Ranger Kathryn's Arches

March 27, 2011

Twelve reasons why I prefer dirt roads

Dirt road from Horseshoe Canyon to Hwy 24 — Henry Mtns in background

Paved road heading toward Goblin Valley State Park, UT

Not having driven on a paved road for nine days, it was a bit disheartening to return to smooth surfaces as I exited Horseshoe Canyon. I found myself surprised at my new preference for dirt roads; what about them attracted me? It certainly wasn’t the washboard bumps or the frustrating unmarked forks. Here’s what I have come up with so far:

Driving dirt roads keeps me more attentive. Watching for rocks, washouts, cows, or encroaching sand dunes in my path makes driving more engaging.

Dirt roads take me places that paved ones can’t. I cross streams by getting the tires wet instead of using a bridge. I get to cool trailheads that most of the populace won’t.

Dirt roads aren’t as environmentally jarring. Not only are there fewer (or no) signs telling me how and where to drive, but the natural surface is the same color as the surroundings.

Dirt roads allow me to be more in touch with the earth. It’s like going barefoot, in a vehicular sense. I can sense the lay of the land better, as huge earth-moving machines haven’t altered the contours or sliced through hills.

Speed limits are self-imposed instead of sign-imposed. This is not an invitation to recklessness but to increased awareness of my vehicle’s handling and the road’s condition.

Dirt roads have little traffic. It’s rare to meet another car or truck. Most of the time, I’ve got the road to myself.

Dirt road sights are more interesting. Calves and cows, blooming plants, kangaroo rats, decrepit old buildings, hawks, tornado-twisted trees… all up close and personal.

Dirt roads demand more personal responsibility. Only some of these roads are on the map, so it’s up to me to prepare myself for travel in an unknown area. This feels right, as well as keeping me sharp.

Dirt roads embody a certain sense of adventure. I don’t feel this on paved roads, usually, but dirt roads are the equivalent of question marks: Where will it lead? Does my vehicle have high enough clearance? Will I be able to turn around? Is there any gas?

Dirt roads keep the riff-raff out. I mean, you’ve got to want to be going somewhere if you’re on dirt. People who drive dirt drive it with purpose. Not a lot of sight-seers, and only a few hooligans with Jeeps/OHVs. Lots of local ranchers and other colorful types.

Dirt roads invite me to be aware of the weather. Precipitation in any form alters the road surface. High winds can deposit deep sand drifts. The local municipalities care for the paved roads, but on dirt I need to be aware so I won’t get stuck.

Dirt roads invite interaction with other drivers. When I encounter another vehicle we always acknowledge one other — it’s that “wave without lifting your hand from the steering wheel” motion. This never happens on paved roads.

Feel free to add anything I’ve forgotten. Did you know I love your comments?

The theatre of nature

On the Ides of March, Barrier Creek is still frozen solid in the shade. It's nearly 70 degrees and I'm in shorts and tank top -- for one day only.

Rolling over in my sleep, my cheek hit the cold pillowcase. I pulled the ten-degree sleeping bag more tightly around my head and burrowed deeper into its coziness. Light from the setting full moon was peeking around the curtain edges, though, telling me that it was a good time to get up and make tea.

I keep the matches next to my bed so I can light the propane lantern without exiting my bag. That accomplished, I could now see my breath, so pulled on the nearest fleece and slipped out of my cocoon of warmth. The glorious luminescence flooded in as I pushed the curtains aside. I’d like to say I ran to the door to get an entire panorama of a 5:47 a.m. moonlit desert, but it was only two steps away.

A milky bluish glow illuminated every knoll, sand dune, nook and cranny. Venus was a brilliant dot above the eastern horizon, and Ursa Major oriented me to true north. The vain queen Cassiopeia looked regal on her throne. In a pre-pre-dawn aura of light, the outline of the La Sal Mountains shimmered to the east.

For the first time in many days, it was perfectly calm. Shivering involuntarily in the 28-degree chill, I realized that my comfort-based mindset is slowly relaxing its grip on me. Since my job was to hike the canyon every day regardless of how bad the conditions were, I adjusted my expectations and did what I came to do.

“Discomfort is the price of admission to the theatre of nature.” — Tom Brown, Jr.

Describe a time you sacrificed your comfort in order to truly experience nature. Was it worth it?


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