Rural Ramblings – Summer 1981
Ralph C. Miller
From the ripe old age of sixty-um years it is no trouble at all for me to recall when most country roads were just that – country roads – dirt roads first and then later gravelled. In good weather they could be good, bad or mediocre … in bad weather they were often horrible. Thaws in Spring, dust in Summer, rains in Fall and chuckholes and deep ruts anytime.
In our part of the country freezeup usually meant an improvement and snow brought out the bob-sleds, cutters and sleighs; a definite plus at least for small boys and even some romantic-minded folk (of whatever age). Sled boxes filled with straw … snuggling down under warm robes … who minded a little cold while harness jingled and horses snorted in the frosty air? Many of our Grandmamas sealed a lifetime contract under a cowhide robe down a country lane.
If you picked up the idea back there that this column is about country roads you’re only partly right. It’s about bends, the genuine bends found in those old-fashioned roads of my boyhood. Modern turnpikes, throughways and interstates have long sweeping curves, usually well-banked. And for the present speeds they have to be opened up to let the racing motorist see long distances.
Our fathers undoubtedly were aware of the theorem that the shortest distance between points is a straight line but being practical folks who knew their own limitations they most often followed the path of least resistance. Roads meandered, rambled, if you will, from point to point dictated by rocks, hills, trees, streams and even chuckholes. When these obstacles presented difficulties, well no one was in that big a hurry and any team could pull you around as sharp a turn as necessary to get you past.
It wasn’t always the easiest or the fastest way to travel but it had its compensations. It was certainly never monotonous – and even if you couldn’t see what was coming around that next bend you probably weren’t going so fast that you didn’t have time to take considered action.
Sure, in his courting days Grandpa might have driven his spanking team around some of those bends smartly enough to put his young lady in his lap, but then he probably wasn’t fooling Grandma. She might squeal a little but chances are she had been over the road before and she was driving on a loose rein. She was negotiating the best terms on that contract and she’d let him know how fast to take those curves AFTER they were married. Of course, the bend often hid the rig from houses or other travelers. If you stopped to quiet the team or to steady your steady … compensations!
The way I got started on this happened back down there last winter. There are still some real country roads left in North Florida if you happen across them. The road from the farm into Starke is all paved and pretty well built up with houses but if you head out the other way the pavement ends right at the property line and the houses end soon, too. After that if you go along a little piece you come to where an old house once stood. Somebody pulled it down and hauled most of it away but there’s enough random residue to tell that someone made a good life there once – or tried to.
Some crumbling concrete, wood scraps and the straggling remains of what should have been beautiful plantings. Azaleas mostly – shrubs, and those wide spreading oaks. They’re a kind of oak I don’t know, huge and old and gnarled, deciduous but leafing out very well before we left. Just across the road stands what’s left of an old roller press; the kind with a long sweep arm pulled round and round by a horse or mule and used for grinding sugar or sorghum cane in those old days.
If I sound like somebody drawn to that spot, well, I am. I wonder about it, about the mill and the big old house that stood there. So I just had to stop one day and look around. Let my mind run through that clearing and the field behind it where the small pines are coming in next to the woods.
As I stood there I noticed something that hadn’t registered before. There’s a bend in that road and the old house had been built right on it. On the outside of the curve like that the people who lived there could have seen what was happening either way before the travelers did. There’s the old cliche about being at a crossroads, but in this day and age standing at a crossroads can get you run over pretty quick. At a bend now you may have a chance to pull up and evaluate what lies ahead as well as take a look back and see where you came from.
Trouble is unless something brings it to our attention like the old house and the mill we often speed on around it until it’s too late to see if there’s anything back there we’d ought to have another look at – maybe even carry with us. How many times have we gone wheeling around there only to find that it’s a dead end? Of course, if the bend is sharp enough, we’ve got to slow down or go off the road, even smash up.
As I said it is true that on the freeways you have those long sweeping curves but there they have so many of those flashy signs touting all the great things ahead that all too often you fail to see the sign that says ‘Off Ramp, next stop 20 miles.’ They come up so fast and there aren’t any bends to stop and take stock. Maybe time to get back on the country road again.
I think maybe we’ve come to one of those bends in the road, as a people, as a nation and as a race (human). If so, we’re blessed, maybe, that is if we slow down and edge around it properly. I’m not saying we ought to go back; just rest our team and gather ourselves for the pull ahead.
I said bends have compensations but they can be dangerous. If I can wheel down a side trail here a moment. A previous column dealt with canyons: As I rode out through to the Santa Ana Canyon in the late ’30’s one bend has stayed with me to this day. We came out of the close-packed orange groves that were like a tunnel, ran briefly by a field of truck crops and there at the bend stood a big, old Eucalyptus tree.
That was all country then; just dirt roads and people had hit that curve so much and so hard that they had worn a chuckhole all the way across the road. During the rainy Winter months that had presented enough of a problem that some enterprising soul had broken new ground the other way round the tree through the cabbage patch and so many others had followed that what you had in essence was a fairly sharp bend with a tree in the middle of the road.
The choice was splashing through the mud hole on the inside or pulling wide around the tree where the going wasn’t all that much better. Shortly before I first saw that corner the inevitable had happened. Somebody had tried it too fast and couldn’t make up his mind. There was a big scar on the tree and next to the lettuce picker’s shack was all that was left of the car. Many years later I built a home not too far from there, but of course the tree was gone and the road all changed. Today megalopolis has engulfed it so that I couldn’t even locate the spot but I still remember the lesson.
Back to where we are today, there’s a real opportunity for us to change direction here. It may not be necessary to go back or even to break too much new ground, but we ought to be picking our way pretty carefully. I don’t think we need to discard any solid gains we have made. However, we might need to repack and redistribute the load. And we ought to be sure we need all we’re carrying and have a very close look at anything else anyone tries to load us with.
I know we get the rap for living in the past; after all we print a magazine that preaches (quote) ‘horse and buggy agriculture’ (unquote) and often use material written by men long dead. That’s only partly true. Like most other people we live largely in the present and look to the future. We just want to take some of the time-proven things with us. We do have some reservations about the electric toothbrush, electric carving knife, Betamax mentality. Just maybe some of that isn’t quite necessary for the good of Mother Earth’s children. (I wouldn’t care to tape most TV offerings, anyway.)
Up to a point we’ll admit Science is wonderful – the Earth is round – we’ve accepted the wheel and the kitchen match … We might get all the way into the 20th century by the year 2000. One of the reasons I’m sitting here jotting these lines when I could be out there getting my Spring work done is that my left shoulder is lame from using a new toy. It’s a gas-powered weed cutter with a blade for brush. Not all that much faster than the old scythe, but cuts a bit cleaner and besides as the commercial has it, “If he likes the taste maybe he’ll brush longer.”
So progress is fine in its way but not as an end product. We need to make sure it’s going in OUR direction and not vice versa. You can put a seed in the ground and all things being relatively favorable it will germinate and produce what it is supposed to. The same general idea works for animals and people. In its simplest form that’s all this world is.
Few of us, however, are content to reduce life to that basic level so human beings have come up with various things to improve those conditions, to make the process better, easier, more pleasant and even more lasting. It’s an admirable ambition (profitable, too) but somewhere along the line we run into the law of diminishing returns or else we wind up with too much of a good thing. Witness the overpopulation, crop and animal quotas, not to mention the ‘Pandora’s Box’ of the byproducts of progress and the civilization syndrome.
We’re spending millions, billions, to make some of those things go away and make our planet (the only one we have), safe to live on. Not only the environment, but us – people. When you confine too many animals too closely they tend to go berserk, maim or kill each other or themselves. Same goes for nations. What do we do with them all? There aren’t any new frontiers today and I doubt if the Space Shuttle will make that much difference in the forseeable future.
It may be only a stopgap but getting people out of the cities and slowing down the pace at which we live would help. That’s heresy, of course. Decelerate the growth of the Gross National Product? Encourage people to produce more of their own and be satisfied with less? Unthinkable! But…!
Well, we have cut back on the national use of petroleum products, new automobiles… Here in the Northwest the lack of housing starts has paralyzed the lumber industry. Inflation, of course, but not entirely. There are other small indications. Just down the road from me on the corner a fellow cut a tiny opening out of the woods and hung a trailer and septic system almost out over the road junction. His grass patch is mostly just what covers the drain field (less than a third of my front lawn), but he’s got a Hereford cow and her calf in there. Has to feed hay even now because there isn’t enough pasture to feed one of them two days.
It’s a sign – that’s what we’re reaching and scratching toward these days. It’s pitiful in a way but indicative of the unrest. And make no mistake about it, THEY are worried. Not just Small Farmers but numbers of people everywhere are looking for an exit ramp from the rat race. Far from helping us find breathing room too many of those in high places are throwing stumbling blocks in our way. Bureaucracy is afraid that if we slow down and scramble out of the way of the steam roller they’ll lose control.
They may be right to be afraid; only three more states needed to call a Constitutional Convention that could remove the power of Government to spend money it doesn’t have. And that wouldn’t be just a bend in the road; it would be a complete U-turn. Wow! Enough to make a dedicated Bureaucrat or Congressman wake in the night with cold sweats, that is.
I don’t want to go back to a ‘flat earth’ or even a horse and buggy (at least not all the time); I drive an automobile and usually take the newer medicines when the Doctor prescribes them. However, there is a much older prescription; Take with a grain of salt! That’s probably good advice and we do get so much that isn’t.
The papers, political dogmas, the educational cabal and the constant bombardment of the advertising media are all geared to convince us that the solution to every problem is possible if we just accept what they tell us, purchase the latest star-spangled whosis and produce, produce, produce. When that doesn’t work (it doesn’t), well, we’ve just ‘gotta believe,’ tighten our belts, save our money and consume, consume… Well, you get the idea. More than just a grain, how about a whole bag of salt?
They’re always so positive. The longer I listen to this mumbo jumbo the less sure I am of where we’re headed. I’d like to sit down there at that place beside the bend in the road where I could look both ways. It’s just a typical country road, dusty when it’s dry, soggy when it’s wet and with plenty of washboard anytime. There isn’t too much traffic on it these days and it necessarily moves pretty slow.
It is a school bus route and leads from town out to the Country Club, so one of these days there may be a lot of pressure on my good friend Homer Hart and the rest of the Bradford County commissioners to pave it. Who knows? Maybe next time I see it the road may even be straightened and all built up with houses.
Even if that happens I’ll remember what it was like and I’ll continue to hope that those who come after me sometimes have time and a place to pull up from time to time and rest in the shade of the oaks while they look back from the bend in the road.