It started beyond the power lines in the hills and hollers of West Virginia, in hamlets like Looneyville and Odd.
It was my first trip for “Charles Hillinger’s America,” and at Odd, I visited a teacher from the Long Wanted School, so named because people waited so long for it. I also went to the only place in America where a mountain was made out of a mole hill: Mountain, W. Va., changed its name from Mole Hill in 1949.
What an incredible odyssey. It lasted more than six years, beginning with the first column on Feb. 10, 1985, until this, the 296th. I visited all 50 states (a dozen of them twice); Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The Times has decided to end the column, but I will continue to write features for other sections of the paper, as I have for 45 years.
“Charles Hillinger’s America” has been virtually the only newspaper column of its kind, slices of America from the big cities, small towns and hamlets, and the nooks and crannies in between. The stories have been about people from all walks of life:
* In Starkweather, N.D., where the temperature outside was 38 below and the wind chill factor was minus 74, farmer Dave Anders was playing a card game called Smear with half a dozen cronies in the K-B Cafe. Suddenly, Anders observed: “One good thing about a day like this, the mosquitoes aren’t biting.”
* In Jarbidge, Nev., pop. 17 and one of the most remote places in the country, I sat in the kitchen of Justice of the Peace Johnny Williams’ house. “Where’s your courtroom, Judge?” I asked. He replied: “You’re in it. We sit around the kitchen table and hear cases. We don’t stand on ceremony in Jarbidge. I never wear robes, just my everyday coveralls.” He was paid $22.15 a week. Could be the lowest-paid judge in America.
* With Clyde Tombaugh in his back yard in Las Cruces, N.M., we looked through a telescope he made out of junk. He recalled leaving the family farm when he was 22 to seek work in the city. His father’s parting words were: “Clyde, make yourself useful and beware of easy women.” Thirteen months later, he did something no one else has done this century: He discovered a planet, Pluto.
* Sol Kaplan, 75, was the last of the sidewalk pickle makers on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He had been at it since he was 10. I asked Kaplan if he made any money at his pickle craft. He replies: “I didn’t lose any.”
* At the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum, Paul E. Garber, 92, had been assembling a collection of historic airplanes since 1920. He recalled holding a ladder for Charles Lindbergh so “Lucky Lindy” could climb up into the cockpit of the “Spirit of St. Louis,” which was suspended from the ceiling. “After 45 minutes alone in the ‘Spirit’ with his thoughts, Lindbergh shouted: ‘OK, Paul. You can bring the ladder back.’ He climbed down, thanked me for taking care of his airplane, and then we went out to dinner.”
* Soaring Jenkins, a U.S. Forest Service lookout, lives by herself in a glass house reached by a steep, tortuous trail on remote, mile-high Cone Peak near Big Sur. When the sun awakens Jenkins each day, she recites the same prayer: “Beauty’s before me. Beauty’s behind me. Beauty’s all around me. Beauty’s above me. Beauty’s below me. Beauty’s inside me.”
I have spent time with Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Little Falls, Minn., where her husband, the famed pilot, grew up; with the Jubilee Singers, a musical group still going strong at Fisk University in Nashville, which introduced the world to the Negro spiritual and black music in 1871; with Fred Benson, 91, the only black resident of Block Island, R.I., pop. 600, since 1903. Benson held every civic position on the island, won $50,000 in a lottery and donated it all to scholarships for island children.
While interviewing Mary Ground, a 100-year-old Blackfoot Indian in Montana, she excused herself, fetched her alarm clock and said, “Start your questions. I charge by the hour.”
I flew with crop artist Stan Herd over Kansas to see his latest living mural, a gigantic vase with three sunflowers as big as 14 football fields, created in vivid colors from row after row of sunflowers, soybeans, clover and plowed earth.
I visited Susan Bayh, 29, Indiana’s first lady, at the Governor’s Mansion in Indianapolis. Only six years earlier she was working at Bob’s Big Boy in La Canada, paying her way through college. And I spent time with Eldress Bertha Lindsay, 91, leader of the Shakers, the 233-year-old religious group about to run out of members because they are sworn to celibacy.
The datelines have been from dozens of towns across the United States with funny names like Sweet Lips, Tenn.; Midnight, Miss.; Peculiar, Mo.; Evening Shade, Ark.; Popcorn, Ind.
Fort Lee, N.J., was the birthplace of the movie industry (not Hollywood); Atchison, Kan., Amelia Earhart’s hometown, is a mecca for women pilots from around the world; Shipshewana, Ind., is the Midwest’s biggest flea market.
There were stories about the real Vermonters; the old-line Outer Bankers of North Carolina, with their quaint Elizabethan speech; the loons on many of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes; Abe Lincoln’s footsteps through Illinois, and the proliferation of one-room schools in South Dakota.
I did pieces on universities all over: Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, not only one of America’s foremost black universities but also a national park; Bethel College in Kansas, the first Mennonite college; the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.; Pan American University in Texas, where 80% of the 10,500 students are Latino; tiny Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., where Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Curtain.”
There were others: The USC, the University of South Carolina, 79 years older than the West Coast USC; Berry College in Georgia, the largest campus in the United States with 28,000 acres; the University of Pittsburgh’s 42-story Cathedral of Learning, America’s only college skyscraper; Sheldon Jackson College, the oldest in Alaska, where most of the students are Eskimos, Aleuts and Indians; Slippery Rock in Pennsylvania.
Events included the opening session of America’s only unicameral legislature in Lincoln, Neb.; Return Day in Delaware, held two days after each national election, when the political winners and losers ride side by side in horse-drawn carriages; the annual Sheepherders Ball in Boise, Ida., America’s largest Basque community; the 125th anniversary of the bloodiest day in American history at the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland.
Stories about state capitals: In Michigan, falling sections of ceiling in the 110-year-old Capitol are not unusual. Lt. Gov. Martha Griffiths was almost leveled by one while in her office bathroom. Iowa’s massive stone Capitol, meanwhile, is the state’s biggest tourist attraction. And in Helena, Mont., the flavor of the West is everywhere, and Last Chance Gulch is the main street.
And the historical stories: I visited the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca, N.Y., the birthplace on July 9, 1848, of the women’s movement, started by five women at a tea party; the Valhalla of steam locomotives, Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa.; Petrified National Park, the only such park with a fence around it to prevent people from stealing its greatest resources; Dinosaur National Park, where Ann Schaffer keeps one of the world’s biggest boneyards.
Aboard the oldest ferryboat service in America, operating since 1683, I crossed the Tred Avon River in Maryland. I met several hundred dummies in the Ventriloquist Dummy Museum in Ft. Mitchell, Ky., and visited the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia.
In Loving County, Tex., pop. 91 and the richest county in the United States, I discovered that you cannot buy a loaf of bread or a quart of milk. There are no stores.
There were stories about the “Think Big, Draw Small” artists who receive $3,000 for each U.S. postage stamp they design; about plants and trees unseen in years sprouting and growing in Puerto Rico’s rain forest in the wake of Hurricane Hugo; about the largest gathering of eagles on Earth at the Chilkat Eagle Preserve in southeast Alaska.
There was an unbelievable Miami-to-Bahamas cruise with 125 of the country’s top syndicated cartoonists, led by Los Angeles’ own Mell Lazarus, who draws “Momma” and “Miss Peach,” and a three-week adventure in Siberia, a spinoff of stories in Alaska.
It goes on and on. There was so much more, and so much more I would have liked to have done. I traveled the highways and byways of America and hoped it could go on forever. Thanks for coming along.