Why Small Town Traveler?

Inscribing Small Town Traveler on opposite sides of the same coin may seem redundant or deceptive, but they are indeed different. One is a perspective; I am a traveler who lives in a small town. The other describes the destinations I find fascinating. Which side takes precedence depends on the day, but usually they work in concert.

For decades I’ve been writing about subjects aeronautical, which sustains my lifelong passion for flight and provides an outlet for my technical curiosity. It also pays the bills. But airplanes alone do not satisfy my curiosity about the connective tissue of life: history, geography, sociology, and anthropology.

When pressed, I describe myself as an autodidactic polymath. Still, I get out of bed every day because it is another opportunity to learn something new. And sharing what I’ve learned is an important part of this because it connects me with others equally interested.

Like Robert Louis Stevenson I have always been “a frequenter of shy neighborhoods, a scraper of acquaintance with eccentric characters.” Curiosity, aroused by nothing more than a charming name or water tower slogan, leads me to the small towns where they live, where I wander their streets with a newcomer’s eyes.

Small towns are atypical destinations, places people don’t often go on purpose. This appeals to my contrary nature. “The fact that few people go there is one of the most persuasive reasons for traveling to the place,” wrote Paul Theroux about Oceania, and it applies to all destinations. He expanded on this opinion in Pillars of Hercules: “All places, no matter where, no matter what, are worth visiting. But seldom visited places where people were still living settled traditional lives seemed to me the most worthwhile, because they were the most coherent. They were readable and nearly always I felt uplifted by them.”

Blinded by preconceived ideas rooted in stereotypes, small town tourists too often expect Disney’s Main Street nostalgia, with four shows a day so they can tick that box and move to the next attraction. The appeal of small towns and their attractions are often hidden, even to their residents. Growing up with the things that make them special, quotidian exposure blinds them, and they must silently wonder why I’m visiting their prosaic hometown.

I often find the reasons in libraries, spattered monuments in empty parks, and dusty museums open only on Saturday afternoons. Sometimes it is the juxtaposition of past and present or a clue snatched from an overheard conversation. It’s a proactive, anonymous, and interactive process.

Garrison Keillor, who knows something about small towns, calls it “the art form available to Everyman. You sit in the coffee shop in a strange city and nobody knows who you are, or cares, and so you shed your checkered past and your motley credentials and you face the day unarmed…”

In other words, to see what others miss requires an open mind. For some time I’ve lived by the advice proffered by Sam Clemons: “You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus,” and always remember to use your ears and mouth in their proper proportions.

When wandering through someone’s hometown, I am a respectful visitor. Before I pass judgment, I remember that the lives I’m witnessing, like my life, are defined by their aggregated successes and sorrows and that moment’s challenges and solutions. In so satiating my curiosity I’ve often shared a surprising reward as people’s answers to my questions have often opened their eyes to things until then hidden in plain sight.

Conceived halfway through the baby boom, my adventureland was a post-war suburb, the virulent sprawl of progress that reticulated Chicagoland’s vast western farms into tiny lots for manufactured Monopoly houses. Everyone was from someplace else and families often didn’t remain long enough for new traditions to take root.

A late bloomer, my syncopated endocrine system plotted a course that diverged from my chronological peers. The eclectic curiosity born on this journey has been my everlasting reward. My parents, who met at the Chicago Art Institute, instilled in my sister and me an appreciation for originality. Instead of a fast-foot franchise feast we gobbled Friday fish at the Eck in Bartlett, a tiny farm town whose train depot put it on the map in 1873. We’d arrive early to snag the picture window booth so we could watch the commuter trains pass.

It was from that depot that I started my travels in 1972. With a vulnerable draft number, I enlisted in the Navy. Originally destined for its nuclear program, my eyesight disqualified me on further examination, and the Navy reassigned me to my second occupational choice, photographer’s mate, a skill ultimately more rewarding than my third choice, parachute rigger.

At photo school in Pensacola, Florida, I explored the Gulf Coast on my first motorcycle, and then the West Coast on my second. Diametrically different than Midwestern suburbs, the small towns there fascinated me. And I continue to avoid franchises that offer nothing more than a premeditated homogenous culture disconnected from its environment.

During my six-year cruise with Uncle Sam’s Yacht Club, I explored cities on the Pacific Ocean’s opposing and intermediate shores. In neighborhoods beyond swabby town I found everyday life that made these ports of call many of my life’s treasured experiences. Always eager to visit any place I’ve never been to, given an assignment today I would happily cross any ocean.

The unfulfillment of these overseas wishes, however, does not worry me because I find exploring flyover country exponentially more satisfying. Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose work I’ve just started reading, explained why: “Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote. The near explains the far. The drop is a small ocean.”

As life has run its course after my Pacific travels, from college, marriage, and remarriage to empty nest and self-employment, residing somewhere in the plains and prairies has been a singular constant. Each move brought me to a successively smaller town, which revealed the self-sufficient originality they almost all possess.

Over the past decade I’ve done my best to peddle these stories to travel magazines. Their reliable rejections make it clear that they don’t share my particular fascination with small town America. Given the Internet-era’s advertising and economic challenges, this genre’s focus on destinations more reliably alluring is pragmatically rational.

So is the organization of their content. Given limited space and the need to promote mass-market destinations, all but a few of their articles are a succinct series of commercials for lodgings, eateries, and consumer venues. Rare are the travel narratives with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

While online publishing has sapped the economic life from print, it offers an outlet for my creative urges at a risk I’m am willing to bear. It certainly offers an affordable way to meld words with photos, maps, and videos, and I get the added benefit of learning the skills necessary to implement them. Ultimately, however, beyond a perspective and destination, Small Town Traveler is a way to share and connect with others with similar interests.


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