Rural Roads

Ah, rural roads, county roads, blacktops, “pave,” Farm-to-Market roads… All the ways to get geographically challenged when you are going from the North Forty to the Back-of-Beyond. (Not to be confused with the back of Burke, which everyone knows you cannot reach unless you are going somewhere else. If you pass a large, black stump, you are near the Back of Burke. And in Australia.)

Some roads I’ve driven on are roads only by cartographic courtesy. The (in)famous “thin grey line” on US Forest Service topo maps is, in theory, a road passable by high-clearance vehicles. In good weather. If you are prepared to dig or pull yourself out of trouble. And bring extra gas. We were doing a whopping five mph to keep from shaking our teeth loose, had another 12 miles to go, and finally gave up. The family also gave up on one over the Bears Ears, because it had snow banks on it in June, and we didn’t have a “dig the truck out of snow” shovels with us.

(The Four-Wheel-Drive rule of thumb – 4WD is for getting yourself out of what 2WD got you into. Not for getting so stuck that you need a six-by to pull you loose.)

Then you get the American Midwest “Grade B” county road. Grade A roads are at least graded once a year, and probably have gravel on them, are crowned, and have bar-ditches along the side. Grade B roads are use-at-your-own-risk, last graded back when the county had a budget surplus (Eisenhower Administration?) They will get you there, but not fast, and most of the time, not in a passenger car. Unless you are a local farmer who knows how to ride the ruts and ridges. I’ve compared light turbulence to driving on a County B road, and the passengers knew exactly what was coming. If it has rained or the snow is melting? Don’t do it unless you can power yourself out of the mud.

Before the advent of 9-1-1- and the requirement that all roads not only be named but actually have signs on them (honored in the breach at times), unless you had a really, really good map or a local along, navigation could be a challenge. It is still a challenge for those without a sense of navigation direction, or on days without visible sunlight. Which dirt road is the one you want? Which blacktop road is the one you need? “It’s on the blacktop” is not helpful for those who don’t recall when that particular one was the only paved county road. “Turn at Conyer’s Corners” sure, but the sign doesn’t call it that: the sign just gives the names if the roads. Sometimes. If there is a sign. Or people use names for roads that are signed with numbers (Iowa loves to do that, for some reason. Colorado uses double letters, and each county does its own lettering, so crossing county lines can be interesting.)

Some of my favorite roads are two-lane federal or state highways that go for tens of miles with nary a sign or other evidence of management. They just are, stretching out across the empty quarters of various places, rising and falling with the land, opening up fascinating vistas. They require a certain amount of self confidence and certainty that yes, you are still on the correct route, heading in the hoped-for direction. I’ve found some wonderful places that way, nosing around on rural roads. You know, the ones where people ease to the side to make room for you, and where everyone still waves as they meet.


15 thoughts on “Rural Roads

  1. For gravleed roads, be ready to do potassium or uranium dating. Some of them were done “a while ago”, for flexible definitions of while. The gravel may have washed away or decayed.

  2. There was a type of “state road” in Illinois where the center of the road was paved but the “sides” were graveled.

    If there wasn’t a car coming, you could drive in the paved center but when another car was coming both cars would drive half on pavement & half on gravel.

    I think that I was told that some governor promised to increase the miles of “paved roads” in Illinois but only did the “paved in the center” type roads. 😉

    • Yes. I have pictures of the road to Deers, IL, just south of Urbana, from 1973 or so. It was a county road. with the center a 6′ wide strip of concrete, while the shoulders were grass. No signs of any gravel. I suspect the farmers (or the county; it was fairly prosperous back then) used brushcutters on the shoulders.

      I never was there in winter; it would have been a challenge.

      Bing streetview shows that that road has been upgraded; it’s now a 2 lane blacktop road, though the shoulders are still grassy. Not much in the way of ditches there.

    • A few years ago, I drove a stretch of old Route 66 down in northeast Oklahoma that was like that, 9 feet of pavement with a couple-three feet of gravel to both sides . As you say, if you do encounter another car, you both have to pull over, driving half in the gravel, to pass one another. This stretch is infamous as the Ribbon Road or Sidewalk Road.

  3. Having pushed (using shanks ponies) a number four wheel drive vehicles (including Jeeps) out of mud holes or a “road” that crossed a seemingly firm meadow that was in actuality was trying to turn into a peat bog. My attitude is that for most people, four wheel drive just gets you stuck deeper in the mire, and farther from civilization. Note my my two wheel drive “fishin’ truck” always got me home from my adventures. The only time I had to walk away was when a friend’s Jeep CJ7 got stuck axle deep.

    • Of course, there are also the idiots who think 4-Wheel Drive “laughs” at ice.

      IE, The Ice wins. 😈

      • Oooooh yeah. I’ve seen more than a few of those. Or “snowpack is the same as pave!” Well, until you try to stop…

      • As we said in Alaska, “Four wheel drive does not mean four-wheel stop.” 4WD vehicles were a common sight in the medians all winter, especially in droves after first snow.

  4. Ah yes… ‘country’ roads… At least up here, there aren’t any ‘quicksand’ roads like Florida has occasionally… NOT the thing you want to be driving down in a brush truck and have it die, then have to get a D8 to drag it out an hour later BEFORE it sinks entirely out of sight… There is a ‘trick’ to driving on dirt roads, and that is to find the resonant frequency of the washboard. That smooths the bumps, and you can move along quite quickly. Stopping quickly ‘might’ be an issue, however… 🙂

    • There was one from Kenton, OK, to Clayton, NM, that you had to take at either 10 or just under 45 for a smooth ride. Glad I liked the scenery, because I got behind a bison calf, and 45 was not an option until I got past a cattle-guard.

      • Heh, yeah, that happens… I also know alligators don’t move for trucks OR sirens… sigh…

  5. Random remembrances on roads:

    I’m repeatedly amazed when I go back to the county where I grew up (in Indiana) and all the old gravel roads are PAVED and have SIGNS with their names on them. This of course happened decades ago, but the way it looked when I grew up is so firmly fixed in my mind (I guess because with no road signs you had to learn local navigation the hard way) that it’s still a surprise to see the back country modernized.

    I drove a lot in the desert in Saudi Arabia (not the Empty Quarter, just between Riyadh and Al Kharj). There were lots of vehicle trails out in the desert because there were a lot of Bedouins still living in tents out there, and each of them had a white Toyota pickup or three, with a significant percentage having red (always red) stepside shortbed Chevy pickups. They also had generators and satellite dishes for their tents. Anyway, they marked their trails with piles of rocks, or an old tire with a propane tank in the middle of it, or some other kind of debris I learned which ones showed me the way home, but I was still glad to have a very early commercial handheld GPS (Garmin 40).

    The area where I was stationed in Geilenkirchen Germany got a LOT of rain, often daily sheets and buckets. Winters were cold but usually above freezing, so no snow, just more rain. It was incredibly green and damp. The farmers had blacktop paved roads going to and through their fields to drive their tractors on. I can imagine how mucky it must have been before they paved the farm paths. Automobiles were not supposed to drive on the tractor roads, but the young German guys in my landlord’s family would turn off their headlights and use them at night when driving back from the pub we had been visiting in the next town (2 or 3 km) over, to avoid meeting with the local constabulary. There were so many interconnected paved farm paths that I could ride my bicycle from GK nearly to Aachen and back without ever having to ride on an automobile road other than to cross it — and even then the farm paths often had a paved underpass between fields on each side of the road.

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