Ode To The Red Dirt Road
Updated: Jun 6
Do you have a special, inspirational place? Somewhere that you can always go to soothe your soul and find comfort? Well I do. It's a drive I take, a route I know well with three equal phases of splendorous delight. The first is a 15 mile paved highway called Eden Road. It curves, climbs, and falls down rolling hills, taking one away from the little city that is Great Falls, Montana into a peaceful piece of heaven on earth. I learned to drive on Eden Road, mastering the curves in my friend's pick-up truck. And I wrecked my first car on Eden Road, rolling my Geo Metro across the road and into the steep ditch on the other side. That was the summer before my senior year in high school, and having just got my first cell phone, I was able to call 911 after waking up in the backseat of the car without my shoes, covered in glass and the blue raspberry misty freeze I had been enjoying before I overcorrected near the shoulder, fishtailed, and headed for the ditch thinking, "I am going to crash!" The mind is an amazing thing. I blacked out and awoke with the driver's side roof crushed down, but safely hinged between the two front seats with my head in the backseat. I escaped with only a bruise on my backside and the certainty that I had a guardian angel who held me while that tin can of a car rolled several times around me.
Such an experience did not dampen my love for Eden Road, and I soon discovered what lie beyond the 15 mile mark where I used to drive to and turn around to go back. At the end, past a lush valley farm, the road turns to gravel and there is a fork at the crest of a hill. After exploring each option, I learned that the right fork is exactly the right fork. It is the only one which doesn't lead to a dead end. The right fork is the red dirt road that will take you through quiet expanses of meadow, wildflower, and red rocky cliffs. Here I slow down to a creep and open my windows in spring and summer to breathe the intoxicating air and sing to the cows and the birds. Here I will pull over and get out to take pictures, pluck flowers, and enjoy the absolute solitude.
The third stretch, after crossing the Smith River on Eden Bridge, is paved once more and meanders alongside high pink rock-face, past quaint fertile farms, and through the little place called Smith River and its one-room school house where I helped teach Vacation Bible School one summer. It will take you back to town through Ulm, or if you climb a small mountain by way of an offshoot road, you can cross an enchanting prairie and return eventually to where Eden Road first began, having completed the luxurious loop.
When I am happy, when I am sad, in starlight, in daytime, and twilight, in snow, rain, and sunshine all, I travel Eden Road. I let go of the things that trouble me, I sing with the nerve of one utterly free, and I drink in the landscape that is glorious to me. Each time I visit, I encounter something wild; a fox, a hawk, an eagle, a raccoon and always the deer. Each time I travel the circuit, I glean a precious consolation in the beauty of the uninhabited.
Some eight years ago I had moved away from Montana, to Texas and then to Ohio. In Ohio, I searched for something to replace my beloved road, googling "scenic drives" and following this way and that. I never found anything to compare. No offense Ohio. You have lovely trees which I did enjoy. There was always traffic and people, hustle and bustle. Not that I mind people at all, it is only that solitude and nature are my refresher. So when I returned to Montana in 2010, I returned to my road; I returned to returning to my road. And I wonder who else out there loves it as I do? Who else knows the charms of that drive? I'm sure I'm not the only one.
In 2004, I painted a picture I took of the red dirt road, with a friend of mine obligingly walking down the center of it. Then I wrote about the painting, reviewing the visual review:
this road, red road. It winds and turns,
following the bodies of hills,
hugging them, a garment close,
over the hip, down the leg.
perhaps it’s the road not taken,
barely worn itself, smooth,
though made of dirt and speckled with gravel.
this road, in stitches, woven of light and dark,
white, sepia, red. Crossed and entwined,
color mixed but held of its own.
He walks over the stitches,
away from the eye’s view, dark colors, casual.
And he is anybody, he is everybody.
Traveling all alone, toward the horizon, naked of possessions,
across the hips of hills, right down the center of the road.
A rickety fence follows along,
higher on a rise, the constant companion of our road.
Glittering green of hills
blots of pale brush upward holding the loyal fence.
It’s a journey into that great distance,
purple mountains seated over the murky green of beyond.
The sky is a shadow of this red road,
pink, then pale, vermillion and bright,
clouds that bring no warning, but lead
on, drift on, pulling our anybody towards his beginning,
towards the future, that may lie hidden over purple peaks,
or sail over murky meadows green and gold.
Either way, this road, the red road,
holds all the secrets, all the answers,
somewhere anyhow, further down.
And one must walk, will travel,
or one…will never know them.