Rustic Roads: A Positive Step Backwards

(Fall, 2012) I’d never heard of rustic roads until living in Vilas County where I discovered one quite by accident. Today, on a Saturday afternoon, as the leaves had just begun to change color, I and a friend purposely re-routed our road trip to Hanson Lake north of Boulder Junction to take in the pleasures of this leisurely drive.

On this truly rustic of the rustic roads, there are no shoulders so tree branches sometimes brush the windshield and the side of the car as we take in the mature forest of oversize trees; the forest canopy creates a tunnel. That day, the foliage was thick with tree tops almost completely joined, blocking out the sky. The sun was to the west as the afternoon lengthened and low level light filtered through the leaves and branches making shadows appear ghostly yet welcoming.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation describes Highway K that runs from north of Sayner to west of Boulder Junction as:“this winding route tracks through the 220,000 acre Northern Highland American Legion State Forest. Canopies of coniferous and hardwood trees enhance the scenic beauty of R-60 as it passes near old logging camp sites, hiking trails and an old saw mill located in Star Lake. The entire stretch of this scenic drive traverses a heavily wooded area abundant with wildlife. R-60 offers frequent scenic vistas of numerous, clear northwoods lakes and dense forest land.”

GetAttachmentAt the beginning of the road where it meets Hwy N, is a small, rectangular road sign that’s brown with yellow lettering. It says: Rustic Road, R-60, next 13 miles. The R-60 means it’s the 60th rustic road established. My love of this road and its specialness, made me wonder what it takes to become a rustic road. The DOT has very specific guidelines.

It must have “outstanding natural features” such as “rugged terrain,” “native vegetation” and “wildlife.” It needs to be a lightly traveled access road, be a minimum of two miles in length and connect with major highways at both ends. It can be dirt, gravel or paved, one-way or two-way with a maximum speed limit of 45 miles per hour.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation web-site devotes a page to rustic roads entitled: “A Positive Step Backward.” That describes the theory. Step back in time. Slow down and enjoy the journey. It’s also a stark reminder of our need to look ahead and to look backward at the same time. We will then appreciate what we have and also realize we may not always have it.

Wisconsin is the only state in the union where the rustic road designation is found. Several other states, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa to name a few, have described scenic byways as roadways with “unusual or distinctive, scenic, historical, archeological, natural, recreational or cultural features.” There’s quite a difference between this grand portrayal that includes every kind of road imaginable and the focus and uniqueness of the rustic road.

Rustic roads began when Earl Skagen, the highway commissioner of Racine Wisconsin noticed “progress” while driving to work on his favorite road, Maple Lane near Burlington. Since building roads was his job, he could see clearly how bulldozers could and would end forever his leisurely drive to and from work. So, he became an activist and through his efforts, the Rustic Roads Board was created by the Wisconsin Legislature in 1973.

The first rustic road is in Taylor County and Mr. Skagen’s beloved Maple Lane is the second. Now Wisconsin has 111 rustic roads throughout the state but before they existed, there were a smattering of books and articles touting the pleasures of traveling sideroads.

Clay Schoenfeld an outdoor columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal wrote an article that expanded into a book in 1966, Sideroads to Somewhere. In 1979 he did a sequel, Down Wisconsin Sideroads.

In 1999, William Least Heat-Moon took the ultimate American road trip, travelling the Blue Highways. Those are the roads marked in blue on road maps, what he called the small roads. He wanted to see the real America, took off in his old truck driving only the small roads and then wrote how it felt to stop the world and step back in time.

My discovery of R-60 made me appreciate these gems of relaxation and natural beauty. So, when traveling around the state, I’ve been known to take a sudden detour when I see those little brown and yellow signs. And I’m rarely disappointed.

Whether called small roads, side roads, scenic byways or blue highways, the rustic road offers a rare opportunity to slow down, take in some natural beauty and enjoy. Thank you Mr. Skagen for having the foresight to see what might be lost and to do your part in preserving it.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Diana Schramer
    Feb 21, 2015 @ 15:40:18

    This is so interesting! It makes me want to jump in the car for a road trip to “slow down, take in some natural beauty and enjoy.” Sounds like heaven. 🙂



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