Looking for America? Try the Back Roads

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Paris, Idaho, fall

We’re watching the scenery just beyond the chain link fence at the edge of the freeway. There’s a Bed, Bath & Beyond, a WalMart, a McDonald’s and a Taco Bell, a Home Depot, and, of course, a Best Western. Where are we? Is this Chicago? Houston? Boise? Victorville?

Or all of the above. From the freeway, most American cities these days seem to look pretty much the same.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to see much of the United States before it became endless malls, before big box and chain stores dominated the commercial landscape, even before there were interstate freeways.

All those improvements in infrastructure have their advantages, of course. I have driven the length of I-15. If there’s a need for speed, you can go from northern Montana to San Diego in two days without much difficulty.

But you might find it boring.

When I was a boy, I rode with my mother in our little Henry J as she raced the Super Chief into Gallup on Route 66. (For those of you too young to remember, a Henry J was a post-World War II compact car. The Super Chief was a passenger train.) We traveled the country when you could look forward to breaking desert monotony with the rhyming verse on the occasional string of five Burma Shave signs. There were gas stations where they pumped your gas, and Mom and Pop stores where you might buy live worms or crickets for fish bait. I remember places in Tennessee or Arkansas or Louisiana where you might wave at people sitting on the front porch watching traffic go by, and they would wave back. There used to be plenty of open countryside between San Bernardino and Los Angeles. The first time I visited Disneyland, a couple of months after it opened, there were still orange groves around it in Anaheim.

With the passage of time, some things are lost and some things are gained. We call that progress. Regardless of how we feel about it, there’s no going back.

But I still miss the America I remember, before every city in the country looked the same from the freeway. Even the names called out to anyone eager to explore: Hannibal, New Iberia, Aransas Pass, Roswell, Duchesne, Swan Valley, American Falls, Searchlight, Angels Camp, Coos Bay.

They’re still there. And yes, they have their Walmarts and Costcos. But you can still discover an America that doesn’t look like a blur of shopping areas seen through a chain link fence. Just get off the freeway and look for a place that interests you.

Want an example? Get out your United States map. (Yes, a map, not a GPS. It’s fun to study maps.) Now look in Ohio’s Amish country for the small town of Kidron. If you can, make a visit to Lehman’s store, which caters to the local Amish population, and to anyone else looking for non-electric technology. Lehman’s bills itself as a “low-tech superstore.” (And yes, it’s a sign of our times that you can find out all about the store and also place orders at www.lehmans.com.) You’ll find the place fascinating.

Ohio’s too far away? OK, here’s your challenge. Take that map and find an interesting place within 30 miles, a place somewhere off the freeway that you’ve never seen before, and start rediscovering your country. There’s a lot to love about it.

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Old Paris Hotel

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