Hit the road
A few more days, and it will be spring. In the spring, our thoughts turn to town meetings and road maintenance. Years ago, they turned to love, but we've learned that love isn't as free as we were told it was, and the cost of living being so high, who can spare a penny for a heartache.
And the truth is, our thoughts turn only briefly to town meetings. So many decisions. So much money. All that confusing legal stuff in the articles. And no matter how you vote, taxes go up, rules pile up, and who likes arguing with the neighbors anyway. So, only a few of us bother to go.
That leaves road maintenance, and after a winter in which all the mild, early promise dimmed in snow, cold, and wet, the dirt roads we slip and bump over every day need concentrated attention. My road is about 1,500 feet long. Today, it's two bare, muddy tracks that bracket a raised, center snowfield. Along its length there are potholes, some newborns, and some granddaddies that the tires roll down into and crawl out of shedding a six-foot shower of muddy water on the roadside snow.
At the beginning, near the town's paved road, it's littered with potholes. That's because we haven't slowed down enough after turning off the paved surface, and speed turns rainwater droplets into potholes in short order. It's also because the long-term fix means filling that portion of the road with two-inch stone in substantial quantities, which is expensive. It also means listening to the objections of neighbors who don't like listening to the stone rattle as cars pass over it. The sound is un-Vineyard like, the critics say.
Next, there's the washboard portion where the road rises to a modest hill. Here again, speed has reshaped the road surface into a close-grained series of mini-thank-you-mams that threaten to dislodge the fillings from your teeth.
Then the road runs down through what is, plainly, a swamp. When it rains a lot, the water drains nicely from the road surface into the scrub at the side of the traveled way. When the roadsides fill up, the water runs back onto the road. The car has to wade through this stretch. More big stone needed.
Finally, there's the downhill to the house. Here, rainwater cascades toward the garage as if the road were a luge run. And when there's snow, followed by ice, this is where you can't get out of the garage because it's too slippery.
Now, what I have described is the normal day-in and day-out condition of the road. You may experience one or two of these conditions on your road. But, with spring's imminence, as the late, brief frost comes out of the ground, these conditions become the ingredients for mud soup. It's an open question every evening whether I'll make it home.
And in the morning, if the overnight's been cold enough, each of these ruts becomes a rubbly chute that makes steering mostly unnecessary. God forbid you meet an incoming car and have to pull off to the side.
So, here's what I've learned about dirt road maintenance. Dirt roads can be improved considerably by the application of money. Research reveals that a mile of publicly owned dirt road typically costs more than $6,000 annually to maintain. That's a lot of money compared with $600 or so we spend on our wilderness track, but not much compared with the $13,000-plus that experts say a mile of paved road will cost, including planned periodic resurfacing. It's obvious that maintaining dirt roads with money is an unappealing strategy, but what's the alternative?
Apart from money, what's needed? Use a well-drained material that nevertheless can be compacted for the road surface; crown it so the water will run off; ruffle the surface often to break up ridges and redistribute material that may have been pushed out of shallow depressions. (A Vineyard friend of years ago, since become a Maine-iac, used an old king-size bedspring, which he left at the beginning of his road. He hooked onto it when he came home in the evening, left it by the house, then reattached in the morning when he left for work, leaving it at the outboard end of the road when he got to the public way. Worked pretty well.)
And, most important, drive slowly, and pray for a dry spring.