Cruisin’ those nasty old backroads

By Steve Estes

Strictly Drivel

Someday, someone will probably write a book that includes homespun tales of traveling through Big Pine, the sights and sounds of the islands, the people and the places.

I hope they devote a chapter to moving around the island without using US 1.

It is possible to go from one end of this island (excluding Ship’s Way and connected streets) to the other without getting on US 1. You just have to be willing to either take it very slow, or sacrifice your suspension to do it on a routine basis.

I’m not the only one around here that drives a light, high-off-the-ground SUV. And I know I’m not the only one that slips around on the back roads of the island to avoid the mass of confusion that is Big Pine on US 1.

I’ll go half a mile out of the way to avoid the remote possibility of a left-hand turn anywhere but the light. The way I figure it, if I use an extra 10 minutes bouncing across a back road, at least I’m not waiting for traffic to clear enough to turn left, and then only if I leave a little bit of rubber on the pavement.

But as I travel the byways of Big Pine, I notice how steadily more deteriorated the road bed becomes.

I’m no engineer, but I refuse to believe that normal erosion causes all those knee-deep ruts and ditches in the road. Those things get bigger because vehicles are traveling over them.

Again, high-off-the-ground conveyances have a distinct advantage when using these not-meant-for-travel thoroughfares, but I have seen normal sedans make a valiant attempt.

Take for instance a few weekends ago, before the massive exodus of snowbirds began and making a left turn became a remote possibility in less than 10 minutes.

I was coming out of Sands Subdivision onto Ixora and across the gravel bed that is referred to as Lytton’s Way, heading for Wilder, and from there to Key Deer via the same road(?). In front of me was this low-slung Honda Civic.

Now the designers of such sedans probably didn’t anticipate that they would be used in anything remotely resembling an off-road fashion. But anyone driving the back roads of Big Pine understands that using those thoroughfares is tantamount to doing a little off-road driving.

The car sat very low to the ground to start with, and was traveling about 20 miles per hour when it turned onto the gravel section. The first 50 yards or so of  the road aren’t seriously pitted, but after that one best be prepared for a bouncy ride. It was obvious to me that this driver was a relative newcomer to the island. He really wasn’t quite prepared.

The little sedan came up on the first  series of serious potholes and went for the brake pedal, swinging his wheels left to try and take advantage of the relatively more stable road shoulder. He was only partly successful and I heard the axle bang against the cap rock that had been uncovered. I’m sure the driver cringed because I did.

Though he successfully navigated the first set, the second, and yet more deep series of potholes was looming. He hit the brake pedal a little harder and creeped slowly over the ditches, accelerating out just a little too early and falling into the next set of holes with an audible smack from the front end.

He tried driving on the right shoulder, only to have the road fall away again, so he swerved back left. I had to admire his tenacity, even if I did believe he’d need a new frame before it was over.

We proceeded along the road (?), finally coming to a set of potholes even the Jeep wouldn’t traverse without rocking like a raft in white water. Despite his best efforts at driving slowly, the little sedan just didn’t have the ground clearance and dug front-end first into the dust, then slapped back-end last into the dust to get through the holes.

I sort of felt sorry for the driver and his paint job, which wasn’t that bad when he started, but there was little I could do. The worst part of the road was behind us and Wilder was just a short distance ahead.

The next couple of holes were spaced just far enough apart that a car with a good turning circle could take the first on one side, drive perpendicular to the road and take the next on the other side, sort of straddling the holes.

The small sedan navigated those with relative ease and tried to do the next set the same way. The spacing wasn’t quite right on that one, and the rear wheels dropped into the hole, almost bringing the car to a halt.

Again, I had to admire the driver’s tenacity. He wasn’t ready to give up, clawed his way out of the pothole and set sights on Wilder.

The final leg of the trip is relatively uneventful as the major potholes dissipate into a series of rolling ditches, and then Wilder opens out before you. I kept a tasteful distance from the car as it negotiated the holes and ditches along Lytton’s Way. When it reached Wilder, the sedan turned left heading to US 1, I went across to the next leg of the unofficial cross-island road(?) to make my way to Key Deer.

Since Blue Heron Park sits on that road, it gets graded once in a while and isn’t in near as bad a shape as the other legs. It proved relatively easy to traverse and when I came up to Key Deer, made the right hand turn that took me home.

Yes, before the anal-retentives out there realize that I could have done all that and still not made a left-hand turn (I know of at least one of my detractors with no life outside the end of his nose that will comment exactly that way), sometimes I like to check the condition of the alternative route to travel our island.

When that next major traffic jam hits, Fourth of July or Fantasy Fest, I’ll have a good idea how much of a beating my Jeep will take moving around the island.

Until then, I’m glad I drive a vehicle with a substantial ground clearance.

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