Musings on Roads

If you were to drive the long and rolling desert highways of Eastern Oregon, you may assume the landscape, while pleasant to look at, is rather repetitive and monotonous. At first glance, it would be easy to make this assumption; however, you would be mistaken. While the views from the main roads offer vistas of rust-colored dirt covered buttes, speckled with sage brush and juniper, it is the back-roads where the true beauty lies.

In my current internship, I am working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in Burns, OR. The BLM is responsible for large swaths of public-lands, including the lands’ resources, ecology, recreation opportunities, and roads. There is a hierarchy of road types for the BLM out here. You have your classic good-ol’-American paved road (typically of the asphalt of composite-pavement variety), the highly-prevalent gravel road, and the country dirt road (which brings to mind, John Denver). With these being the majority of roads anyone would dare venture their car onto, the hierarchy actually descends further into categories of things that could be only be called “roads” by a stretch of the imagination. Despite this, they served a purpose at one time or another, and as a result, the BLM has them mapped as passible routes, known as “back-roads”. Within the lower Order of back-roads there is the “two-track. A two-track is formed when a car (more likely something in the ball-park of a Ford-150) drives through vegetation and leaves an imprint of two tire tracks. These two parallel lines are re-enforced with each additional car that follows the route. No matter how faint or prominent a two-track may be, they are usually littered with rocks, commonly washed out and eroded, and are full of sharp turns to avoid large obstacles. Two-tracks can widely vary in quality and are a bit unpredictable, causing a certain level of stress in drivers when forced to navigate them. Lastly there is a “vanished-road”. These occur when dirt-roads or two-tracks go unused for long periods of time, causing nature to reclaim them. These can be small sections, or an entire road, depending on the level of reclamation. These are typically unexpected and either force the driver to turn around to find an alternative route, or challenge the driver to push-ahead, and go off-roading in hopes of reconnecting with a discernable road.

During this internship, my partner and I have had to traverse all of the above-mentioned roads. On multiple occasions, we have even mistook cattle-trails as legitimate roads and followed them for a good-while before realizing our mistake. Having become coinsures of the various roads out here, my partner and I feel, while not the most efficient, it is the back-roads where the real fun is. They often take you to areas of extreme beauty and little development. It is on these roads we have passed through gorges, drove along-side packs of wild horses, snuck up on deer, and just relaxed. In a way, navigating a back-road is a practice in deep-relaxation. You may come at it head-strong and stubborn, but driving fast on a back-road will only guarantee two things: damage to your car and damage to your head when you hit a dip and bounce up into your car-roof. Back-roads force you to take it slow and drive deliberately. This is when animals come near your car, this is when you see small ponds and secret-routes you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, this is when the beauty of the desert reveals itself to you.


-Carter Cranberg (Burns-Hines, OR – Field Office)

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