Wheeling my 1983 Subaru into Marciano Prado’s driveway, I considered turning around and leaving. Marciano was the first person randomly selected from the telephone book. It was dark, and I had trouble locating his house in rural Kamiah, Idaho. Would I find a story?
It turns out that Marciano opened the door to his life. A Mexican immigrant, he worked in a cedar mill. His wife, Bertha, served wickedly hot chili. His seven children filled the family’s trailer home with laughter.
After dinner, with both my appetite and notebook satiated, I drove away pounding the steering wheel. “It’s true. Everyone has a story!” I shouted.
Since then, the little girl practicing for a pogo-stick contest, the man battling lung cancer, two boys catching turtles, a wife grieving over her husband’s recent suicide, the teetotaling liquor store owner, the woman who made toilet paper and said the world was divided equally between crumplers and folders – they’ve all appeared on the Tribune’s front page.
If I had to pick, Vera Morris would be a favorite. With her cat in her lap, Vera poured a whiskey, toasted me, and said, “I’m just a woman who’s living alone and getting around in a walker. I can’t do much, but I keep pushing. There’s no way they’re going to keep me down.”
I approach the column the same way – keep pushing, keep probing the phone book, keep dialing, keep driving to that next “Everyone” interview. With so many stories to be told, the column offers a road with no stop signs.
The late Charles Kuralt of CBS Television “On the Road” fame scoured America for stories in a Winnebago motor home. In 1994, he said that my exploration of Idaho in a Subaru had resulted in a column “… full of interest and variety, joy and sadness, and the highs and lows of human life.”
Four years later, a Boston Globe reporter came knocking, then a New York Times reporter, followed by CBS and NBC television crews. Over a two-week period, they took turns piling into my 1993 Impreza to report on some guy who uses a phone book like a road atlas.
These big-city reporters were captivated by the country I travel. They marveled at the panoramas, the twisting roads, the rugged mountains, the swelling ocean-like wheat fields, and the roaring whitewater river canyons.
“I never tire of driving this country,” I told them – Hells Canyon to the south, the Palouse farmland to the west, Coeur d’Alene lake country to the north, and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the east.
Later, I wrote a book titled No Ordinary Lives: One Man’s Surprising Journey into the Heart of America, published by Warner Books in 2002. In the memoir, I assert that “… Idaho is arguably America’s last frontier …” etched by a “… maze of federal, state, county and local roads that chisel their way through the Tribune’s circulation area.”
Thanks to my fleet of Subaru vehicles and the phone book, I’ve become part of that Idaho maze and its people.
My first Subaru died in a demolition derby when it was 20 years old. After serving my Tribune needs, the 1979 station wagon changed hands several times before a young derby enthusiast purchased it. The silver wagon placed second after a battery cable popped loose. I have video of its last gasps.
But my toughest Tribune road warrior was a 1993 Impreza Wagon. It refused to stop running, coming 732 miles short of 300,000 miles. Only when I was involved in a near-head-on collision did the car’s odometer stop. Even then, with its right rear wheel ripped from the chassis, the Impreza limped off the road while its engine purred like a cat.
I’ve also had 1980 and 1983 hatchbacks, a 1986 wagon (which my daughter later drove to college), a 1989 Justy, a 2003 Impreza, and now a silver 2011 Outback. Other than a pesky overheating problem with one, all the cars have been as dependable as the newspaper I write for – printed every single day for more than a century.
Idaho’s roads and weather make all-wheel drive essential. In 34 years at the wheel of Subaru vehicles, I’ve been stuck just once – in my own steep uphill driveway during a blizzard that left the car atop a three-foot drift.