John Denver, gifted singer, composer and actor, sang wistfully of country roads taking him home in West Virginia. Either his experience with country roads in the mountains was happier than mine or the call of home blinded him to road conditions.
I grew up in a home in Toombs County at the top of a hill that was accessible only by country roads. For the first year or so, these were truly country roads, not “graded roads” with ditches and occasional “scraping” by a motor grader, but one-way, two-track trails. Even “graded roads” were beset by hazards the nature of which depended upon topography and weather.
Paved roads were few. I remember only five in the county from my childhood. After World War II, there was a push to pave highways at both the national and state levels. Georgia politicians — always loath to raise taxes for anything — found that paving “farm to market” roads had a powerful appeal to country folks and sponsored the laying of much asphalt. I was delighted when the Lyons-Cobbtown Road (now Highway 152) was paved, reducing miles and problems in visiting my mother’s family across the Ohoopee in Tattnall County. Soon after, it took me to the home of Annette Slater in Cobbtown, the brunette beauty who became my wife.
After more than 70 years of paving and repaving, there are many miles of country roads in South Georgia and they still pose problems. These fall into six categories: governmental inaction, sand beds, slick roads, washboard roads, dusty roads and flooded fords.
Governmental inaction speaks for itself. Reasons are many: limited financial resources, too many miles of roads, inadequate equipment, too few skilled operators, bad weather, etc.
Weather is a major determinant of other problems on the list. Sand beds are found where country roads cross stretches of sandy terrain, of which there are many. Like the rolling hills, they are the creations of geological action, remnants of ancient beaches when more of the earth was covered by seas. Regular passage of vehicles over dry sandy soil carves out ruts, six inches deep or more. Sand beds must be negotiated at slow to moderate speed with careful attention to steering because failure to keep front wheels in the ruts can wrench, even wreck a vehicle.
Bicycles are less stable than four-wheeled vehicles. Since ruts are not straight and steering bicycles requires frequent correction of the front wheel, they are prone to mishaps in sand beds. Depend-ing on speed, these can damage riders and machines just a bit or much more. My solution was to get off and push the thing.
James was a farmer boy, age 16 or so, who worked hard and saved his earnings. He invested his savings in a motorbike, a regular bicycle fitted with a small gasoline motor that turned a wheel, a less expensive substitute for a motorcycle. At about $150 — approximately $1,500 in today’s currency — it was not cheap for a farm worker. He reveled in his luxury, drew envious glances as he zipped down the road faster than regular bicycle riders could pedal. Then he hit the sandbar just below Grandmother Branch’s house. He recovered from his scrapes and bruises in a few days, but his motorbike was beyond repair.
The other typical soil type is clay and clay roads get slick during wet spells, especially when rain drenches over several hours or days. Hard rain packs clay, but slow rain softens it. All clay gets slick, but some gets slicker than others.
Some vehicles lose traction, and just sit and spin. Unless properly driven, most vehicles can slide into ditches. It is a helpless feeling when one starts sliding sideways. Once in the ditch, the best hope is a friendly farmer with a big tractor and sturdy chain.
Washboard — also known as corduroy — roads are dry-weather phenomena. Soil texture in certain spots leads to the development of a pattern of vertical wrinkles in firm dirt. Neither rough nor bumpy adequately describes the experience of riding over these tooth-rattlers. Mr. Woods, a Tattnall countian known for his wry wit, declared that there are only two speeds for driving over washboard roads, five or 75. The latter is risky. I was a passenger on a school bus being driven by a rookie driver who lost control on a washboard road and deposited us into a ditch. Driving five miles per hour does not eliminate all of the bounce and prolongs the pain.
It is amazing how quickly a wet road can dry out under summer sun or March wind. Then comes the dust. It is frustrating for a young male to wash and polish a vehicle to impress his date for the night only to have it soiled by the dust it kicked up before he can reach her door.
There were fords — stream crossings — on many country roads even after they were county-maintained. Much of the time these were just shallow flows, but rain could turn them into streams. Even then, they could be crossed if drivers were informed and careful. “Keep to the upper side or middle, which should have a firm bottom and drive slowly, steadily.”
Inexperienced drivers think that getting across quickly is the best strategy. However, plunging into the stream causes water to surge over the top of the engine and “drowns out” the car, soaking spark plugs and wiring. Then one has to exit the auto, hoping that the water is not deep enough to flood the interior.
One Sunday when Annette was 17, she talked her brother Olin into letting her drive his car to visit a friend in the country. Still dressed in church clothes, she drowned out the car in a rain-swelled ford. Removing hose and heels, she waded out of the ford and trudged barefoot up the road to find help.
She always remembered that experience with chagrin. I never told her that once I had done the same.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.