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  • June 30th, 2011

The Road Less Traveled

By Joel M. Vance

Aside from emergency assistance a benefit of the 911 system is that the naming of all roads opens the way for recognition of people who otherwise would labor in obscurity.

Like me, for example.

There is, in south central Chariton County, Missouri, just south of Dalton, a dead-end gravel road, 1.5 miles long named “Joel Vance Avenue.”  I didn’t lobby for this; it just happened.  More puzzling than why anyone would name a road after me is who?  No one has stepped forward to claim responsibility and my attempts to find the culprit, if that’s the right word, have failed.  The search has taken on the aspects of an Agatha

Christie mystery.  I feel like Hercule Poirot, quizzing various county officials: “So you are ze personne of responsibility, non?”

So far “Moi?  Mais non!” has been the answer.

Until 911 came along, roads were just roads, described as, “The second gravel after you pass Elmer Smith’s place, you know, the one with the big red barn.”  Of course there were about 1,000 big red barns in the county and unless you’d lived there all your life, you’d never find the second gravel.

The 911 system beats someone calling the sheriff or police and saying, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.  I live a mile on the right from the Haley place.”  But if they say, “My husband got knocked unconscious by a falling pecan.  We live at No. 1 Joel Vance Avenue,” help is on the way.

Some Missouri counties have opted for numbers or letters to identify their obscure gravel roads, but Chariton County chose historical names (at least until they worked their way down the list to me).  The next road east is Val Verde, named for Gen. Sterling Price’s plantation.  The Confederate general captured my great grandfather in the Civil War.  My great-grand uncle formed Vance’s Rangers after a couple of trips to California during the Gold Rush where he collected only, as he said, a case of cooties.  Army life seemed to hold more promise than gold chasing, but he was wrong about that, too.

He enlisted his younger brother, great-grandpa, in the Rangers, a bunch of farm boys.  They were captured by Gen. Price’s army after about an hour of defending Glasgow.  The general, a Chariton County home boy at heart, spanked them on the butt and told them to go home and quit playing soldier.

Most think 911 is a new invention, but it goes back 41 years to 1968 in the United States when AT&T announced 911 would be its emergency number; however, England, New Zealand, Australia and Canada had three-digit emergency numbers well before that (England’s dates to 1937 and the number was 999).

Of them all, New Zealand’s 111 seems to be the simplest to dial—the number crowds the rotary stop on old fashioned phones and can be punched much quicker than any combination on numbers on touch tone phones.

The “Avenue” distinction in JVA is important because it elevates me beyond the plebian “Street” or, even worse, “Road.”  It’s not quite “Boulevard” in the royal hierarchy of roads, but it is light years from an alley.  Actually, those distinctions have evolved over the years.  While an avenue would be considered by most to be a superior thoroughfare to a street, Webster defines a street as “a public road in a city or town; especially a paved thoroughfare with the sidewalks and buildings along one or both sides.”

My road fails on all counts: it isn’t paved, it has no sidewalks and if you don’t count a decrepit barn, listing about two degrees from total collapse, it has only one building, an abandoned farmhouse set well back from the road as if the occupants were trying to avoid the non-existent traffic.

Joel Vance Avenue does, however, have a number of large pecan trees, a ubiquitous feature of the Dalton Bottoms.  They spread their branches over my road and shower it with the tasty nuts in October.  Although the third Webster definition of “avenue” equates it with “street,” the second definition is more pertinent to my avenue: “a roadway, pathway or drive, often bordered with trees.”  Although Webster doesn’t say so, pecan trees with their annual bounty are the finest border tree of all.

One sunny autumn day my wife and I scrambled about in the road ditch and picked up about six pounds of pecans.  It was a reversion to my teenage years when I earned spending money picking up pecans in the fields along these same, at that time, unnamed roads.  I got a nickel a pound and lugged a shotgun, hoping to get a crack at low-flying ducks returning to the Cutoff.

The Cutoff is an oxbow of the Missouri River, “cut off” from the main channel in the 1800s when the capricious Big Muddy decided to wander off in another direction.  It was the playground of my teenage years—a fishing hole in summer, duck hunting honey hole in autumn and ice skating arena in winter.

I split my chin playing ice hockey on the Cutoff, and had to be sewed up, so my blood is in that murky water.  It’s fitting that Joel Vance Avenue dead-ends at a gate which leads to a hunt club on the west side of the Cutoff.  You can see the upper end of the lake from the lower end of JVA.

I probably never would have known JVA existed except that a boyhood friend called and exclaimed, “I’ll bet I’ve been some place you haven’t!”  He added, “Most people have to die to get a road named for them.  How are you feeling?”  The next day my wife and I drove 120 miles to see my avenue.

There it was, joining County Highway MM.  I could see the Dalton grain elevator across the bottom fields, at the base of what was the river hill when the Missouri still flowed where Dalton now sits.  I worked at the elevator briefly one summer vacation until I crumpled the elevator pickup’s fender against a corner of a box car.  The boss examined his formerly creaseless pickup and explained that my services were no longer deemed necessary

A dirt road (still unnamed) runs up the hill which we sledded down on snowy winter nights, gathering speed until we flashed across Dalton’s main street, made a tricky S-curve and skidded across the railroad tracks before coming to rest near the Dalton Hardware Store, hoping en route that no vehicle traffic or trains were plowing through the crossing.

I asked about the origin of JVA at the Dalton post office, which referred me to the county 911 committee, which referred me to the Dalton Heritage Association, which referred me to the County Historical Society which referred me back to the 911 committee.

So I enlisted Janie Sue Brown, a high school classmate.  Janie Sue stands about five feet tall, but she’s implacable on the trail, a Chariton County version of Hercule Poirot.  But even Janie Sue admitted defeat and I am beginning to wonder if, instead of honoring a local boy, this road name isn’t someone’s idea of a practical joke, that I am the equivalent of a vulgar vanity license plate that slipped by the censors.  Could it be that, instead of the person who named the road being undiscovered, that person is part of an elaborate prank and is lying low?

Whatever its origin, there it is, Joel Vance Avenue, a sleeping pygmy among giants.  I could, I suppose, carry a photo showing me in front of the road sign (which cants about seven degrees south, as if already tired of notoriety) but if you think baby photos are boring, you haven’t seen anything.

And I fear that the punchline of the joke is that the daily mail will bring me a huge bill for gravel and road maintenance.


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1 Comment

  1. Nancy K Zabel

    July 5th, 2011 at 12:58 pm


    Just want to say that I hadn’t checked in for a while. Our only granddaughter was married recently so we have been “distracted.” Your blog about the oddities of the current political scene is “spot on!” I have heard that you may be in Wisconsin in the near future. You can catch up on what has been happening with politics in our state too. Interesting, but not fun.

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