Dirt roads

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I heard a country song some time back that spoke of life that happened on a red dirt road. It is entirely possible that the concept of a dirt road of any color is foreign to many people who have lived their entire life with plentiful asphalt and concrete. I remember the dirt roads.

I grew up on Hill Street in Sullivan County, Tennessee in the upper northeastern tip of the state just a few miles from Southwest Virginia. When the city of Kingsport annexed our area, the city already had a Hill Street so the name of the road was changed to Busbee Street.

My earliest memory of that short road was that it, and most of the streets in our neighborhood, were dirt roads. Not red dirt, though there was plenty of that around, but a dinghy grey. Some of us neighborhood kids used to ride our tricycles and metal mars down the road and then push them back up the steep hill. In winter, sledding was possible.

When it rained, it was more of a mud road and, especially in the hot summers, it was a road that spawned copious clouds of dust when a strong wind or fast cars flew up or down that road. Most of the women dried their laundry outside on clothes lines so there were continual complaints about the dust and dirt. My mother, who was fastidious about cleanliness, had us remove our shoes and leave them on the front porch.

At some point the county officials did what they thought was a favor by covering the roads such as ours with a thick coat of black, used, oil. It solved the dust problem but the solution was worse than the cure. The oil stuck to everything and, now, my mother had us leave our shoes in the yard so that we would not track the stuff on the porch. And it stunk. The smell permeated everywhere outside.

They’d never be allowed to do that these days, I suspect, since all that oil certainly leached into the aquifer. But environmentalism was virtually unknown. No one rode tricycles or miniature cars on the oil road and most of us avoided walking on it on the way to and from the bus stop.

Somewhere prior to my third grade, the county (or maybe the city, by then) got rid of the oil and covered the dirt road with gravel. The smell was gone, the dust level was much lower, and the residents were happier.

However, that Christmas, I received my first bicycle and learning to ride a bike, downhill (and the road was steep), on gravel was a perilous venture. A bike wreck on gravel doesn’t just skin up a bike. It also tears clothing and rips skin from the body. It also made the bike harder to push uphill for the return effort at self-mutilation.

Another downside is that the gravel, which often had quite a number of larger rocks, made for some dangerous and bloody rock fights when neighborhood boys clashed. I think I still have a scar where one such rock split open my forehead.

I actually credit that steep, gravel-covered dirt road with introducing me to athletics. As a kid, I was anything but an athlete. But, day after day on the bike, first pushing and then riding the bike both uphill and down, caused me to thin out and develop strong leg muscles.

In the 8th grade, I tried out and barely made the junior high football team. The next year, I was the starting center. I continued on into high school, eventually earning a starting spot on the nation’s 31st all-time winningest high school out of 16,000 schools, taking up martial arts and earning black belts, joining the Marine Corps, and playing in the East-West All-Star game at Quantico Stadium where we beat the West 31-30.

I came home on leave one weekend to discover that the dirt road had disappeared under a thick coat of asphalt, as had most of the dirt roads in our city. Progress marches on. There are a few dirt roads left in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, but not all that many.

The aforementioned country song calls to remembrance events on the red dirt road. The artist sings of having a first beer, finding Jesus, wrecking a car, and other life events on that road. I did none of the three on our dirt road but it is on that road that life happened. Despite the bike wrecks, the rock fights, the dust, the oil, and the hard uphill climb after getting off the school bus, my childhood and adolescence there was happy.

It was a short walk down that road, four houses away, when, at age 5, I met the kid who would be the best man at my wedding. It was on that road that I was doubling-heading my 2-year-old brother on the bike when I was 11, that I wrecked and broke his leg — a memory that still brings tears to my eyes. It was there when I was 15 and trying to pick out a song on my Fender guitar, that a young minister and two 17-year-old girls would stop and invite me to attend the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Mountain View Church — an invitation that would change my life.

Not all memories were happy. It was on that road where, after two years of struggling with cancer, my father would die in the house in which I was raised. It was there about seven years later when my brother would find my mother on the floor and carry her to his car and rush her to the hospital where she would die eight days later. But, whether happy or sad, the road was where life happened.

I don’t miss the dirt roads. I think that asphalt or concrete are vast improvements over the other materials. But I appreciate the sentiments of the country song. It’s not about whether the dirt is red or grey or even if it’s oil, gravel, or asphalt. It’s about what happens on those roads.

Sometimes, when I visit Kingsport, I drive up that hill where my old house sits. It’s a short road and still steep. Sometimes, I’ll park in the parking lot of the Hillcrest Bible Mission Church, just yards from the house and let the memories come.

I know no one who lives there now. They are all grown, gone, or dead. But the memories? Oh, the memories are still very much alive. I thank God for that old dirt road and for all the roads on which I have lived where life has happened.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). The church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]