POCATELLO, IDAHO—Laying the weather map’s bolus of bad weather over the road map devoid of small town dots that connect the larger cities called for a long day in the saddle to compress two days of rainy riding into one. With the weather moving east as I headed west, it just seemed to make sense. And it would be nice to be up one against Mother Nature.
Besides, I have been craving a good beer; that which I imbibed with good friends and my youngest son at the Rock & Run in Liberty, Missouri, has since gone the way of all beer. It’s been the only good beer I’ve relished so far on this trip. All the convenience stores have to offer in a single serving are from St. Louis, and I cannot look forward to another Bud Light with my celebratory end of day cigar.
Only intermittent rain stood between me and the Lander Brewing Company, so that was my lunchtime goal. Investigating this small town was an important goal because I almost moved there in 1982. With my writing and photographic skills, she newspaper there wanted me as its next Lifestyle editor.
The idea of moving to a small town that was, even then, a hub of outdoor activity, appealed to me greatly. Unfortunately, they needed me there before graduation from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and if I didn’t get my degree, the VA would seek a refund of the meager $311 a month it paid me in GI Bill benefits, so I passed. And I’ve always wondered what I didn’t pursue.
After lunch I wandered the streets in warm sunshine. Many of its 7,677 residents seemed to be young, fit men and women, nearly all of whom offered smiles as I passed. Backpacks and bikes were everywhere. The mountains rose at the far end of main street, which was lined on both sides with businesses with open doors. Yes, I could have been happy here, maybe. What I didn’t see during my peregrination was the box with the newspaper, whose name I can’ remember. The Caspar paper was the sole offering.
Riding out of town, the GPS told me to “Drive on Main Street for 104 miles.” At the edge of town it became WY 28. A dark, ominous sky lay ahead of me. I pulled the collar of my florescent yellow rain suit tight and hunkered down. The rain came in installments that were not serious enough to consider hiding; they were just annoying.
As it has along many of the paths I’ve followed so far, the railroad paralleled the pavement. Every 10 or 20 miles I passed the decaying remains of small agricultural whistle stops. Their main streets, lined with a handful of buildings, invariably met the tracks at a perpendicular crossing. In each there seemed to be two or three two-story brick buildings. At one time they whistle stops’ showpiece structures, there windows were now boarded up and painted the same faded color as the rest of the building. The trains still passed through several times a day, but their cargo was usually coal. The didn’t stop, but they still blew their whistles to warn the surviving residents of their approach.
As rain streamed off my helmet’s face shield, it occurred to me that this consequence of transportation progress has affected many of the small towns I’ve visited so far on this vagabondage adventure. Grand Detour, where John Deere created his plow that replaced prairie grass with corn and beans, was a river town. And so was Nauvoo, which had a deep water port but no traffic. The railroad took it all after the Civil War. And the railroad also put an end to the emigrants’ wagon trains along the Oregon Trail. And after World War II, the U.S. highway system usurped the railroads’ dominance in the freight and passenger markets.
Today these small towns barely survive as thin shadows of their former selves by providing a handful of essential services to the farmers who still work that land that surrounds them. Most of the next generations usually leave to make their way in the world. Those that remain economically viable are either close to a bigger city, to which they become a bedroom community, or they are so far from anywhere that they become, like Lander, the “big” town that supports those who live in its environs.