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May 19, 2019

I recently read Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads by Paul Theroux. Well well-known travel writer, Theroux explores the section of America I know best, the Deep South. He finds a paradoxical place, full of incomparable music, unparalleled cuisine, and also some of the nation’s worst schools, housing, and unemployment rates. Theroux hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, says of the book, “Deep South is an ode to a region, vivid and haunting, full of life and loss alike.”

This week I heard on my car radio the song God’s Country by Blake Shelton. The first few lines are:

Right outside of this one church town

There’s a gold dirt road to a whole lot of nothin’

Got a deed to the land, but it ain’t my ground

This is God’s country.

Paul Theroux’s book and Blake Shelton’s song reminded me of the place I grew up, Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

The street where our family lived when I was a boy was not a street at all. It was a dirt road. It ran east to west 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 Boy Scout meetings.

Toward the west, the dirt road led 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. I never ventured that far again.

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.

I once followed a dirt road through the high mountains of North Carolina. I was so far back in the hills I thought even some Presbyterians might be handling snakes.

I had been leading a retreat for a church group. We had the afternoon free and I was up for trout fishing in a mountain stream. I stopped at a country store with a Merita Bread advertisement emblazoned on the screen door. I asked about an out-of-state fishing license.

The proprietor told me, “You don’t need no license. Follow that yonder dirt road ‘til it dead ends at the creek. Take a path through the woods and fish all you want.”

I did as he said. That dirt road led me to a beautiful stream where I caught and released two nice trout.

On a cold snowy morning just three days after Christmas in 1973 I followed a rutted dirt track outside of Waynesville, North Carolina, to visit a friend who made his home in a restored apple barn. I had to ford Wolf Pen Branch before arriving at my destination. My friend and I enjoyed pleasant conversation sitting before a warm fire in the fireplace and sipping steaming hot coffee.

Dirt roads meander across fields and over hills and through meadows.  It is impossible to be in a hurry traveling over unpaved terrain. The pace slows and the air is refreshing. These rustic byways lead to adventure and to places where our souls can catch up with our bodies.

Several years ago, 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 book that was published in 2008 by the Hub City Writers Project 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, then 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 oldest part of the structure, a log cabin, was built in 1836. The home 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 burglars?”

“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 takes more time, but restores the soul.

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.

Several months before his death, my dad and I were having breakfast together. 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.



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