Backroad Grace


A few gravel roads in the Minnesota Arrowhead end at the edge of the wilderness. Motorized travel simply stops. Magical places worth savoring appear. And the journey to them is an education in backroad grace.
One of the roads I use often is a former railroad from the logging heyday. It’s not much wider than a single lane to begin with, but it narrows even more in some parts. A grandmother pine shoulders one side and a greenstone boulder bottlenecks the thoroughfare on the other. Add some snowbank and the road pinches together like a clogged artery.
Road rage doesn’t cut it on a road like that because it’s infused with smell-the-roses transport. In summer, if a vehicle from behind appears to be in a rush, the tortoise in front pulls over to let the jackrabbit pass.
In winter, that’s not always possible. Vehicles inevitably meet coming from opposite directions and one or the other voluntarily backs up, finds a wider spot and the other eases by. I’ve offered and accepted my share of give-and-take many times. And with that come riches. The final day of deer season is just one example.
Blaze orange clothing visible through an oncoming windshield is a pretty good indicator of who’s been in the woods looking for deer. I could tell that the driver in a truck coming toward me was feeling chatty because his driver-side window started going down when we got near. By the time we stopped, the snowbanks had cozied-up our fenders and we could have reached out to adjust each other’s mirrors.
The guy inside the truck tilted his hat back then pulled the brim firmly down—a most certain invitation for a story. I told him I’d seen tracks but no deer attached to them. If nothing else, I knew where they were when I wasn’t around. He said he’d seen deer in his yard after dark. At least his motion-sensor floodlight helped remind him of what they look like.
He segued impressively to another story about a hunter in his group who slept in that morning and was late into the woods. My storytelling buddy watched from his deer stand as this sluggard practically ran uphill trying to overtake daytime. But about halfway up, the guy ran out of gas. He stopped, sucked wind like a turbine, then leaned on the trunk of a dead birch. Moments later, the tree pushed over, crashed to the ground and spooked every deer in the forest.
By then, an approaching truck slowed as it came up behind him. At the same time, I realized one was closing in on me. Both stopped and waited patiently. So, we wished each other well, shifted into gear and kept the line moving.
The next driver-side window went down. And as I jockeyed to a stop, I caught the scene behind me in my mirror: Two trucks stopped. Two hat brims nodding stories to each other through their open windows.


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