Dirt roads are a staple in the West, where it’s common to find unmarked and unmapped routes crossing vast swaths of open, unfettered space. Out here we hold dirt roads in high regard — usually the average nameless turnoff is only the first step in a day of exploring wild places. Because in this corner of the world, adventure almost always begins with dirt.
That’s why “going for a drive” in Wyoming typically involves some gravel, dust and mud, if you’re lucky. It’s pretty simple — just pick a road and drive it, roll the windows down and let some of that sage tinted air waft in. Bumping along over washboards and around dips and trenches, it’s possible to actually feel the contours of the landscape. Regardless of whether said path is well-manicured gravel, or dicey, rutted-out, mud-puddled trails, you have to take it slow.
Abandoning the buzz of traffic for a more scenic and colorful route is when we begin to gain real knowledge of our surroundings. At first, view-awed silence takes over as the pebbles clank by under the axles. Soon, with cell phone service hopefully unable to catch up, the car swells with conversation. Timeless observations and discussions trace and probe the landscape as we roll through it. Eyes up, voices and pauses swing through the car like a pendulum, looking and talking, looking and talking.
Although adventures are always special to share, solo excursions are no less clarifying. Conversations still happen just the same. Eyes up, looking and thinking, looking and thinking. If the moment is right, a rest is needed, or a partner isn’t available, going for a drive can be just as rewarding in the peacefulness of solitude. Trips taken alone have the potential to inspire all contemplations of the universe, and some of the best ideas are hatched in the wild.
Finding the less-traveled path is especially easy to do around Jackson Hole, where unassuming backroads are a dime a dozen and each one has the potential to reveal a window of the Tetons that can otherwise go unnoticed. Whether from right underneath the towering range or a glimpse stolen from across in the Gros Ventre, the Tetons are startling as they appear suddenly from around a corner, silently looming in their magnitude.
Traveling along dirt roads is all about the pace — stopping is easy and worth doing every so often. Without the obstruction of a rushing highway, nature’s more subtle sounds can be heard more clearly: the fluted notes of a meandering creek, the accompaniment of leaves rustling in the wind. Once in a while you might find yourself amongst a herd of elk without another car in sight. Such an experience is worth every second spent getting there.
Four-wheel drive and a willing copilot are all that’s required; though for some reason, Willie Nelson on the radio always seems to fit in nicely. Commit to a way ahead until there’s a view worth stopping for, or a fence post worth leaning on. It might sound cliche, but honestly, it feels surprisingly natural and downright satisfying. From there, all it takes is one, amber-rose colored sunset to create an unforgettable moment in the outdoors. After all, that’s what backroads are all about.
Photos © Taylor Glenn