For my husband Bob-O and myself, part of being beyond the grasp of the power lines and the pavement means our 1.8 miles of dirt road need regular attention. The county does not maintain the road. It is a private access road for many land owners, only a few of which live here full time or visit their property regularly.
When working on a dirt road, timing is everything. The ground must be damp, not wet with puddles or dry with dust. There is a narrow window of opportunity to make your roadwork effective.
I stayed in our home office so Bob-O, my partner in all things, could take the tractor out to fill a few potholes a couple of days after the last rain. The phone rang and, of course, it was for Bob-O.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ll need to have him call you back. We have the only tractor in the neighborhood, so Bob-O’s out working on the road.”
“Tag,” the guy said, “you’re it!” I immediately knew this guy had lived on a dirt road at some time in his life. He knew they have to be maintained. You have to pay attention to a dirt road or it will go away. Dirt roads swallow gravel and rocks whole.
When we moved here 22 years ago, there were only three families living here full time. We all worked on the road. We trucked in gravel from the quarry for the road repairs. Although the gravel was not that expensive, it was the transport from the quarry to our remote road that took a monetary toll on us all.
We put out signs at strategic places along the road so the truck driver would know where to dump the piles. That way, Bob-O wouldn’t have to drive too far with the tractor to reach a pile of gravel.
We only worked on the stretch of road we used. So our neighbor down the creek did not work on the road in front of our house. Our neighbor at the very end of the road, however, worked on the entire length of the road.
But whenever there was a big project to take care of, we all showed up—no matter where the repair was. If a dead standing tree was threatening to fall into the road, Bob-O would cut it down and we would all help split it into firewood and then divvy it up.
Once, super heavy rains, known locally as toad-stranglers, washed out the road at a place we call Dutch Oven Creek. When the water receded, we all helped rebuild the road base atop the exposed culvert.
In the years since, neighbors have moved out, moved in, or moved away. Bob-O is almost the lone road wrangler now. But he knows that maintaining the road means keeping our vehicles in better repair.
He understands the road—and the dedication it demands to keep it passable. After you fix a really bad section in the road, it becomes the nicest place on the road—and another problem area is then the prominent problem. It is a continuing and constant dance to keep our road passable.
You can fill a pothole with gravel just when the ground moisture is perfect and it may stay. But if drivers see this as an invitation to go fast, their tires will squeeze the gravel up and out of the pothole, soon rendering your repairs useless. Speed is also the enemy when the pothole has standing water in it. The proper thing to do is to go very slowly through the pothole or, better yet, avoid it all together. The absolute wrong thing to do is to see how big a rooster tail of muddy water you can produce while speeding down the muddy road. Regrettably, generations of four-wheelers see this as a fun thing to do. They drive home with their vehicles covered in the mud, leaving us to repair the road.
If you have the time, patience, and a good back, you can put a better fix on a pothole. Take your shovel and dig out the pothole in a straight-sided shape. The preferred option is to level out the hole to the depth of the original pothole. Fill this with your rock or gravel, whichever you have. This works better because it is harder for the repair rock to work its way out of a straight-sided hole than a shallow, bowl-shaped hole. If possible, avoid river rock—even when crushed, its rounded sides help it leap out of the hole.
If the road has any uphill stretches, it is common to see a washboard effect on the roadbed. This is caused mostly by two-wheel-drive vehicles—one tire slips on the roadbed and pushes up a little dirt. The next tire comes along and kind of bounces over the bump and pushes up a little more dirt. A washboard effect emerges as the two-wheel-drive rigs chatter up the hill, building the ridges over time.
Ditching and water bars are a seasonal treat. Without good ditching along the road, the rain and snow pool at the lowest points, or the flow can wash away the gravel and fines. I hate that feeling when the tires lose their grip and the Subaru starts sliding toward the edge of the road. It becomes much worse if you actually have to get out in the mud to, say, open and close a gate. Gumboots are advised.
Water bars are small, shallow ditches dug across a roadway to give water a place to cross and drain. Many times I have found myself in the pouring rain with a shovel or Pulaski, Bob-O by my side, digging a water bar to prevent worse road erosion later on.
I honestly don’t know what our neighbors or we would do if Bob-O did not have a tractor that he regularly uses for road work. As it is, we have friends with two-wheel-drive rigs that only visit us when the weather is fine. In winter, even driving a four-wheel-drive rig can be an adrenaline-pumping adventure. Lucky for us, our clay soils dry out fairly quickly, so the muck doesn’t last long after the rain or snow stops.
Do I want my road paved? No, not really. In the dead of winter when I have to drive in bad weather I think I would. But that doesn’t happen very often. Our dirt road is intimidating enough to keep out most tourists. A good portion of the year the road is just fine, if a bit dusty. There is something really wonderful about an after-dinner walk up a dirt road to watch the sunset. I do, however, want to get a bumper sticker made for the front of my car that says, “You Back Up. I Live Here.”
Kathleen Jarschke-Schultze is trying out Tattler canning lids at her off-grid home in northernmost California.