In Praise of a Dirt Road

Jack Savage | August 15, 2009

There’s a dirt road I travel on my way to and from work that I hope will change very little. It’s not long—less than three miles from either end of the pavement it bridges. Most of us who traverse from end to end do so because it’s a shortcut—a way to get from nowhere to somewhere and back again.

Like many such roads, it has at least two names. In Middleton, where I live, it’s labeled New Durham Road because that’s the most direct route to the next town over. In New Durham, it’s called Middleton Road, even though I’m pretty sure that most people starting at that end aren’t headed to Middleton at all, but are on their way to somewhere else, like Wakefield or the White Mountains. Despite the heroic efforts of road agents, it has other names, especially in winter and mud season. But it wouldn’t be nice to print those names here.

A dirt road gives you the chance to turn off the A/C, roll down the windows, and smell the woods as you trundle by. On my drive, I’ve seen moose and bear. Deer, of course, and turkeys and hawks. Fox are frequent road-crossers; more occasionally coyotes. Snapping turtles, skunks, raccoons and porcupines. Once, I saw a fisher. But never any roadkill.

I see the wildlife not just because the road is a narrow canyon through forest and field, but because it is narrow and unpaved—I must slow down. But you don’t want to come to a complete stop this time of year—people with gardens will run out and fill your backseat with zucchini.

I like the road because I know some of its forested shoulders are protected—the road passes the Forest Society’s Jennings Forest, nearly 400 acres of working forest and eco-reserve. And open-air classroom—earlier this year a group of fifth-graders from Gilford visited the Jennings Forest to learn about sustainable forestry. They came and went via the dirt road.

Equally satisfying to observe as I rattle along the washboard are the human endeavors. In the winter, I check trail conditions where the Powder Mill Snowmobile Club’s Tree Farm Trail crosses the road. Beginning in late February, I look each day at the sugarhouse for the billowing steam-signals that announce the arrival of maple syrup season.

One morning this past spring, I stopped to watch Fish and Game workers stock Hayes Brook, which becomes the Cochecho River as it flows toward the Seacoast. A hand-painted sign advertises fresh dairy products at the end of the driveway of a historic farmhouse. Another household offers fresh eggs at $1.50 a dozen—on the honor system, of course—just leave your money and take the eggs from the cooler at the end of the drive.

In the summer and fall, I watch as woodpiles grow, reminding me daily of my own splitting and stacking tasks ahead. I know hunting season is here when I must dodge the Ford and Chevy pickups wedged into the few wide spots.

I’ve come to appreciate this stretch of dirt road because I suspect it won’t last. I suspect the proposed 21-lot subdivision at the Middleton end will resurface when the economy improves. More development will follow. Eventually, somebody in a hurry to get somewhere from nowhere as fast as possible will make a case for paving over the dirt.

If that day does come, I will mourn pavement’s arrival. I think that dirt roads cause the people who live on them to embrace a rural lifestyle. Live on a dirt road and you’ll find yourself compelled to buy a pair of muck boots and start raising chickens or goats, or maybe do some sugaring in the spring—even if you’ve only ever worn wing tips or heels and always foraged your meals at Hannaford.

Now you could say that the same folks who are happy to live on a dirt road are the same kind of folks who like fresh eggs and make maple syrup. But I think if you could put a dirt road through the middle of Manchester, somebody would rig up an evaporator in the spare bedroom of their apartment. Come March they’d pull on new boots and head out to hang buckets off the maples in Veterans Memorial Park. By August they’d sneaking surplus zucchini into slow-moving cars. Such is the power of a dirt road.

Jack Savage writes from his desk at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, where he can be reached at