We have an interstate here in Virginia that bisects the Shenandoah Valley and to get just about anywhere in a timely fashion, you need to hop on I-81 and dice with death in the form of tractor trailers on a time schedule.
Not a week goes by that our local fire and rescue isn’t dragged out to two or more horrific wrecks. Around our exit, the road has been on separate occasions covered by manure, trash, chickens (in various states of consciousness), gasoline and, on one rather comical occasion, Hershey’s Chocolate Sauce.
So I take the long way.
Not all the time. If you travel with Dirtman it is essential you remain in cell phone range and the back roads may mean he would be out of touch with civilization for an entire sixty seconds at a time, leading me to suspect that Dirtman isn’t really a soil scientist, but actually a secret primary advisor to the president himself, which explains a lot about our current foreign policy, not to mention the economy.
While I have to admit the scenery from I-81, with its views of pastures and mountains, is rather spectacular, usually you’re staring at the filthy rear door of a tractor trailer or focusing on the road because you’ve got one five inches from your rear bumper trying to go 85 mph.
The back roads afford the same view, only you can actually look at it (unless, of course, you are 16 years old and haven’t been driving very long; and especially if you’ve got your mother in the passenger seat, in which case keep your eyes on the road and turn down that hideous music so you can concentrate or you can forget getting your permanent license until you are 45, Heir 2, and I am dead).
Of course there are animals to watch – cows, some sheep and horses, a few donkeys and mules, an ostrich and a llama.
What I really like to do, though, is look at other people’s houses. On the back roads are the full economic range in housing, from the all-out mansion to shacks covered in honeysuckle – and they’re surprisingly close to each other. On my regular routes, I watch houses transform as the residents’ age or interests change: a yard that starts out plain suddenly cluttered with plastic climbing toys, then bats and balls, then cars, then back to plain; another yard overgrown with weeds becomes a flowered Eden with a pristine lawn.
It’s not all domesticity on the back roads. There are long-established businesses out here too. I can get “farm fresh eggs” (a term that really means nothing, since all eggs are fresh – on the farm; kind of like “fresh baked bread” – all bread is fresh at the time it’s baked). I never worry about my car breaking down because about every three miles someone’s sign offers auto repairs. If I get hungry on the way to Winchester, one person is selling pies. And I’m not sure, but I can get either a dog or a blanket at another house that advertises “Afghans.” Or maybe they’re just stating their nationality.
Sometimes signs are just left, even though their purpose has long been abandoned. Down one dirt road there has been a birthday party going on for the past three years. This is not outside the realm of possibility in my family, though.
Not all businesses fared as well: There are several defunct vegetable stands and old gas stations in various states of decay. These are temptations to me and, back in the day, I’d have to stop and look around for other signs of the former establishment. (Don’t tell anyone, but there was a time that, if the abandoned building wasn’t locked, I’d go and stand in it – that’s all, just stand. I don’t touch anything and I leave everything the way it was. But I liked to imagine what it was like when it was busy and useful or – better – when it was just being built and full of hope. Dirtman reminds me that what I was doing was trespassing. My brother the cop tells me it was breaking and entering. So – really – don’t tell anyone. Especially my kids.)
It’s always a jolt to return to civilization after these drives and usually there is a message on my cell from Dirtman asking me “where’ve you been?”
The strange thing is, I actually feel like I’ve been somewhere, not just enroute to where I’ve ended up.
I’d try to explain this to Dirtman – but his cell phone is ringing.