Here’s a news item that may have escaped your notice. The state is not going to pave any dirt roads in Surry County this year.
Neither are Yadkin, Alleghany or Forsyth counties getting any roads paved. The state will pave one road only this year in Wilkes County, up in the Brushy Mountains.
I find that remarkable.
The state Department of Transportation is quietly scaling back on the paving of dirt, secondary roads. The simple reason is they’ve just about paved them all.
They’re diverting much of that road money to patching and repaving the roads we’ve already got hard-topped.
So it looks like we’ve just about conquered that age-old scourge, the dirt road.
Since the beginning of North Carolina the dirt road has been the 800-pound gorilla in the room that no one could do much about. The state once had the reputation of having the worst roads.
I remember a time when most secondary roads outside of town were dirt. Complaining about them was a pastime. You’d ask when were they going to pave the dirt road that ran by your house, and they’d say, some day.
It looks like some day has arrived.
Prior generations struggled with roads that would get muddy in bad weather or would become washed out by rains that formed big gullies.
You’d get your wagon stuck in the mud or tipped by ruts. You could ride a horse and try to avoid those perils. Then you’d hope the horse would not turn and break an ankle.
Still, you’d get mud and/or dust on your boots and clothes and horse, a mess to clean up.
Even worse, after the automobile came along, the dirt road would get you stuck, and you’d have to get someone with a horse to pull your Model T free.
Then the state embarked on a big paving program in 1921, and the state crowed for decades that it was the Good Roads State. It wasn’t, really. But they promoted it nevertheless. Spin and inflated self-promotion are not recent creations, you know.
But at least they were trying to fix the roads.
When I was young we lived next to a paved road, U.S. 21, but when Mom wanted to go see her mother she had to travel a dirt road. When she wanted to see her brother, she could reach him only via another dirt road. A lot of people outside of town then lived along dirt roads.
Mom particularly hated the dirt road to my uncle’s in Roaring River. When that road didn’t get scraped, enough ridges would form in the hard, packed dirt that they would rattle the car to the point of sounding like it was coming apart.
“This is going to tear up my car,” I remember Mom complaining one time.
I had a neighbor one time who lived opposite the terminus of a dirt road that split the tobacco field next door. I’d sit on the porch on a dry summer’s day, and suddenly over the tops of the tobacco plants a distant cloud of dust would start boiling up.
Before I could hear or see a car because of the tall tobacco I knew one was coming. When the wind was blowing due east real good it was all the speeding eastbound car could do to keep ahead of the trailing cloud of dust.
When the car stopped at the sign the blowing dust enveloped the car – I could see a car-washing coming. But the dust didn’t stop there.
It continued straight toward the front of my neighbor’s house. I never saw the neighbor out hosing down the front of his house, but I bet the poor house could have used it.
When it’s dry I have to sweep off the porch when they merely plow the tobacco field.
Over the years and decades North Carolina kept at it, paving a few dirt roads in the counties every year thanks in part to a generous gas tax charged at the pump. During the years I was gone from the hometown they finally paved that road through the tobacco field. Now they use the hard-topped side road to make skid marks.
Grandma’s dirt road also got paved, and then they finally paved uncle’s dirt road.
So today it’s hard to find a public dirt road. You have to find a really lonely stretch of road with no houses.
Modern cars can run a lifetime and never touch dirt or gravel. Our forebears would be amazed.
Even the driveways are paved these days. You don’t want to get a spot of mud on the undercarriage, after all.
So keep at it, DOT. And when you finally pave over that last dirt road, then we can claim we’ve arrived.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.