent as a driver, and I was about to let him drive the 16 miles to the hospital when the phone rang, an adult who could after all help.

With all this history, how can I not harbor a fondness for dirt roads?

There is a flip side to this cheery song.

After a spell of no rain, a car can raise an apocalyptic cloud on a dirt road, and if I’m out running, I need to make a hasty mask of my shirt.

If I’m driving, it’s like steering through fog.

And of course, there is mud season, the 13th labor of Hercules, right after his descent into the underworld to steal the dog Cerberus. For those of us who are not heroic, mud season is a test we are annually doomed fail, a parable about patience we are too impatient to absorb.

And where would I be without paved roads? I depend on them every day for the food I eat, for mail, for regular contact with my children and grandchildren, and for everything I order online. From my rural home I can drive to Boston in a morning and to New York in a day. I grew up on a busy city street and spent most of my adult life in suburbs. One summer when I was in college, I worked on a road crew building streets of concrete that were supposed to last forever.

Nearly 60 years later I am in a very different phase of my life, where a minute or two lost traveling a dirt road makes no difference at all. The irony is that it never did, and people who have lived their whole lives in towns like Strafford have known so all along.

Most of the roads in our town, whether public or private, are dirt. Although the temperature occasionally rises in debates about paving this one or that, people humbly accept that a complete transformation is impossible, and they celebrate as heroes the men who work on our road crew.

Living at the end of a long dirt road seems an like apt metaphor for where I am in my life, and at least for now I’m grateful for my part in the simple responsibilities of upkeep.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.

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