A Personal Discovery of Small Town, U.S.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When you get to the fork in the road, take it.

--Yogi Berra

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In the back-road towns that are now my home and in the little cafes where I linger too long over coffee and idle conversation, I have become an oddity, like some dispossessed traveler from another age.

People gather around my bicycle, as they must have around the first Model T Fords that came to town 70 years ago, and want to know what peril I have encountered on the road and where I'm coming from and what's in my saddlebags. "Orville, take a look here," one man said to his friend in Frankewing, Tenn. "This fella's got a cellular telephone on-board."

California-bound, I pulled into Memphis, three weeks and 980 miles from home in northern Virginia. From my motel, I can hear the steady, monotone hum of cars and trucks headed westward on Interstate 40--a straight, 2,000-mile shot to Barstow without so much as a traffic light to slow their pace. Their drivers will beat me there by weeks but will know no more about America when they arrive than they did when they left.

There are small blessings to be counted in Memphis: a place to wash my clothes, another to get a glass of wine with dinner, a third to buy a set of inner tubes for my bike. Still, I find the city is not a welcome sight after dawdling through a world of drive-in movie theaters, restaurants with carhops and country roads where stalks of harvested tobacco dry in weathered wood sheds. I do not intend to stay long.

The local newspaper informs me that almost half the 11th-graders surveyed by the city know someone who has been shot, and one in five carries a weapon to school for protection. Although I have many enemies on the open road--all cars, most dogs, a few rednecks, every pothole--I feel more vulnerable, more a stranger, here than I do alone, gliding silently through Soddy-Daisy and Monteagle and McBurg, the success or failure of my days measured in hills conquered and miles covered.

"You and your bicycle are one of the strangest things to come through town but not the strangest," a woman in Bean Station, Tenn., said to me a week ago. "The strangest was a man on a pack horse two years ago, just after the big blizzard. He was going coast to coast and I remember saying to him, 'Don't you worry? There's so much meanness in the land now. You've always got to be so careful.' "

Bean Station isn't much of a town, just a crossroads on Route 11 really, done in by the interstate that had cut through the mountains a generation ago. Like most of the other little towns that stretch through the foothills of Appalachia and the Smokies, it is struggling to survive and everyone around looks middle-aged and tired.

I washed my laundry in my sink at the motor court and hung it out to dry on the barbed-wire fence by the cow pasture outside my window. It was 5 p.m. I pumped air into my tires, filled my water bottles, studied the map and wondered how I'd pass the evening. The highway was deserted. There was nothing to do but wait for nightfall and, at last, first light, when I could roll on again.

On my way here, I'd peer around the bend of a new road, hoping to discover some charming Southern village from the cover of an old Saturday Evening Post. But there were precious few. In town after town, a video store and tanning salon had replaced the barber shop and movie theater as the bedrock of Main Street, and in the stillness of the dark, quiet evening I could hear the labored breathing of Small Town, America.

I left Bean Station early, heading for Memphis and the Mississippi that would carry me into Arkansas. At the end of a five-mile climb up Jasper Mountain, I happened upon three old men sitting on tree trunks at the peak. They were selling watermelons and firewood. One of them was whittling a chunk of oak into what appeared to be a walking stick.

"What are you making?" I asked.

"Nothin'," he said. "I don't make nothin'. I just whittle."

His friend, an 86-year-old farmer named Dale, told me how there hadn't even been a road up the mountain when he bought his first car in the 1920s, for $400. He asked me what I'd paid for my bike, and I mumbled, hoping he wouldn't fully hear, "Twice what you did for the car." He offered me an apple and spat a stream of tobacco juice. Then he said: "I always meant to go to California but I never did and now I'm too old. Now, ain't that a sad thing?"

Off and Pedaling

Times staff writer David Lamb is biking across the country. He his home in Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 2 en route to Santa Monica

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