Editorial: Remembering those dusty dirt roads

Published 8:26 am Tuesday, October 5, 2021

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My early years were spent growing up off of a dirt road.

The year was 1957, and my family had just moved from the big metropolis of Fork to the Oak Grove community just outside of Mocksville when I came along.

Those old memories came back on Monday when a caller suggested we print a column by Paul Harvey about dirt roads. I researched that column, and it was OK, most likely written when there actually were dirt roads. It talked about the virtues of those who grew up on dirt roads. After living in the mountains for a few years, I quickly realized that Paul Harvey was off the mark. People who live at the end of dirt roads there were more likely to point a shotgun at unwanted visitors than offer to help them find their way.

I didn’t know it at the time back in the early 60s, but just growing up at the very end of the dead end Oak Grove Church Road instilled a love of the non-blacktop roads. There’s just something about walking along as a kid, kicking a few rocks, maybe even picking one up to throw at a tree or something, that makes dirt roads special.

Even smooth-running vehicles can’t sneak up on you on a dirt road. Most likely, you’ll hear them coming long before you see them. Even more likely, you’ll see the plume of dirt and dust that rises as a vehicle goes down the road.

Back then, North Carolina was known as the “good roads state.” Take a ride on Cana Road nearest to US 601 North now, and you’ll know that moniker just doesn’t fit anymore. The pavement is so bumpy you’d think they paved it during a rainstorm. Maybe they did. I could write multiple columns abour our current department of transportation and its problems. And to think that was once – back in my dirt road days – a state department that I admired.

Eventually, even Oak Grove Church Road was paved – and extended to Sain Road. Progress, they called it. There was, and probably still is, a fund strictly for the paving of unpaved (dirt, in my book) roads.

When I began driver’s education – taught at Davie High School – my teacher was none other than Walter Morris. A great man with a tremendous amount of patience, Mr. Morris, I think, was afraid. I-40 had been extended through Davie County, and we were all excited about driving as fast as allowed on the interstate. But if you were in Walter Morris’ driver’s education car, you never saw the interstate unless it was from an overpass. Heck, you rarely saw US highways either. What you did experience was every dirt road in Davie County.

And when I got my license, I carried my friends around doing things we shouldn’t have been doing – on dirt roads. There was even a little stretch of dirt on Avon Street in Mocksville. It was fun to scare passengers as the vehicle slid sideways going down that curve.

Going to college at Chowan, I was amazed at the number of dirt roads in that part of the state. And unlike around here where there was almost a constant curve, the dirt roads there were long and straight – perfect for my favorite kind of driving.

Even on my first job, in Benson, driving on dirt roads was my Sunday passion. My goal was to drive every dirt road in that part of Johnston County, and I may have accomplished that feat. My favorite place was an intersection of two unpaved roads. There, every intersection had the name of the nearest community, an arrow and the number of miles to that community.
At one intersection, it was the same distance to the same community in every direction. Of course, I tried them all. And they were right. Maybe our department of transportation folks these days could learn a lesson from our past road sign installers. There was also a long, straight dirt road that went by a Boy Scout camp. I’ll not say how fast I drove on that road, but it’s safe to say that the plume behind me stretched for miles.

How many unpaved roads are left in Davie County? Not many, and I know of only one that actually takes you to another road.

Progress? Maybe.

My dad remembered when NC 801 was a dirt road. And now I’m trying to wax nostalgic about the dirt roads I remember. Dad wasn’t “waxing,” because he remembered the chaos a lot of rain could cause on those unpaved roads.

I wonder what young folks today will wax about when they talk to their grandchildren in 50 years? “Back in my day, we actually had to drive our cars.”

We’ve come a long way.

– Mike Barnhardt