Working as a deputy sheriff in a rural county often presents its own set of special and sometimes unusual challenges, especially during the days before the existence of GPS, cellphones, and radio repeaters. In other words, it was pretty darned easy to get lost while traveling a convoluted maze of paved (sort of), dirt, and/or gravel roads. Roads with names like Burnt Tree Road, Red Clay Way, or Turkey Trot Lane.
Many of those winding back-roads led to five or six house communities where it was the norm for us to stop and ask for directions, and some of those kind folks, thinking it would be best for us to speak directly to the person we sought, allowed us use of their telephones. Besides, they didn’t want to be known as the one who sent the law after their friends. After all, liquor stills and pot grows were pretty popular in those days.
So, after a couple of rings and a loud “Hell-Oh,” this is what we sometimes heard as a response to our requests for directions to someone’s home.
“Go past Robert Junior’s old horse barn—the old one, mind you, not the fancy new one—and hang a sharp right at the big oak tree. Then go on down until you see a red mailbox. That ain’t ours, but you’re close. We’re just past where John Henry Daniels used to have a store. Now, it burned down 37-years ago next week, but they’s a big rock there with some yaller paint on it. Yaller was John Henry’s favorite color so his wife, Etta Jean—she’s Romey and Winonna Jenkins’ oldest daughter—painted the rock so’s everybody’d remember him and the store. If’n you knowed him you’d know John Henry sold the best pickles and peaches this side of Atlanta. That he did.
Anyways, if you get to where the road splits into a “Y” you’ve done gone too far, so turn around in Mable Johnson’s driveway—it’s the one with the deer head a-nailed to the cedar post next to road (her daddy used to be a taxxy-dermis)—and head back the way you come. Our house is the blue one a’settin’ off the road about two-hundred yards—the one with the goats and chickens running ’round the place. You can’t miss it, ’cause one of them goats ain’t got but three legs. Oh, whatever you do, blow the horn three times when you drive up so we’ll know it’s you, not those pesky Joe Ho’vers Witnessers. We all lay down on the floor behind Granny’s old settee when they come a knockin’.”
True story…sort of.
Anyway, to this day, driving on dirt and gravel roads takes me back to the day when unpaved streets and roads were sometimes my best friend when trying to follow a criminal’s trail. Dirt, mud, grass, and even sandy soil can be quite telling…if you take the time to look. Here are a few things investigators look for when following a trail.
1. Both cars and trucks sometimes lose traction when heading uphill, and when they do the tread patterns aren’t clear. When going downhill, tread patterns usually remain unbroken (clear) because the rubber maintains full traction with the surface. Therefore, investigators can easily determine the vehicle’s direction of travel.
2. When viewing tire tracks in the grass it’s important to note whether or not the tracks are shiny/glossy, or not. Glossy tracks mean the vehicle was heading away from the spot where you’re standing. Off color, or slightly dull tracks indicate the vehicle was heading toward your position.
3. When traveling on slightly muddy surfaces (about the consistency of slush), the vehicle’s tires force (squirt) mud forward at a +/- 45 degree angle.
4. Mud puddles, small creeks, etc. are perfect for telling which direction a car or truck is moving. Vehicles always push and pull water in the direction of travel. The liquid also washes away tracks on the exit side of the water. So, if you see a puddle with clear tracks leading up to the water’s edge, and no tracks and a wet surface on the opposite side of the puddle, then you know the vehicle was traveling toward the wet road surface. You may also see wet spots on the dirt road from where water dripped off the car frame, after it passed through the puddle.
5. Wet soil often sticks in the grooves of a tire tread pattern. As the vehicle moves along, the soil begins to dry and falls off, and it always does so in the direction of travel. Investigators can follow the trail much like following a trail of breadcrumbs.
6. When viewing tire tracks always position yourself where the track is directly between you and the sun. This enables the best view of the track’s details.
The same is true for examining footwear impressions.
6. Be sure to photograph the track for later comparison to a tire or shoe.
Finally, as you travel, be sure to examine the sides of the roadway and down paths and trails for the suspect vehicle. It would be pretty darn embarrassing to discover you’d passed by the crooks who’d parked in Mable Johnson’s driveway to count the stolen loot.