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Farm roads

Published 2021-08-06
This is one of my favorite essays

I grew up on a gravel road, and that’s still my favorite kind of road. It has texture. I can find space in my heart for its close kin: cobblestones, brick road, chipseal, doubletrack. Roads you can feel.

In my native Nebraska, these roads are Section Roads, laid in a mathematically precise grid of one-mile squares (i.e. surveyors’ Sections). In the Willamette Valley, these roads are (mostly) Market Roads, and they track the landscape a little better. They linked farms to mills to whistlestops to ferry landings. The mills and whistlestops and ferry landings have all vanished, but they linger like ghosts in the names of roads and places: Scholls-Sherwood, Boones Ferry, Wankers Corner, Johns Landing, Dixon Mills.

For twenty-plus years now, I will occasionally pedal my bike into the hinterlands. I have a favorite kind of road, and a favorite kind of landscape. Rolling, rural, wooded, but not unsettled. I call it cow-trailing. Gravel biking has opened up a lot of cow-trailing into forest lands, usually at elevation. Those are fine adventures but a little too lonely for me. Trees get monotonous. But a landscape dotted with farms has texture beyond the road surface: a winery, a stand of valley oaks, the old grange hall, a covey of quail, a thicket of overripe blackberries, seven red-tailed hawks drafting on a thermal.

Every time I ride into these hinterlands, one more subdivision marches into the hills and one more gravel road earns its pavement. I grew up on a gravel road so my head knows how much better it is to live next a paved one. But my heart misses the gravel.