As a Masshole, I have not earned (and will never earn) the right to publicly complain about winter weather here in Vacationland, lest I be called out by some actual Mainer as “a flatlander” who doesn’t “know what winter is”. Truth be told (and chastisers be damned), very little distinguishes southern Maine winters from those in Greater Boston. March is the exception. It is traditionally the most difficult month for my flatlander/Michigander wife and me. Down in Boston (and out in Kalamazoo), there might be a late-winter storm or two but signs of spring abound in March: the inevitable melt, up-creeping temperatures, budding trees… Here in New Gloucester, we don’t see those things until April, and with each passing year that proves a harder pill to swallow.
There is one advantage to this annual winter extension, however: The generous slather of ice and snow keeps our 600-yard dirt driveway smooth and comely. Indeed, it never drives so well as during the months of January, February and March. It’s supposed to snow another foot tonight (March 12), meaning we can expect to enjoy burnished, aesthetically pleasing driveway conditions throughout the month. When we thank heaven around here, this is what passes for a small favor.
Reared in the suburbs, I knew nothing of dirt driveways and their upkeep prior to our landing here in the spring of 1998. Like any new homeowner, I learned these ropes on the job.
Come April, when the snow melts and the driveway goes all boggy and pitted, we arranged to get the driveway “dragged”. This is a misnomer of sorts. Once dry enough, our driveway is normally treated with something called a York Rake, a big metal rake rigidly attached to the front end of a pick-up, as a plow would be. Five or six passes and all the potholes are smoothed out. They eventually come back, of course, but not until fall. Then it snows, the plow fills all the holes with what becomes ice, and it drives like a dream.
Our driveway wasn’t built properly, or so says the guy who built it (the former owner). The subgrade construction was dashed off, apparently, meaning there isn’t enough soil and materials to allow for a proper re-grading, which would better fight the pothole issue. Short of rebuilding the whole thing, we just have to live with it.
I didn’t know all this at the start. When we first moved here, I did a lot more work on the driveway — thinking this is what responsible homeowners did. I had a pile of gravel off in the woods (another legacy of the former owner, a landscape contractor) that I would use to periodically fill potholes. Prior to that, I had undertaken a fairly ambitious corduroy regimen, i.e. the laying of logs in boggy potholes (perpendicular to traffic) to create a series of ad hoc, inlaid wooden buttresses. Eventually they are mushed into the soil and stay there, at grade.
This corduroy strategy was first hatched the day we moved here: April 1, 1998, almost exactly 20 years ago. It was unseasonably warm that day, some 88 degrees, and our new driveway was a mushy spring mess. There was one spot in particular where the moving truck would surely have become mired. In something of a panic, I recalled British General Edward Braddock, who oversaw the building of several corduroy roads through the swamps of Maryland and Northern Virginia during his French and Indian War campaigns. Several modern roadways down there are still known as “Braddock Road” — State Route 620 in Virginia and Maryland Route 49, for example. It’s also a subway stop on the D.C. Metro (in Alexandria).
In any case, armed only with this flimsy, cocktail-party handle on the actual engineering of corduroy roads, I built one in the 30 minutes before the moving truck showed up. Worked like a fucking charm. It’s still there, sunken completely and solidly into the dirt road, exactly at grade, just at that spot where each spring water gathers and would otherwise bog down all through traffic. I turned this same trick again, a few years later, in a different spot.
Never underestimate the power of a liberal arts education.
Some 7 years after we moved in and still flush with this success, I resolved to essentially corduroy the whole driveway, or at least all the places where potholes traditionally turned up each spring. Our 10 acres here are well wooded; I had plenty of raw materials. I spent two weekends doing the entire thing, all 600 yards of it.
Turns out the pothole genre is more diverse than I had realized. What’s more, there’s an important difference between the two primary types of pothole here: While mushy depression potholes are perfectly suited to the corduroy treatment, hard-matter potholes — where dirt hollows out to a layer of gravelly rock into which logs will not settle — are not. Or so I came to learn.
With some of the bigger potholes of this hard-matter type I pivoted to an experimental method whereby I dug a channel for a big log right down the center of the pothole (aligned with traffic). Then I filled in around it, smothering the bastard with gravel — not unlike a chili dog. That spring and all that summer, the driveway improvements proved a mixed bag of obstacles, too many of them protruding and not ever settling to grade — an issue that came to a head the next winter, when snow/plowing recommenced.
Ironically, just as my children grew to an age where they might have represented a useful road crew, I turned my attentions away from the driveway to more pressing matters, like the beating back of an encroaching forest and the murder of home-invading squirrels. The driveway and its potholes were left to their seasonal cycles. Basically, we plow in the winter, drag in the spring, and try to take pleasure in those rare moments when passage is both smooth and comely. Like today.
What of Braddock? His road-building acumen was initially hailed as a major military advance — a way for big, traditional armies to campaign and maintain supply lines in a virgin wilderness. In July of 1755, having used these roads to pursue his French and Indian enemies into the Western Pennsylvania backcountry, Braddock and his men were ambushed at Fort Necessity, near what would become the frontier hamlet of Farmington. The general was mortally wounded and borne from the field by his aides de camp, Col. Nicholas Meriwether and a 21-year-old major in the Virginia militia, George Washington. Braddock left the young colonial his battle sash, which Washington is said to have deployed as part of his formal battle dress throughout the Revolutionary War. It remains on display to this day at Mount Vernon.
In 1804, human remains believed to be Braddock’s (on account of dress buttons particular to British major generals) were found buried, west of Farmington, by a crew of road workers. They were exhumed and reburied on a nearby knoll, though some of the bones were said to have found their way to the Peale Museum in Philadelphia — before P.T. Barnum purchased all its contents and moved them to his own museum in New York City. An 1864 fire destroyed that building, and all its contents — though a section of Braddock’s vertebrae reportedly resides in the Walter Reed Hospital Collection at Bethesda, Maryland.
Back in Farmington, atop the General’s final resting place, a formal marker was erected and dedicated to Braddock in 1913.