One of the first things we do moving onto a new and undeveloped piece of land, is to start considering driveways and roads. We need to access the land, after all, whether to log, or build our structures, or even to survey the property. We need to be able to use the land, and so one of the first questions we ask ourselves (or simply ask the heavy equipment operator) is, where should the road go? But it is an important question, and one worthy of some thought, because that road cut will impact the way we use the land from there on out, how we enter the land, what portions of our land will become accessible and hence usable and what portions of our land will remain more wild and less impacted by our use. So once again it’s a good idea to pause before the bulldozers arrive, to look around, to scratch your head, to put pencil to paper, and envision how you might plan to use the land so that the road will begin to shape that vision and not, inadvertently, bifurcate it.
And, once again, it’s the looking around part that can be the most important. A road can be enormously destructive to the land through which it passes. The impacts of an ill-designed road can long surpass the longevity of the road itself, with boulders dislodged, vast quantities of soil moved and piled and made unstable, stable drainage patterns disrupted, old trees knocked down and historic features obliterated. But by looking around we can begin to see, often, already extant in the landscape the traces of the most sensible routes to follow, for we of course are not the first to walk across the land. The deer came first, and their paths were often followed, hungrily, by the Native Americans, and then the trappers and the miners and the cattle and the stagecoaches and then finally, in some cases, by our graders and asphalt paving machines. So there is no need to reinvent the (cart)wheel. Some of the best road alignments can be found already traced into the dirt by our bovine transportation planners, whose heavy hoof treads have even commenced the grading process – cattle may not be smart but they are brilliant at finding the easiest route through a landscape. And that old two-track ranch road, even if long-unused and nearly lost in the undergrowth, will likely have followed an older cow trail and will trace an alignment through the landscape that can be cleared with a minimum of tree loss and additional grading. We will find that much of our design work has already been done, if we are willing to take the time and study the land and come to understand what has already been written upon it.