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Rural road driving, plus rain, equals difficulty

June 1, 2010

I recently stayed overnight in rural northwest Nebraska, in a place reached by gravel roads: High Plains Homestead (post on this later).

Some of the roads to get there and to Toadstool Geologic Park (more on that later, too) were a bit rutted. There were a few puddles from an inch and a half of rain a couple of days before. Nothing I couldn’t handle if I drove slowly enough, though I wouldn’t want to be out there in the dark. Too hard to see the potholes.

That night, it rained. And rained. And rained and rained and rained. I heard estimates that 3-4 inches fell. I seriously began to wonder if I was going to make it out of there.

The side road I was staying on, Sand Creek Road, was in really good shape. It was told it was installed by the US Forest Service.

The connecting county road, Toadstool Road, on the other hand, was not so great.

A lady who came in said that the creeks were flowing over the county road in several places to the south, and the water was runningboard deep. If I was going to get out, I’d have to take a detour to the north, and preferably wait to let the water go down a little.

While we were waiting for the water to ebb, a pickup truck pulling a camper trailer with Illinois plates passed by. After a bit, the driver came back looking for help.

It seems he and his son were headed out to a ranch to go prairie dog hunting. They were attempting to use a GPS to navigate. They barely, barely made it through a watery mudpatch of Toadstool Road to the south, saw more water up ahead, and decided to try an alternate route west on Sand Creek Road. Problem is, Sand Creek Road deadends at the Hudson-Meng bone bed. They didn’t want to go back the way they’d come, and they didn’t want to go on.

This is what their trailer looked like from the road they’d already traversed. The caked-on mud was several inches deep at the bottom.

The locals advised them to continue north on Toadstool Road because the roadbed was decent, then to turn east and detour on Sugarloaf Road, another US Forest Service road.

When you look on a DeLorme map, Sugarloaf Road isn’t named, and it looks narrower than Toadstool Road. You’d assume that the narrower roads were in worse shape, but you’d be mistaken.

I popped up Toadstool Road a ways, driving slowly through the puddles, and stopped at Our Heritage Guest Ranch for awhile, and it began to rain again. And thunder. And hail. It let up for a bit, but the sky grew dark again. Really dark.

While the folks at the ranch were very nice, I didn’t particularly want to get stuck there. Owner Jean Norman threw some tow chains in the back of her pickup truck and offered to escort me out to Sugarloaf Road. Bless her heart!

Here is one of the better parts of Toadstool Road after heavy rain:

I didn’t take photos of the bad parts because I was pretty busy trying to keep my car moving and on the road. I do have all-wheel drive, thank goodness, but the car’s pretty short compared to a pickup truck.

I got worried when I saw the pickup start to fishtail. I got more worried when the rain started to come down heavily again.

I couldn’t tell anymore where the deep spots were, so I splashed through them and muddy water washed up over the top of my car. There were a few spots where the road was churned up into deep ruts. I bet my car was a few hundred pounds heavier from the accumulated mud.

When an oncoming vehicle approached and Jean stopped to talk to the driver, I was rather concerned that I wouldn’t be able to get moving again, as the road at that point was slightly upslope and thickly rutted. But I made it!

Slowly, carefully, I made the turn onto Sugarloaf Road, at last! As promised, Sugarloaf Road was in pretty good shape, but I think the weather was pushing the limits of its engineering. Check out the accumulating water on the south side of the road, which was rushing out of a culvert on the north side. Much more water, and the road might have been inundated.

I glanced nervously at the dark sky and turned on my weather radio. Supercell storm. Hail. Heavy rain. Tornadoes. Oh boy.

I hoped Jean would make it back to her ranch OK.

I made it through the gravel roads and got back out onto the highway. I wish I’d been able to get a picture of my muddied-up car, but the heavy rain washed it off. Just as well.

As I was driving home, I got to thinking about travel conditions in northwest Nebraska.

I imagine if you live out there, you stay stocked up on provisions in the winter. You probably get snowbound a lot. You’re used to that.

But this mud thing. This seemed a little different to me. Less predictable, somehow.

One rancher and longtime resident I talked to said that her ranch sometimes lost money when the roads were too muddy to get their cattle to sale on time.

And then there’s all the recreation opportunities up there. Toadstool Geologic Park. Ranchers earning supplemental income off of tourism. High Plains Homestead, a business that exists because of the tourist trade.

If the tourists can’t get in or out because of the condition of the roads, those resources may wither away. I heard some grumbling about the counties’ management of the roads up there. I know money’s tight everywhere these days, but this seems like a chicken-and-egg conundrum. If the roads are bad, tourists don’t come, and the county loses income. If the county has no income, it can’t maintain the roads well enough to keep the tourists coming.

People grumble about the rural roads in Scotts Bluff County. Here, the population-to-county-road ratio is about 46 people per mile. In Sioux County, the ratio is less than two people per mile. Yowza! That’s a lot of road to maintain with presumably scant resources!

Beyond the condition of the road, there’s the issue of maps.

I already mentioned the idiosyncrasies of the DeLorme map.

As the guys from Illinois found, using a GPS is not a great idea either. I heard that GPS units often send people off down unmaintained old wagon trails in this area of the country.

And many maps of Nebraska show highway 2/71 dead-ending in Crawford. It’s a nice, paved road all the way up to the South Dakota border, but some people may look at the map and think there’s nothing there.

Yes, there are some travel challenges in navigating in rural areas. You may just have to stop to ask for directions. But you know what? People in those areas are used to that and are more than happy to help out a fellow human being.

I really like the commentary on dirt roads on the High Plains Homestead website. Here’s a selection:

Folks who live on a dirt road learn that life is a bumpy ride.  It can be more of a jarring trip than you maybe had planned but it is worth it, if at the end of the road, you find friendship, hospitality and a genuine appreciation of family, neighbors and folks dropping by.

A “drive by shooting” on a dirt road means you or your neighbor happened to catch a wall-hanger buck crossing right in front of you.

Dirt roads teach patience.

For those of us who live on a dirt road, the only time we lock our car doors is late summer so, when unattended, someone doesn’t fill it with too much zucchini.

When traveling dirt roads, “restrooms” are always available, …for none of which do you need a key.

Dirt roads are how you get to your neighbors to put out grass fires, attend brandings, help pull someone out of the gumbo, attend weddings, baptisms, graduations and all other special community events.

People on dirt roads do not tailgate, …if they did the guy in front would choke you with dust & bust your windshield with flying rocks.

Dirt roads help build character.

Folks tend to drive slower on a dirt road, which provides an opportunity to look and think things over.

Sure, there are inconveniences when traveling a dirt road, but maybe we have come to focus only on those, forgetting the rewards we once took for granted.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2010 12:26 pm

    Fascinating read–

  2. Suzie permalink
    June 6, 2010 10:39 pm

    Great story! I imagined Toadstool Road would resemble a hog wallow when it rained and you have confirmed my suspicions! I think you’re right, rain and mud would be worse than snow and ice. Anyone who has experienced snowfall develops a sense (hopefully) of how to drive under those conditions. Most people can’t imagine how scary an unfamiliar (mostly) one lane clay dirt road is when it’s inundated with rain.


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