kw: book reviews, nonfiction, rural places, eccentrics
Driving from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Denver some fifteen years ago, we stopped for a break in Limon, Colorado, a few hours short of our goal. Right at the end of the town, just a quarter mile from its beginning, was a little museum. We spent a charming hour there, then found the town was about to have their annual Founders' Day Parade, so we stayed for that. It was great. Serendipitous charm.
Reading Way Off the Road: Rediscovering the Peculiar Charms of Small-Town America, by Bill Geist, made me nostalgic for the rural and semi-rural life I've led in other, smaller towns. If more people spent significant time in "flyover country", I wonder if there'd be the kind of political polarization that currently plagues America. Some places and incidents in the book reveal truly charming aspects of rural America, though a few reinforce the backwoods stereotypes.
Take school bus racing. Vehicle racing of any kind is quite a foreign concept to a New Yorker. Heck, most of them never enter any auto unless it is a taxicab, and that is seldom. They haven't felt the 'need for speed'. But in places where you simply can't live without your own car (most of the country), auto racing is a popular spectator sport, and for many a participant sport.
Not many of us can afford to get involved directly with NASCAR racing, and Formula racing (such as Indy) is further beyond reach. But anyone with the entry price (typically 'bring your own junker') can enter a demolition derby. The cream of the DD is the School Bus Figure 8 Race, first promoted in Bithlo, Florida, about 15 miles outside Orlando.
Bill Geist, as the informal Fun Story Director of CBS News, has been to a great many odd places, to participate in, or at least watch from a safe distance, a great many local oddities. He freely acknowledges his debt to the cameramen, who must do everything he does, but backwards or over his shoulder.
The Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is more easily recognized as a safe, homey country entertainment. But did Bill go there for the country bands, the pie contest, or the tractor pull? No, he interviewed Duffy Lyon, who carves the yearly Butter Cow. He compares her undertaking to that of Michaelangelo, who only carved one of anything. Ms Duffy has created a new cow, working in a 40-degree (4°C) meat locker, each year since 1960. That's a lotta butter, a lotta cows, and an amazing oeuvre (she actually uses that same butter for about five years running before replacing it).
It is said there is less to do in the country. That depends on what you mean. There are certainly fewer Broadway shows and night clubs. But the work hours are longer. Nobody in the city works an 80-hour week, week after week for decades, the way most family farmers and ranchers work. Yet they find time for pastimes.
Some pastimes are decidedly odd, such as collecting twine and winding it into large spheres. This is just one of three twine balls of roughly the same size, twelve feet diameter, that contend for the title of the World's Largest Twine Ball. This one in Cawker City, Kansas, is probably the winner. Cawker City really is in the middle of nowhere, being about 150 miles from both Kansas City and Wichita, to the northwest of both.
The twine used for these is typically used twine from hay bales, once the bales are "unbaled" to be fed to livestock. The real champions of this sport beg twine from all their neighbors for a few counties in all directions. Twelve feet seems a practical limit, because they get too heavy to turn over, and tend to flatten once their weight exceeds a few tons.
Many a small town has a special something; someone famous was born there, or something significant was done there first or invented there. Some are famous for doing things differently, such as Whalan, Minnesota (100 miles southeast of Minneapolis), which being only two blocks long, is shorter than the average parade. So a few years back they decided to hold a stationary parade. The line up a police cruiser (borrowed from a nearby town that has one), a convertible with their oldest resident, a borrowed, and small, marching band, the local VFW veterans with a few flags, and some people on horseback. They line up, stand erect, and the townspeople and other visitors walk around, up one side and down the other. It doesn't take long!
Chattanooga, Tennessee, as it has grown, has swallowed up the unnamed place where the first tow truck was built, by a fellow who got tired of using mule- and human-pulled ropes to right overturned tractors or rescue ditched cars. He welded some stuff to the back of a Packard he'd cut apart, and created the first towing business. The museum honors this profession, without which most of us would have at least one dead car still lying dead by the side of the road.
It has been said, the slower you travel the more you see. Life may seem slower in Flyover Country, but I can attest to the richly detailed tapestry of lives, made by people who are as individual as all the differently-colored flowers in a Spring meadow. Bill Geist and his crews have dug out some pretty intersting specimens for our enjoyment. If a few folks here and there are motivated to take a driving tour through seemingly empty country, this book will have done some solid good.