Near the northern edge
of Washington County in eastern Nebraska, the landscape is dotted with farmsteads and fields that have been inhabited for
the past hundred and fifty or so years. Divided and subdivided, bought and sold,
rented and parceled over and over again, the rolling hills and valleys only vaguely resemble the land that Lewis and Clark
would have witnessed from afar on their historic trip up the once “Mighty” Missouri river. What was once pristine tall and short grass prairie land with swathes of low-lying oak or cottonwood has
been summarily raped and molested, hunted and killed, until all that remains is a vestige of its former beauty in a roadside
ditch here or a small slice in a creek bank there. Instead of Bison roaming
from hilltop to hilltop, we have cows; in place of dozens of species of flora spreading across the landscape, we have, perhaps,
four or five: corn and sorghum, alfalfa and soybeans, mostly. And skies once
filled from horizon to horizon with passenger pigeons are strangely empty, mute. Nothing
is the same.
South of the little town
of Herman and west of Nebraska Highway 75, I am intent on finding the short road – labeled unceremoniously County Road
P6 – upon which I had walked long ago. It is at once both developed and
underdeveloped: what country folk call a “minimum maintenance road.” I
have walked, over the years, on roads both gravel and paved, dirt and asphalt, but the roads that I usually find most intriguing
are those where none but the stoutest four-wheeler or tractor dare tread - and that’s when it’s absolutely dry. Add a little rain or snow to the mix, and quickly such roads become virtually impassable. Minimum maintenance roads, living up to their name, are truly maintenanced infrequently,
if at all. Occasionally, the county roads department may run a grater over such
paths just to smooth over the deep tire treads that etch the exposed dirt road like miniature cliffs and rivers, but after
one good rain, the “road” is often washed out again, filling sometimes like a swamp, laughing at any who would
dare brave its muddy entrails.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the minimum maintenance road is the variety of plant and animal
life one can see along the outskirts of the path. Being rarely traversed, these
roads can host a plethora of species that have otherwise been sprayed, cut, or plowed under, often plants that not even the
herbivorous, four-stomached cows would eat: thistle, knapweed, leafy spurge, purple loosestrife, and saltcedar, among others. These plants, labeled “noxious” by creatures that have torn apart the
ecosystem from which such plants have existed long before such creatures settled the land, possess an innate beauty that catches
my eye. Like the indigenous peoples of the land who were rounded up and summarily
shuffled off to undesirable lands where few could see, such plants have had their inheritance stolen from them, relegated
to the ditch or other out of the way place where they won’t pose an inconvenience to the conqueror’s husbandry
Thus, eager to see these
“old friends” of mine, I park on County Road P19 and begin my trek. I
want to walk along the country roads for awhile before heading off on my minimum maintenance road, intent on seeing a bit
of the land, on this late January day. The temperature is around 40 degrees
F, and the first few steps I take as I leave my car behind prove to be quite sloppy.
A good omen for an interesting trip. I have rarely walked along these
roads in the winter time, and I am curious, particularly on such an unseasonably warm day, whether I will be able to make
out any of the plants I normally see along my walks. The snow has melted considerably,
and most of the gravel road ahead lies exposed beneath a cloud-streaked, light blue sky.
A southern wind kindly accompanies me along on my journey. It is a good
day to walk.
Coming to a rise where
the road reaches a T-intersection, I turn onto County Road P8 where the road is marred by deep tractor tire tracks and the
imprints of dozens of cloven hooves typical of cattle.
road, though heavily graveled, has been churned enough by the recent traffic that it is as much mud as it is sand and rock. My light-colored, leather boots – worn exclusively for just such occasions
– are quite dirty by now, but what is worse is the fact that I simply cannot take steps in full stride. With each rise of my foot, the one still planted on the ground sinks a bit deeper, slowing my pace down. Though I try to keep my eyes on the landscape about me, it is almost impossible not
to keep looking at the ground just to keep my balance. Other than a single farmstead
just behind and north of me, no one is witness to my odd trek through the mud. Oops. I spoke too soon.
Coming down the road is
a single, white SUV. The truck seems to slow down a bit, and I am certain that
they are about to stop and ask me if I might need a ride or help. It would not
be the first time I had gotten my own car stuck along these very same country roads, so it is entirely possible that these
very same people may have witnessed me walking this road years ago. Nonetheless,
I wave at the oncoming vehicle, and, in return, they wave back, resuming their speed.
All is well. They are the first and only people I would see along this
After about half of a
mile, the road finally curves, and I am now walking on County Road 21. The tire
and hoof tracks have disappeared, and the gradual decline makes my trip that much easier.
The ground is more firm.
I am coming, now, upon the road I have meant to traverse, and I see the same dilapidated old structure located in
the alcove of a U-shaped grove of trees across the road from where I will soon turn.
The roof, green in color, is beginning to fall in, and every other board of what must have once been a red barn is
missing. Across the hills to the east of the structure, cows dot the wintry
landscape like chips of chocolate in a tub of vanilla ice cream. In the hills
above them, fifteen hundred pound bales of hay lay strewn across white fields, food, no doubt, for hungry bovines. Finally, at the bottom of the hill along County Road 21 lies the intersection for the road I mean to travel,
County Road P6. But as I turn east to make my onto the old path, I sense immediately
that something is wrong. Although it’s been a year or more since I have
walked this route, and I have never traversed it in winter, the road is not as it should be.
Within seconds, I identify what is wrong: the “Minimum Maintenance” road sign is
missing. A few more steps, and large, white, feldspar rocks crunch beneath my
feet, confirming what my heart wearily suspects. The road has now been “maintenanced.”
It’s progress, of course. Everything, everything is progress. There’s land sitting unused here. Let’s till it! That’s
progress. There’s a river flowing
freely over there. Let’s channel it! That’s progress. There’s a road sitting unattended yonder. Let’s tend it! That’s progress. Everywhere, everywhere is progress.
This winter’s heavy snowfall, although considerably reduced after a few days of a warm,
January thaw, obscures much of the surrounding fields that were harvested months ago.
Corn stalks about eight or ten inches high stick out of the snow in the field lying to the north of the road, and fallow
fields that were untilled this past growing season lie on the south.
Making my way up the steep incline, I find that the county’s attempt to tame the road has met with mixed results. The ground is so wet, in fact, that my steps are even further hampered by all of
the mud and muck. With each step, my boots grow increasingly filthy, and even
the cuffs of my jeans are now wet and muddy. I smile. As I crest the hill, I am pleased to see tracks of deer that have passed recently, and when I look up,
I see a doe suddenly dart from the side of the road, bounding across the muddy, snow-covered fields, stopping only once to
peer at me before continuing into nearby trees. As I approach the place where
the deer had crossed, I see two orange Miller High Life beer cans alongside the deer tracks.
Damn drunken deer.
As I make my way over the hill, around the curve, down another hill, and down the final road, I am pleased to know
that the land continues to somehow struggle to resist the heavy-handed maintenance by Man. I
get back into my car, satisfied with the fact that, soon after our species is gone from this world, the land shall return
to its native state, wrapping its roots into and around the bones of those very animals who sought to constrain Nature herself.