Looking for the Past Along America's Back Roads

Unleash a wanderer’s spirit and learn about the life stories and tricks of the past that can be found along the back roads of America.

| January 2020

Downtown Wyoming, Iowa, in the late 1930s.

I met a hobo once who had spent part of the Great Depression hopping freight trains, looking for work. His name was “Speck” Martin. We lived in the same western Oklahoma town for some years. He told me stories, like how he strapped a belt around the catwalk on top of the boxcar and then around his waist to keep from falling off while he slept on the top of the car.

He spoke of how word of the friendly towns and the houses where you could get something to eat traveled through the trains. He wanted me to know that hoboes were not bums; he said a bum didn’t want to work, but hoboes were looking for work. Speck finally found work in Winslow, Arizona, cleaning Nehi pop bottles.

I am an old soul. It seems like I am in a time and place where I don’t really belong. I find myself constantly searching for something that will connect me to a time before I was born. Maybe that’s the reason we all collect things: It connects us to a time when all was right with the world. My problem is that most of the stuff I collect was used way before I was born.

My desire to experience life before my time manifests itself in many ways. I watch old black-and-white movin’ picture shows, paying close attention to life in the past. I get insight into what a bus station and bus travel was like by watching It Happened One Night (even the old auto courts in that movie fascinate me). I pay close attention to how people dressed and how they talked, and I love it when I get a glimpse of old store interiors.

I collect old postcards. I have a pretty good collection of “Main Street” postcards from small towns across the U.S. I also love old radio programs like Fibber McGee and Molly and Amos and Andy. Lum and Abner and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar are my favorites. The Lux Radio Theatre ranks right up there on my list of favorites; I even enjoy hearing the old commercials. There is some irony in that the technology of today enables me to enjoy old movies and radio programs.


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