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Bill Geist's new book, Way Off the Road.

Way Off the Road: Bill Geist
Takes Us to a Vanishing Rural World


Bill Geist, CBS News correspondent, is rediscovering America. Geist’s explores the vanishing rural world one small town at a time. Traveling off and on for 20 years, he encounters a unique range of eccentric individuals who seem to live slower and escape the celebrity fast lane ambitions. This book is full of quirky stories that Geist shapes to be compelling and insightful.

Red Rails in the Sunset
Hanlontown, Iowa, Pop: 229

People are always telling me they’d love to drive coast to coast someday, New York to L.A., and really see America. Having done it, I always suggest they consider flying from New York to Denver and driving the spectacular rest of the way. Maybe skip a thousand miles or so of cornfields; an hour of ‘em pretty much gives you the idea.

But then you’d miss places like Hanlontown, Iowa, a tiny dot on the map hidden away in the midst of all that corn, a spot you might not even notice driving through unless there was a tractor in front of you holding things up. When you see the sign, you’d better hit the brakes hard or you’re in Fertile.

You’d think Hanlontown’s population would grow, situated as it is between Manly and Fertile but alas. Hanlontown, like a lot of small burgs in America, had been trying to come up with something about itself to celebrate by way of a festival, or a museum, or maybe a gussied-up birthplace of some semi-important somebody or other, something that might draw free-spending city dwellers, whose dollars are worth a lot less to them where they come from than dollars are to folks in small-town America.

Often these little towns don’t have a lot to work with to attract tourism. And no budget to hire a public relations firm to sort of, you know, make something up. (Gateway to Southwest North Dakota?) Not to mention, it kind of goes against the grain of rural folk to embellish the facts or to toot their own horns, even in truth.

Corny Ideas to Attract Visitors

So the ideas small towns come up with to attract visitors are often simple, honest, unsophisticated, and, not surprisingly, corny. Hanlontown had already tried Pork Days, a typical rural festival where folks admire pigs, give them ribbons-then eat them. And what finer compliment?

“Howd that go over?” I ask a man on the street (in fact, the only man on the street) in Hanlontown. “Fair,” he answers, although his tone of voice make it sound more like “fair-to-poor.” Small town Midwesterners don’t like to understate or overstate. That’s what makes them better people and worse interviews.

Author Bill Geist, who's terrifically funny on the CBS News show Sunday Morning.
Author Bill Geist, who's terrifically funny on the CBS News show Sunday Morning.

The problem with Pork Days seemed to be that lots of towns in the Midwest hold them. There’s a huge celebration of the “Other White Meat” at World Pork Expo in Des Moines, which I’ve attended. (I’m not bragging, it’s open to the public.)

Folk in Hanlontown wanted to celebrate something-but what? The “downtown” has a newly reopened café (The Neighbor’s Place), a nice old bank building that’s closed, and a train that doesn’t stop here anymore.

But wait! The tracks are still there. “So what?” you say. Well, get this: every June 21, on the summer solstice, the sun sets smack-dab in the center of the train tracks. “And?” you may ask. Well maybe folks would come to see that!

Sundown Days

Hanlontown gave it a whirl. They named their festival Sundown Days, printed up some T-shirts, and put on a schedule of dazzling events: an antique tractor parade, a tractor pull, a kids’ peddle-toy tractor pull, an auction typified by a set of four TV tables going to the highest bidder for $6, a K-3d grade prince and princess pageant held without pageantry in front of the fire station/city hall/library/community center, plus a roving (but not very far) barbershop quartet, despite there being no barbershop.

The year I attend, a lovely, sprightly woman, Rua Doebel, is the parade grand marshal. She was then 101 years old, same age as the town, and in the parade she wears a horned Viking helmet for some reason as she waves from a Viking ship pulled by a tractor. Why, we do not know.

Ms. Doebel says people had noticed for quite some time that the sun set in the middle of the tracks, but nobody ever did anything about it. “We all noticed it, but we didn’t pay much attention,” she said. “But in the past couple of years, people have drawn attention to it because it attracts people to see if thee sun will set in the middle of the tracks. That’s funny isn’t it?”

And has the big festival attracted visitors from far and wide? I ask yet another man on the street, as the festival crowd begins to swell into the tens of people.

“No, not really,” he says, his wife on the street agreeing: “No I don’t thing so.” And from how far away have they come? “Oh, maybe three miles or five,” she thinks.

A few hours before the sunset, young Mayor Rick Scholbrock is upbeats: “There’ll probably be fifty, sixty, seventy people out here maybe. There’ll be cars lined up on the street here. The tracks just glow. It’s really neat. It’s really hard to describe.”

“People get excited about it,” says one of his constituents, and most agree, although one man chimes in: “If you like watching cement set.” There’s always the town curmudgeon.

Not a Lot to Get Excited About

“We live out in the middle of the corn and bean fields,” explains Dan Mortetz, “and there’s not a whole lot to get excited about, you know?”

Sundown in Hanlontown
Sundown in Hanlontown

Local residents talk of sunsets gone by and pull out their photographs. Clayton Rye has them from a number of years back: a nice one from ’89 and a beauty from ’82.

But aren’t they all pretty much the same? “Hardly,” he says. “Clouds spoil a lot of ‘em. Look at this one here. It was clear all day until just three minutes before the sun set. And there came the back of clouds. And ’96, ’97, ’98, ’99, all spoiled by clouds. You take your chances.”

Clouds! Why didn’t we thing of that before coming all the way out here? And this day, there are definite cloud concerns. “It doesn’t look good so far,” says one woman. “There’s a little glimpse of it, though. It might get underneath there.”

Mayor Scholbrock is also concerned about the clouds, but as a civic leader, he has to stay positive to avoid an outbreak of doom and dismay among the populace of this festive occasion.

Sitting through Rainstorms

“You think it’s going to make it out of the clouds?” I ask.

“I hope so,” the mayor says privately. “I’ve sat through rainstorms down at the tracks, and it’s pretty disappointing.”

Then, almost magically, the sun drops beneath the clouds, just above the horizon, and begins heading for the tracks. The traditional bike ride to the sunset is hastily organized. The mayor always leads a couple of dozen riders, taking a circuitous route to make it last longer. They arrive at the tracks and pretty soon the rest of the town does too. Excitement mounts. “Oh this may be the best one yet!” gushes one man.

My only question is whether the sun is going to make it to the middle of the tracks. I have somehow failed to notice in my first fifty years on earth that the sun drops in the sky at a rather severe, forty-five-degree angle.

I set my folding chair right in between the rails and open a beer. Come to papa!

People stare in awe. Cameras flash. “Wow!” gasps a woman in the crowd.

They sun nestles slowly onto the rails, causing them to glow as through the blazing fireball was turning then red hot. I can see what all the excitement is about, and can appreciate this small town, where they still take the time to enjoy the simple pleasures.

A year later, I’m heading home in Manhattan when I look west and notice the sun setting smack-dab in the middle of Ninty-third Street, between the blocks of buildings and parked cars, turning them a fiery red. I almost point it out to a passerby, but stop myself.

 

Buy This Book From Amazon Way Off the Road: Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small Town America

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