What are symbols of progress in a civilization? I think you could make an argument for asphalt. We build paved roads to provide access and open up areas for economic and residential development. Given that asphalt is a marker for progress, why do I love getting off the asphalt and onto a dirt road? I even bought a vehicle largely because it was better for driving on dirt roads than a standard car.
There are a number of reasons that I love driving on a dirt. My existential reason is that I do not consider asphalt a symbol of good progress. Even though dirt roads also represent development; it feels different. It does not feel as intrusive. Dirt roads have to conform more to the landscape rather than tame the surroundings for a gentle grade. To me, paved roads often represent the unfettered, unconsidered, and harmful intrusion of humans on our landscapes. I recognize the need for paved roads and I use them. However, driving on a dirt road gives me the emotional satisfaction of entering into a more untrammeled terrain.
You also have to go slower on a dirt road. You can comfortably roll down the windows and occasionally look at the surrounding scenery without risking an accident. I noticed this last week when I decided to go over Indian Grave Gap between Rocky and Tray Mountains in Northeast Georgia. I was taking the long way home from camping on the paved GA 75. I knew that I could take a combination of FS 283 and FS 79 to get over the mountains instead. So I took a left turn.
First, there was the exhilaration of fording a stream to begin the journey proper. It was a small stream, but was still not an everyday driving experience. The grade after the stream is steep and the road is rutted. You have to go slow, but you can roll your windows down comfortably. You are the only one there and you can stop just to enjoy the view. The leaves were still in there budding phase and so there were views of the surrounding range.
There were also pull offs at impromptu camp sites (not something I necessarily endorse). There was one in particular that afforded stunning views of the neighboring Brier Creek Bald and Hanson Mountains to the east. It was not quite the same as hiking to a summit. However, there is the same basic feeling of, “I’ve worked a little harder for this and it means a little more.” I love driving in the mountains in any capacity, but the views that you work for always seem better.
Finally, there is a sense of adventure that comes with driving down a dirt road. You are going where relatively few go. My curiosity is piqued when I see a dirt road. What is down there? Could I find something unique that few people know about? Sometimes it will be a bust. I have been down plenty of dirt roads that end up just being pine stands planted by timber companies. However, you might by able to enjoy a great riverside drive in relative solitude within a heavily visited national park, or find an abandoned bridge, or you could stumble upon a ghost mill town.
A dirt road holds the potential for a small adventure in our civilized lives. It is a chance to see something new or rediscover something old. Even if others know about it, getting off the pavement facilitates this sense of discovery because it is harder to get to. It is harder to find. It feels as if you are driving into and maybe off of the far edges of the map.