John Denver sang longingly of the country roads that took him home, but those of us who have driven unpaved routes all our lives know the reality—rural roads have their warts. Conditions have improved since the early days of the famous Lincoln Highway (right), but they still pose challenges.
I drive off pavement on a weekly basis to visit my parents on the family farm in rural Iowa, but I’m not the dust-and-mud jockey I was as a teen driving the old Chevy to school, sports, or the drive-in. Now I just complain when a few miles of gravel means I take my Honda to the car wash when I get back to town.
Dad is the real road warrior. Except for a four-year stint in college, he has lived along the same country roads for 87 years. And like most local sages, he has his methods for coping with gravel and mud.
Dad’s Rules of the Road
1. Speed bumps come naturally on country roads. Chuck holes, frost boils, and rain-softened shoulders are hazards. Washboarding can make some sections seem like bad amusement park rides. Forget about cruise control; think about slowing down.
2. Ice, snow, and rain affect gravel roads longer. Let farmers with monster pickup trucks blast through snow drifts, and leave the unmaintained dirt roads to the adventurous. (Note: my high school classmate, Don, regularly attacked lonely dirt roads after snow or rain storms. He used his dad’s ’64 International Harvester pickup for personal off-road rallies.)
3. A trail of dust from oncoming vehicles might hang over the road producing near-zero visibility. Headlights help, and a trail of dust in the distance does alert you to traffic. But at times, you’ll be in a sepia-colored fog.
4. At unmarked country intersections, the vehicle on the right has the right-of-way. But don’t bet the farm that the other guy will stop. Tall corn hides approaching cars on blind corners. As they say, you could drive through and be right—dead right.
5. Be aware of local driving habits. Some folks drive down the middle of the road, and a few are still “windshield farmers.” They gawk to the sides checking out neighbors’ crops. Others might not use turning signals—they reckon, “No need for ‘em. Everybody around here knows where I’ll turn.”
6. Big farm equipment scares most visiting drivers—flashing lights, slow-moving vehicles, and machines that look like something out of Star Wars. Some farmers drive huge road-hogging combines “just a mile or so to the next field.” It’s best to stay patient or take an alternate route. If you’re following a “honey wagon,” stay back a ways. Enjoy the manure fragrance and watch for splatter or chunks. No need to take home souvenirs on your tires.
7. Darkness adds another dimension to country driving. Wandering livestock, raccoons, and skunks can be dangerous and smelly hazards. Deer seem to wait in ditches and bound out when you approach. (Note: during one week, my sister and her husband each hit deer with different vehicles. They were OK. The deer and vehicles weren’t.)
During my teen years, I paid the price for ignoring some of Dad’s edicts. A car looks mighty sad when it’s cowering in the ditch along a lonely back road. But I still appreciate the serenity and beauty that often comes with a drive in the country. For most rural folks, John Denver was right: “Take me home, country roads.”
by dan gogerty (top pic from iowadot.gov and other pic from public-health.uiowa.com & pinterest.com)