Living on a mountain dirt road: We’re not in Fairfax anymore

A little bend in the road

A curve in the road

Life in rural Appalachia contains some very unique aspects to say the least.  And a perfect example of these happened to me not so very long ago.  A chance encounter with a neighbor and his son right in this curve above.  I was driving my Jeep and coming from the other direction, completely blind to what was ahead, when just about this exact location I rounded the curve and there was a big pickup truck with a trailer for hauling cattle stopped right in the road.  To the left just out of this picture is a wooden framed pen and the farmer had been coming to pick up one of his cows when his truck would not start.  I had seen this old farmer and had passed him several times in the mornings on his way to care for his cattle.  His farm is just off another dirt road nearby.  And as it was impossible to go around his truck I got out of my vehicle to ask if I could help.

It’s an expected part of life that neighbors help neighbors and reaching out to a stranger on the side of a dirt road is something that you do.  In many ways Appalachian communities and families continue what some may call their Celtic traditions of the clans of old that settled here.  Supporting and even defending each other in times of need is woven into the fabric of these people as tightly as the pattern pieces of a quilt.  For some reason I found myself thinking of the possibility of this same encounter happening in Fairfax Virginia, where we lived for a time before moving back home and I laughed to myself when I tried to picture the frustration, anger, horns blowing, and other likely scenarios surrounding a broken down vehicle on Fairfax County Parkway for example.

On this day, I did stop and offered to help if I could.  He explained in a thick Appalachian mountain drawl that he had called his wife and that she was on her way to help him.  Technology has made its way here though cell phone service is still very unreliable or down right unrealistic in many areas.  He continued to tell me that it was most likely a dead battery and that his truck had been slow to start over the past few days and he guessed he was going to have to get a new one.  I did not have any jumper cables in my car, but he had some in his truck and I offered to help him jump the battery, but his wife was coming soon he said, and so I wished him luck, asked again if he was sure, and that I hoped he would have a good day.  I then got back into my car and backed up about a half mile, turned around and went the other way.

This road that winds through these hillsides travels over streams and across mountain tops and takes you to yet other dirt roads and then if you know the right direction to turn at the crossroads–it will lead you back to pavement.  There are challenges to be sure, living on dirt and gravel roads.  In these mountains at least, the curves ensure you can’t drive too fast.  In fact, that very aspect of these roads provides everyone who travels along them a means to slow down, to take their time and offers a true respite from the pace the rest of the world seems to be moving in.  When I turn off the paved road and find myself slowing down there I feel as if I am leaving one world and going into another.  I think about those mountain families who received land grants in the late 1700s and settled here–forming these roads with their horses and wagons.  Roads were built around the mountains, winding along their contours naturally out of sheer repetition over the years and nothing more.  In many ways, they are a lasting gift from those who were here before us.

In reading about Appalachian dirt roads and the life they foster, I found this poem written by Janet Smart, an author from West Virginia and Appalachia.  It brings together some of the patchwork from this post today in a dirt road kind of way.

I am from Appalachia,
from hills and hollows
and Grandma’s front porch
with quilt covered gliders
cotton soft and squeaky.
I am from dirt roads
rutted from cars
that rumble past and
leave billowing clouds of dust
to scatter in the breeze.
I am from summer vegetable gardens
plowed in early spring
with Uncle Romey’s horses,
whose long manes and straight rows
flow behind them.
I am from thorny blackberry patches
spread over hillsides
and gnarled grapevines hanging from trees
waiting for eager young hands
to grab hold and swing.
I am from close knit families
living in houses built by
strong hands and loving hearts
and cousins playing in yards perfumed
with the scent of roses and lilac bushes.
I am from time gone by
when fireflies dotted
dark country skies and
families left their doors open
for a visit from a night breeze.
I am from Appalachia
and I dwell in the shadows
of the rugged hills
where I walk in footsteps
left by my ancestors.

Over the river and through the woods

I too am from Appalachia and I feel I am walking in footsteps of my ancestors here.  I have returned to become a much more permanent part of the patchwork quilt that places me here and this winding dirt road is a daily, beautiful, dusty, and well traveled part of my life now.

Share the Mountains