Travel surprises await in Bill Geist's humorous look at small-town America

September 28, 2007|By JOSEPH BERGER

Way Off the Road: Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small-Town America

By Bill Geist

Hardcover | 240 pages | Broadway Books | May 2007 | 973.924 G

Bill Geist, Emmy Award-winning CBS News correspondent and author of "Monster Trucks and Hair-in-a-Can: Who Says America Doesn't Make Anything Anymore?" (Putnam, 11/94, 338.0973 G), celebrates 20 years on the road with a collection of 28 stories about unique people in small-town America whom Geist characterizes as "resourceful, eccentric, idiosyncratic, and a times just plain batty ? yet oddly inspiring."

Although much of the book is adapted from segments originally aired on "CBS Sunday Morning," Geist's storytelling is imbued with a seasoned journalist's gift for profundity that meshes comfortably with his endearing and gently mocking deadpan humor.

"Way Off the Road's" pages are populated with laugh-out-loud funny moments. A "standstill" parade in Whalan, Minn. (Pop: 62) that's over before it begins; a ban against unsightly porch furniture in Wilson, N.C. (Pop: 44,405); Kathy DeBruin of New Glarus, Wis. (Pop: 2,111) is "a cow photographer par excellence, the Annie Leibovitz of cow portraiture"; and the mysteriously sudden infestation of plastic pink flamingos in picture-perfect Celebration, Fla. (Pop: 2,736). Most memorable is Geist's nail-biting ride with the nation's last mule train mail delivery service on a narrow trail 2,500 feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon in Supai, Ariz. (Pop: 639). Regardless of the weather, the mule train delivers mail five days a week to the Havasupai Indian tribe.


Geist is a finicky gourmand when it comes to traditional American road food. "Small towns are not generally known for their cuisine, but sometimes the food's pretty good. Order meat loaf, mashed potatoes, barbecue, chicken-fried steak, gravy ? all that stuff leaves you smiling in your casket, although making it harder to close."

A person claiming to make the biggest and best-tasting hamburger in the world is for Geist simple "tall talk." Yet he stumbles upon the colossal-sized Moonburger in Moonshine, Ill. (Pop: 2), which draws people in from all 50 states and from 30 foreign countries. It's amazing when you consider that the unincorporated town (actually just Helen and Roy Lee's Moonshine Store built in 1912) is not found on any map.

In many places that Geist visits (most notably the one-person Monowi, Neb.), the population is shrinking in response to hard economic times. With the decline of agriculture and manufacturing, rural cities and towns are increasingly dependent on the "fast, easy, clean money" of the tourist trade. Seeing how easily Americans love being amused, Geist notes it's trendy for small towns to either declare themselves the "capital of something," open a museum, hold a festival, or come up with an attraction.

"America doesn't make much anymore. It's too much work, too much heavy machinery, too much noise and smoke. These days, we sell, we trade, we deliver, we type, we upload and download, we feed, and we entertain."

Well, not entirely true. Geist meets Fred Carl Jr., a Mississippi Delta native who is the inventor of the "high-tech, high-style, high-priced" Viking range that is manufactured in the former Cotton Capital of the World, Greenwood, Miss., (Pop: 17,344). Greenwood, in the midst of a renaissance and is fast becoming the ultimate destination for upscale cooking aficionados.

Following in the footsteps of Peter Jenkins ("A Walk Across America"), and Charles Kuralt ("On the Road"), Bill Geist proves once again that we ordinary Americans can and do accomplish extraordinary things. To see this real heart and soul of America, be prepared to leave the interstate behind and savor the surprises that await you on those long and winding back roads.

Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in America from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-first Century, and Why We Live in Houses Anyway

By Witold Rybczynski

Hardcover | 309 pages | Scribner | April 2007 | 307.768 R

Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design and an architecture critic for The New York Times, chronicles the not-so-simple process of turning 90 acres of a former cornfield into a planned "traditional neighborhood development" called New Daleville in rural Chester County, Pennsylvania, about 90 miles west of Philadelphia.

The book's title refers to a transaction undertaken by farmers who, facing the pressure of urban development, exercise their option to sell their land to developers for a much greater profit than harvesting crops.

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