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The dusty beauty of a dirt road

It’s a shame dirt roads are becoming a thing of the past. Most of us traveled them at some point in our lives, and maybe some of you still do. I wish I did.

I see fewer dirt and gravel roads than I used to. Most folks probably think that’s a good thing, and from a safety standpoint I won’t disagree. A washboard-rough dirt road can be dangerous.

But the beauty of a dirt road is that it forces us to slow down, pay attention and enjoy the ride. Glass-smooth, straight asphalt (not that there’s much of that around here) invites drivers to find a distraction. When the road is easy, our attention goes elsewhere.

We glance at a phone or play with the radio without consequences. Take your eyes off a winding, gravel road for a second and you’ll find yourself in a ditch. Dirt and gravel are unforgiving in that way.

There are no rumble strips to remind you to look at the road, there are only ditches. And once you find one, you will likely be there a while. Those roads are dirt for a reason and typically it’s because they don’t get enough traffic to justify the expense of paving. That means fellow travelers are few and far between.

If the phone that pulled your eyes off the road doesn’t have a signal, it might be a couple hours before someone passes by to help you out. I’ve been there. And while it seems unpleasant, it’s actually quite peaceful. A couple hours immersed in roadside nature without a phone would be good for all of us.

The town I grew up in had plenty of dirt roads. We had asphalt too, but those roads rarely led to anything but the daily grind of life. A dirt road, however, held the possibility of adventure.

Road signs were scarce on those roads. Some idiot had either taken it for their wall or shot it so full of holes you couldn’t read it. So, there was a bit of exploration required when navigating unfamiliar dirt roads.

Those explorations often led to places you might not see while going about your daily routine.  A gravel road once led me to a place I learned to call “where the water crosses the road.” It was literally a small stream that crossed the road near a church. There was no sign to warn you of this odd danger, nothing to mark its existence, other than the sight of water rushing across the rocks.

I have traveled many a dirt road on horseback, and that’s really the best way to appreciate them. It’s slow but peaceful. And there are more opportunities to appreciate nature when you depend on four hooves instead of four wheels. You can smell the air, hear the birds, see the land in a different way.

Getting lost is easy on those roads — and part of the fun. Phones and navigation systems have taken that piece of yesteryear away from us. We now know where to go all the time, unless you are fortunate enough to find yourself on a dirt road that Google has yet to map. It’s nice to not be tracked or bothered by a computer voice telling you where to turn.

A friend of mine in high school had a family tradition called “rogueing” (I have no idea how they spelled it). It involved pointing your car — or horse — down a road you had never traveled and exploring. It was the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It’s been 20 years since I’ve done that, but I can hear a dirt road calling my name today. Maybe I’ll venture down a washboard-rough stretch of gravel and dust. If you find my Bronco stuck in a ditch, do me a favor and leave me there.

Email publisher Luke Horton at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.