Native Americans once traversed their paths before the founding of the nation. A teenage George Washington traveled them as a surveyor in the mid-eighteenth century. Enslaved blacks built fieldstone walls that line some of them. And Union and Confederate armies once clashed upon them. I’m talking about the gravel roads of Loudoun County in northwest Virginia.

If you know anything about Loudoun County, you probably know it as ground zero for some of the most contentious skirmishes in America’s culture wars over sexual ideology, with spirited school board meetings that prompt arrests of parents, public school teachers suspended for refusing to use students’ preferred pronouns, and high-school girls assaulted by a fellow male students claiming to be a female. It’s also the wealthiest county in the United States, its eastern corridor filled with bedroom communities for federal employees and government contractors, while its celebrated wineries and horse country make it a popular home — or second home — for the wealthiest urbanites of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. And yet the further west you go, the less it seems an extension of the region’s ever-spreading suburban sprawl.

Loudoun’s population has increased sevenfold since 1980. Transplants who commute into the city or its nearer suburbs now fill towns that until only a few decades ago were considered peripheral or rural: Ashburn, Sterling, Purcellville, Aldie. And wouldn’t you know it, those commuters do not take kindly to having their Starbucks spill all over the console as their sedans and SUVs bump along those gravel byways. Local resident Barbara Kauffman told Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors in September that the roads were relics of a “horse-and-buggy era,” according to a 7 February Washington Post feature. “They are neither quaint nor charming…. They are bone-rattling, teeth-jarring, dangerous, dusty nuisances,” declared Kauffman.

Yet many Loudoun residents feel differently. Some have founded an organization, America’s Routes, that aims to preserve Loudoun’s gravel roads by having 250 miles of them placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and thus much more difficult to pave. “Preservationists see the plan as a last-ditch effort to save the vanishing vestiges of rustic life from being swallowed by the burbs,” reports the WaPo. “It’s a way to slow things down a little bit,” said Emily Houston, a member of the organization. “The road is the center of your community in a way.” Not that Houston and her friends are opposed to improving the gravel roads, some of which have potholes or drainage issues. “If they want less washboarding, if they want fewer potholes, we’re all going for the same here,” Houston told the local NBC affiliate.

It’s a fascinating battle between traditionalists, such as local preservationist Jane Covington, who sees the roads as part of history, and modernists who view them as an obstacle to progress and development. So far the pro-development side has been winning: almost half of Loudoun’s unpaved roads have been paved since the 1960s, according to Virginia Department of Transportation data. Yet Covington labors on, painstakingly documenting the history and meaning of the roads in preparation to send her findings to state and federal officials for review. “We’re coming to a tipping point countywide on development…. It’s a little bit at a time, a little, a little, and then there’s a point of no return,” she explained to the WaPo.

What’s a road? In one sense, one of the most uninteresting, utilitarian things imaginable: a means of getting from one place to another, comprised of boring materials such as rocks, cut stone, brick, or asphalt concrete. Yet they are also objects that give us a sense of place and permanence — “all roads lead to Rome.” They provoke our poetic imaginations: Dylan sang of Highway 61, John Denver of country roads, Tom Petty of Ventura Boulevard, and Phantom Planet of 101. The road is valuable because of where it leads, and what it represents, whether it be the safety and security of home, or the wanderlust and adventure of the unknown.

Unlike other recent arguments over Northern Virginia thoroughfares— such as Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway or Jefferson Davis Highway — the gravel roads debate presents a more complicated problem for woke suburbanites with their rainbow flag bumper stickers and virtue-signaling yard signs. For the roads of western Loudoun County were not only trod and marked by Washington, J.E.B. Stuart, and John S. Mosby, but religious minorities (such as Quakers Jacob and Hannah Janney), the enslaved, and indigenous peoples. They are, in a very tangible and visceral sense, a part of all of us and our collective American identity.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the gravel roads of western Loudoun. My uncle bought a large parcel of land there almost forty years ago, leasing his barn and fields to local equine hobbyists, planting pear and mulberry trees, and welcoming friends to hunt the overpopulated local deer herd. From southern Fairfax County, where I grew up, the trip felt like going back in time, as housing developments became increasingly scarce, replaced by rolling hills and “witness trees,” ramshackle cottages and noble country estates, and wooden- or stone-fenced farms filled with livestock. And boy were those gravel roads bumpy, dusty, and at times mildly treacherous.

The roads of western Loudoun County introduced to me a world I, a suburban kid growing up in one of the few comparatively rural, undeveloped parts of Fairfax County (thanks largely to the nearby Lorton Correctional Complex) would otherwise have only known in books. I have memories of riding on my uncle’s tractor down gravel roads to the local general store, which has since shuttered. In high-school, I once took a date out there, throwing horseshoes out back before we cooked dinner. Family thanksgivings were often there. More recently, I’ve loaded the kids into the minivan for day trips, visiting the neighboring horse farm, harvesting pears, roasting s’mores over bonfires, and, of course, riding the tractor. They are memories for a lifetime.

But perhaps only my kids’ lifetime, if certain Loudoun residents have their way. If so, yet one more lingering manifestation of ancient Southern heritage in the Old Dominion will have been paved over for the sake of “development.” Like once beautiful eastern Loudoun, venerable rural properties will be transformed into bland suburban communities and strip malls with the same predictable chain stores. Thus I wish the Emily Houston’s and Jane Covington’s of the world every success in their long-suffering battle to preserve the little pieces of our American heritage. Because no one writes love songs about soulless, suburban streets.

Casey Chalk

Casey Chalk has degrees in history and education from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College. He is a regular contributor for New Oxford Review, The Federalist, American Conservative, and Crisis Magazine. He is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute).


  • Joyce says:

    Proximity to DC doomed the Old Dominion. It is a tragedy. Once a lovely rural area with rolling hills, Virginia, has been culturally cleansed . And the same people who have ruined Virginia have also destroyed Maryland, where there once were old gray barns quietly decaying in the middle of fields of topping-out ‘bacca.

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    The Road Leads . . .
    A Poem By
    Paul H. Yarbrough
    Highways and roads take all to where
    The end of the road can never be.
    Winding, straight, and mottled some,
    And yet the best of them can’t make us free.

    We start from a place where we stand,
    Though seldom a thought about our end.
    Sometimes dark, windswept and long,
    In front, a road that will yet begin.

    We seek a trip of rich allure,
    Though cursed and scornful, a forlorn path.
    While absent love is shrieking,
    Miles of furtive, and alien wrath.

    Countless trips are burden weighed,
    Lighted blessings obscured by a goal.
    We seek a rogue claim of time;
    Then find we have lost our hallowed soul.

    Do we know a lonely road back?
    Ample troubles yet down that bleak road.
    Deceiving all to come forth;
    Though scant aware of our tarnished load.

    Our trip is lost, and now we search.
    A spiritual trip by faith we comb.
    Turning back over the course,
    The road we want, is the one for home.

  • Kenneth Robbins says:

    mr. chalk, Why do you use the term “enslaved”, instead of slave? do you understand the difference? Please explain

  • Joyce says:

    “The road we want, is the one for home.” Lovely, Mr. Yarbrough.

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