Thirdendary Roads

Thirdendary Roads
“Daddy, where is that car going?”

My son spoke those words to me three decades ago as he stood tiptoe, looking out the window of our home on the edge of town. The curiosity of a child has inspired many an adventure.

They are an elusive lot, adventure riders. To begin with, no one has been able to nail down exactly what constitutes one. Perhaps they are better defined as a state of mind, rather than a certain kind of rider. Whatever they are, I would suggest that an urge to explore thirdendary roads is a common characteristic.

What is a thirdendary road? It is likely to be preceded by a primary and, odds are, a maze of secondary roads. Primary roads are those boringly efficient slabs we use every day to take us to all the familiar places. Secondary roads are a bit closer to the heart. They lead past farms, to Grandma’s house or that special, out of the way Ma and Pa restaurant with the great apple pie.

Thirdendary roads, however, can be anywhere. Always off the beaten path, they are those thin black lines on the map, often with no name or number. When you see a gap in the distant hills and only a hint of a track disappearing into the valley beyond, that feeling in your gut confirms you have found a thirdendary road and it must be explored. Some are easily rideable, while others are axle-deep in sand, mud, and mystique. Bridges may or may not be open, or existent, but the adventure rider will find a way. A remnant beam or plank, or a rut left by a previous rider on the opposite bank, is enough to qualify the road as passable.

To the untrained eye, the machine picked for exploring them may not always seem suited to the task. Some are heavy and have the load capacity of a container ship with knobby tires, while others are repurposed dirt bikes with lights, selected more for agility than comfort. Regardless, they were chosen to follow a whim down some unlikely path

Often well-guarded secrets, these roads can make us feel like Lewis and Clark. We might squint and imagine we are the first to explore them, or they could be published routes like the Continental Divide Trail along the Rocky Mountains, the Trans-America Trail (TAT), or the emerging Backcountry Discovery Routes.

Highway 126 from Los Alamos to Cuba, NM, is one such road. Officially considered a scenic byway, this 40-mile stretch starts out paved and blissfully diminishes as it climbs into the Santa Fe National Forest. Gurgling streams beckon the weary rider to stop for a nap or a night and early morning frost makes a canvas to trace art or messages with a gloved finger on the seat of your bike.

Frog Rock in north-central Oklahoma is perched beside a thirdendary road near the Cimarron River. This giant, naturally formed sandstone amphibian occasionally gets a fresh coat of paint from locals and has become an icon on the TAT and the Oklahoma Adventure Trail. And Kokopelli’s Trail in eastern Utah, with its dreaded Rose Garden Hill—rated double black diamond by regional map makers—is both thrilling and picturesque. Originally designed for bicycles, 120 miles of the route are now open to motorcycles.

But the best thirdendary roads are the ones without names, or their names are long forgotten. When we leave time in our travels to explore the unlikely trails, we can find those pearls of great price; eroded remnants of old byways where ghosts of early explorers stand guard over a faded mark through the trees or a scar on the distant horizon. A day spent searching and a willingness to risk failure will often yield a diamond in the rough, a precious loop of a mile, a day, or a week.

In our haste, we often ride by these hidden passages on our way to some bustling destination, one with a familiar name where the masses gather to take selfies with the sign by the gate. How many good thirdendary roads did we skip to get there and what unique sites or tests of skill and tenacity did we miss?

On a dark and canopied red dirt road 50 miles from home, I stop to check my GPS. I catch a glimpse of a rusty truss bridge through the thin fall foliage. Remnants of an old roadbed lead off toward the structure. The trail looks promising. As I sit contemplating the turn, a big bore dual sport skids to a stop beside me and I look over at the rider. Familiar green eyes peer back at me, and the young man’s voice says, “Hey Dad, where does that road go?”