Mud, Dust & Ruts

Catch a glimpse of the rough side of country roads.

Country Road

Country roads are a great place to go when you want to get away from it all.

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I saw that car ad on television again last night. The one that shows a young urban couple gleefully driving their shiny new 4-wheel-drive SUV over rough mountain trails, across streams and through mudholes.

Of course, you knew it never really happened because when they finally return home, their SUV is still shiny as a new penny.

When you live in the country – especially if you live a mile or 10 off the blacktop – the only time your vehicle will be spotless is the day you bring it home from the dealership. The rest of the time, it will be covered with dust or splattered with mud, snow, manure, or some combination of the above. The paint will be decorated with fly specks, and the windshield will be adorned with the squashed remains of countless flying insects.

The majority of this country’s rural roads are probably in far better condition than those found in many other nations. Most are passable year round, but some country roads pose challenges you probably didn’t encounter when you took your driving test.

In the winter, when the wind can pile snow into impenetrable drifts, some rural roads may never see a snowplow. Especially in flat, open areas of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado or Kansas. That’s why, in the olden days, everyone carried tire chains in their trunks. Nowadays, many motorists wouldn’t even know how to chain their tires, other than those who routinely drive over steep mountain passes. Of course, now there are strappin’ young guys at the passes, ready to chain your tires up for a modest fee. So even then, you can get by.

Then there’s spring, the mud season, when the snow melts and the ground thaws. That’s when some country roads turn into a muddy mess that can trap even 4-wheel-drive vehicles. If you spend much time driving over muddy, rutted roads, it’s a good idea to keep a pair of rubber boots in your car so the next time you slide into the ditch, or otherwise get stuck, you won’t mind walking to a farmer’s house for help.

Summertime means dust season. That’s when you can spot a vehicle traveling on an unpaved road a mile away by the plume of dust rising in the air. That is, if you can still see through the paste of insect remains on your windshield. While those vehicles are raising dust, they are also creating a washboard surface that’ll jar a future traveler’s fillings and loosen a car’s suspension components. Have a can of paint that needs to be re-stirred? Just toss it in your trunk, and drive a few miles over a washboard county road.

There is relief in sight though – it’s called the maintainer.

Maintainer, motor patrol, road grader – no matter what you call it, the only cure for the washboard blues is a good grading. Although the gravel windrows they temporarily create in the middle of the road can present a driving hazard, good road grader operators can smooth out the ruts and flatten the washboard in no time flat. That’s why there aren’t that many of them and it takes so long for them to reach your neighborhood. In parts of rural Colorado, for example, gravel roads with “moderate” traffic volumes are graded every three or four weeks, while “low usage roads” may be graded “seasonally,” which means, “When Bo can get to it.” For some rural residents, private driveways may pose a greater challenge than public rights of way.

The farmhouse where I grew up sat on a hill near the middle of a section of ground, accessible only by a dirt drive that snaked about a quarter of a mile along an irrigation canal. In early spring, rains and melting snow turned the road into a quagmire, and driving over it quickly produced axle-deep ruts. When the driveway was impassable, my parents would simply park the family car out on the county road and shuttle us back and forth by tractor.

It could have been worse. I once visited with a rancher from Montana who told me she leaves vehicles parked at a neighbor’s place several miles away during the winter months. If they have to get to town for a doctor’s appointment, say, or to stock up on groceries, they make the long trek to and from the neighbor’s house by snowmobile. Another rancher in Texas told me that when it rains, flooded creek beds can make it virtually impossible to enter or leave their ranch until the water level drops.

Here’s an important driving tip. If you’re ever driving through an unfamiliar area and come across a sign reading “local traffic only,” stop immediately and turn around. The worst rural road I’ve ever traveled in my life was on the northwest corner of Maui. My wife and I had rented a small car during our vacation and had driven up the west end of the island until we reached the end of the blacktop. That’s where we saw the sign reading you know what.

“Hah!” I said to my wife. “I grew up driving on roads like that. Let’s see where it goes.”

Where it went was up and down the sheer sides of high cliffs that crumbled into the surf far below, little more than a goat path barely wide enough for our little compact, and definitely too narrow for two vehicles to squeeze past one another. To make matters worse, morning rains had left the road wet and muddy, giving me visions of sliding off the road and into the ocean below. By comparison, our old farm road looked like an interstate highway.

I think I averaged two miles an hour for the next hour or two, praying we wouldn’t meet an oncoming vehicle or slip off the road. When we finally crept past the entrance to a private ranch and reached pavement again, I was tempted to get out and kiss the asphalt.

Next time you see a “local traffic only” sign, turn around and go back. Chances are they mean it. 

Country writer and cowboy poet Jerry Schleicher dreams of a clean SUV at his home in Parkville, Missouri.