Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Backroad Mindset

A little more than a hundred years ago cars started showing up in driveways and the Great American Road Trip was born.

A little more than fifty years ago the interstate highway system started making its appearance, and soon
changed the road trip forever.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that the change is all bad.

In fact in my book - OK, OK, not to imply that I’ve actually written a book, I mean in my opinion - nothing beats the super-slabs  for getting from one place to another, especially when the other is a long ways away and you're on a schedule.

On the super-slab I can point my nose, (Hopefully in the right direction!) set the cruise somewhere between 62 and 65, where most the traffic is either going my speed or faster which means I rarely have to deal with the hassles of passing, and can just sit back and drive, rolling up the uninterrupted miles at the consistent rate of one a minute.

Once in a while that uninterrupted, high speed consistency makes the super-slab a good escape route too, as was the case recently.

The weather on my latest trip had been a tad warm but otherwise undeservedly good, but one morning I woke before dawn on the northern edge of Salina Kansas and the wind was – well let’s just say it was lively, and the blinding flicker and flair of lightning to the northwest was nearly constant, as was the punishing assault of closing thunder.  While the wind tried its damnedest to rock me back to sleep, though hardly with a mother's gentle touch, a quick check of the Weatherbug app on my phone showed a strong storm cell just to the northwest that was making a beeline for Salina, and there I was, that little blue dot right there in between.

A few minutes later (All I have to do is stow the  window covers and turn the key then I’m off.) I was on I135 heading south at 65 mph and soon driving out from under the leading edge of the storm which then slid safely off to the southeast.

Here I'm on the super-slab and dawn is just peering under the edge of the storm I'm trying to outrun. In this case the strategy worked and it wasn't long before 65 MPH and the uninterrupted highway had me out from under the nasty weather.

But at the same time others, mostly truckers on inflexible, and therefor endangering, schedules were tearing headlong the other way faster than my camera could keep up,  headed right for the heart of the storm.

But the super-slab's attributes are also their major flaw.

Because of their focus on getting from here to there, the super-slabs are not only efficient, but also a great way to disconnect from the land, to lose the link to places and people.

They flatten this country, literally as well as figuratively.

On the literal side they use deep cuts, wide curves and tall bridges in an attempt to smooth the land into one long flat ribbon; sanitized, homogenized strips 150 to 300 feet wide.

On the figurative side they flatten the land into one destination after another. They whisk us in hermetically sealed, seat-belted, air-bagged, surround-sounded, climate-controlled isolation from one anonymous gas station to the next, from one franchised town to another.

And in the process we miss the richness of in-between. And worse, over time we even forget the in-between exists.

"The man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more,
feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists
can see in a hundred miles." Edward Abbey

(Abbey also wrote "Society is like a stew. If you don’t stir it up
every once in a while then a layer of scum floats to the top."
 which has absolutely no bearing on this post but,
given the times and its truth, I couldn't resist throwing it in. . .) 

Some back roads are only a few lanes and one step shy of super-slab

But rediscovering that missing in-between is not just a simple matter of taking to the back roads because the interstates, along with work, responsibilities and commitments, have all trained us to focus on the destination. To watch the clock. To meet a schedule. To filter the extraneous. To live a homogenized life.

Some are little more than tracks
Now I'm not suggesting Abbey's route of forgoing motorized transportation altogether, that's just not practical for anything more than a day's relaxation, but unless we can leave all that homogenization training behind when we whip down the off-ramp, back roads are nothing more than a slower, more frustrating way to get from here to there.

But I find that with the proper attitude, the proper mindset, back roads can be a pathway back to the richness of the land, to rediscovering the deep satisfaction of an intimate connection with place, and through place, with people.

The back roads may be physically narrower than the super-slabs, but with the proper mindset the swath they cut is so much wider.

It's not about driving through, but about being in the place. About noticing the little things that add up to the stories that make a place a place, that give it color, that provide a glimpse into it's life. And for that to happen I have to set aside the destination, and the clock, and focus on the here and now.

I have to be in the backroad mindset.

Notice the three separate gas meters to the right of the AC condensers. This probably started out as a single family house, perhaps added onto there at the back as the family grew, but that part of its history is over and now it's been subdivided into three apartments.

Mature trees are well established around the farmhouse over on the far right and decades later (New generation taking over?) fresh young trees have been placed along the driveway to eventually soften the view of the barns too.

From here, even driving the other way at highway speed, I can feel the power of this train coming up through the road and into my gut.
Once I'm there, once I've switched mindsets, I can experience the land rather than just watch it go by, and, even though I sometimes forget it when I haven't been out there in a while,  that's a place I like to be!

Sure, in most cases when I’m on a back road I am going somewhere, but getting there is not the point, it’s all about the going. (If that sounds very close to something you've heard before you’re probably right. The writer is Harry Chapin, the song is Greyhound, released around 1972, and the line is It’s got to be the going, not the getting there that’s good.)

With the proper mindset, the back roads are willing to reveal some of the countless, intimate stories they’ve been witness to.

  • Those deep, muddy ruts scaring the ground between road and freshly harvested field tell of where men struggled one recent afternoon, working together as a team; probably with some cussing but maybe some laughter too, especially when young Harold's boot stuck in the mud and he walked right out of it only to plant his sock just as deep; to free a flatbed tractor-trailer that bogged down in an unexpected soft spot during loading of the combine.
  • Up until about a decade or so ago, before it was lost in the weeds with the porch-roof falling in and front steps rotted away, that little frame house tucked over there in the trees (It wasn't always so close to the road but at some point the government came along and took half the front yard away to build a ‘better’ road.) rang with the cries of tag-playing grandchildren while parents and grandparents alike congregated around the fragrant, sizzling grill in the back yard.
  • That glass-less and cockeyed 'classic' travel trailer trapped a half mile up an impassable track behind an overgrown gate used to be where fathers and sons huddled around the yellow light of a lantern, telling lies out loud, and sharing feelings in manly silence, as they ate food from cans and drank beer from bottles while waiting for the morning light to release them to the annual hunt.

Granted, I may not get all the details right, but nobody’s there to call me out on it, and I’ll bet I’m not that far off!

And there’s more concrete history out there along the back roads too. (Oops, sorry, pun not intended; really!)

It’s there in the old barn, the one with the badly sagging roof hidden behind the tree on the right, sitting next to a new(er) and bigger, steel barn.

They struggled for years to make do with the limited space in the increasingly leaky old barn, spending many evenings at the dining table huddled over the farm accounts, carefully balancing growth and need against cost, before finally reaching the tipping point and going to the bank, not sure if they were happy or secretly terrified when the loan officer agreed with their assessment.

It’s in the road’s wobble down there in the creek-bottom. The wobble that tells of years of maintaining the original bridge, the last few of those a losing struggle as the narrow deck and the pilings holding it up decayed badly under the pounding of heavier and heavier loads, before the funds were finally appropriated to replace it with a new bridge, with the admonishment that the road remain open during construction.

It’s in the mostly abandoned shed beside the main house, its boarded over window and  brick chimney proclaiming that in its day, a day a long time ago, it was the main house.

With the right mindset traveling back roads is never boring, and the slower progress only adds to the experience by giving me time to absorb the feel of places.

With the proper mindset, having a back road lead me right through the heart of town isn’t a frustrating inconvenience, but rather an opportunity to sample the flavor of the place.

To see whether it’s focus is the daily business of  offices, things to be bought, and parks to gather in,

or on the gritty trappings of industry that drives the local economy 

What we tell ourselves we want in a small town

Whether it's about tradition and preservation

What we really want in a small town (Oh come on! Harsh truth is, if we didn't want it it wouldn't be so common.)
or modernization.

Granted, on the back roads the speed limits are slower, the trip is going to take longer, and there will be a town every couple dozen miles to slow me down even more. Between towns I'm probably going to get hung up behind a slow moving tractor, or the only slightly faster farm pickup. There will be stop signs, tight turns and steep grades to be negotiated.

But there are things to be seen and experienced along the back roads, things that can only be seen and experienced along the back roads, things that I might not be missing in my life, but which could make that life richer none-the-less.

But without the proper mindset, I might as well not even bother because I'd just end up missing the breadth and depth of the opportunity.

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