The Last Dirt Road By Tom Poland

May 23, 2013

By Tom Poland
May 23, 2013

For me a moody summer day parched for rain resurrects memories of dirt roads. One old dirt road from yesteryear comes alive as if asphalt never covered it, the one that ran by the country store near my boyhood home.

When the land bakes and mirages slither across highways like snakes, when the barest of winds stir that old road’s dusty grandeur rises from the past like a phantom. Billowing clouds of powdered earth trail a 1950’s car headed to the store. A dark sedan passes me on my bike, a contrail of dust coating everything in sight, me included. I taste dust, earthy and dry. My saliva turns to mud and I spit it back whence it came, onto the shoulder of a dirt road.

That doesn’t happen in the Age of Asphalt.

Dirt roads sure are pretty.

Well you know, it’s getting harder and harder to find one, answers photographer Robert Clark.
We were discussing the photo-essay book on South Carolina we’re doing for the University of South Carolina Press when the idea of photographing a dirt road—a fading beauty of the South—came up. We put it on our list of things to get.

The dirt roads I conjure up always led to good places, quite often pretty places. A green field of corn. A thick stand of sugar cane. An incomparable farm pond. A majestic old barn leaning just so, its rusty roof reflecting sunlight here and there in splotches.
title=Dirt roads brought a romantic touch to life and that touch caressed books, and we want it to bless ours too … if we can. Sure our book will have a few paved roads in it but that’s more by accident than design. And no novelist from the glory years would dare make concrete or asphalt his star. I can’t recall reading a description of a paved road in literature, can you? They’re just not interesting. Hemingway, however, did paint a sumptuous, war-framed portrait of a dirt road in A Farewell To Arms.

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.

As you can see a gifted writer sees the poetry in dirt roads. But now we insist on paving every one. Some day, somewhere, the South will have one last dirt road. Just one. I dedicate this column to that endangered species, that lonesome road that will be the last to be vanquished. Wherever you are I hope you are safe.

I know some of you old timers are thinking, Yeah, well you’ve never been mired up to the axles on a dirt road turned into a quagmire by rain. I have been stuck on a dirt road turned into a sea of mud. When I was a boy my family drove over to South Carolina to see my mom’s brother. When we left it was monsoon-like and Dad’s car sunk into red clay. Dad had me get out and push. Took a while but we escaped. I remember riding back to Georgia covered in mud. I am certain that road is paved today.
Back when all roads were simple lanes made from whatever the earth offered, everyone was on equal, if uncertain, footing. Then gravel and tar came along. Live on a paved road and you had a bit of status. No dust, no mud, just the ding of gravel against the undercarriage, and then asphalt came along—that fossilized mix of petroleum and crushed rock and sand—and everybody wanted their highway paved. Rural politicians made inroads by paving dirt roads.

Why a washboard lane made a car skitter about and sooner or later potholes developed and the ride jarred the missus. Sufficient reason to lay down asphalt. What beauty we lost though. On my drive down I-20 to home, I used to see a dirt road winding through the pines not far from Graniteville. One day I came along and it had been paved. I seldom glance that way anymore.

We’ve lost a lot. When I was a boy I loved seeing a big yellow road grader come along, planing off a veneer of dirt, curls of clay gathering at both ends of its blade. That’s a sight I haven’t seen in a long time. You could smell the rawness of the earth as the grader rid the road of potholes and ridges. For a while the road was brand new but then the elements went to work and the cycle repeated itself.

Were dirt roads good for people? I say yes and I am not alone. Lee Pitts is the author of People Who Live At The End of Dirt Roads. Here are insightful words from Pitts.

What’s mainly wrong with society today is that too many dirt roads have been paved. There’s not a problem in America today, that wouldn’t be remedied, if we just had more dirt roads, because dirt roads give character.

People that live at the end of dirt roads learn early on that life is a bumpy ride. That it can jar you right down to your teeth sometimes, but it’s worth it, if at the end is home, a loving spouse, happy kids, and a dog.

We wouldn’t have near the trouble with our educational system if our kids got their exercise walking a dirt road with other kids, from whom they learn how to get along.

There was less crime in our streets before they were paved. Criminals didn’t walk two dusty miles to rob or pillage, if they knew they’d be welcomed by five barking dogs and a doublebarrel shotgun.

And there were no drive by shootings. Our values were better when our roads were worse! People did not worship their cars more than their kids, and motorists were more courteous. They didn’t ride the bumper or the guy in front would choke them with dust and bust their windshield with rocks.

Dirt roads taught patience. Dirt roads were environmentally friendly. You didn’t hop in your car for a quart of milk. You walked to the barn for your milk. For your mail, you walked to the mailbox.

What if it rained and the dirt road got washed out? That was the best part, then you stayed home and had some family time, roasted marshmallows and popped popcorn and pony rode on daddy’s shoulders and learned how to make prettier quilts than anybody.
At the end of dirt roads, you soon learned that bad words tasted like soap.

Paved roads lead to stress and danger. Dirt roads more likely lead to a fishing creek or a swimming hole.
At the end of a dirt road, the only time we even locked our car was in August, because if we didn’t some neighbor would fill it with too much zucchini.

At the end of a dirt road, there was always extra springtime income when city dudes would get stuck. You’d have to hitch up a team and pull them out. Usually you got a dollar; always you got a new friend at the end of a dirt road.

When we pave a dirt road our new friends are asphalt layers. We show our dependency on petroleum over and over. When cracks, holes, and wear take their toll, we lay down another layer of asphalt and all is well. We pay a price though. Taxes, maintenance, and other issues such as speeding become a nuisance. Potholes, ruts, and ridges, you see, served as a kind of law enforcement. Speeding on a rough dirt road isn’t a lot of fun and it’s not good for shocks and tires. And then there’s that skittering thing.

I hear that a dirt road can cost twice as much to maintain as a paved road. Not sure I believe that. Even so, can we not leave a few dirt roads alone? Why not let them be reminders to younger generations that this is how things used to be.

Have you ever lived on a dirt road? I hear some of you mumble. No, I’ve never lived on a dirt road. Never had to put up with nonstop dust. I suppose living on a paved cul-de-sac makes it’s easy for me to romanticize dirt roads, but let me leave you pave-all-road-progressives with two thoughts.

One, when a cloud comes up and those first drops big as marbles spatter powdered earth you’ll smell the fragrance of life itself. You won’t get that from a paved road. Second, there’s nothing picturesque about a paved road. As I said, Robert and I have no interest in putting asphalt avenues roads in our books. We’re all about preserving beauty, not showcasing the cause of its demise.

Visit Tom Poland’s website at
Email Tom about most anything. [email protected]

Tom Poland is the author of six books and more than 700 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press just released his book on how the blues became the shag, Save The Last Dance For Me. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture.

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