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Driving Forty - Keck

Michael L. Keck

Driving Forty


It is doubtful that you have seen me on the road. Where I live, there aren’t many of us, but perhaps you have seen someone else just like me. That is what happened to me when I was attending college in Geneseo, New York, back in the late sixties. A bunch of us, all wanna-be writers, were on our way to swim in Trip Hammer Pond, a private farm pond that did not care. It was hot. We had a few beers in us. The thought that other girls, even young townies, might already be there, made me in the backseat impatient as we were unable to pass an old truck on a back road. I was the jerk leaning out of the window yelling and flying the bird. Don, the driver, and clearly the one who was more mature than me, smiled at me in the mirror and then said, “Did you ever consider that maybe this is as fast as his truck can go? Or that he is just being careful on this back road?” That is all it took. I not only shut up, I never forgot those words, never started out like another asshole without considering what the other possibilities could be for someone to be driving an old road slowly or going about their life in any other manner than the one I was using for an excuse. It was good advice. But it got to be better advice. Let me tell you why I drive like I do.

Mostly by accident, and by accident I do not mean crashing, but by finding myself driving slowly over a long dirt road, the Bear Pond Corridor, which led to the hunting club that I belonged to, deep inside of the Adirondacks, I gained a different appreciation for the slow drive. That road was often described by us to novice hunters and guests as being sixteen miles long from the closest “good road.” Good road meaning that you did not need four-wheel drive or chains on your tires. Did not mean that you traveled it without with a shovel, tow strap, come-alongs, and chain saw in the bed. It wasn’t a particularly old road, just one that the various government entities argued over who should take care of it. We did not know, either. Did not even care. We had chains. Most of us that used it had chains for all four wheels.

Once you got on that road, out past Belfort, in Lewis County, and then the Buckhorn Tavern, the last barroom on the road, you just settled into the drive. The road was bad. Bumpy. 

Had ruts. Had rocks. Sometimes had a ditch. In some places a bridge. It was narrow. Trees fell across it like a magnet. It was usually hard but after a season of hunters going over it til the end of the season, which could be November or into the second week of December, if we were lucky, depending more on the snow than the deer, it could be broke down in places, soft. Muddy enough to suck the tires right off of your vehicle. I recall once, when my friend Jim came into camp for Thanksgiving that he got his truck so stuck I could walk under the rear-wheel housing. By then, a mere mile further to camp, all that he had left to drive with was the front end of his four-wheel drive unit, so that is what he was using. Whiskey helped him get that far. More of it and few days later, after we had our fun with him, we got him out.

You had to let the road be itself. It would give you what it could from a road but you needed patience to perceive it. It was a road that demanded a subtle observation. So you settled into the drive, passing a bottle back and forth between you and any guests. We drove a lot less than forty then, more like fifteen, but there was time to look out the windows and have a visit. Get to know those riding with you. Get to know them better. Get to see the land that you were traveling through. Get to look it over. Get a feel for it.

I kept traveling that road for forty-nine years. And on that road, I gained an appreciation for traveling slowly over a dirt road. That has changed somewhat now since my job now is with the “Big R.” I drive forty to save money but I also still enjoy looking out the window. There is no longer any whiskey with me, except behind the seat in case of an emergency, and there are fewer people riding with me. Many of them are dead or quit hunting when we lost the camp at the end of that road. No matter. I have decided that it is not my job to discern why things are as much as it is to understand whether or not I still enjoy these. This is one of the great things about getting old: we do not have to care about why any more. We can simplify our life into should I or do I or will I. It is the way to go. The way forward.

I still have a camp. But it is more civilized in that I do not need tire chains to get there or home from it. Truth be told, it lies on the way to that other camp, deep inside of the Adirondacks. It is not even on a dirt road any longer. The government has paved it so folks can drive by faster now. Take less time to look out their windows finding me on the camp porch writing about them. Since there are numerous dirt roads nearby, this seems okay with me. It can be another secret that I have to work with.

The secret to driving forty miles an hour or less is a window. It can be a truck window, but a car that is paid for, or a jeep, can also work out well if you let it. But let’s be honest: trucks are about attitude. So, if you want to have as much of this experience as you can, a truck is the way to go. Back to that window. You need to open it. All the way down. If it is too cold for you, turn on the heater. Wear your tuque. Put on gloves. A coat. Whatever. But you need to be able to smell what is going on outside as you pass by. You need to feel the wind on your face. Let the open air work with the speed.

When I was younger, the radio would have been on, but now, I find that to be too much of a distraction. There is enough going on just to be driving. This is not my fault however. I blame the kids these days, with their smart phones texting and twittering and believing themselves to be better than they are, as kids are wont to do. They make me nervous. It has always been like that with kids. I can still remember when they rode bicycles. Any time there was more than one of them on these, invariably they broke the group in two to occupy both sides of the road, weaving and talking back and forth as if my truck did not exist in any form as a danger to them or myself. I would often yell out the window at them, “Watch out, there is whiskey in here” but it did no good. Too young to like whiskey then. How it all changes.

One change is that we have fewer dirt roads to drive on.       

Part of that is that there are fewer people alive who understand how to care for such a road. It must be graded each year. Even twice a year depending on the traffic patterns. A York rake is pulled behind the road grader, beginning in the middle of the road, up one side and then back along the other. The edges are pulled into the center to make a crown. This allows the rain water to wash gently off of the road, into the ditches. As it does, it takes a little of the gravel along with it, depositing this on the road edge. If you have ever ridden your bike on a dirt road, you know what I mean when I say that these edges are loose. Thus, the road grader. Its job is to work those loose edges back into the center of the road, making a crown, “keeping it.”

I am told that one of the secrets to “keeping” a dirt road is to not go over it too fast. This causes the blade of the grader to bounce on the surface. Ripples appear. Then the hot rodders or drunks come along, and in their desperation to get along faster, they spin their wheels on these, turning out ruts. Soon, the road begins to wash away. Folks complain and blacktop appears like magic. Thanks to taxes, we can all go fast now. Get to where we do not know sooner. But enough about road graders. The reason why a dirt road invites driving forty or less is as simple as its simplicity and beauty. And by beauty, I mean in the fall after a rain. After the grader has been on it to set it for winter. At this time, the road will hold the key to the coming fall. Parts of it will have fallen onto the road, held there by the rainy surface in all of the good color each leaf has with it. And these colors look good against the darker surface. Vibrant. Alive. There will be reds and yellows and oranges and an occasional pine cluster mixed in for balance, like the forest. More leaves will be blowing off of the trees as you pass by. If you are going slowly enough, you can look out your rear view mirror and watch fall trail by you as if you were the wind pushing it.  There is less of a need to be overly cautious about looking forward too soon as the only others on the road will be like you, going slow. There will be time to watch out for each other. You need to get on these roads in the fall, as many of these are defined as minimally maintained, meaning that they will not be plowed, once the snow begins to fly. Fall is your last chance for that year to get out there to look things over. Find out how the camps are doing. Where the deer are crossing. If anyone is still after trout, if you should be. I like to look for this style of road as it seems well suited for a slow drive. Usually there will not be any fancy cars on it. Usually.

One fall, on that road to the lost hunting camp, I was coming out of there on my four wheeler with a bow-shot doe on the rack. It was a gnarly fall day with a lot of rain and wind. Good hunting weather. Hardly anyone else out. At about the nine mile marker and above Parquet Hill, I spied a BMW sedan driving in, with four women in their go-to-town clothes. Obviously they were going slow, dodging the pot holes. The Beamer was splashed with mud. We pulled up next to one another, their window opened and a lady says, “How much farther to the good road?” I laughed. 

“There isn’t any good road up here. It is a dead-end.”

“The men at the bar said this was a short cut to Star Lake. We are looking for leaves. They said the road would be bad for a while but that it would get better and to just keep going.”

“Was that the Buckhorn that you stopped in for directions?”

“Yes.” I laughed again. I have seen this trick before.

“Now listen…you did a good job getting as far as you did but you will have to turn around and go back. They lied to you. I will get you turned around and I’ll drive along to see to it that you make it out. Just go slow.” They were saved. Once we got back on blacktop, I showed them on a map how to find Star Lake. I did not have the heart to tell them that fall, up here in the ‘dacks, was over. Had been over by a few weeks. The fall colors they sought were now mythical. Off they went and I entered the tavern to have a laugh of my own. The bar was full.  All men. Dressed in wool. Brimmed hats, knives on their belts. Boots. Most of them drinking beer. An occasional shot. A few nodded to me. Once I had my beer and had settled into a place of my own, I leaned out over the bar and said, “Which one of you guys sent those women up the Main Haul to Star Lake?” They all laughed. Laughed hard. Slapped one another on the back. 

“How far did they get?”

“Above Parquet Hill.” They laughed again. I gave them the details, adding a few more for local color. We all laughed. A beer was bought for me. It all worked out well. Fools can be anywhere. But some places are not meant for them.

There are less dirt roads now. There are even less good black top roads to drive on going slow, looking things over. But I still drive a truck. Every once in a while, I gas up and go for a drive. It could be on roads that I know, have been on before or I use these to jump off from, finding a new one to travel on. I don’t bother with the GPS or even a map. It doesn’t matter where I will come out. I just like to go slow, thinking about my past, those who have traveled along it with me, looking things over while I still can. I know now, that at some point, they will be coming to take away my license. I will be lucky to get any drives at all. But if I go now, I can add to the memories that I have. I can let a road keep me. Keep me awhile longer before fall.