Seasonal roads are defined as one-lane dirt roads not maintained during the winter. They generally do not have many houses on them, but they do function as connectors suturing farmers to their fields, neighbors to neighbors, or two more-well-traveled roads to each other. Some are a section of a regularly maintained road. Some serve as access to storage facilities, electrical stations, and communication facilities. Some access hunting lands and camping and recreational areas. Some go through state or public lands and are used to patrol the lands and keep them safe from illegal activities such as dumping, etc. Some go by cemeteries and allow people to visit and honor their dead. They can be abandoned roadways as people change where they want to go or when towns fade. But always, the seasonal road touches the land in a gentler way.
Their signs read “No maintenance December 1 through April 1,” “November 15 through May 1,” “November 15 through April 15,” or some other combinations of winter months. They are left alone in winter, perhaps like hibernating animals to rest. And perhaps if we stretch our imaginations, we might imagine them using the solitude of winter to recover.
In Steuben County, seasonal roads are maintained by its 32 townships. The ones I most frequently walked were in the townships of Bath, Howard, Urbana, Avoca, Wheeler, Pulteney, and Prattsburg, although my walking companion and I have traveled nearly every seasonal road in the county.
Why do I choose to walk these roads? The answer is that there is no other activity that allows access to and an awareness of our environment like walking. Walking slows the thoughts to the pace of meditation and mindfulness. There is probably no other activity that allows us the ease of connecting mind, body, and place. In the words of Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000 3), “walking is an amateur act,” “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.”
Seasonal roads offer advantages over the wilderness trail. A seasonal road generally has a smoother, more even surface, which allows for a safer gait. On many wild trails, there are obstacles like roots, fallen limbs, and soggy or slippery spots that distract the walker from the surroundings. To spend effort watching every step is not especially conducive to reflection. Seasonal roads offer an easier path to observe the environment, and while the surroundings may not be pristine wilderness (if such places really exist at all), the seasonal roads provide more intimate contact with plants, wildlife, weather events, and people in limited ways—in short, encounters with all of human experiences.
In Land We Trust:
Irish Hill and O’Brien Roads
Irish Hill and O’Brien roads make two sides of a triangle that climbs Rattlesnake Hill and passes through Moss Hill State Forest. Deeply wooded and lined with old stone fences, the roads carry the legacy of the Irish families who settled and farmed the land in the 1800s. About two feet high and, in some spots, crumbling, shrunken, toppled, or sunken into the ground, old stone fences are plentiful along the back roads. Most of the stone fences of the region were made by farmers who cleared their fields every spring, perhaps wondering why stones “grew from the soil like potatoes” (Allport 1990 59). The freezing and thawing of groundwater heaved up rocks from the soil, so clearing the fields was a constant task. While some fences functioned as animal pens, most of them marked land boundaries. The old fences provided a certain order, and townships evolved rules regarding their height, location, and maintenance (Snow 2008). A hundred years ago New York had 95,364 miles of stone fences (Allport 1990 17–18). Today, who knows how many remain, but they are all over Steuben County, and we see them on many seasonal roads. Some are made from flat slate stones and look compressed and compacted, but most are made of field stones, no bigger than could be easily lifted. These laid walls, as they are called, have a more orderly appearance than those known as rubble walls, which are composed of stones of all sizes and shapes.
Also wondrous about the old stone fences are the creatures that make their homes among the rocks—especially the chipmunks who den and burrow in the nooks and crevices. They scurry over the rocks with their cheek pouches puffed out full of seeds, seemingly busy to the point of frenzy. Solitary rodents, chipmunk populations fluctuate widely from year to year, although biologists are unsure why this occurs. They live about three years, sleep deeply in winter but are not hibernators, raise young in the spring, and can be quite aggressive when defending their territory. Perched on a high point, chipmunks will vocalize or cluck like birds to mark their territory. When they bend their tails sideways, back, then forward in an S-shaped wave, they are supposedly gesturing an alarm warning. I once considered them cute, until I learned they devoured young birds and bird eggs (and apparently have a very heavy impact on song bird populations). Then they lost some of their appeal. Something about a creature’s eating habits can evoke a change in their attractiveness.
The Pulteney Highlands:
Ford, Baughman, Sturdevant, and Pizura Roads
In the northeast corner of Steuben County, the Pulteney Highlands provide seasonal roads that offer loops. Some of the roads overlook Italy Valley, some overlook Keuka Lake, and others run up and down the hillsides. Several cross the Drumm and the Hawk View farms with their long stretches of corn and hay fields interspersed with woods. The sign in the front yard of the Drumm’s three-story farmhouse reads, “Dairy of Distinction,” and it is surrounded by seasonal flowers. There are no rusty tractors sitting idly in tall grass; there are no run-down sheds; there is nothing shabby about the place. The lawn is always trimmed, and the flower gardens are full of color. Everything about the farm is as tidy as a completed crossword puzzle.
Even though I never worked on a farm and have no real experience of farm life, I admire farming just as I do any occupation that involves real labor, commitment, and a close relationship to a place. There is something fundamentally appealing about family farming, and I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s decades of praise for farm life. He presents the small farm as the means of making a worthy living producing food and forming essential connections and commitments to our land (Berry 1977).
The farmland along the roadside is planted in corn, alfalfa, hay grass, or clover, and throughout the year, we watch the changing textures of the fields: dark manured soil, pungent and tangy, turns to snow-covered and then to muddy melts. After plowing, the fields awaken in new green and slowly ripen to lush emerald summer green. The corn stalks wave banners, and the alfalfa whistles at the wind. The fields turn golden, then dry to flaxen, and after harvest the cycle begins again.
Woods border the fields. Oaks, hickory, maples, and beech interspersed with patches of evergreen make a multi-textured forest. A row of hawthorn (Crataegus species) creates a high hedge, behind which grows young alders. Several fallow fields overgrown in shrubs have both natives and non-natives. The most common, the invasive autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), add their troublesome beauty. Multiflora rose has luscious white-briar flowers in summer and in winter the bare branches arch like an elegant fountains pouring forth red water. Gray dogwoods (Cornus foemina ssp racemosa) tint the fields maroon in fall, and staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta) accents with burnt amber spikes. One summer the long blades of a cucumber magnolia (Magnolia accuminata), the only native magnolia in the region, added a tropical touch to the verge.
The roads’ narrative celebrates and honors the rural nature and regionalism of place – the place I call home. Its local color illustrates the ways we connect to place, to our environment and to each other. And while the details are regional, the issues particular to Steuben County are our national issues as well. It is my hope that the good people of the region whose compassion and wisdom have created this wondrous place will prevail and thatt the region’s history of hardworking individualism, the striving for culture and intellectual growth, and the pursuing of a safe and healthy environment will continue.
“With a naturalist’s eye and a poet’s heart, Mary Hood re-animates a sense of place in Walking Seasonal Roads.”—Edward A. Dougherty, author of Pilgrimage to a Gingko Tree
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Take a Walk on a Seasonal Road is the only guide available that introduces walkers to the joy of discovering seasonal roads, with 235 seasonal roads in Steuben County included. Begin a new walking adventure by purchasing a copy today.
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excerpted from Walking Seasonal Roads, by Mary A. Hood, published in 2012 by Syracuse University Press