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Authors: Bill Graves

On the Back Roads

BOOK: On the Back Roads
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An Addicus Nonfiction Book

Copyright 1999 by Bill Graves. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopied, recorded, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. For information, write Addicus Books, Inc., P.O. Box 45327, Omaha, Nebraska 68145.

ISBN# 1-886039-36-4

Cover design by Jeff Reiner, Josh Doolittle

Typography by Linda Dageforde

Cover photo by Sutter Creek, CA by Henry Mace

Back cover photo by Chris Graves

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Graves, Bill, 1933-

On the back roads : discovering small towns of America /
Bill Graves.

p. cm.

“An Addicus nonfiction book”—T.p. verso.

ISBN 1-886039-36-4 (alk. paper)

1. West (U.S.)—Description and travel. 2. West (U.S.)—History, Local. 3. West (U.S.)—Biography. 4. Cities and towns—West (U.S.) 5. Graves, Bill, 1933- —Journeys—West (U.S.) I. Title.

F595.3.G73 1999




Addicus Books, Inc.
Web site:

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Judy, Chris, and Kathy,
And for Connor, whose journey has just begun


Part I Southern California — Nevada

1.. Emmy

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


told my friends, when I was writing this book, that it was about a former naval officer who could not stand the stress of retirement and ran away in a motorhome. Looking back, that is a pretty good description of it. It's honest anyway.

Six years ago, I was facing huge decisions, but from the perspective of a 22-year old just starting life. I had no real job, no place to live, my kids were grown and doing well in the world and I was single again. The difference, of course, I was older, maybe wiser and had an income. I did what I have never done before: I followed a dream. I took off in a motorhome to explore the West. I did not know where I was going – and didn't care much - but quickly realized that a destination is not import ant. The journey is what it's all about. For me it was everything—all there was.

I hung out where I felt like it, usually in the small towns that were a long way from the big ones. I may have missed some of the spectacular national parks and fun places average Americans go; and I may have missed a chance to meet tourists from around the nation. But that's okay. I was out there searching for that special breed of American who makes his life in the tiny towns of the American West, and I wanted to do it on his turf.

For the seven months I traveled, I was able to fufill my
wish. And now, I am pleased to introduce you to the many fascinating people and places that were part of my unforgettable journey.

My motorhome helped make it all possible. It is completely self-contained right down to an electric generator that runs everything including my microwave and two air conditioners. It is comfortable, of course, but that is not what the motorhome lifestyle is all about—at least for me. It is about the independence and freedom that it offers, the absolute in free-spirit travel. Not ever tied to a schedule, a reservation, or even a clock, I let my curiosity run everything. I didn't have to read a sticky menu be fore breakfast or unpack a suitcase for my toothbrush. The motorhome did, and still does, offer life on my terms on the open road. And it doesn't get much better than that.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Part I
Southern California — Nevada
Southern California Desert

mmy 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
—or should I be honest and say an
—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?”

“Not yet.”

BOOK: On the Back Roads
9.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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