Driving down the dirt road home,
it was the trees you saw first,
all New England a forest.
I have seen you get out of a car,
breathe in the sky, the green
of summer maples, listen for the talk
of birds and squirrels, the murmur
of earthworms beneath your feet.
When you looked toward the house,
you had to shift focus,
as if it were something,
difficult to see.
— from “Trees,” by Cheryl Savageau
Mostly, we pay little attention to our road home; we drive, walk or ride back along the paths and byways, unconsciously making those lefts and rights, twists and turns, ignoring the all-too-familiar landscape that becomes a means, rather than a pleasure, to take us to that final road on which we live.
Some years ago in Andover, I had the privilege of being able to drive, every day, a private dirt road home – an anomaly in eastern suburbia. I turned off the paved main road, where our mailboxes clustered like small animals on top of each other, and felt the car heave to adjust and accept the new surface. I knew I was almost home. A quarter mile down the one-car lane, I swung into my driveway.
When my first husband and I found the house – built at the turn of the century, nestled in wetlands, the last house on the private wooded road next to a broad turnaround – we knew immediately that this was where we would begin our marriage. I imagine quite a few people would be turned off by the dirt and ruts and rocks, but we felt lucky to find some country left in an area fast overdeveloping. And we became used to the comments from family and friends, both positive and negative. Most often we heard, “So, when are they going to pave this road?” Our answer was always, “Never, we hope.” Luckily, the town’s requirements for paving would swallow up everyone’s front lawns to make room for a two-way street, and none of the neighbors, many of whom had lived there for decades, wanted that at the time.
This forced us to rely on each other to care for the road. Up the street, where the road dipped abruptly, the neighbors filled in the heaviest ruts that grew deeper after the spring run-off. Down on our end, where some folks chose to drive the extra length to turn around with more ease, my husband collected the sand and gravel from the pile that grew with each scraping of the snow plow in order to fill the holes that seemed to sink overnight and collect rainwater. We relied on the unspoken etiquette of the narrow street: to drive slowly to avoid the children and pets playing in the dirt and brush; to put aside our modern urge to get where we were going quickly so we could pull over or back up our cars to let others pass.
Our relationship with the road wasn’t all romance. We did curse it: when the town’s plow didn’t do its job and we couldn’t get our low-lying Horizon up the street, and we had to accept being stranded; when the constant rattling of the auto shook loose some important part; when yet another guest got lost, in those days before cell phones, trying to find our avenue, passing by countless times and mistaking it for a driveway while the dinner got cold.
But mainly we enjoyed it, as we did the summer when two mallard ducks, male and female, stopped for a day in front of our house. Quacking happily, they swam around in a puddle cradled by the largest rut, which gathered and redirected the street’s run-off into the stream running below. Obviously, they were enjoying this rest stop. We threw them Pepperidge Farm bread, then when evening came on, forced them to the edge of the road so they wouldn’t be hit by a car using the turnaround. Unperturbed, the birds tucked their bills under their blanket wings and spent the night in the brush. They must have flown off before we rose the next day, for they were gone by morning.
And from my office window that faced the road, I saw more wildlife up close in the four years I was there than I’ve seen in my whole lifetime in the suburbs. A red fox, a mangy coyote, low-lying groundhogs, wild turkey, colorful migrating birds from the nearby bird sanctuary, deer, red squirrels, and some small, furry animal I couldn’t even put a name to – it looked like a cross between a squirrel and a mink, but later I learned it was in all likelihood a black squirrel, native to Canada and the Midwest but starting to be found in New England. And there it was, scurrying down my dirt roadway into the woods.
The road itself was simply beautiful, and the walk to the mailbox could cure any bad feeling. I loved to watch for the wildflowers that come up in summer – asters, sunflowers, Queen Anne’s lace, bluebells, lustrife – to view the heavy greenery and wild grape vines that slowly covered the lane like an awning, to smell the lilacs that hedged it. Birds took daily dust baths in the sun-baked dirt. In winter, after a heavy snow or ice storm, the road was a tunnel-like winter wonderland of overhanging white and glimmering ice, tinkling in the breezes. But fall was
when the road home was most spectacular, when the maples turned fiery and the purple asters rose up along the edge as high as they could reach for that last bit of sun. That’s when the dirt road home most reminded me of what is good in this world.
I wish everyone could live on a private dirt roadway at least once in their lives, know what the character in poet Cheryl Savageau’s “Trees” is experiencing. But these roads are fast disappearing. In fact, this one was paved over a few years ago, and just a scattering remain in the Merrimack Valley (roughly 16 in Andover, I’m told, mostly around the ponds). For now, I am grateful that my young son, dozing in the back seat, had a chance to feel that rare and welcome change from hard asphalt to soft, uneven earth, and know in that half-dreamy car sleep that he was almost home.