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One for the Read

Retiree Searching for America in Its Small Towns Gives a Lift to the Armchair Traveler

"On the Back Roads: Discovering Small Towns of America,"; by Bill Graves; (Addicus Books: $16.95, paperback; 302 pages; [800] 352-2873).


A few years ago, Bill Graves found himself retired, in good health, newly single and with no pressing responsibilities. So he took off in his motor home on a wanderjahr "to see the real America for myself."

"I don't mean a senior citizen tour, seeing out of the windows of a sight-seeing bus," he writes. "If the wagon ruts are still there, I want to 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."

His journey occupied the better part of two years and covered almost 40,000 miles. At a time when increasing numbers of Americans live in large cities, Graves avoided them for towns with populations ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand.

He rambled through California, Nevada, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, saw the local sights and chatted with the people he met. Always seeking to discover what creates a local identity and what anchors people to a place--especially a crumbling town whose economic base evaporated decades ago.

In Bandon, Ore., Graves talked with residents "of the driftwood capital of the world" about the redwood, mahogany, teak and other exotic tree trunks the Pacific tides carry to their rocky beaches. He contrasts tourists and shops selling stained-glass mobiles, scented candles and beach towels to the homey warmth of a cafe catering to the remaining loggers and fishermen.

In Halcyon, Calif. (pop. 125), he takes a guided tour of a large, triangular temple built by members of a minor, misunderstood and largely forgotten cult of the early 1920s.

In South Pass, Wyo., he finds the wagon ruts he sought, left by the thousands of settlers who followed the Oregon, Mormon and California trails to new lands during the late 19th century. Standing in those ruts, he reflected on the sheer number of people and wagons needed to make those depressions in the sandstone--people whose desire for new horizons reshaped the geography of the U.S.


When Graves takes shelter from an unexpected rainstorm in Evanston, Wyo., he becomes an uninvited but welcome guest at a cowboy wedding. He shares a picnic in Enterprise, Utah (pop. 1,200), talks with the local taxidermist and swaps stories with a petite woman who shoes horses.

And as he continues his journey on Highway 18, he argues with a dour radio commentator about the condition of America: "Well, there are a bunch of fine folks out here, sweating in the sun, brushing out the undergrowth, doing the best they can," says Graves.

"What's more, they do it every day. If anybody wants to see just how well that works, how well that is turning out, come visit Enterprise sometime. Or thousands of towns like it in America."

Graves is certainly not the first writer to hit the road in search of America, nor is his conclusion that the journey is more significant than the destination particularly original. But his unassuming, genial prose makes him a welcome companion for an armchair trip through the back roads of the West.


Charles Solomon can be reached at

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