- Way Off the Road – Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small-Town America
- by Bill Geist
- Broadway Books
- Copyright 2007
- 236 pages
Orange Beach, Alabama
Monday we made it over to the Orange Beach Public Library. I hadn’t been in a while, and I looked forward to combing the stacks. My kids found so many books that my wife and I both had to carry them out. But I had trouble settling on one.
I knew that I needed a change of pace after Death on Diamond Mountain, but nothing seemed just right. Eventually, I happened upon Bill Geist’s Way Off the Road. Tuesday I read most of it & it fit the bill quite nicely.
For years, CBS News’ Charles Kuralt combed the backroads of America looking for stories about stories of off-the radar people in flyover country. Kuralt’s stories for his On the Road series were often terrific and showed helped remind us that there many good-hearted people in the U.S.
I don’t know whether Geist was Kuralt’s official successor or not, but starting in 1987 he filled the same role for CBS News. Way Off the Road is a loose bunch of vignettes based on Geist’s experiences. The book reflects Geist’s humor, which is very dry and stands in stark contrast to the earnest Kuralt.
Because of the “vignette format,” Way Off the Road is very easy to pick up and put down. It’s a perfect fill in when you need something to read. Some of the stories work, some are “so so.” But you never bog down.
For me, a few of the highlights were –
1) “Prairie Dog Suckers” (pp. 19-25) about a man in Cortez, Colorado, who runs a business sucking prairie dogs from out of their holes.
2) “Population: Elsie” (pp. 109-118) about the single remaining resident of Monowi, Nebraska. She is an incredibly-busy widow who runs the entire time and a bar and grill. I didn’t have high hopes for this one, but it’s a great story of rural life in America.
3) “Figure 8 School Bus Racing” (pp. 119-128) reports on the many variations of the classic demolition derby that are alive and well in Bithlo, Florida. The event and the 6000(!) spectators are about as redneck as you can get.
Geist Isn’t Perfect
While I really enjoyed the book, it disappoints in place. In one (“The Alien Highway,” pp. 69-74) Geist reports on the strange people and occurrences near Area 51 in Rachel, Nevada. The story closes on a bizarre note with Geist calling a conspiracy nut “… a complete … f—ing idiot.” The nut then points a pistol at Geist. The story’s interesting, but nothing prepares the reader for the quick shift in tone.
The following story was the one that I liked the least. In “Bombsville” (pp. 75-80), Geist visits McAlester, Oklahoma, where most of the ordinance (i.e., bombs) are made for the U.S. Military. Geist asks the people who spend their days making bombs how they feel about their work. It’s a good premise, but – in another abrupt shift in tone – Geist comes off as a condescending elitist. When a minister indicates that – while he would prefer to live in a world without war – he sees no problem in McAlester building bombs, Geist snarks “With Reverend Moore it’s ‘praise the Lord and pass the ammunition'” (p. 80).
Some of the other stories were a little flat, but the good far outweighs the bad. I read almost the entire book Tuesday and finished it Wednesday morning while I had my Captain Crunch. I give Way Off the Road an 8 out of 10.