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It's rare to think of a road as a source of quiet contemplation, a thing that takes you back, and inward, rather than a means to move you forward, faster. No, roads and silence and deep thought don't seem to mix – unless you find yourself on one of Wisconsin's 67 Rustic Roads.
These scenic, lightly traveled country roads found in many Wisconsin counties lead to no particular place. They may be short or long (the roads range from two miles to over 25 miles in length), they may be dirt or gravel or paved, one lane or two, but all beckon hikers, cyclists and motorists to slow down and fill the senses: Smell the green shoots of clover, see dusk's horizon bathed in lavender whispers of goose wings, hear the voices of families in old, laid stone, taste the hours of sun in a single wild raspberry, touch the soft yellow of a tamarack's new needles.
"Each Rustic Road takes us to a miniature universe," writes author Ben Logan in Wisconsin's Rustic Roads: The Road Less Traveled. Though only 2.1 miles long, Road R-48 in Waushara County near Saxville skirts a log cabin and two farmhouses built before the Civil War on 160-acre lots granted through the Homestead Act. Stop and walk along the shoulder...you may hear the snuffling of a hitched team straining to plow a newly cleared field, or the flap of quilts airing on a line in a fresh spring breeze. Perhaps your nose will catch the mellow breath of the banked oak fire in the hearth. You cannot remain in this contained world for long, however. A flush of rainbow feathers will startle you into the present, as a hidden ring-necked pheasant takes flight from a grassy hummock.
Road R-32 in Marinette County partially traces the banks of the Peshtigo River through 26.6 miles of dense woodlands and northern waters, with vistas of High Falls and Cauldron Falls flowages. In these great forests many voices mingle: The ancient chants of native peoples, the missionary's prayers, the bluff and hearty logger's songs. And yet few signs of human presence are apparent, save for the road that brought you here.
The 7.5 miles of Road R-66 in Lafayette County tell a different story of the human imprint on the land. In this tiny corner of the Driftless Area, an abandoned lead mine ringed by rusted ore buckets mutely speaks of a once-vibrant industry built with the sweat and toil of hopeful immigrants.
Trilliums nod in the dappled shade along Road R-55, a 2.8 mile-Vernon County byway still surfaced in part with gravel. Wildflowers are the boon companions of many Rustic Roads, adding lively bursts of color to shoulders that seldom feel the pressure of tires, or even feet.
Make time this month or next to catch the warm promise of spring on a Rustic Road. Pick a county, pack a lunch and go – for a Sunday (or Monday or Thursday or any day) drive. All roads are marked by brown-and-yellow signs. For a road guide, write Rustic Roads Board, Wisconsin Department of Transportation, P.O. Box 7913, Madison WI 53707-7913. A second book suitable for coffee-table travelers is Wisconsin's Rustic Roads: A Road Less Traveled, with 85 color photographs by Bob Rashid and text by Ben Logan, George Vukelich, Jean Feraca, Norbert Blei and Bill Stokes. It is available for $35 and published by the Lost River Press, 10477 Main St., Boulder Junction, WI 54512.