1950 ford

If you learned to drive in the Mississippi Delta before 1960 you learned on gravel roads.  Mississippi had a very good system of concrete highways that connected all parts of the State.  No responsible parent would allow their twelve year old to use them for practice.  The cities and towns had a few paved streets, but again, they were off limits to neophyte drivers.  We were stuck with the network of farm to market roads that crisscrossed the countryside.

Did I hear you question a twelve year old driver?  I can explain.  Some of us were a little slow on the uptake and maybe a little uncoordinated, otherwise we would have been driving at nine like most of the farm kids that road the big yellow buses.  Farm life meant early responsibility.  I have a lady friend who was driving six miles into town to pick up tractor parts before she was ten. She took her Girl Scout troop for a joy ride at midnight when she was twelve.  No one thought anything about it.

Learning to drive on gravel presented opportunities as well as challenges.  The good news was that the entire Delta is flat as a flounder and the roads followed section lines for the most part.  You could see another car well over a mile away.  The bad news is that driving on gravel is an acquired art.  For starters gravel is unstable; it tends to roll around under you tires.  Secondly, in spite of Mississippi buying more grader blades than the rest of the nation combined.  Gravel roads soon adopt the surface features of a washboard. Both the instability and the washboard effect can be overcome by going fast enough to allow your car or pickup to plane out like a ski boat.

dirt road

You begin to get a little relief from the sliding and wash boarding at about 35 MPH; it really smooth’s out around 60MPH and at 80 or better it’s like driving on velvet.  It was best to practice this technique when driving with a friend or alone.  Parents were not as concerned about comfort as they might have been.  We, on the other hand, felt a lot more at ease with a smooth ride and we very quickly learned how to handle a vehicle tearing across the county with WLAC blaring Randy’s Record Shop from the radio.

Yes, accidents happened, usually through no fault of our own.  Cars tend to become airborne if you hit a railroad embankment at 80MPH.  That’s unfortunate, but since there were few, if any trees and a scarcity of light poles the ensuing wrecks, while spectacular to a uniformed bystander,  were for the most part non-fatal.  You could fly out into a cotton field without hitting anything until you ran out of momentum.

Most of us reached adulthood and moved to locations with all paved roads, but every time I go back to the Delta I try to give it a go on one of the few gravel roads that remain.


3 thoughts on “Driving on a Gravel Road by Tom Lawrence

  1. Alan Kruse

    Tom, I’m from Iowa but know exactly where you’re coming from!! I grew up on gravel roads and learned to “learn the road” at an early age. We always drove fast on them. You learn to read the crown and grade of the road and the grade early on. I always carried two spare tires in the trunk because I couldn’t afford new tires and always ran throw aways. Lost tires many times at those speeds but knew it would happen and knew what to do about it. I would have carried three but couldn’t get them in. Always drove at least 70 mph. Roads in mid Iowa are extremely straight, flat and 1 mile sections. Later moved to Minneapolis to save my job but found that city people can’t drive 35 mph without crashing… What has happened to us?

  2. Tom Rousseau

    I grew up on gravel roads in the Delta and in northeast Mississippi, Starkville in particular. The single photograph of the gravel highway reminds me of the State Highway 17 between US Highway 49 and one I can’t remember. My aunt and uncle lived in Leland so I drove the road regularly. Gravel roads were lots of fun at 50 miles per hour; especially sitting in the bed of a two-ton truck.

    1. PorchScene Staff

      We have found that the faster you go, the smoother the ride!

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