I have two options for going to work. The first takes me the long way round and runs past The Little One’s school. During the school year, I am the designated driver. The middle one rides the bus to high school, and next year, so will TLO. In the summer, however, I have the option of country roads.
This country road was originally a wagon trail. It meanders across 13 miles of mostly open range, climbing three ridges. The elevation on the ridge-tops is about 1,000 feet above valley floors, which can make the difference between rain and snow in the winter. Technically, it’s a two-lane road. I say “technically” because it’s only a two-lane road if both vehicles have their outside wheels well over on the shoulder. The bridges, on the other hand, are decidedly single lane and all are on blind curves that are also heavily screened by vegetation. The pavement is unrelieved black – no center or edge lines. When the fog is thick, you drive at 10 miles an hour.
Most country roads have been logged at least once, but mine still has trees that were probably seedlings about the time of the Civil War. Much of the road still looks like primeval forest, except for the fences.Two of the ranches I pass each morning were established over 150 years ago. Modern houses sit side-by-side with Victorians built of hand-sawn lumber and square nails. I often think of the ranch wives who lived in these isolated areas. Outhouses were the norm, as was cooking on a wood stove even in 100-degree heat. A trip to town in those days would have been a special week-long event, undertaken on horseback or in a farm wagon only in good weather. Even now, the folks who live on these ranches don’t run to the market because they’re out of eggs. Ranch wives (and ranch kids) carried water in a bucket or pumped it by hand from a hand dug well. Laundry day must have been brutal.
Since this is the only crossroad for 10 miles in one direction and over 20 miles in the other, it gets a fair amount of traffic. Logging trucks and cattle trucks are common. Utility trucks and the mail carrier use the shortcut to go from the small town where I live to the small town where I work. Although there are not too many houses out here, I do meet the same drivers on a regular basis. Most of them seem to operate on the assumption that there is no oncoming traffic. They regularly cut corners even though they can’t see clearly enough to know if there’s another car coming. I get plenty of practice braking, dodging and swearing.
Since it’s open range, there are cattle wandering freely across the pavement. The cows like to stand on the bridges for some reason. I once came bumper to nose with a very large Angus bull that was disinclined to move. I kept edging forward and he finally turned his head just enough that I could get past, leaving a smear of nose dew on my driver-side mirror. In addition to the cows, I have to stay alert for the flocks of wild turkeys, herds of deer, bears, coyotes, the occasional mountain lion and now wolves, which have moved into the area in the last year or so.
In the spring, all of our country roads are lined with tiny wild iris and the bright yellow form of Mariposa lilies known as cats’ ears. These give way to ox-eye daisies, wild hyacinths, milkweed, St. John’s wort, yarrow and – come fall – goldenrod. Pale pink bells of manzanita flowers herald the flowering shrubs, followed by white dogwood blossoms and the lavender or white of wild lilac. At this time of the year, the leaves are beginning to turn, with poison oak showing scarlet against the remaining green. I make it a point to watch the changing pageant, but with quick glances only, so I can also keep a wary eye out for the potholes the county road crews leave unmended. Their system seems to be to fix two out of three, even if the third is within 20 feet of the one they’re working on.
I often catch myself humming the old John Denver song as I travel my country road.