A Journey Through Time And Miles of Mud

'You'll have to leave the truck at the office and come to the house on foot," Barbara told me over the phone. "The lane's impassable."

Matt, Abby, and I were going to the farm to see her new puppy. Barbara lives only three miles away - six minutes by car under normal conditions. But it was mud season, and her two-mile-long farm lane is unpaved.

As I left the tarmac of Route 213 and turned onto the lane, I hesitated. Before us stretched a morass. I wasn't sure I could negotiate even the half-mile to the office.

"You can do it, Mom," Matt said with 13-year-old assurance. "Give her some gas."

It was gluey, an Eastern Shore Yukon Trail. We skidded and slewed around, but we made it. By the time we pulled into the gravel parking space, however, the white truck looked like it had been dipped in caramel.

We parked and set out on foot for the house, picking our way on the grassy shoulder along the lane. It, too, was riven where vehicles, struggling to get through, had taken to the sides. It was only beneath the hedgerows that remnants of green still held the earth together. Abby, wearing boots, slogged along in the 18-inch deep ruts in the middle of the corrugated lane while Matt and I, shod impractically in sneakers, kept to the briars.

The farther we got from the main road, the more we felt as though we were going back in time. The trials of travel when virtually no roads were paved and the list of conveyance options was short (foot, horse, or carriage) quickly became reality. The trip that we normally made in a few minutes was going to take us nearly an hour. It was suddenly not surprising that the first commercial coaches between Philadelphia and New York, launched in 1766, took two days to make the journey - in good weather.

It was surprising, though, that despite the difficulties of travel, the colonists were so peripatetic. They visited friends and relatives - usually for weeks at a time - made trips to conduct business and exchange goods. The mails went regularly from one post box to another. Kitty Knight, who owned a tavern here frequented by George Washington, made four or five trips from Baltimore to Philadelphia each year, thereby maintaining her social connection to that glittering society. The condition of the roads, so dependent on weather, sometimes impeded, but did not deter our forebears. Life went bustling about with courage and grace, despite the mud.

By 1800, only a few streets had been paved. Georgetown, on the fringes of Washington, had not. Abigail Adams described the town as "a quagmire after every rain." She had come from Baltimore to spend the last few months of John Adams's only term as president with him at the unfinished president's house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Today, the same trip from Baltimore to Washington takes little more than an hour by car. As we pelt along at 60 m.p.h., surrounded by innumerable others on the highway, we cannot appreciate the mud, the discomfort, and the isolation of that trip nearly 200 years ago. But, on foot in the misty quiet of a quagmire on an isolated Maryland farm, the imagining is easier.

At Barbara's house, we oohed and aahed over the puppy, Grace, who will eventually grow into a guard dog for 300 sheep, a time-honored means of flock protection. By the time we left for home, the sun had set and a chill, soaking rain had begun to fall. It got colder. And darker. Two miles began to seem like 20.

As we trudged toward the paved highway and 20th century convenience, I thought of George Washington and John Adams and all those who had endured weeks and months on roads such as this in order to bring a new nation into existence. Both the traveling and the work took determination, stamina, and incredible patience. Although they had experienced nothing else, in either transportation or government, they imagined more: paved roads, and a nation of people who could build and move forward without losing sight of the past.

Engulfed in 20th century technology, we often forget the sacrifices of those who have gone before; we take for granted the extraordinary conveniences of our time. The words "mud season" can mean little to those who are surrounded by pavement.

Just as I was wishing we had not ventured out, Jimmy, the farm manager, came along in the antique four-wheel-drive truck, ferrying two farm workers to their vehicles parked near the main road.

"Get in," he called, grinning.

He had stopped the splattered truck in the muck, a gesture of purest gallantry. The children and I clambered over the tailgate and clung to the truck's rusted sides as we careened along, churning a wake of mud behind us. At the office, we all got out and prepared to make the last bit of the way ourselves - back out to the modern world of paved highways, telephones, indoor plumbing, and central heating, all built on the imaginations and struggles of our predecessors.

Barbara and her husband, Bill, do manage to leave the farm during mud season, but like any journey, it takes planning and time. We'll go visit them again as soon as the lane firms up.

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