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Scribe of the Road : Home Town Paper Without a Home Town Keeps Editor Rolling

Times Staff Writer

Piloting his weather-worn motor home through the autumn-hued aspen high in the Sierra Nevada, Chuck Woodbury, editor, publisher and reporter for Out West, the nation’s only “on the road” newspaper, indulges in a bit of folksy hyperbole.

“The rural West is still very much that America that was there 20, 30, 40 years ago,” Woodbury, 41, tells his slightly cynical reporter companion.

“People still leave their doors unlocked at night, they don’t roll up the windows in their cars . . . and the kids in little towns, if they don’t show up at 5 o’clock for dinner, their parents just figure they’re having dinner at somebody else’s house.”

“Sure,” Woodbury’s companion murmurs. Sure.

Several hours later the soft-spoken, ever-earnest editor waves over a waiter at the whitewashed Bridgeport Inn. What is it about this isolated California town of 900 that this man finds so appealing? Woodbury asks.

Well, the waiter says, he does not need to bolt the front door at night, he usually leaves his car unlocked, and he never worries about where his children ride their bicycles.

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When it comes to the rural West, Chuck Woodbury knows whereof he speaks.

For the last year, Woodbury has crisscrossed the region’s mountains, deserts, valleys and coast in search of the little stories--the humorous, the bizarre--that are the texture of small town culture. With two cameras, Macintosh and NEC computers and the darkroom equipment he packs into his 11-year-old, 18-foot motor home, this unusual romantic sets down the stories for his equally unusual quarterly.

After each sojourn of six or eight weeks, the slightly graying, slightly built scribe returns to a small, simply furnished cottage in suburban Sacramento and, with the help of a contract printer, puts out another edition of his unique chronicle of Western life.

“I like a certain light style,” Woodbury explains. “I like to see the humor in things, and have fun.”

That he does. Among the subjects featured in the most recent issue:

- The Italian restaurant in Idaho Falls that offers a $2 rebate on each pizza--all you have to do is trade in a potato.

- The street in Condon, Ore., complete with 27 homes, that’s on the block for $150,000.

- The elusive Ultra Van, a motor home built during the ‘60s, of which only 400 or so survive. Woodbury’s conclusion: “Mutt-Ugly.”

Mixed into the potpourri are reviews of highways, based, among other things, on their scenic value and pothole quotient; essays on roadside dining (“If eating cow brains sounds pretty good, join the editor as he eats some in Missoula”); photographs of off-the-wall bumper stickers (on one RV: “Don’t tailgate or I’ll flush”); and Woodbury’s personal roadside journal.

One thing you won’t find is advertising. “I’m sick of advertising,” Woodbury says. “Everywhere I go--shopping carts, bus benches, the Olympic Games, television. They’ve even got it in some johns, now, You stand there in front of a urinal and there’s an ad in front of you.”

As a result, Woodbury relies solely on his subscribers for revenue and promotes “Out West” as “100% fat free.”

“People ask if I ever run out of stories,” the editor says as he drives south through the Mono Basin. “We’ve gone by about five already today. . . . No matter where you go, if you just start talking to people, you find a story.”

Although he still earns extra cash by selling free-lance articles to recreational vehicle magazines and the like, “Out West” is increasingly becoming Woodbury’s sole means of support. And he’s delighted.

“Sometimes I feel like Walter Mitty,” he says. “It’s some sort of fantasy.”

The whimsical periodical, which most recently weighed in at 36 pages, has already attracted more than 2,000 subscribers, and the circulation seems to be doubling with each issue. At $5 a year ($6 after Jan. 1), it won’t be long, Woodbury figures, before he can stop worrying about where he’ll get the money to repair the next flat tire.

Life was not always as simple.

Born in Riverside, Woodbury spent most of his youth in West Covina. His father commuted to downtown Los Angeles, where he worked as the insurance manager for the old Metropolitan Transit Authority, predecessor of the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

In 1964, Woodbury says, his dad “got pretty ulcered out,” pulled up stakes and moved the family to Grass Valley, a small town in Northern California. His parents bought a liquor store and later, a motor home, and took to traveling through the West on their vacations.

Woodbury spent his college years in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an entrepreneur, beginning with a stint as the business manager of student publications at what was then Sacramento State College.

Founded Weekly Newspaper

Later, he founded the Aardvark, a weekly that circulated on six local campuses. (“It wasn’t much of a paper. . . . I remember our first issue had a story on the secrets of the Mayan Caves. I paid the guy who wrote it five bucks.”)

With his earnings from that and other enterprises, he purchased a roomful of typesetting equipment, and went into the printing business. The Communication Co. prospered, and at its height employed 13 people.

Then Woodbury made a fatal decision. He became a partner in a music magazine called the Rock ‘n’ Roll News. It consumed his time, and eventually, his money. In 1978, he sold the printing business for $30,000, and still found himself $45,000 in debt.

“I went weekends living on peanut butter sandwiches, borrowing $5 from friends so I could buy some spaghetti,” he explains.

Woodbury discovered how to sell free-lance articles to magazines, and scared up public relations work, largely involving sporting events. Eventually, with the cooperation of a real estate developer, he founded a monthly newspaper that circulated in a tract of luxury homes outside Sacramento. But it, he decided, was not what he was meant to do.

A Year on the Road

After he paid his debts, Woodbury sold the publication, bought his motor home and spent a year on the road, writing travel stories and trying to decide what to do next.

“I didn’t want to get a job,” he says. “I had job offers, but I always felt in the back of my mind that something would happen.”

A year ago, somewhere between Thermopolis and Rock Springs, Wyo., something did.

“All of a sudden I thought, you know, I’ll go home right now. I’ve got the stories in the computer, I’ll lay out a paper. I’ll print 3,500 copies, I’ll put it in the mail and send out a press release and see what happens.”

“Out West” immediately attracted more than 250 subscribers, and the list has been growing ever since. Newspaper and television feature stories have helped swell the total.

Judging by their addresses, Woodbury guesses about half of his readers are urban professionals.

“I think a lot of people find what I’m writing is a little break from a hectic life,” he says, “a little chance to escape into a different world and laugh a little.”


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