Driftless Terroir: Listen as Our Yellow Gravel Roadways Tell Stories of Life

Curse not or otherwise denounce gravel “pavement” when exiting off concrete, asphalt or seal-coated town roads. Gravel roads have a history within them, but we must be calm and quiet to hear the roads communicating with us.

Profaning these old roads for a few nick marks, a fine coat of dust, or someone else’s driving mistakes should have been insufficient to place rural gravel roads in jeopardy. Folks who live on gravel roads are justified in shunning owning black vehicles. Life would be so much more congenial for them with gray, auburn, even khaki paint on vehicle fender panels.

Slow down and listen to the country music played by Yellowstone and Rubber, a duo who plays nightly, albeit increasingly uncommon in these remote areas.

Years ago highways, roads, driveways and lanes began graduating to more upscale surfaces, but most of these new surfaces have no history, no music, no harmony and surely no tales to tattle. More than nostalgia was tuned out when the cement hardened to concrete, or when the hot tar, oil and pebbles slowly became a somewhat flexible, gooey, gloomy surface.

The backbone of gravel roads is a crushed, sedimentary yellow stone, some gray here and there, and common to southwestern Wisconsin terroir. Down in Lafayette County, some folks had the decency to mark buildings and places in their county with the stone’s moniker, but they didn’t go deep enough. No municipality was strong enough to hold the name Yellowstone as a village, rural town or the county itself.

There is a lake, a wildlife area, state park and a church here and there, but few other exposed structures. Beneath the bur oaks, natural and now renewed prairies, are trillions of tons of yellow stone being percolated by annual precipitation.

There was to be a Yellowstone Village down that way, but the railroad bypassed it by and all that remains is a wonderful, three-story, all-purpose limestone building that still serves cattle and one kind man. He holds tight to an old plat map and postal marked envelope that serve no purpose, save a dream.

Still, listen to the roads talk in so many ways when the individual yellow stone fragments slip past one another, pushed in new configurations by tires now with more synthetics than tree latex rubber. But the tires are soft enough to harmonize with the yellow stones. Oh how they must have talked when wheels were steel instead, pressing on those yellow stones.

Listen to the roads talk in so many ways when the individual yellow stone fragments slip past one another, pushed in new configurations by tires now with more synthetics than tree latex rubber.

A farmer’s daughter, most likely blonde, blue-eyed and excessively beautiful, returned with her friend from a drive-in movie. A listener hears the gravel popping but the sound slows. The driver eases his foot from the throttle. Soon the night is quiet and the farmer’s wife knows it’s time to turn on the yard light. Surely something happened. Out of gas? Flat tire? Only the gravel road knows the reason the car is now still, why the music stopped.

When more of the town’s rural roads were gravel, the farmer could watch from a vantage point and see clouds of dust trailing denoting the gasoline truck coming to deliver fuel for a John Deere.

Today, folks don’t know how to drive on yellow stones. Drivers create washboards on an upslope. They cut corners on the one-lane driveways, forcing the road owners to drive on the wrong side just to even the wear of the gravel and the ruts.

Rain gauges were unnecessary. A good farmer could translate rut depth and rainfall in a moment. A really good farmer could do so without seeing the rut but just by feeling the bumps coming through her truck’s seat.

Oh, there are drawbacks with today’s few remaining gravel roads. Gravel is snowplowed off the road surface and goes to waste; has to be replaced; but there are no potholes as in concrete and asphalt roads.

Winter’s ahead. Yes, keep that snow blade up an inch to save the gravel. Plow not before a hard freeze to firm the base. Then listen over the drone of an engine as the blade and yellow stones scream and squeal back about how cold the surface has become. Worry not about sanding and salting. Yellow stone roads create their own friction with wheels of rubber.

Animal tracks are omnipresent. Those with gravel roads have no use for trail cameras. Turkeys, deer, raccoons, coyotes and the neighbor’s dogs and cats, maybe even a cow, leave their prints of trespass. In winter, the prints are in the snow. In summer in the soft gravely surface where finer yellow stone has become dust, sand and clay, there are tracks, too. In spring it’s clumps of mud carried by a deer’s hooves coming from the freshly plowed field. Tracks tell how many, male or female, to a good reader.

The hunter farmer knows who else travels here.

While now uncommon, two gravel lanes sometimes ran parallel, separated by several hundred yards. The coming and going, including the direction, could be deciphered with a simple mute button on a television. The speed registers, too. Just how the driver drives tells if he’s a visitor, a salesman or a carload of village folks coming for supper.

Curse the few drawbacks of limestone quarried, crushed and leveled to cover mud, clay and sand, but these yellow stones, cutting against tires, were pretty good at reading the demeanor, intensions and driving intelligence of those who traveled atop them.

We’ll miss the gravel roads and the Yellowstone and Rubber duo enacted. The new concrete duo, Whining and Screeching, well, we can’t understand what they’re crooning.

Jerry Davis is a freelance outdoors writer, biology professor emeritus at UW-La Crosse and an Honorary Fellow in the Botany Department at UW-Madison. He lives in Barneveld.