The annual back road slalom has begun – where even the most abstemious seem to be driving under the influence of excessive drink. Some experienced drivers appear like recent arrivals from England or Australia, driving freely on the left except as they approach the brow of a hill. It’s an annual rite, and with all the recent snow and rain, many of Vermont’s dirt byways are either a deeply pocked and washboarded misery or porridge-like slurry of mud, or both.
It’s a thrill to follow an expert back road slalom driver in the spring as they bob and weave back and forth across the full width of the visible road. They know instinctively their wheel base and can usually find parallel passages through a serious cluster of potholes that keep both tires on a flat track or at least avoid the deepest holes. Water filled holes are the most deceptive as one cannot assess their true depth.
Flatlanders are often deceived by the idea that driving at very high speed means the wheels don’t have time to actually penetrate the potholes. They learn fast when a costly MacPherson strut rockets through the leather upholstery in the rear seat. As for driving on wash-board, it’s like skiing on ice. There’s little one can do but slow down if possible and go straight over them.
The deep mires of spring mud that gave birth to the name “mud season” and “Mud City” and have been a defining spring characteristic since Vermont was a feisty Republic, have diminished thanks to the miracle of Tyvek which functions like a check valve in plumbing by allowing rain water to seep down and preventing rising ground water from flowing up and brewing mud. Old dirt roads are scarified and a subdermal layer of heavy Tyvek is laid down on the old gravel and then covered with another layer. This reduces the upflow of ground water.
In the good old days, cars sank in well over their running boards and draft horses strained as if they were at the county fair horse pulls to overcome the mud’s suction. Those days are waning. To avoid the mires today, most cars simply take an alternate route. Many suburban Vermonters living in housing developments today that were corn fields fifty years earlier rarely have reason to travel a dirt road at all. While the farmers that tilled those fields in the spring had to use flotation tires, the current residents travel only on well-drained soil covered with pavement.
But it’s still a good idea to keep a come-along and some log chain in the trunk even today. A sturdy tree and these two tools will usually pull a BMW Mini out from the bottom of an exceptionally deep pothole. Just be sure to connect the chain’s hook to the frame, not the bumper or the doorknob as city folk often do.