Paving over America's country roads

One iconic symbol of America's rural poverty has been the dirt road, especially in Appalachia. Despite decades of paving over these back roads in the name of progress, many are still dusty washboard surfaces.

Credit: Kenneth Garrett/
Fall colors along a Virginia dirt road.

Back in the ’60s when poverty in the mountains of Appalachia was the target of a “war,” one symbol of backwardness was the unpaved rural road. John Denver may have romanticized these backways with the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” but to many, they were simply dirty and dusty, usually with a washboard surface that often led to a dead end.

A national campaign to turn dirt roads into asphalt avenues of prosperity has indeed boosted incomes, mainly in the Appalachian states from Alabama to Pennsylvania. But I was surprised last week in a visit near Asheville, North Carolina, to find a road crew widening and blacktopping a road that should have seen asphalted long ago.

The crew, made up of one local family on contract to the state, was professional enough. And yet they were also all too willing to help residents fix up their driveways or put up a berm in return for giving up a few feet of private land. Trade-offs like that reflect the old ways of getting things done in these parts of Appalachia, sort of like the way that selling moonshine was once a liquid facilitator for doing business.

North Carolina, in particular, has tried to get rid of its remaining unpaved roads – mainly in the hilly western part – since 1989. It has gone from having more than 12,000 miles of dirt roads to under 5,000. The pace has been slow because of environmental concerns and because many residents either don’t want hard-surface roads for privacy reasons or don’t want to give up parcels of land for widening.

Nationwide, unpaved roads have been cut nearly in half since 1960, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That’s quite an achievement, but a task still not complete. In 2008, the US had 1.3 million miles of unpaved roads.

The SUV became popular two decades ago in part on the myth that they would be used on rough roads. But today it mainly glides along on paved superhighways, driven more often by people living in McMansions than tar-papered shacks.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed his War on Poverty legislation, he did it in the hills of Appalachia, riding in a caravan of limousines down dirt roads to the run-down house of a very poor Kentucky family. Today many of those roads are well paved, although it is still easy to find poverty farther up the hills and hollows.

Removing the “third-worldness” from America’s landscape has been a long slog. Even the 2009 economic stimulus package with money for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects remains a work in progress.

One state, Alabama, still prides itself as having fewer dirt roads than Mississippi, a perspective that makes this symbol of poverty all too relative and a matter of proximity. The nation, it seems, still believes that the road to paradise is paved with, well, pavement.

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