A little way up the narrow valley, before they reach the woods, the PCs notice the squat, tumbledown buildings by the riverside. They are hardly big enough for a human to stand in, and the complex cogs and shafts that occupy the central cavity of one of the buildings are perplexing. What were these buildings? And how safe are they to explore?
Alternatively a desolate place is the perfect setting for a derelict chapel or croft. There needn't be any actual physical encounter involved, but it adds atmosphere to a place to see its dead history. For instance, in the Outer Hebrides there are whole deserted villages which were razed to the ground by the English during the Clearances. Such stories give a setting authenticity and character.
As the PCs travel the road, right after a bend they hear a sharp whistle and call: "Heeey, not so lazy, move your asses!" It is a large man that calls, and there are unwilling workers that listen. A small company, 10-15 men work on the road, push boulders aside, dig up roots from under the road, etc. The large man that shouted turns to you, smiles fast and mutters something under his breath, sounds like cursing some lazy worker. "Where does the road bring you from, travellers?" And does a little small-talk.
And what is really happening? A group of bandits is 'adapting' the road for shady purposes. The road will not be wider, but tighter, with enough cover around (and a few traps perhaps), and will become an ideal spot for ambushing travellers or entire caravans. The bandit leader wants them all to appear harmless. The 'lazy worker' he cursed was actually a guard that should give warning before any travellers come around (fallen asleep). Not surprisingly, the boss may decide for an ambush even now.