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Sunday, July 30, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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NORTHWEST PEOPLE

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

WE CREAK OUT of Seattle in Chuck's camper with a big box of Cheez-Its (his traditional driving snack), a full tank and an itinerary as wide open as the road.

Our only destination is Soap Lake, where we plan to meet an octogenarian who makes corn-husk dolls. But that's not until late afternoon. Before and after, we have a couple of days to meander wherever the macadam takes us. We'll pause whenever something, somewhere or somebody catches Chuck Woodbury's eye: truck stop, junkyard, the world's ugliest pig.

Woodbury is a dashtop publisher who roams Western byways in a "Porta-newsroom," searching for stories for his on-the-road newspaper, Out West. In 13 years publishing Out West, Woodbury figures he's driven 150,000 miles, snapped 15,000 photos and written a million words for as many as 10,000 subscribers.

Most of those words find their way into Woodbury's travel diary, Roadside Journal, which is the newspaper's soul. The chatty chronicle starts on Page 7 of each quarterly issue and rambles around articles about rock shops, snapshots of wacky road signs, chipmunk essays, interviews with quirky characters, reader mail. It's written like a folksy letter from a guy who quit his straight-laced job to be a nomad. (Which is pretty much what Woodbury did.) The subjects are offbeat and ordinary; the tone is silly, then poignant; the prose is as plain-hewn as the picnic tables on which most of it is typed:

"A construction zone flagger today waved and smiled to every car that passed. It was late afternoon and he must have been tired, but still he waved and smiled. Some people are just happy by nature . . . Happiness is contagious and he spread a little of it to me as I passed by."

Our trip to Soap Lake would become part of Out West's 50th issue, and perhaps one of the last where Woodbury himself would be so much at the wheel. At 53, Woodbury wants to explore Internet opportunities and spend more time with his wife and 8-year-old daughter in Edmonds.

"I may be getting off the road," he says. "I'm not that roaming guy any more as much as I'd like to think." Woodbury plans to keep publishing Out West and its companion Web site, but will soon change the format, perhaps using other writers instead of traveling several weeks each quarter himself.

While Woodbury was still wandering with his laptop, I hoped to glimpse not just how he put together Out West, but why.

I mean, the deep why of it. The Great American Road Trip. Lewis and Clark, Alexis de Tocqueville, Agee and Evans, Ernie Pyle with his manual typewriter, John Steinbeck with his leaky poodle Charley, William Least Heat Moon on blue highways, Jack Kerouac on a head trip, Charles Kuralt on the air.

What is it about this country and its romance with the road?

Steinbeck, in "Travels with Charley": "Something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation - a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here . . . I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move."

Chuck Woodbury: "When you get away, everything is crisper and cleaner, and for me, I open my eyes. When I'm home, I close them. I don't see things."

Like the hubcap queen near the California desert. Or the Tenderometer that squishes peas at the world's largest independent pea processing plant in Stanwood. Or Nutty Narrows in Longview, the only squirrel suspension bridge in America. Or a mythical antlered jack rabbit called the Jackalope. Or the best hamburger in the West, a three-patty special at Fat Smitty's cafe on Discovery Bay.

If Out West sounds like the journalistic equivalent of a souvenir shop cluttered with refrigerator magnets, well, it is. Yet in certain moments - at night in a chilly campground or making small talk with a waitress in some sagebrush town - kitsch connects with the cosmos:

"I sat on my lawn chair . . . staring above," Woodbury wrote in Roadside Journal. "The stars were framed by three Douglas firs near my campsite and the silhouette of pine trees on a distant ridge. One shooting star after another streaked across the sky, each marking its final moment of a long, long spaceflight.

"I had made a few wishes, even though I knew only the first counted . . . . If you can stare at the nighttime sky and still fret that you cannot afford a Rolex or a new BMW or that second home in the mountains, then you have not heard the message of the night sky.

"It tells us that life is short, that life is precious, that life is beautiful, and that to worry about petty things - acquiring material things, for example - is not important. The sky can teach us these things and more, but only to those who want to know.

THERE'S NOT MUCH meaning in cherry pie, but we'd stopped at the Martha Inn Cafe in George Washington (a town that prefers no comma), so I ordered a slice just because. Woodbury ordered a George Burger - two patties, a slab of ham, two slices of bacon, a soft bun. "Instant plugged-up arteries and perhaps even death at an early age," he said, "but I can't write about salad."

After the pie, we missed a turn or took an extra, and wound up driving through lupine and daisies high above a cottonwood creek. We had escaped drizzly Seattle traffic, crossed the Cascades and spun through a large-scale landscape of 18-wheel rigs, power towers strung across the horizon, the Columbia River slashing through rock. Now, in this back-road oasis, the scene was simple and pretty. Purple, blue, yellow and green. Here was where Woodbury's brain shifted from left to right, as it always does when he's on the road.

"Driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconscious," Steinbeck wrote in "Travels With Charley." "This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking . . . particularly on very long trips, a large area for daydreaming or even, God help us, for thought."

Woodbury's thoughts turned to a time before freeways, before McDonald's and Starbucks, when slow roads were lined with Mom-and-Pops that set out truck-size root-beer mugs and humongous plastic steers to entice people into their stores.

"In the days of back roads," Woodbury says, "people would respond to novelty, individuality. Now they respond to logos. When you go to a franchise, you never win, you never lose. If you don't look outside, you'd never know you're someplace else."

In two days and 400 miles with Woodbury, the only chain store we went into was Schucks, to replace a burned-out tail light. Other than that, every place and everybody we encountered was one-of-a-kind. Even the motel where I spent the night, Notaras Lodge in Soap Lake, was in a class of its own.

"Spectacular" is not a word usually used to describe a motel, but this was. The toilet seat in my bathroom was hand-carved and inlaid with barbed wire. The room had a cowboy theme in honor of local cattleman Kenny Ardell. There were leather saddles on the wall, gold belt buckles epoxied into the vanity, an antique stove, a bed made of branches, a mineral-water bath. Another room, dedicated to a local hobo-turned-junkyard king, was decorated with working toy locomotives, signal lamps, train-track wainscoting and, for coat hooks, railroad spikes. (More on the hobo later in this journey.) Woodbury figures such lodging would cost about $300 a night in trendy Jackson, Wyo. In Eastern Washington? $58!

We landed in Soap Lake because an Out West subscriber had written to Woodbury suggesting he visit Ada Whitmore. During World War II, Whitmore riveted machine guns. Now, at 85, she wrestles with irrigation pipes, tends a garden, raises peacocks and crafts corn-husk dolls from tamale wrappers, mostly by feel. She's losing her vision but still wants to keep the lost art alive.

When she greeted us, Whitmore's cheeks were rosy and crinkled like an apple doll's and she wore a flamingo-colored sweatshirt that matched her bright spirit. "If you don't like housework," she gleefully told us, "then find something else to do!" Judging from the clutter around her yard and house, Whitmore had found plenty else.

"Stuff was everywhere," Woodbury wrote the following day in his notes for the next Roadside Journal. "Mostly dead stuff - cars, trucks, washing machines, and even a dead motor home. I have noticed through the years that many rural people often leave things that don't work wherever they stop working."

"You only live once," Whitmore told Woodbury, "and shouldn't miss any of it!"

After showing off her dolls, Whitmore took us outside to meet a huge, hairy boar. "Hey, pig!" she yelled. She waved wild dill under its rheumy snout while Woodbury documented the tusked beast with his digital camera.

"Grotesque!" he said later. "If a pig could be a dinosaur, it would be this pig! I tell you, it doesn't take very long to get away from what's familiar. This is light years from being in Edmonds or Seattle."

He was right. After the pig, the doll lady led us to a woodcarver who rivals Geppetto. The woodcarver was the one who told us about the log motel with the barbed-wire toilet seat. The motel's proprietor, Marina Romary, gave us a grand tour that included barging in on good-natured guests (who were playing pinochle) so we could see the memorabilia in their bathroom. Then Romary took us to a saloon with cowhide walls.

There's something about Woodbury that makes people love to show and tell. Partly it's his unthreatening presence, which falls somewhere between Mr. Rogers and Peter Jennings. He's neat but not fancy, a sneakers and jeans guy. He has wavy gray hair, a mustache and a square, trusting face.

Most of all, Woodbury is curious about everyone he meets, even Wal-Mart greeters.

"Many, if not most people, claim they have no story to tell," he says. "But I know better. Every single person in the world has a hundred stories. The trick is getting them to reveal them. I think that may be easier in the rural West than in, say, Maine, where all you get for answers are `yup' and `nope.'

"People do amazing things and a lot of people don't appreciate those amazing things. People say stuff to us and we just let it go."

Actually, when Whitmore suggested we visit her neighbor who carves wood, we almost didn't because it was late and had been long since the cherry pie and burger. But she insisted, so we went to see Edmund Norley's amazing kaleidoscopes.

They were hand-crafted from burls and bird's-eye maple. Each kaleidoscope had four wooden gears, which in turn had between eight and 28 interlocking teeth. Norley had even made most of his own chisels and, in a foundry, cast the parts for his own turning lathe and a grinder to sharpen his tools. He'd worked on each kaleidoscope more than 300 hours.

Woodbury was so entranced by the exquisite workmanship and glowing glass he forgot to take pictures. "Why do you keep making these?" he asked the 82-year-old woodworker. "I mean, you achieved perfection."

Some things are hard to explain. "Well," Norley said, "you see, I liked making them."

Woodbury nodded as though he understood. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. Either way, the nod brought forth more from the woodcarver than any question would have.

Norley told us about his long career as a refrigerator repairman and how much he misses his late wife, who was his best fishing buddy for 55 years, and how two of his four sons died and another, injured in high school, worked his whole life as a civil engineer even though he could have lived off disability checks because he uses a wheelchair.

"My sons told me: Why did you spend 40 years in the air-conditioning business? Why didn't you become a carver from early on?"

Norley didn't answer that question and Woodbury let it rest. It didn't seem right to leave a man alone at the end of the day with only questions and swirls of broken glass.

Instead, Woodbury told him, "You're an interesting guy, Ed. You've got 50 times more talent than I have," and we said goodbye.

DO YOU HAVE a dream? Something you'd love to do, a life you'd dare try . . . if only?

Woodbury knows well that tug between longing and fear.

Before he started Out West, Woodbury published a series of small newspapers, the last for a gated community in California. He made a decent living, but life was dull.

An entry from his personal journal, June 28, 1982:

"I am unmotivated, bored and stagnant here and need to move on. Maybe I will go out and come right back. Maybe I will realize that my trip is only an escape from facing responsibility and not a life solution after all. Maybe, though, I will find that I like a life on the road, that it's my ideal lifestyle. I do not know what I will find. But now, with a comfortable home on wheels, at last I have the opportunity to live out my fantasized lifestyle."

Later that summer, Woodbury moved out of his house and rolled off on four-month trip to the Pacific Northwest. "Most of the time I am happy that I am leaving but sometimes I am scared," he wrote in his diary. "I still do not know why I'm doing it."

For four years, Woodbury rambled around the West, covering costs by selling his small publishing business and by freelancing articles and photos.

Then he launched Out West. The shaggy newsprint tabloid became a popular sigh-of-relief assignment for journalists covering the corporate-drone '80s. Out West was featured on the "Today" show, ABC, NBC, CBS, NPR, Michael Feldman's "Whad'ya Know?" radio program, The Washington Post, People, USA Today, the Village Voice. "All I had done was publish a couple of little tabloid newspapers," Woodbury mused, "yet I was being treated like an expert on the American West."

Readers wrote to congratulate Woodbury on having the guts to follow his dream because they, too, once wanted to follow a dream. But they told him, "Now I'm 70, 80 years old and my wife's got arthritis or I'm sick, so I can't."

Subscriptions peaked at 10,000; current circulation is about 4,500. Over the years, Woodbury has declined several offers from investors to grow his newspaper because he wanted to keep it pure. "I've suffered financially, but you know, (with investors) I would've been a robot. . . . Out here I'm not multi-tasking. The idea of not having a boss, not having a time clock and going out and doing what you want to do is so appealing. That's why my paper is still around."

"Out West has been my best friend for the last 13 years. It's been good to me. I met my wife through Out West. I wouldn't have had my daughter without Out West. I've made so many friends and always earned an income. By Seattle standards, it's not much - the most was $40,000, $50,000 a year and now I make half that."

He supplements his income by writing a weekly e-mail newsletter for Poulsbo RV and other e-businesses. His wife, Rodica, is a writer for AAA publications. They moved to Edmonds from California two years ago because Rodica was able to find work here and the Northwest had always resonated with her. In a 1993 Out West article she wrote:

"We travelers carry with us an inner divining rod: I call it a spirit-of-place detector. It goes on and off all of its own, becoming a channeler between us and the spirits that comprise the essence of a place. In the places where the spirits speak to us, we are left with a memory of magic, knowing somehow that the place is `special.' In others, the spirits are quiet, letting us pass through unimpressed, un-bewitched. The magical places are different for each of us; our own spirit detector has no blueprint."

FINAL STOP, Moses Lake, to visit 84-year-old Monte Holm.

He's the hobo who went on to earn a fortune in scrap metal, buy several real trains of his own and found a House of Poverty Museum. Holm vowed, while standing in Depression bread lines, to be good to people if he ever became rich.

Now he gives candy to everyone he meets, donates bicycles to poor kids and dispenses advice during tours of his free museum. His three rules for living: 1. Be honest. 2. Work hard. 3. Be good to people.

"The media is forever telling terrible, horrible things about people, crime and negative images," Woodbury says. "With Monte, there's an example of the goodness of human beings and to me, I just love it. It's not ever going to be the lead story on TV, but in my newspaper it's going to make front page because I'm the editor and publisher and I'm going to please myself."

The afternoon we dropped by Holm's scrap yard, he sat at his desk, unwrapping wax paper from a homemade sandwich. Everything in his office was charmingly dingy, including Holm and his big white dog. The place looked like a yellowed photograph come to life, especially since Holm wears a straw fedora and black wingtips and uses a clunky black dial telephone.

He showed off antique cars, steamship whistles and fire engines in his museum. Then we boarded Holm's train. Up front was the locomotive, the last steam engine to run on the Alaska railroad. At the rear was a caboose Holm had built because the train seemed lonely without one. In between was a 1915 presidential car that Burlington Northern used for dignitaries, including Presidents Truman and Wilson on their whistle-stop campaigns.

We sat in a swank cabin and chatted awhile. Holm told us how his stepmother kicked him out of the house when he was 13; how the railroad bulls beat him; how he herded sheep from a covered wagon in Montana; how gangster Al Capone set up a bread line to feed the hungry; how he once saw a desperate man kill another over a hotcake.

"Nothing but flour and water," Holm said. "He hit him over the head with a rock."

Outside, the wind rose. Rain pelted the roof. The train swayed and sighed.

"It's hard to conceive of that," Woodbury said, "what you've been through."

Inside the train, we were dry. The presidential car had sterling lamps, a stainless-steel galley, servants quarters with an ironing board, even a polished mahogany banquet table with a filigree coffee pot suspended in its own silver cradle. This train outclassed even today's top-of-the-line RVs.

At breakfast, Woodbury had talked about how amazing it is that ordinary Americans - not just rich folks - can afford to roam.

Woodbury's motor home isn't fancy, but he loves it. It's a decade-old 24-foot Tioga with 80,000 miles, faded rose carpeting, three clocks all too fast or too slow, a queen bed extending over the front, a bunk for his daughter and a bathroom door rigged with two bungee cords.

"Whatever's special is in the incredible memories," Woodbury said. "It's not about having a motor home. It's about traveling.

"Gas is cheap, it's easy to get around, wonderful roads everywhere and people you can talk to. There's no place in the world like the American West . . . The Hoh Rain Forest. Bryce Canyon. Juniper pines down California's Route 1. Sierra forests. Lake Tahoe. The Rockies. Little villages in New Mexico you'd swear you're in another country.

"Not everybody in the world can do this. I wonder if 50, 100 years from now when there are 100 million more people in this country, whether there will be resources. It just seems to me it's too good to last forever."

It's hard to know what life's odometer will bring. That's the idea behind the Great American Road Trip. You don't know exactly where you're going, but you let go of where you've been because you have hope for what's ahead. Sometimes you wind up in a place beyond your wildest dreams.

Could Holm have imagined owning a presidential rail car when he was a hobo? Did Woodbury imagine Out West would become his life?

The dashtop publisher insists he's exiting the back roads to explore new paths on the Internet. But he obviously loves what he's doing so much now, it's hard to envision him at the next bend.

When we parted, Woodbury said he was going to hang out for a while in Moses Lake so he wouldn't hit Seattle's rush hour. He planned to pull into a rest stop to write fast and furiously in his journal. Then he'd head home.

For a while.

Paula Bock is a staff writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Barry Wong is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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