Sunday, May 20, 2007

Slipping and sliding no way to get home


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel May 20, 2007)

I live at the end of a dirt driveway accessible by one of two routes.

Choice No. 1 is the paved road, a quick-and-easy, two-lane route. It's direct and predictable.

Choice No. 2 is the Back Way. It's my favorite.

When I take the Back Way home, I bump along a curvy clay road rolling up and over gentle hills. I pass by several owner-built homes set on 1- to 5-acre lots where there's always something interesting to see. One house has goats, another sheep. Still another has acres of sago palms. It's a pretty road, and when I take it, I'm forced to go slowly, a good thing in these too-busy times.

But, being unpaved, the Back Way is ruled by weather.

During dry spells, it's not just bumpy; it's washboard wild. It makes no difference whether I inch my way forward or put foot to the pedal. At any speed, disaster feels imminent.

The rhythmically rutted road rattles the car convulsively. It shimmies and shakes with abandon, sending coins on the dashboard flying, and spilling any tea that might be left at the bottom of my cup.

Wet weather's no better.

When it rains, the road turns into an orange quagmire, slick and thick with clay.

The sodden mess sloshes and splatters onto every possible surface, including the front and back windshields. Hardly the ideal situation when visibility is essential.

When I mistakenly take the clay route home during a downpour, I have to grasp the wheel with both hands to prevent the car from sliding into a roadside gully. It takes all my concentration to control the errant steering. Even then, I'm not sure until I turn onto my driveway that I'll make it home safely.

Choosing the Back Way is not a smart move during inclement weather, yet I repeatedly pick that route during inopportune times.

Like yesterday, when under overcast skies, I found myself unconsciously heading toward the unpaved road.

The signs were there had I only read them.

The sky had clouded over. The air had become eerily still and thick enough with moisture to feel heavy against my skin. Large droplets had sporadically begun to fall as I mechanically steered onto the clay road.

At that point, there was still time to turn around and take the paved route home. That's what I should have done.

But I didn't.

Instead, I stayed the course as if entranced.

To emphasize my folly, the skies chose that moment to erupt, sending sheets of rain onto the previously parched ground. If you've ever taken a turn on your kids' Slip 'n Slide, you'll understand the feeling. Unwittingly I had ventured onto a slick platform of disaster. Within minutes, my peaceful ride home had morphed into a maddening glide to oblivion.

Clay went flying as I slid along roads suddenly rippled with rust-colored rivulets.

Eventually I reached my destination, anchoring my craft safely in the garage harbor.

It was then that I noticed the clay -- not just some clay, but a clay-filled stream seeping onto the concrete floor from my just-parked van.

In fact, clay was everywhere -- on the floor, on the doors, on the van's underbody and on my own clothing-covered body -- I must have brushed against something when I opened the door. Yes, it was a clay-colored world.

Today is a new day.

The sun is shining and, although overcast at times, rain has yet to dampen our streets.

We need the rain. The ground is thirsty, and lake levels are reaching an all-time low. Like most everyone else, I'm hoping for showers.

But, more personally, I'm hoping the next time it downpours while I'm on the way home, I'll have the good sense to choose practical over pretty.

There are times to slow down and admire the scenery, and times when it only makes sense to hurry home on the safest roads possible.

In extreme weather -- wet or dry -- Predictable trumps Beauty every time.

After 16 years of living at the end of an unpaved road, it's about time I learned that simple fact of life.

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