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21 May, 2011

Ode to Backroads

Maybe the last road you'll ever take

In this blog, you may have noticed an obsession with backroads.

Long ago I took the off ramp from the freeway, began avoiding the arterial routes. I hate being in traffic's mainstream, locked into someone else's pace, breathing their exhaust. The primary road lacks soul and scenery except when the desire to move large volumes of vehicles from point A to point B cannot avoid traversing beautiful country (I-90 through Snoqualmie Pass, for instance), and even then there is always some better alternative (two lanes of Route 20 to the north, or of Route 12 to the south). Freeways aim to streamline and thus shed everything interesting, force everyone into the same rhythmless rate of travel, offer quirkless repetition of the same few gas stations and fast food places. Urban thoroughfares consist of a series of stoplights between which strips of stores and other concrete castings mark what was once a landscape as corporate occupied territory. Where mindless masses heed the realtors' idiotic mantra of "Location, location, location," pioneers with all their memory are pushed out, humans with their individuality are hidden somewhere behind facades, and even businesses grow less diverse and interesting. Top dollar rent, bottom feeder culture.

Maybe my penchant for backroads stems from something simpler, though, and all of the above (and more, believe me, there's much more to that rant) is just rantionalization of a more basic desire to avoid traffic. 

Over the years, many of my best friends have been the same, people who will take longer to reach a destination if it means avoiding highways and main streets. Humans who crave green roadsides. Apes with an appreciation for the offbeat and historic. 

Back when I'd only driven for a few short years, I read Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Already a lover of backroads, I cannot say it influenced me as much as the book and my internal narrative enjoyed a happy feedback, a harmony. It reinforced my belief that the road less traveled holds more promise of adventure and discovery, of meditation and discovery.

Over more years, backroads driving has become more than just a personal preference. Curving roads cannot be driven too fast, and in slowness there is more opportunity to see the lay of the land: terrain, vegetation, and old human haunts emerge in a way speed will not allow. As a student of cultural landscapes, there is no replacement for this kind of recon. The capillary network of small and semi-forgotten transportation penetrates most of the country and its history. What seem to most of my contemporaries to be roads to nowhere often go to a place that once was somewhere, to the old timer with a trove of memory or the ruins of where that memory settled into the earth.

So I take the lesser tine at the fork in the road, and follow. Sometimes this is history thrown into reverse: the old game trail that became and Indian Trail that became a road, then was bypassed and became less useful, less used, and abandoned. Shoulders shrug away to nothing, two lanes become one, pavement grows leprotic and patchy, and eventually fades to gravel, to mud-ruts. Trees arch over, salmonberry and blackberry crowds the lane, scratching the sides of the rare truck that enters with all the fervor and skill of a beginning violin student. Eventually, you come to the point where the plants just grown in the road, or maybe to the washed out bridge or dug up road where further travel must be on foot.

On lucky days, this means a 3-point turn (maybe 5 or 7), but other times the road ends with no wide spot, just dropping into a ditch or swamp. Then comes the slow back-up, trying to see the road behind through dusty windows and cockeyed mirrors. Either way can scrape the nerves like the brush scrapes the truck. Slipping off a narrow logging road leaves you in one of several predicaments: praying that enough wheels have traction to drive out, high-centered and figuring out if the winch can save you, a long walk out musing over ways to avoid ignominy among peers, or a quick and accelerating tumble down the mountain. None is pretty, but most are not deadly. It may take hours to walk out to find help, and this never happens in areas where your cell phone will work.

A different danger is getting stuck because someone blocks you in, parking in front of a gate you'd locked behind you. Sometimes, in quest of something, I've driven through an open gate, risking being locked in. Passing such portals carries some risk, maybe some thrill. The ones I tend to avoid either have evidence of heavy ongoing use (running into a gravel or logging truck barreling down and not expecting to see me is not something I want), or that have no trespassing signs, especially the home made ones, complete with promises of shooting.

There is a dark side to some back roads. Residents may be friendly, or they may live there because they do not want to be found--fugitives and recluses eye the passerby with suspicion, with one hand resting on a gun. The lone lost traveler may get help, or may disappear after a short exchange has established that nobody else knows where they are. Last week I drove a road that set my skin to crawling, my mind wandered to a Puna road that looked like this but for the lack of red cinders, a road where a girl was raped and killed because she thought a lone bike ride would be fun, but happened through the turf of meth-smoking animals who thought it would be fun to run her down. 

Nothing bad happened to me, and it rarely does on backroads. The isolation of back roads just lends itself to musings that can turn dark and paranoid under the wrong circumstances. Just as easily, though, you may come around a bend and see epiphany, or at least some interesting wildlife. Lots of times, I've seen a bear helping himself to salmonberries colonizing old logging roads, or come out of the woods and into a vista, or found a road on no map that leads to exactly where I want to go.

Meanwhile, some schmuck is tied up in traffic. There are people who never venture of the beaten, paved, and strip-malled path. I feel sorry for them, but not enough to want them out on the fine web of rural roads that I mostly enjoy alone. Too many people, and I'd have to give up some of the traveling habits that make backroads so much fun. No slowing down in the middle of the road to snap a photo, or outright parking there to poke around, knowing that nobody's coming. No peeing in privacy right out in the open. No foraging without giving away secrets. No, I am very happy that the main stream is where it is, and that poetry aside, almost nobody takes the road less traveled.

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