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On the Back Roads
Discovering Small Towns of America
By Bill Graves
Addicus Books, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Bill Graves
All rights reserved.
Southern California Desert
Emmy was alone, camped a ways off the county road. If I startled her, approaching unannounced, she said nothing, except to politely offer me a chair.
Nearby, a shallow wash that ran with winter rains two months ago was filled with lupine and wild primrose. To one side bloomed a desert lily.
"I haven't seen a lily here for at least eight years. Its roots go deep, still it rarely gets enough water to give us a flower," Emmy said, laying aside her reading.
The view out front was a calendar picture. April. Springtime in the desert. Three folding chairs plus a pair of collapsible tables, now covered with her books and my camera case, furnished Emmy's open-air parlor. Moving a chair on her way to get us some tea, Emmy commented that most of her visitors come in pairs.
Emmy was a schoolteacher. An exemplary one, I would guess. Teaching was her life. She quit twenty-two years ago — retired, really — and has never looked back.
Eighty-three now, Emmy+ has no family. She never married. She sold what little she had, which didn't even include a house, and bought this self-contained camper.
Emmy had clear plans for the rest of her life. It shall be a journey. A true journey, she says, no matter how long the travel, never ends.
"My curiosity runs everything. I tell people that it even writes my schedule and usually overbooks me. There's just so much to do." Half-smiling, Emmy shaked her head in apparent frustration. "Unfortunately, God gives none of us time to do it all, but I'm pestering Him for an extension."
"Think you will ever settle down?" I asked.
"Do I have to?" Emmy put on the pleading look of a teenager. "I am settled. That's the point. Just look out there." Her hand swept the horizon. "It's breathtaking! No person could plant a more beautiful flower garden. And if someone did, you and I couldn't sit by it like we are and watch the sun move across it all day."
Five months of spring freshen Emmy's year. If there is such a thing as a blooming wildflower circuit, she is on it. Starting in the lower desert of California in early April, she moves next to the high desert, then to the Pacific Coast, ending at 14,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in August. The rest of the year, she roams the back roads of the West. Wildflowers, she says, are her fascination; America's small towns are her passion.
"Believe me, the little communities of this country are its last real hope," Emmy insisted. "There is not much inspiration coming out of the big cities. Have you watched TV lately?"
"I try not to."
She moved her chair and faced me. "When I am in one of those little cow towns, like in Nevada or Montana, it recharges my optimism. Kids walking home from school say 'hi' to me. They don't fear a strange face. Would you believe it? There are still places in this country where is it OK to be friendly with a stranger.
"You would be amazed at the number of people, born and raised in the city, who move to small towns and start over." Emmy reached for a book on the table. "I was just reading this [John] Steinbeck book. Must be the third time. He wrote this in the late fifties." She found the page. "Listen to this: 'As all pendulums reverse their swing, so eventually will the swollen cities rupture like dehiscent wombs and disperse their children back to the countryside.' Now, that's exactly what's happening."
Handing me Travels with Charley, Emmy continued. "Some people think it's just my generation or yours. It's not. It's everyone who wants to escape what is happening in the city. Families are desperate to make something for themselves, something of value that doesn't need to be chained down. I have seen them, young couples poking around small towns on weekends. I talk with them. And the next year when I come back, they run the bakery or the library or have an office on Main Street.
"You know, the man who doesn't strike out and do what it is he really wants to do in life ... well, he is missing life itself. People are realizing that more and more, I think."
Emmy paused, maybe thinking I had something to add. Then she asked where I hailed from.
"Guess I'm homeless. I'm a runaway." It was a facetious answer, of course, and that's the way she took it. Honestly, both were true.
Emmy turned and looked at my comfortable motor home.
"Face it, Bill. You aren't homeless. You're a vagrant!" she laughed.
"Vagrant? As in nomadic? I guess I can live with that."
"Live with it!" Emmy was shaking a finger at me. "There are millions who would take your place in a flash. I meet them all the time. Being a curiosity — or should I be honest and say an oddity — they come by and want to talk, just like you have. I explain that I don't own an alarm clock or a phone. I tell them that the only thing I have to do today — or tomorrow, maybe — is to see what's over the next hill. That makes them want to cry," she joked.
Emmy sat quietly for a moment, and sipped her tea.
"No, you are very lucky, and so am I." She was looking out over the desert, thinking beyond what she was saying. "There is so much to see. Have you ever seen the wheel ruts made by the wagons on the Oregon Trail?"
"You will. The roads you travel will lead you right to them. Most people think I'm nuts when I ask that. But can you imagine? Just think about it, what a thrill when they discover the ruts made by those wagon trains are really there. Yes, in a New York second they would take your place. Some will eventually get out here. A few, maybe. But for one seemly good reason or another, most never will. And that saddens me."
Emmy was not just an astute observer. She was very wise. I'm sorry that I left without telling her that. Nor did I tell her that she accomplished what all teachers aspire to but few achieve: She filled me with questions about my life and how I should be living it.
What did Emmy mean by "the last real hope?" What is happening in the small towns of this country? All I actually know about present-day America is what I see in the newspapers and on television. Emmy, it appears, is a far better source than either of those.
I want to see the real America for myself. I don't mean a senior-citizen tour, seeing it out of the window of a sightseeing bus. If the wagon ruts are still there, I will walk in them. When the main-street diner opens in the morning, I will be there to share coffee with those who want to chat. I will sit on the steps of the courthouse, and maybe in a rocker with a family on their front porch. And I'll see the sun rise over a place, any place, as many times as I want.
I can't cover the whole country, but I have the time, the mobility, and pocket change to see the West.
Emmy's words are still with me, what she said about a true journey. It never ends. I must admit, I have not yet started mine. It's high time.CHAPTER 2
Pegleg Smith's Lost Gold Mine
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
I found a place to spend the night near a grapefruit orchard off Highway S22. My headlights swept a registered historic marker mounted in a rock pyramid. This is great, a site of epic significance. I parked my motor home near the marker.
I dragged out cocktail hour and dinner and forgot the marker until I was ready for bed. But I had to know. So I trudged out in shower shoes with a flashlight to read the plague. It told of Pegleg Smith, "a mountain man, prospector, and spinner of tall tales. The legend about his lost gold mine has grown. Countless people have searched." So much for epic significance.
I read somewhere that there are 1,070 of these historic markers in California alone. Waiting for sleep, I wondered how many there are between here and Canada, between here and the Mississippi, between here and Duluth. Did they tell of Lewis and Clark, of Martin and Lewis, of Mickey Mantle, of Mickey Mouse? What was next, over the next hill?
I awoke in the dark to a wild and frightening sound. It was the scream of a coyote. He was close. I got up and opened the door, the chilly night drifting in around my bare feet. I saw starlight, as much of it as I have ever seen, and a satellite, whirling by as steady as a lamp. What is not on earth is best seen from this desert. Perhaps a cowboy in Montana might argue with that. But I have never seen a night sky in Montana or anywhere else as crowded with stars as this sky over the California desert.
The coyote was off slinking in a patch of thorny mesquite with his fellows of fang, poison, stinger, and claw. I would not see him unless he wanted me to. Coyotes are cagey, conniving cowards. They have a lot of enemies. I am one.
Last year, a pack of them killed our family dog, the only pet my two children ever had. A lovable, spoiled, miniature poodle, he was good at licking faces, not defending himself. When he was attacked, he probably yelped. Nobody heard him, so no one went to his rescue. I know he died wondering why.
I sat in the doorway, listening to the gent le voice of the night. It had taken up the details and shadows of the day and had wiped the face of the desert to simple, uncluttered blackness. My mind was reaching back, deriving memories from the most remote of sources. Surprisingly, I was not pushing them away or shutting them out.
I looked at my watch, not for the time but for the date. It has been eighteen months and two days since my marriage of twenty-four years ended. Tonight, I am feeling at peace with myself for the first time since. Guilt. Remorse. Shame. Defeat. All those gut-wrenching pains that pile one on top of another during the collapse of what was once a lifetime commitment. They are gone, at least for now.
I am seeing a universe of stars and feeling awed by it. Hearing the chilling scream a coyote and feeling both anger and sorrow, as if for the first time. It is easier to separate the two now. Anger is simple to handle. Sorrow, an affliction of solitude, is not and never will be easy.
I am paying attention. This moment is important. For months, I have been a non-participant, existing as an uninterested spectator, while valued life experiences have passed like meaningless news clips. They flashed and disappeared for my lack of attention or interest. There are no reruns.
It's a wonderful journey, this life. I don't want to spend any more of it asleep in the back of the bus. It's not too late. It never is. A man becomes his attentions. It is all he has, or ever will have. His observations and curiosity make and remake him.
Emmy said it best yesterday: The journey is what's important, the getting there. The poor sucker who misses it, misses about all he is going to get.CHAPTER 3
Fossils in the Desert
Borrego Springs, California
The next morning, my principal decision was which way to turn. To go east would send me back the way I came, across desert canyons on S22 toward the Salton Sea. Turning the other way, in minutes I would be in Borrego Springs. Beyond it laid mountains and the Pacific Coast north of San Diego.
On the map, Borrego Springs appeared as a town to be stumbled upon while you're looking for someplace else. Driving through it is not the quickest way to get anywhere. It's off by itself, surrounded into perpetuity by the 600,000 acres of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest such park in the continental United States.
Residents, I discovered, call the park the "green belt," or their guarantee that "southern California" will never get any closer to them than it is right now. About 3,000 people live here. Most are retired. Another 2,000 are here just for the winter. Those who stay the summer hibernate, as 100-degree days are the norm. For many, the state park is the reason they visit. For others, green belt is the reason they stay.
Borreso Springs is laid-back to the point that even a traffic light would be too disruptive. I doubt it will ever have one. The town center is a traffic circle. It has a controlling sign that asks nothing more of anyone than to yield.
Around his forehead was a bandanna streaked with sweat and red dirt. The same earth tones spattered his Suzuki T-shirt that fit him like a decal. The cutoff sleeves displayed the beefy arms of a vain weight lifter.
A petite lady behind the counter, wearing the brown smock of a park volunteer, was explaining to him that the upper three miles of Coyote Canyon were now closed to vehicles. "Habitat res to ration," she cited.
"That includes my dirt bike?"
She said nothing, staring at him over the flat-topped frame of her reading glasses.
"I'm all for the habit at," he argued, "but ya let guys on horses go up there. So what's wrong with me on a bike?"
"How about fifty-two sensitive species of rare desert plants in the canyon? They need a vacation from you macho guys and your bikes and trikes and Jeeps," she said smiling.
While this duel was playing itself out, I was studying the map, spread on the counter that we three shared. Since we had the counter in common, I didn't feel that I was interrupting. "How is it driving out of here over the mountain?" I asked.
They both mumbled something in body language like, "Good, we can change the subject."
"You have a couple of choices," the lady said looking up.
He jumped in before she could finish. "It's worse coming down. Believe me, I wouldn't think twice about doing that — going up Montezuma Grade, I mean."
I believed him. He had the look of a gutsy guy who would not think twice about doing most things. He pointed to a wavy red line on the map. It began at Hellhole Flat and ran up the San Ysidro Mountains. Montezuma Grade. A 3,200-foot rise on a ten-mile stretch of twisted roadway.
"Banner Road is easier," the lady offered. "That's how I go, even though it's longer."
He thought for a few seconds. "You didn't know that road has 107 curves in it, I bet? The guy that drives the school bus told me that. He does that kinda stuff, counts the curves."
"I didn't know that," the lady replied, expressing genuine interest. "But I'll tell you what my garbage man told me. When he is on Moniezuma Grade, he puts down those two iron lifters on the front of his truck just for protection."
The dirt biker grimaced. "God, I hate to even think about that. He's not driving a garbage truck. That's a lethal weapon, a medieval tank!"
"From the map, Montezuma Grade looks a lot more winding than Banner Road," I said.
"But there is a lot less of it. You are through it in six miles." The biker was making a final point: "And they just put up a new guardrail along there."
"Fine ... I don't intend to use the guardrail."
The end. Since I didn't have to go over the mountain, I would n't.
Excerpted from On the Back Roads by Bill Graves. Copyright © 1999 Bill Graves. Excerpted by permission of Addicus Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsPart I Southern California — Nevada,
2.. Pegleg Smith's Lost Gold Mine,
3.. Fossils in the Desert,
4.. The Search Begins for Main Street,
5.. Oh-My-God Springs,
6.. The Story of the Salton Sea,
7.. Hunting for a Caboose,
8.. Rest Stop of Wilted People,
9.. A Day Dedicated to the Caboose,
10.. El Garces: A Harvey House,
11.. The Last Boomtown,
12.. Highway 95: 450 Miles and One Traffic Light,
13.. Old Saloons and Tiffany Lamps,
14.. A Class Act of the Old West,
15.. A One-Sidewalk, One-Airplane Town,
16.. Potluck Booze Made Pizen Switch,
Part II Northern California — Oregon: Spring,
17.. Isolated by Its Hugeness,
18.. California's "Highest" Town,
19.. It's Illegal Not to Have a Gun,
20.. Where Flies Come to Die,
21.. The Driftwood Capital,
22.. This Trucker Hauls His Two-Year-Old,
23.. Harley-Davidson vs. Honda,
24.. A White-Circle Town,
25.. Independence Comes With Living Close to the Land,
26.. The Sucker Jar of Surprise Valley,
27.. The Oldest Living Things,
28.. Can't Root for the Hometown Team,
Part III Central California: Summer,
29.. Perched on the San Andreas Fault,
30.. Jake's Fish Farmer,
31.. A Town That Deserves a Medal,
32.. Its Name Preceded It,
33.. Searching for Main Street,
34.. Where Butterflies Spend the Winter,
35.. A Convex, Equilateral, Three-Sided Temple,
36.. Adventures on a Narrow-Gauge Speeder,
37.. Vandenberg Air Force Base: Thirty Miles of Beach,
38.. Fog, Flowers, and Watermelon Seeds,
39.. Servicetown, USA,
Part IV California — Arizona — Utah: Summer,
40.. Home for a Visit,
41.. The Year's Longest Day,
42.. Route 66,
43.. The One-Man Post Office,
44.. The Sun's Hot Grip,
45.. The Grand Canyon vs. Route 66,
46.. "Little Hollywood",
47.. Maybe America's Only Ant Hunter,
48.. "Catfish" Charlie on Butch Cassidy,
49.. Silver Oozed from the Rock,
50.. Dixie Country,
51.. A Monument to a Massacre,
52.. Pioneer Day,
Part V Wyoming — Utah: Fall,
53.. Welcome to Wyoming,
54.. A Subterranean City,
55.. Oregon Trail Trading Post,
56.. Greatest Pioneer Movement in History,
57.. The Beaver Hat,
58.. Ranch Girls Aren't Prissy,
59.. J..C..Penney Mother Store,
60.. Inside the Temple,
61.. Columbus Day is Transferable,
62.. Truck Attack on the Library,
Part VI Arizona — Colorado — New Mexico: Fall,
63.. A Bad Day for Arizona,
64.. Indian Country,
65.. Mostly Texans Here,
66.. The Anasazi: Now We Know,
67.. Ten-Cent Coffee,
68.. The Uranium Rush of 1950,
69.. On the Santa Fe Trail,
70.. A Route around Albuquerque,
71.. Where Dust Bunnies Can't Hide,
72.. Street of Healing Magic,
73.. The True Journey Never Ends,
About the Author,