When you’re a newspaper columnist you get calls from people like this all the time. They ring you up and give you their pitch: “Hi, I’m walking/running/riding my bicycle across the country this summer, to work out my midlife crisis/raise breast-cancer awareness/attend my high-school reunion. I’ll be in your circulation area tomorrow, and if you’d like to write a story about me, well, that’d be swell.”
Sometimes you do it, sometimes you don’t, but if you don’t, chances are some other poor sap on the city desk will get stuck with it. Editors love people who do this, God knows why. Occasionally they’ll have a decent story to tell, but most of them say the same things: Wow, people sure are nice. A lady invited me into her house and gave me a piece of pie! This really is a good country after all.
(Disclaimer: Occasionally people bring a different approach to the gimmick. Figures these guys are Chicagoans.)
The guy in this story is a columnist himself, so he knows the game at something of a meta level — he’s not only giving interviews along the way, he’s writing columns about it, which are appearing in some great newspapers I’m sure you’ve all heard of, like the Bradford Era (“Your Dependable News Medium”), the Titusville Herald (“First Daily Newspaper in the Pennsylvania Oil Region”), and the Chronicle, an Independent Newspaper Since 1877. You can follow the links and read them yourself, if you want. Having scanned a few, I can give you the gist: There’s a different America out there away from the hustle and bustle of the city, a place where whittling strangers call out, “Come and set a spell,” and you know what? Small towns are really different, too. People know your name in the supermarket, and that’s worth something. And that brings us back to where America is today. Something’s gained from a modern world with so many choices – but something’s lost, too. Tell it, my brother.
It so happens I have a different reaction to most small towns. I drive through a few dying farm hamlets between Fort Wayne and Columbus, and it never fails to push a little oxygen over the dying coals of my religion: Thank you, God, for not making me live here, and also for not making me grow up here. My idea of hell is having everyone in the supermarket know my name, and while I don’t mind setting a spell, I’d rather not do it with someone who’s whittling. (Mixing a blender full of daiquiris, now, that’s different.)
So it doesn’t surprise me that these stories are an easier sell in Titusville and Fort Wayne than they might be in, say, Chicago. The dwindling numbers of Americans left in tiny towns like to flatter themselves as much as New Yorkers. I only wish we could come up with something more profound than this: Prices are also cheaper, in some cases, he says, inexplicably cheaper. In a Coke machine in these parts, prices are about 50 cents. On the East Coast, a Coke will cost $1.25 to $1.50. It baffles him.
Cletus, I hear tell that in New York City, you can pay twelve dollars for a cheeseburger.