Many outsiders have cursed Loudoun and northern Fauquier counties' dirt roads, their vehicles slowly bouncing from pothole to pothole, navigating potentially hazardous twists and hairpin turns. During the drought-ridden summers, clouds of dust dim the shine of every car and settle, frustratingly, on dashboards in a fine powder.

But from a historical and preservation-minded viewpoint, this web of dirt and gravel is an important part of Virginia's unique scenery--and, for most of the people who live in this countryside, it is a blessing.

Indeed, riding a horse or a bike, walking the dogs, enjoying a brisk run or chasing foxhounds down those secluded lanes are popular activities in the hunt country of Northern Virginia. Many times I have seen parties of horse-drawn carriages rolling along the road, family dogs jogging behind, with lunch at a country store as the final destination.

These roads also have proved invaluable to equestrians in many ways, because most do not have access to indoor arenas. On cold winter days, when there has been an ice storm, or there is a thick crust of ice covering a snowfall, the only way for many Virginians to exercise their horses is on the dirt roads.

This also holds true when there has been a wet snowfall, and the snow is balling up dangerously in the horses' hooves. The gravel on the dirt roads can help to give the horses some traction, whether the roads have been plowed or not.

When spring comes and fields are deep and muddy, the dirt roads are the ultimate place for riding. Plenty of rain and a spring thaw usually have softened the roads to a perfect consistency, allowing for some "give" for hooves and ankles. Even when riders are able to ride indoors, the roads can be a welcome change of scenery from the usual four walls.

For fox hunters jumping coops onto roads, the softer landing of a dirt road definitely is preferred--for horse or rider--over solid concrete. For the hunting staff, the slower, thinner traffic is helpful when hounds are in full cry and strictly focused on the scent of a fox. Rarely are hounds, or any other type of animal, struck by the slower-moving car traffic.

The freedom that these dirt roads allow many people has attributed to the uniqueness of Virginia's hunt country. Without them, life just wouldn't be the same.

Yes, the roads can be hard on vehicles and exasperating when a driver is in a hurry. But it is far, far easier to find ways to appreciate them than to rant about them.

Questions, comments or suggestions? E-mail Julie Gomena at jagomena@crosslink.net.