Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Who is looking to preserve New Jersey's dirt and gravel roads?

Earlier this month we saw the very successful running of the 7th Annual "Hell of Hunterdon, a challenging, semi-competitive ride that features some of the most beautiful, scenic roads in Hunterdon as well as Somerset and Mercer Counties.  Modeled after the Spring Classics of Europe, the main feature of this ride are the numerous sections of dirt and gravel roads that offer an extra challenge for the riders.

A cyclist's eye view of the 2009 running.  Photo - Hell of Hunterdon.

However, dirt and unpaved roads are also called, "unimproved roads" and engineers hate things that are unimproved or not quite up to modern AASHTO standards.  Near the Hell of Hunterdon route, Long Hill Road in Hillsborough was paved about 10 years ago.  Closer to Lambertville, Mill Road part of this years ride in West Amwell was also paved not so long ago.  How long before more and more of what makes the Hell of Hunterdon a "Modern New Jersey Classic," is paved?  Will Montgomery Road get chip-seal next?  What about Lake Road?  Quarry?  Or super scenic and quiet Stompf Tavern Road that rises from the Delaware River next to a creek bed just upstream from Bulls Island State park?  Will the lovely "Hell" be entirely lost someday soon?

But dirt roads are much more than a challenge ultra-fit road cyclist on a moody spring weekend.  As my friends and I found out, dirt roads can also provide a wonderfully scenic and quite hiking/walking experience.  In West Amwell's and Hopewell Township's Pleasant Valley, Hunter Road (a dirt road close to through traffic due to a rickety bridge and also featured in the Hell) and several others made for a great walk.  It was such a pleasure passing through some of the most scenic landscapes in New Jersey without worrying about cars.  It's called Pleasant Valley after all!

My friend Paul walks south on Hunter Road with Kuser Mountain behind.

My other friend Adam crosses Moores Creek on the bridge closed to motor traffic.

Dirt roads also provide places for people to ride horses as well.  In the ultra-wealth enclave of Bedminster, many of the roads have purposely been left unpaved for horseback riding.  This also has the added bonus of keeping the "riff-raff" out in their Chevrolets (but not my friends and I on our bikes).  And that is likely the ultimate benefit of dirt roads.  They are very effective at preventing most New Jersey drivers from using them as short cuts and therefor provide a quite respite for the adventurous sole that might be on foot, bike or horseback.

Unfortunately, except in some rich locals, no one is looking to preserve and maintain dirt roads as they are.  Admittedly as traffic become slightly heavier on these once hidden roads, it likely becomes more cost effective for local officials to pave them.  That is likely what happened on Mill Road in West Amwell and Long Hill Road in Hillsborough.  But something is also lost when the steamroller comes.  Driver speeds increase and that coziness of a bygone era seems to evaporate.  And in rapidly developing New Jersey, we need places that we can step back into a bygone era and quaint little dirt roads are one of those places.

Who's going to fight to save the dirt roads?