The beauty of a dry dirt road
By Tom Poland
The creeks dribble. Shorelines drop. Leaves crunch. Colors fade. Birds queue up around my fountains. The lack of rain robbed us of a lot of fall color. I drove through the countryside this week. Brown leaves everywhere. It’s so dry folks are spitting cotton as one old saying goes. Dry as a bone goes another.
Dry weather makes me think of dirt roads. As I made my way along Highway 34 this week, I passed a dirt road that had been paved. I felt a pang, a twinge of regret. It’s an exaggeration to say dirt roads are an endangered species, but I believe they represent another aspect of the South that’s fading away. Seems we intend to pave them all.
There’s just something poetic about a dirt road, something beautiful about a dry dirt road. I don’t recall reading a description of a paved road in literature, though I’m sure they exist. I came across a book review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He didn’t title it The Dirt Road, and for that I’m grateful. The review, titled “The Road Through Hell, Paved With Desperation,” suits this tale of a boy and his father who cross a corpse-strewn, ashen landscape of a post-apocalyptic world. I just can’t see a dirt road in a world so cursed by technology that it destroys itself. Surely they would all be paved.
Future world or past, paved roads just aren’t interesting compared to dusty lanes with their washboard ridges. Hemingway painted a beautiful portrait of a dirt road in a Farewell To Arms. It’s a passage I love. “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.”
I go out of my way to drive dirt roads. Most are outliers. That is I find them far from places crisscrossed and run over by asphalt. Drive a dirt road right now and a fine powder rises. The rearview mirror seems dusted over. It’s like seeing through fog. The steering wheel gets a case of jitters as tires skitter, rattling over those washboard ridges. Ahead the road curves, a beautiful scene edged as it is by powdered grass and leaves.
Come a summer storm when a blazing white anvil crowns an ink-black column, a thunderhead showers the land. When the blessed rains fall, a fertile fragrance rises as raindrops pelt dust. It’s a fragrant reminder of Earth’s fertility. A paved road? When the clouds break, steam boils up from asphalt. It smells like tar.
Dirt roads take me to old springhouses, forgotten cemeteries, abandoned churches, and collapsing barns. They take me somewhere else too. Childhood where road graders scour potholes and ridges away and pick-ups and cars trail a fine mist of earth that powders leaves as Hemingway so eloquently described. I pray that progress leaves us a few dirt roads, reminders of how things once were in a land plastered over with solar farms, cell towers, and asphalt.