Rural Road Was a Contrary Course

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Photo courtesy Clell G. Ballard
A rural road can provide lots of memories for anyone who grew up on a farm.

According to the dictionary, a lane is “a narrow, rural road for the passage of traffic.” That is a most fitting and accurate description of exactly what most rural lanes did: They allowed for the passage of traffic. In fact, that described our lane going into the family farm. It allowed for the passage of traffic – for part of the year, or at least some of the year or at least for some of the time for part of the year. So far as allowing the passage of traffic for all of the year … well, that never happened.

Our lane was .6 mile long from Upper Sarepta Road to our farmhouse. It was an absolutely straight lane, because it neatly divided George Edgar’s land on the east from Roy Erie’s land on the west – and that was the only thing it did neatly. That lane was as perverse as any inanimate thing could be.

Rural amusement park

The lane was level for the first third of the distance, but that was only to give a false sense of complacency. The middle third of that lane was laid out by a designer of roller coasters. The good lord had put a hill in the way that he didn’t intend to be traversed, and most of the time it wasn’t, although we sure tried.

Someone, years ago in the dim, dark ages when they first laid out the lane, had made a curve in the hill so that horses pulling a wagon up the hill wouldn’t tip over backward. And I suppose that must have worked out, because people had used the lane for 100 years or so, but it wasn’t working out so well for us.

Have you noticed that, even today, when something is working okay, someone comes along and spoils everything in the name of progress? Well, that spoiler was Henry Ford, when he invented the automobile. An automobile could just get up enough speed to get up that hill before it had to slow down to go around the curve, and so that curve was gradually abandoned and quickly reclaimed by the trees that grew along it, and then in it.

Now the lane went straight up the hill, and that hill was almost straight up. Oh, it wasn’t really that steep, it just seemed to be that steep, especially when the ground was wet, or covered with snow, or ice or whatever it was covered with most of the time when we couldn’t get a car up it, which was most of the time.

Not an all-season route

Over the years many other folks (and us too) tried to make the hill less steep by cutting the road deeper at the top. All told, the pick-and-shovel work (there were no bulldozers in those days) had made the road cut about 8 feet deeper than it had originally been. That is, the road had been cut 8 feet deeper than the surrounding land. That really helped when the weather was dry, but it was really bad when it snowed.

We were almost never able to use our lane for the passage of traffic from the middle of December, when it usually started to snow, until the end of March or the middle of April, when the snow had finally melted. Why? Well, the wind usually blows on the top of a hill far more than it does down in the valley, and our farm was on the top of the hill. Ordinarily, in most places, an 8-inch snowfall deposited 8 inches of snow, but there was nothing ordinary about our farm. 

When 8 inches of snow fell on the farm, the wind would blow 6 inches of it off the top of the hill and deposit it in the lowest spot it could find, which was, unfortunately, our lane. The 8-foot cut at the top of the hill now became 8 feet of drifted, jam-packed, stamped-down, rock-solid snow in our lane. Concrete didn’t have as much tensile strength as that snow. We used to dig a trail, and sometimes a tunnel, through the snow on the hill so that we could walk down the lane to go to school and to get our mail. All other traffic was done by horse and bobsled over George Edgar’s fields; we parked our cars in his field just off Upper Sarepta Road.

Quagmire of spring

The Bible tells us that all things pass, and eventually winter did, but that still didn’t mean that traffic could, at least not in our lane. As everyone who has ever lived in the country knows, after winter comes the spring thaw, when everything that was formerly frozen as hard as concrete suddenly becomes the consistency of thin soup. I don’t know, over the years, how many loads of rock we dumped in the ruts on the level part of the lane, but it was never enough. The rock would just sink out of sight.

I don’t know the height of the clearance under the old Model A Ford trucks and cars, but it was considerably higher than the clearance of the cars today. No matter, it was never high enough. Those cars could have been walking on stilts and it still wouldn’t have been high enough.

There were two methods of driving through the rutted quagmire. Neither worked, but at least you felt like you had two choices. You could drive through slowly and cautiously, praying all the time that you would get through, which didn’t work. Or you could try to drive through going like a bat out of hell, praying that you would get through before the car sank in up to the running boards. That didn’t work either, but at least you probably got farther out in the swamp before you got just as stuck. In either case, you then had to walk back to the barn and get someone and the team of horses to pull the vehicle down to Upper Sarepta Road, where it was left until the lane dried out a month later. 

One disadvantage to the “bat out of hell” method is that the vehicle employing such a method sent torrents of mud flying out of the rutted lane, which made the ruts even deeper so they could hold more water, which made more mud.

The summer dustbowl

There undoubtedly is some obscure law of physics that properly explains how mud that is more water than earth can turn into dust overnight. I’ve never run across a satisfactory explanation for that phenomenon, but I saw examples of it year after year.

When you drove down the lane when it was dry, and it was actually dry in July and August, the passage of the car would send up billows of dust. If you drove fast enough, the dust didn’t catch up to you until you got down to Upper Sarepta Road, where you would have to stop to see if any traffic was coming. It was then that the dust would envelop you like a cloud and you would have to sit in the cloud of dust until it settled enough so you could see if any traffic was coming.

Experience in reverse

Ours was a one-car lane, which was bad because, if you met an oncoming vehicle, one of you had to back up. The fact that it was a one-car lane was actually good because, if it had been a two-car lane, we would have had twice as much trouble as I’ve already described.

There were just two passing spots in the lane, one at the foot of the hill and one in the hollow where the big hill dipped down where Roy Erie’s wood road branched off into his woodlot. We really didn’t have a lot of traffic in our lane, but it always worked out that, if no car had used it all day, two would use it at the exact same time. Consequently, all of us were as good at backing up as we were in driving forward. And it probably explains why all of us have cricks in our necks today.

Do I have any pleasant memories of our lane today? You bet I do. I shared many pleasant walks and talks with my sisters Ginny and Eve. Fall was, and is, my favorite time of the year. I would carry my shotgun down to the end of the lane on the way to school on clear days, hide it in a hollow log and hunt pheasants on the way home. Also, in the fall, Mom always had a pan of baked apples filled with raisins and cinnamon waiting for us as a snack when we got home.

As kids we did then what we should all do today, walk a mile or so every day, but not many of us will ever get the chance to do it in a country lane. FC

Leonard Lee Rue III is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and author of some 30 books, including The Deer of North America and The Encyclopedia of Deer.

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