When the road is off

It occurs to me, for all the rugged off-roading we see in television ads, we never see a vehicle driving down a gravel road in northern Minnesota just before the frost thaws. There’s a reason for that.

These magical pickup trucks and all-terrain sport utility vehicles seem to work just fine spraying a perfect wave of virginal mud on a hairpin turn. They look great climbing some craggy incline at maximum RPM. But these rigs never have to slow down to 7 miles per hour so the driver doesn’t spill his coffee and break an axle at the same time. And that, my friends, reflects the gap between fantasy and reality. If you want to impress me, show me a car that glides over a Minnesota dirt road in springtime.

It’s mud season in northern Minnesota, a routine matter for some of us. This time always reminds of the way good comes with bad and vice versa. If you want ice to become water you must be be prepared for the results. For the 1,500 miles of dirt roads in St. Louis County, and the hundreds of addition miles in adjacent Itasca County, spring becomes a crucible for shocks, struts, and travel mugs.

Minnesotans want nothing more than spring. Our winters are harsh and stay way past their welcome. So when spring comes, when the snow melts, we want to roll our windows down and drive. Unfortunately, we learn quickly that actually doing that welcomes a bucket’s worth of mud water into the cab.

My wife calls our little township road “the worst car wash.” The last mile of our daily commute resembles the rainbow spray at the automatic car wash. Only this isn’t a mix of detergent and car wax, it’s a slurry of slush, gravel, sand, deer scat and frog pee. It holds the singular benefit of being free. 

The ground freezes from the top down and thaws out that way, too. That means that just as the uppermost layer of dirt turns to mud, it has no where to go. Roads become like kitchen tile floors after grandma drops a moist casserole: disappointing and dangerous in equal turns.

St. Louis County even issued a statement a couple weeks ago reminding dirt road travelers that they are, for all practical purposes, on their own. It read, “… due to the weather we’ve been having and what’s in the forecast, there’s little we can do for the foreseeable future.” Any attempt to grade the road or add gravel when the frost is still in the ground will only create more road damage.

Furthermore, the county warns that frost heaves have wreaked havoc on culverts, causing washouts on several gravel roads. Roads near Side Lake and Greaney have been hit hard. Here in Itasca County where I live, the Forest Highway has been a real challenge. If this keeps up, motorists may find themselves being detoured, which in the country sometimes means having to bring extra gas for the back half of the drive.

Here we confront a problem that could be good for us if we opened our minds. See, it’s a problem that can only be solved with patience. Oh, how we hate problems like that. You can’t call and complain. You can’t buy a product. No one is exempt. It will stay exactly like this until the ground temperature melts the frost, allowing the water to drain and the mud to dry. 

So we have to plan ahead. Drive slower. We must learn the complex Frogger-like zig-zag path to avoid the worst of the potholes. And we have to become comfortable with the fact that our cars and trucks will look like the inside of a septic tank until the Fishing Opener. 

That is, if we’re lucky. And let’s face it, we usually aren’t.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, May 1, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Joe musich says

    Excellent reality takedown of the ridiculous truck advertising that only seems to compound in difficult times. It is as if the the answer to the age old questions when facing extreme adversity, “what can I do ? what should I do ?” Is to buy a truck. I love the ones where the car is hanging on a mountain cliff. They are all road runner cartoons taking the driver out the Wiley role and convincing them although it usually is him that they are actually the invincible super bird. 7 in the morning the neighbor turns the key on his rumbler fir the four block drive to 35w which’s is plowed and gritted by magicians at any snowfall. All I need is trump turning squealing out rumble bumble trumple behind the wheel as he shifts back and forth in a photo op. And don’t remind me of the ridiculous truck convoys of recent times.

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