The Pit As a Pendulum
An Idaho Colloquialism
By Steve Carr
If you’ve lived in Idaho more than a few years, chances are you’ve heard a discussion about what those ditches that run along the side of our county roads are called. I grew up in southeastern Idaho and lived on one of those county roads. I walked home from school in one of those ditches, gathering treasures flung from passing cars. In those days, at least, the engineered furrow along each side was two to three feet lower than the crown of the roadway. A second-grader could walk among the knapweed, quack grass, and musk thistle and stay largely invisible for the entire half-mile trek home.
Now before you wonder what kind of mother I had, allowing her seven-year-old to walk home alone, you need to remember those were different times. And besides, I wasn’t alone. My little brother was usually with me. Mom did remind us to stay off the road. I obeyed my mother and wisely stayed at least a half-eaten rotten apple’s throw away from the cars.
I guess it would have taken me the better part of an hour to walk home. Of course I was hardly in a hurry. I figure I’ve spent five hundred hours, give or take, learning all there is to know about those trench-like roadside features. You might say I became a bit of a self-taught expert. The other day, in the shop where I go to get both a haircut and an education on the intricacies of international treaties and the entomology of tree frogs, I listened while three barbershop barnacles argued over the correct term for that place where I spent much of my youth.
“It’s burro pit,” declared a guy about my age. “Everyone knows that’s where they made the burros walk so as stay out of the way of the horses and new Model T’s.”
“Hah!” harrumphed the next, “It’s borrow pit. They started calling it that when the daggum rich folk borrowed—and never returned, mind you—the dirt aside the road for their purdy yards.”
“The correct term,” demurred a guy with Benjamin Franklin spectacles,” is barrow pit, B-A-R-R-O-W. It derives from a English term meaning a ditch dug along a roadway to furnish fill and provide drainage.”
What was interesting was how each guy’s pronunciation was but a slight variation from the other—hardly noticeable in a casual conversation.
I thought about correcting them, for you see they all were wrong. I’d know, of course, given my credentials. I told you how much time I spent in those ditches but I didn’t mention how I first associated the term with its definition.
You see, about halfway home from school was the local grocer’s house. His high school daughter was on split sessions while they built a new school. Anyway, on sunny days, the grocer’s daughter, who was out of school by noon, liked to do her homework while stretched out on a blanket in her yard. Some days, we’d pretend to be soldiers and, while hunkered down among the milkweed, we’d spy on the enemy encampment and lob crabapple bombs her way. She never saw us, but she sure jumped up to look around when one of our mortar shells landed nearby. We couldn’t help but notice that she preferred to wear only her bathing suit bottom while she studied. I guess it helped her concentrate—not dealing with all those uncomfortable clothes.
Anyway, I’ve known the term for those roadside ditches ever since second grade. I remember clearly talking to Mom about it. Nearly everyday after school she’d ask how our day went and if we had remembered to stay away from the road.
“Yes Mom, we did just what you told us. We walked home in the bare-all pit.”