Vermont’s fifth season, mud season, is here in all of its rutted and sloppy glory.
But if you’re among those struggling to keep your car on the road and your muffler in one piece, we’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: For an increasing number of back road residents, mud season isn’t so bad anymore.
Twenty-some years ago, the Herald of Randolph published a front page photo of an incredibly muddy stretch of road that had apparently swallowed a car all the way up to its roof. In the photo, a bewildered motorist looks on as a local tow truck crew tries to hook onto it.
Readers who noted that the paper came out on April 1 might have recognized the photo as a cleverly staged joke. But most people bought the idea of losing an entire car in the mud.
“This photograph was believed. When people saw it they had no question it was a true story,” says photographer Bob Eddy, who was responsible for the image.
In reality, the top of a car had been cut off and placed on the mud. It fooled most people then, but Eddy doesn’t think the photo would be as believable today.
“I don’t know if it’s because cars are lighter now or because the roads are better, but it just seems that it’s not quite as bad as it used to be,” he says.
Lighter front-wheel and all-wheel drive cars have made a difference, but that’s just a small part of why on many dirt roads mud season is much tamer than it once was.
Brent Smith has been working on Groton’s back roads for 30 years. He can point out places that used to be so muddy his crew’s trucks couldn’t get through.
Smith is one of the few elected road commissioners in the state. Voters have put him in office 21 times. He must be doing something right. He says he hasn’t had a complaint about road conditions in mud season for years.
According to Smith, mud season hasn’t been banished in Groton, but it’s been tamed. The town follows state codes and standards that have reduced it to a minor irritant.
Not surprisingly, drainage is the key and the key to drainage is in the layers of gravel used below and on the surface of the road.
Coarser gravel underneath lets water drain through it – and finer gravel on top helps shed water.
And it’s not just dug out of a pit or river bank.
The gravel is processed using stone crushed to the right size and shape, mixed with sand and dirt in the right proportions, then applied correctly. In some cases, a fabric is put down to keep the layers from mixing.
These ideas aren’t new, but they’re slow to be adopted.
“The engineering has been there for a long, long time. The cultural change is another thing all together,” says David Antone, director of The Vermont Local Roads Program at Saint Michael’s College.
Antone says the problem with doing it right is it’s expensive — at least in the short term. As a result, many town have yet to update how they deal with mud season’s travails.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a majority, but in the rural areas a large contingent of towns that haven’t made that step. But each year we get a couple more converts,” he says.
The resistance lies with concerns over how to pay for the materials and work involved in improving back roads. Some towns are also far from a source of processed gravel.
The Local Roads Program is funded by the federal government and the state Agency of Transportation.
Antone says that for years, the program taught highway crews how to engineer better back roads, but they were leaving out some important players.
“We haven’t taught it to their supervisors, their select boards. And we haven’t approached the gravel road reconstruction from a budgeting standpoint,” he says.
For the first time this year the program has created a class on budgeting for the improvements and it’s involving select boards in the discussion. Antone says everyone, including residents, needs to understand the value of adopting better standards.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a town and they’re calling me because they spent $80,000 on a road repair and its only been two years and mud season is just like it used to be,” he says. “What that does is stop road improvements from happening in that town because taxpayers are saying, ‘It’s no good to spend that money because it doesn’t do any good.”
Antone says towns are on board once they realize the problem is manageable and they do the math on what they’re actually spending to deal with the same spots year after year.
As a result, more people are adding mud season to the list of things in Vermont that aren’t what they used to be.