I didn’t notice it when I snapped the shutter on the former jail and sheriff’s office in Washington County—the oldest such facility of its kind in Kansas—but when I developed the image in my digital darkroom there it was, a pale mountain of a snowdrift gleaming in the shadows. Ubiquitous to the Kansas landscape for our incessantly long and brutal winter, the deep drifts are now disappearing, leaving in their wake something equally treacherous to the backroads traveler: mud.
For one raised in the city, this is something of a novelty. However, novelties are novel for only so long. Eventually reality rears its ugly head and truth becomes evident: muddy roads are anything but novel. In fact, they’re downright treacherous.
I read the other day that only one percent of the nation’s roads are dirt. That makes rural Kansas something of a third world country in terms of roadways but then it’s balanced by the lack of crime, the laid-back pace of small-town life and the abiding sense of community. None of which can be said about metropolitan areas.
I also learned, or am in the process of learning, that the word “dirt” when used for rural Kansas roads is not altogether accurate, and when used in the wrong circles can elicit reactions that are as swift as they are vehement.
Why this is so escapes me. After several conversations where I inadvertently labeled greasy roads as “dirt,” I was informed in no uncertain terms that the roads in question were gravel. The word was uttered with a sibilant hiss as if to underscore the speaker’s disgust. Gravel, dirt, the delineation is slippery as far as I’m concerned. Gravel obviously denotes an underlying mixture of crushed stone, which in theory packs down to create a firm, or firmer, surface when wet. Dirt, I’m told, is a descriptive referring to roads that are hardpacked and solid only under certain conditions, primary being in temperatures far below freezing or during extended periods of drought. Otherwise, their solidity is ephemeral and illusory at best.
After almost a decade of navigating rural backroads in northeast Kansas, I’ve familiarized myself with some of the best and some of the worst roads around. Experience being a merciless instructor, this has not been an altogether pleasant tutelage. In the process I’ve developed a loose theory—very loose—that purports to illuminate the geological conditions through which roads traverse that when the soil is saturated one should avoid at all costs.
These conditions include, but are not limited to, level places, places where the road skirts hillsides, bottomlands along streams or rivers, inclines bordering plum thickets, declinations bordering plum thickets, north-facing slopes, shadowed slopes, narrow valleys or any other geological formation that doesn’t include an eight-inch base layer of asphalt.
Admittedly, the list needs work. But it’s a start and has served me well. I haven’t been stuck yet.
Recently, my wife and I visited the site of an old one-room school near the town of Frankfort. The road—I hesitate to call it gravel or dirt for it’s a mixture of both, composed mostly of slimy muck with the consistency of axle grease—crosses a river before skirting the same in flat wooded bottoms prone to flooding.
“It’s going to be muddy,” my wife warned.
Muddy? Once again rural vernacular proved the limitations of the English language. Just as dirt and gravel are nebulous concepts, mud is an inconsistent, contradictory and whimsical description. Part of the road was soft mud while others were overlaid with gravel that summarily sank into a liquid goo; one long stretch consisted of black ooze that threatened to swallow the truck, and another had a firm central stripe balanced between depthless sludge. And those, we were to learn, were the good parts.
Some argue that the road was gravel, others dirt. I’d call it mud, but that opens another can of linguistic worms, the difference between a dirt road and a mud road.
I suppose Eskimos argue over terms for snow and ice, too. Going back to my original theory about rural roads, I’d have to let the numbers speak for themselves. With over 90 percent of our roads unpaved, the distinction is easy. In northeast Kansas we have good roads and bad roads. Any differences are merely a matter of timing.