Dirt Roads are the Best Roads

Believe it or not, this picture was taken from the driver's seat of a 1991 Honda Civic Who needs 4WD. 

Gravel, finally. RK releases his seat belt, windows go down, the dogs perk up, lift their heads and stick noses out the window. Gravel and dirt lead to the good places: creeks, trails, camping, real darkness, stars, rocks, trees, views, solitude and quiet.

In the roughest bits the truck is put into 4WD and slowly crawls over rocks, ruts, and generally tricky spots. Springs creak, the engine revs, there is an occasional smack of the skid plate on rock. Branches slingshot the antenna and release the smell of pine or sage. The dogs get jostled and bounced, pant nervously, but they trust us and sniff their future through the window.

If one looks simply at the state of the pavement, we are lucky to live in and next door to states that appreciate a good road, mostly top 20 highway states. (Believe it or not, there are surveys done on the state of the highways, and a 55-page report issued on the subject each year, including most improved.) We are luckier to live where there is so much land that access to it all can’t possibly be paved. The pavement gets us close, but the dirt gets to the heart.

An extra splash of adventure comes from the fact that atlases, even ones that claim to be accurate, kind of do a bad job with dirt roads. Sometimes the road numbers are wrong, sometimes they don’t go where they are mapped to be, often there are roads in real life that are not on the map. And no atlas can tell you about the washboarded ruts or the recent erosion or the tree that fell in the last wind storm. They also can’t tell you about the quality of the fishing in the creek next to the road, the vastness of the view, the herd of antelope in the meadow, the perfectly private spot to set up a camp. And that is why we drive on them, in a fairly unplanned kind of way. “Let’s head over to that canyon and see if that road goes somewhere awesome,” is something I might have said.

When I was a kid we drove our 1960s VW micro-bus up to the mountains, from city to highway to dirt roads of lessening quality. It did alright, fully loaded with kids, dog and gear until we turned onto the final access road (really just a set of parallel paths, wheel distance apart) to our cabin. We would all pile out and my dad would drive as fast as he could down into the gully to get enough momentum to make it up the other side. The dog, a black Lab named McKenzie, would sprint with joy when released from the car, chasing the little green bus as it revved up the hill and across the meadow. The rest of us would walk the short distance to the tiniest cabin ever, (built by my dad, without power tools!). The cabin was home base for our wanderings: mushroom hunting, berry picking, bear sighting, mountain lion tracking, Christmas tree harvesting, firewood gathering. And an anchor of my earliest childhood memories.

Nowadays, exploration is the name of the game. We go back to our favorite places, but just as often we look for new faves, especially in places we have barely heard of. We spent a lot of time in the Wyoming Range last summer (“Where is the Wyoming Range?” one of our most well-traveled friends asked us, which made us feel extra adventurous.), and found a robust network of dirt roads criss-crossing ridges and valleys. There are some strange folks camping out in some of them, some feisty fish in most of them, freestyle hiking opportunities galore, dark skies and plenty of places we would like to return to. Only one time did we turn back because the road was too rough, too slow — we would have missed dinner at a friend’s house if we continued. So that canyon is still unknown to us, but maybe we will try again.

The worse the road the fewer the people, especially these days when everyone seems to roll with giant campers, RVs and trailers of motorized toys. Those that we do see are looking for the same thing as us, solitude, and typically keep to themselves. Or maybe it is because we have big dogs that keep away potential creeps. No matter what, the reward of arrival is that much better when the road in is bad.

Laurel Hunter

Laurel Hunter

Central Oregon, USA