Terra Infirma and the Boggy Ox Carts of Floyd

People of The Mud

I feel certain that Floyd County of all the Commonwealth’s counties, has more miles of “unimproved” roads than any other. I’m sure I’ve at least heard that stated as fact.

You just can’t quite appreciate, with the figure of those many hundreds of miles of so-called gravel, how incredibly unimproved this particular one has become over the past few years of relative neglect.

At one point, there was a VDOT station in the county. The workers knew the roads. They knew the people who lived on the roads. Their switchboard operator had actually heard of your road and had some notion of where you lived in the real world. That was then.

It is true that someone will answer the phone when you call the VDOT number to register a “concern.” They might be in Richmond. They might be polishing their nails or watching the last few minutes of a Netflix movie while they pretend to be taking down your various laments about the deplorable–if not dangerous–condition of your road. They’ve heard it all before–about the same god-forsaken byway. Yawn. If it makes you feel better, go ahead and call. Just get real. There’s no money. And your road? You kidding?

So I called a week or so back and described the situation on this “third world county ox cart” that was once a state-maintained road.

“It’s a disgrace. An embarrassment. We have friends who refuse to come see us for fear their cars will suffer damage from the pot holes. No, let me rephrase that. Potholes would be preferred. We have bomb craters.”

“It’s so bad” I told the poor lady whose fate it was to take my call “that we have to keep tongue depressors in the car to put between our teeth when we leave the house to keep from breaking a filling.”

But today. Today, it was the MUD. We knew better (we thought) than to go straight out up the high side from here, where the ice lingers for months, and the mud can be really really bad. No we’d go Griffith Creek to church–a longer route and still steep but not as wet. Wrong. It was really really really bad.

It was as close as I ever hope to come to an off-road mud race. There were places I thought surely we’d lose our forward progress in first gear and never regain it–if we didn’t fishtail off the road entirely. There was mud splattered all the way to the roof.

Yes, I’m embarrassed and disgusted. They’ll come out here eventually and dump some rocky dirt on top of dirt. What good is that?

I told somebody today that this road probably got better treatment in the days of road crews with pick and shovel vs the straight blade of a Volvo road grader that makes the road look lever by pushing mud around the highest bedrock that pokes up to the surface. A guy with a shovel would find all those places where there is nothing but mud–where from bedrock up, there should be a new load of actual crushed rock. Gravel road. Ya know?

Yes this is an unimproved country road, but it can’t get much more unimproved and those of us who live here be able to reach the improved roads that lie two short miles and a twenty minute shake shimmy-and-swim from here.

NOTE: even the VDOT workers shake their heads. They know what needs to be done. They are not given the time, funding or political will to do what’s needed.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. It’s bound to get a car out of alignment and tires can’t last long besides the physical danger. I don’t blame friends for not wanting to visit! It’s a disgrace!!