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March 2, 2009


            The street where our family lived when I was a boy was not a street at all. It was a dirt road. It ran from Mr. Taylor’s dairy farm past Mr. Smith’s cornfield to the shanty of a mysterious woman I was pretty sure was a witch. She had a big black cast iron pot in her yard where she boiled something, maybe curious boys.

            The dirt road in front of our home was a trail to adventure. Toward the east, it became a paved road near a natural gas transfer station, a place surrounded by a chain link fence with ominous signs warning KEEP OUT. East was the direction to Tommy Wilson’s East End Market and Community Cash grocery store. It was the route I took on my bicycle to go to Monday night scout meetings.

            Toward the west, the dirt road lead to a path through the woods, over a creek to Dead Horse Canyon, a deep gully that was a marvelous playground.         

Beyond the path to the gully, the dirt road went to the witch’s shack. The old lady was probably not a witch at all, but she was at least an eccentric recluse. Rarely did I go that far down the road. I went all the way to the end when Gordon Coley dared me and promised me half of a Hershey Bar if I would. On that occasion, I heard a shotgun blast. Whether I was the target or not, I can’t say. I ran all the way home. That was the last time I ventured that far.

            Dirt roads hold a special charm. I remember the sadness I felt when our road was paved with asphalt. From then on, it was a street, no longer a road.

            Recently, on a bright Saturday morning, master photographer Mark Olencki and I traveled to a farm above Highway 11 to visit a fascinating couple. According to James Cooley, who grows excellent peaches and strawberries, these folks own the best-looking team of mules anywhere around. We needed photographs of mules for my new book to be published by the Hub City Writers Project. Scheduled for release in October 2009, it is entitled A Good Mule is Hard to Find and Other Tales from Red Clay Country.

Mark spotted a diamond-shaped Mule Crossing sign. I turned my pickup truck onto a dirt road. We stopped to open a heavy steel gate, carefully locking it behind us. The twin tracks of the lane cut through a cow pasture, followed the curve of a hill down to a soggy bottom, and climbed a slope beyond. Cresting the second rise, we saw the farmhouse in the distance. The dirt road curved to the right, back to the left past a stately barn.

As the truck neared the house, three dogs announced our arrival, a German shepherd, a Scottish collie, and an English bulldog. Guinea hens scurried across the yard. A handsome rooster of no distinguishable nationality strutted near an old well.

The mules were soon ready for pictures. Mark took a zillion shots, not just of the mules. Though I have a face for radio, he also took a few of me. Through the lens of his high tech digital camera, Mark went back in time, taking pictures of the old buildings, of turkeys, of horses, and the charming house.

After the photo shoot, we were invited into the vintage farmhouse. The earliest part of the structure, a log cabin, was built in 1836. The home now features several additions including a kitchen and a bathroom with indoor plumbing. We sat by a warm fire in the front room swapping stories.

As we made our departure, the bulldog was on the porch chewing the leg bone of a deer. We said our goodbyes and made our way back up the dirt road. I commented to Mark, “Do you think these people are in danger from burglers?”

“Probably not,” Mark agreed. “Anybody with bad intentions would have to unlock the gate and make their way through the cow pasture with all of its hazards. When they finally got to the house, they would be greeted by an international assortment of barking dogs and probably a shotgun.”

I said, “We’d all be better off if there were more dirt roads.”

Too many dirt roads have been paved. Dirt roads slow us down to a more reasonable pace. Dirt roads teach us patience. Walking to the school bus, to the mailbox, or to the store took more time, but provided good exercise.

Dirt roads bespeak a different set of values, a quality of character that’s worth preserving. Some of my happiest memories of dirt roads are of those that led to a fishing creek or a swimming hole.

My eighty-eight year old dad and I were having breakfast together not long ago. Over scrambled eggs, bacon, and grits, he told me about the time when Highway 29, also known as the Greenville Highway and W.O. Ezell Boulevard, was a dirt road.

            My grandparents had built a brick home where the pavement ended. Down the red clay road toward Greenville, there was a spot known as the Sugar Bowl. It was a wide circular area on a hill above Fairforest Creek where cars could turn around. Rumor has it that couples in love parked and sparked in the Sugar Bowl.

Dad remembered that dirt road fondly.


Kirk H. Neely

© March 2009

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