Cover image for On the back roads : discovering small towns of America
On the back roads : discovering small towns of America
Graves, Bill, 1933-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Omaha, Neb. : Addicus Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
ix, 286 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"An Addicus nonfiction book"--T.p. verso.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F595.3 .G73 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Do you like small towns, places off the beaten path, trips down memory lane? Ever wonder if old-fashioned values are still alive in America? Then kick back, unwind, and hop onboard with travel writer Bill Graves as he takes you On the Back Roads. Graves has a knack for finding the quirky, the offbeat in some of the most obscure, yet fascinating, small towns on the map. Among the places and faces he discovers: a town where it's against the law not to own a gun, a town famous for its split pea soup, the wise 83-year-old Emmy who camps alone in the dessert, and a man who hunts live ants for a living. The list goes on! Retired and free to roam in his motorhome, the "RV Author," Bill Graves, logs 40,000 miles through the western states of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming.

Author Notes

Bill Graves is the author of the monthly column "America's Outback," which appears in Trailer Life Magazine. He has also written articles for numerous newspapers, including The Chicago Tribune, The San Diego Union, and The Long Beach Press-Telegram. When he is not traveling in his motorhome, he lives in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Graves, a retired navy captain, journeys the back roads and quirky small towns of the West that few have heard of, intentionally straying from the big cities and tourist meccas visited by "average Americans." Experiencing a newfound freedom after the end of his 24-year marriage and bored with retirement, Graves set out from Southern California in his motor home on an eight-month, eight-state sojourn. Crisscrossing the West's diverse landscape (from California's coastline to Utah's rugged wilderness), he descriptively captures the essence of towns that boast bizarre claims to fame (the largest producer of soda ash; the film site of more than 50 westerns; the town farthest from a railroad). In towns distinguished for their pea soup or for laws requiring all citizens to be armed, Graves discovers a pioneering spirit among townsfolk that's missing in big citiesÄas well as a willingness to give up luxuries most of us take for granted. He attends fairs and rodeos, eats in small-town diners and walks through the ruts left by wagons on the Oregon Trail. While Graves's narrative might have flowed more nicely by focusing on fewer towns, readers should warm to his easygoing nature. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Graves, a retired naval officer and military consultant to the film industry, bought an RV and set out to explore the western United States. His first stop is the California desert, where he visits an 83-year-old retired schoolteacher. She tells him that the small towns of America are the country's last hope and that visiting them always recharges her optimism. Perhaps in need of some recharging himself, Graves heeds her words and sets out. His trip is unplanned, and he drives from city to city, stopping along the way to read historical markers, tour museums, and talk to anyone he can find. Graves has written several articles for Trailer Life magazine, and the book's chapters would be more interesting as individual articles, for they do provide a quick glimpse of each town and its residents. As a whole, though, the book is less successful. Graves seems to have no particular point of viewÄhe apparently believes that small towns are interesting because of their mere existence, for he never explains what makes these places special. Not recommended.ÄJulia Stump, Voorheesville P.L., NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Emmy Southern California Desert Emmy 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 shook 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 it is 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 motorhome.     "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 curiosity--or should I be honest and say an oddity--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."     "You will. The roads you travel will lead you right to them. Most people think I'm nuts when I ask that. But can you imagine? Just think about it, what a thrill when they discover the ruts made by those wagon trains are really there. Yes, in a New York second they would take your place. Some will eventually get out here. A few, maybe. But for one seemly good reason or another, most never will. And that saddens me."     Emmy was not just an astute observer. She was very wise. I'm sorry that I left without telling her that. Nor did I tell her that she accomplished what all teachers aspire to but few achieve: She filled me with questions about my life and how I should be living it.     What did Emmy mean by "the last real hope"?. What is happening in the small towns of this country? All I actually know about present-day America is what I see in the newspapers and on television. Emmy, it appears, is a far better source than either of those.     I want to see the real America for myself. I don't mean a senior-citizen tour, seeing it out of the window of a sight-seeing bus. If the wagon ruts are still there, I will walk in them. When the main-street diner opens in the morning, I will be there to share coffee with those who want to chat. I will sit on the steps of the courthouse, and maybe in a rocker with a family on their front porch. And I'll see the sun rise over a place, any place, as many times as I want.     I can't cover the whole country, but I have the time, the mobility, and pocket change to see the West.     Emmy's words are still with me, what she said about a true journey. It never ends. I must admit, I have not yet started mine. It's high time. Copyright © 1999 Bill Graves. All rights reserved.