The truck lurched over potholes, rattling my teeth, notching my seatbelt tighter, reminding me I had to pee, as I gripped the overhead handle. Alders and brush scraped the side of the door, hissing metallically against the paint. I glanced nervously at the side mirror and watched as dust billowed up in an angry column behind us, lit by the taillights in predawn.
Ahead, the road bent and disappeared around the corner. The speedometer hovered at forty, the driver’s eyes were steady. Cold sweat tickled the back of my neck and the fingertips of my right hand were white. I shifted in the passenger seat.
Gravel skidded under the tires as he braked for the corner. No one was coming in the other direction, as I had feared, but that mattered little to me.
“Hey dude, slow down. The trailhead’s not going anywhere.” I call to the driver. My twenty-seven year old companion, the driver, glances at me in annoyance but, after explaining my reasoning, he levels off to a conservative speed.
For most of us, gravel, clay, dirt, or sandstone roads connect us to the places we hold dear like National forest or parks, state land, BLM, rental cabins, or, as it was for me in my younger years, home.
The majority of my young life was spent on twenty acres of land just northeast of Pisgah mountain in Pend Oreille County, Washington. It’s an area that lacks development beyond the highway, a two lane thoroughfare, and many roads peter out into gravel or clay before long. Mine did. It was a wide gray road that bled into lumpy, weaving clay, which narrowed the further it fled from the highway, the closer it came to home.
I didn’t always love this road. To be honest, at times, I hated it. Muddy and slick in spring. As hard as concrete, jarring pot holes, brake ripples, and storming with dust in summer. In fall, it turned to mud again. Winter was a combination of snow, ice, and slush, depending on the weather, which often fluctuated from 34 to -14 degrees.
Like a wavering cell connection at the edge of service, the road flickered between functional and unbearable. In it’s own way, it was like a fickle prison, sometimes the lock left unclasped, and I sped along it’s distance with haste, just in case the road might deny me passage.
Many years later, it’s different. As soon as my tires leave the pavement, I slow down. Let me tell you why.
Because of the time I raced down that road on my mountain bike, hit a rock, and went flying into the ditch. A bloody gash in my knee and scraped hands were my medal. Soon after my wreck, a neighbor fled hurriedly by in his truck. I counted myself lucky, it could have been worse. I tied my shirt around my leg to slow the bleeding, as I walked the last quarter mile home, leaving my bike behind. The scar still shines from my kneecap.
For the first time my dad let me drive his truck and I oversteered, taking us up a sharp embankment before he grabbed the wheel, from the passenger seat, and directed us back to safety. I stopped the car and he took over. We’d only made it a hundred feet down our driveway.
My initial attempt at driving in the snow, in our purple f-250 single cab, nicknamed Barney, was a rescue mission to pull my dad’s car out of a snow drift, nearly a mile away. When I arrived, there was another car stopped in-between his car and I. As I slowed the truck, I realized I’d been too harsh, the brakes locked and tires slid. To my horror, the momentum pulled me down the shallow hill and, eventually, crushing the car’s bumper ahead of me.
My brother Ben and I sat on the tailgate as my mother drove Barney, our f-250, out the drive, toward another entrance in our property to gather firewood. We dangled our feet and watched as the clay road, baked solid from the summer sun, flew away underneath us. A bump in the road, a poorly timed shift, and Barney lurched forward. I rocked back instinctively and held on. Ben was not as fortunate. He flew off the tailgate, at twenty miles an hour. I watched, frozen, as he tumbled through the air, whipped his body onto the unforgiving earth, and snapped his skull against the clay. His head bounced.
Frantically, I pounded the side of the truck. My mother was unaware. As I rushed up to my brother, I watched as he tried to get up, then crumpled to the ground like a lifeless doll. But he survived.
I drive slow for every time I snuck home when it was much too late, cigarettes and beer on my breath. I cradle the brake for the time I spent twenty eight hours in jail, bailed by a coworker, and walked, ashamed, the last two miles of that clay road to my parents home without my car, which was impounded. My dad didn’t speak to me for a week, a small price for my recklessness.
For the time my brother called me after he’d fallen asleep and crashed in a ditch, not far from home. I helped pulled his truck back to the pavement, just thankful he was alive. I slow down for each time I’ve nearly been hit by a kid driving too fast on a dirt road, a kid that reminds me of myself. Because everyone makes mistakes, usually because we’re in a hurry.
Many of you have memories of your own, what a dirt road means to you. Maybe it’s freedom, maybe it’s restriction. These roads take us where few intend to go, that’s why they’ve yet to be converted to asphalt, and there’s a spirit of independence, duty, and responsibility that comes with the territory. These byways are not meant for running because they venture to places where time moves slow, a scarce commodity in today’s world. It’s a privilege to have such access into recreation areas and we should treat them as such. For every pothole and rumble strip, each wave from a stranger in an oncoming car, and every memory we’ve gained and those we’ve yet to create, we owe it to others, to ourselves, to ease off the accelerator, absorb the beauty these roads give us, and arrive safely. Maybe then, we won’t miss what we came here for.