In Praise of Dirt Roads
My day's journey begins on a dirt road, a mile-long loop that circles between my home and the ocean. I live at the low end of the hill the road climbs. Its top is the place most of my neighbors consider the prime part of that path. It’s hard to argue with them. From that crest the road divides the woods from a long spill of fallow fields that roll towards the distant boiling blue of the Atlantic. It's a straight quarter-mile shot to the water before the road takes its first turn to follow the shoreline south. I almost always stop there, facing north to gaze across the open ocean to where the thin, white finger of the Portland Head Light stands to mark the entrance to Casco Bay. Sometimes I try to match my breath to the four-second space it takes for that beacon's beam to sweep the sea. I let my mind out there: my thoughts, worries, hopes, all taking flight like the white flash of gulls that wheel between rocks and sky. I think it's the horizon that invites that release - revealing the true scale of the consciousness I carry as my small symbol for what it means to live in the world.
But despite the power of that raw and open place, it's the other half of the road that I prefer, the one that winds back through the scrubby mix of wetlands and woods towards my home. That's the part of the path the dog and I stick to most mornings, and she's certainly part of its charm, prancing at my feet the instant the first splash of coffee hits my mug, the signal for her release to the untamed place that any animal favors. Then our game begins, round after round between ball and underbrush as we walk side by side, her nose to the ground, my head in the sky.
In those first few steps, I take the measure of what the day may hold: sun or clouds, snow or rain, but of things other than weather as well, as I try to sense whatever opportunity or crisis may be riding the dawn wind, hoping to tap into the same peculiar prescience the dog uses to sniff out her fortune below.
We've surprised more than one deer together on those morning strolls, and foxes, coyotes, even a moose or two. It's the dark places they disappear into that makes me feel most at home on that part of the road, as I make my way between the cloistered green walls of that closer, private place. Like most things, it takes absence to reveal it, and that's the beauty of the road, the clear space it creates for me to travel through while I marvel at each secret scratch and flutter rising from the roots and trunks I walk between. And though there are things that sting and bite behind those walls, there's safety within them too - the comfort any creature knows when it burrows deep to hide and heat itself in the ground from which it grew, and to which it will return.
That same soft earth meets my feet on the road, so much more than macadam, not some hard, slick shell spread to speed me towards my destination, but a medium rich enough to justify the journey alone. It whispers with each scuff of my step on a spring morning, and traps the tracks of the night marauders who wander it while I dream. And in the winter I can walk that ground and read the whole year's history there, recorded in shallow friezes of frost and snow that frame seeds, petals and leaves in circles, within circles, within circles of ice.
The summer smell of the road carries me to another, miles and years away, the one I walked with my bother and sisters from our lakeside Canadian cabin to the caretaker’s cottage each year. That path seems endless in my mind, it's true length lost to that alchemy of abstraction called memory, but its feel remains: summer sun in my eyes, the first prick of sweat on my skin, the sound of singing siblings ringing in my ears as we make our way up the long hill, passing new corn and old cows behind split-rail fences, relishing the thirst that builds in the back of our throats on our way to our destination, knowing our hot walk will end with our heads poking into the caretaker's freezer for the ice cream and sodas that we’ll savor the whole way home.
My children have traced their own stories in the dust of our dirt road. There's a chapter in every turn they've left behind: searches for sand dollars at the bend by the sea, a breathless walk through the black woods of a moonless Halloween eve, the crash and cry from the fall from a bike at the sharp corner where the meadow meets the trees. They left the words that told those tales written into the earth, dimpled by tiny toes, stamped by sneaker-prints, scribed in the skids of thin tires, all sketching the moments that traced their way from my life to their own.
The dog and I carry on, starting and ending the day on track, and making those frequent excursions in between to seek the road's change of view, treks made for calm and even counsel, to quiet my mind and glean the kind of wisdom that can't be divined online. I've made some of the hardest decisions of my life on that road - at times practicing the difficult words I needed to share with a loved one, other times practicing the difficult art of holding my tongue. And when the creative well I rely on to sustain me runs dry in front of my screen, I know I need only to slip on my shoes to refill it by walking out the door and over the wellspring of ideas that flows under the ribbon of dirt that runs around me.
At the end of the day, I've offered up prayers on the road, certainly more than I've been inspired to place from any pew. Most are hymns of gratitude, but there have been plenty of pleas as well, mostly for the peripheral things that lie just beyond my grasp - not fame or fortune, but purpose - to find that singular shape in the deep shadows that line my way that perfectly matches my own.
It may lie near the opening in the trees I reach just minutes before my walk's end. I stopped there tonight and let the dog paw the ground while I watched a distant silhouette. It came and went in a blink, slipping through a yellow square of lamplight that floated in the dark. I know that place, and when I reach it, I know what I’ll do. I'll ask my wife to come and join me for a walk on our dirt road.