Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by… ” — Robert Frost

The best paths aren’t always paved, signed or mapped out; more often, they’re rutted, dusty and poorly marked. But for all their bumps and fissures (perhaps even because of them), the road less-traveled leads to adventure. Poets like Robert Frost knew it, as do contemporary wanderers like us. 

“Taking the backroad” is more of a mindset than a route of travel — a byway for folks who appreciate experiences above things and relish the journey as much as the destination. And yet, in a world where productivity is paramount, the act of wandering has become a dying art.  These days, anyone who isn’t simultaneously taking selfies, texting friends and scattering photos across social media is viewed as passé, or even dim-witted. 

To the trained wanderer, however, frittering away an afternoon on a hammock or an evening on a porch swing qualifies as work well-done.  Our bank accounts might be sparse, but we’re wealthy beyond words.

Recently, I did a bit of windshield wandering in rural Southwest Michigan. After a tough week at work, my mind was whirring like a sawblade, but an aimless drive offered an easy remedy. Puttering past the quaint community of Fennville, diners and coffee shops gave way to orchards and cornfields, and the stress slipped away. 

Photos: Jon Osborn

But the real surprise lay over the next rise, where just west of town, brilliant poppy blossoms dotted the pastoral field at Pleasant Hill Farm. Confronted by such beauty, I stopped the truck and drank in their radiance like a parched nomad at an oasis. 

The experience swept me back to another flower-filled meadow from my childhood. Ever the restless kid, I longed for wilderness, in spite of my suburban upbringing. Pedaling down the sidewalk one day, I noticed a dusty two-track leading into an open meadow. 

Backroads came calling early on, and choosing that path fulfilled a deep desire for a wild place of my own.  While my peers spent their summers down at the video arcade or movie theater, I caught leopard frogs along the creek and camped beneath the stars. That field was my own private hinterland — an intimate place where I knew every bump and burrow pockmarking the rolling, sandy soil. 

Like old familiar friends, cherished places leave an impression unique as any fingerprint. Recollections unlock a portal to nostalgia and conjure forgotten memories of a softer time and place. The sagey scent of crushed knapweed and the idle fiddling of crickets always reminds me of The Field, but above all else, poppies put the 12-year-old-version of me right back there. Last June, those dazzling blossoms washed the landscape in a tidal wave of tangerines, lemons, corals and ruby reds. 

As Frost also noted, “nothing gold can stay.” It was one of those phrases I never fully understood as a child, but I get it now. Sadly, a condominium complex rests atop that field. Were it still here today, I’d camp among the poppies with my kids, whispering tales of how-it-was while meteors streak across the velvet sky.

Fortunately, that field wasn’t the only gem of its kind; places like Pleasant Hill Farm lay hidden in plain sight all over the Mitten State. To find them, all we need to do is wander off the beaten path and explore. See you on the road.

Article written by Jon Osborn