Days 59-60/ Apr 26th-27th – Shoals, IN: You can’t spell ‘famished’ without ‘Amish’

It’s become received wisdom over the last few years that newspapers, especially local ones, are doomed.  So we’ve been surprised on our walk by how healthy the business seems to be in America: virtually every town larger than a village has its own local paper, usually produced from a little office somewhere on the edge of Main Street, and we’ve grown used to marking our progress across the country by the ever-changing newspaper boxes at the end of people’s drives, from the Bristol Herald-Courier to the Rogersville Review to the Salem Times-Commoner.

However, Shoals (pop. 807) must be by some distance the smallest place we’ve passed through with its own paper, a weekly called the Shoals News.  Keen to see what 807 people could possibly get up to that would fill a weekly newspaper, we bought a copy (with a supplement, no less) and leafed through it over lunch in Velma’s Diner.  In common with a lot of local papers at this time of year, there was a big feature on the graduating high school class, with a photo of each student captioned with their name, their parents’ names, their extra-curricular activities and their plans for the next year.  They managed neatly to encapsulate the main American high-school stereotypes: it was clear from the photos and captions who was the math geek, the jock, the cheerleader, the boy next door and the brooding loner.

The rest of the News was filled with the pleasant minutiae of small-town American life.  Two children had recently killed their first turkeys, and were pictured grinning over their feathery corpses.  The high-school baseball team, the Jug Rox, were having a difficult season, and had lost their most recent games 5-2 and 13-2 before outdoing themselves in an 18-1 defeat last week.  And, in a nod to election season, there were faintly sinister ads from local ‘right-to-life’ groups listing candidates for local political office and noting which ones were anti-abortion, ‘so you as voters can make an informed decision’.

Velma's Diner in Shoals, Indiana

Inside Velma's Diner in Shoals, Indiana

We took a long break in Shoals, staying at a B&B in a lovely old Victorian house where we revelled in being able, for the first time in months, to cook ourselves meals in a kitchen.  There wasn’t much to do in town – it’s most notable for the Jug Rock, a forty-foot high formation shaped like a golf tee, and the Catfish Festival on the Fourth of July – and that suited us just fine.  We were amazed to discover from Deanna, the proprietor of our B&B, that there was a second newspaper in Shoals, and having been cruelly snubbed by the News, we gave a national exclusive interview over tea and biscuits to Courtney, the editor of the online Martin County Journal.

The Jug Rock in Shoals

The Jug Rock, just outside Shoals. Go Jug Rox!

About a month ago, in Virginia, we got talking in a motel lobby to Sonny and Debbie, a couple from Indiana.  They offered to take us out when we got close to their hometown, and so today, as good as their word, they picked us up for lunch.  They both worked as prison officers (Sonny, an amiable bear of a man, was actually in charge of the prison), and used the flexible holidays that this afforded them to tour America on their motorcycle.

“We cover about 35,000 miles a year,” said Sonny.  “If we didn’t have to work full-time, we’d do more.”  We asked him how they planned their routes.

“Well, it’s like… ‘you wanna go left or right at this stop sign?’.  We’ve done week-long vacations like that, come up to an intersection and Debbie taps me and points ‘thattaway’.  We have left to go to Florida and wound up in Niagara Falls.  We went out for a sandwich at Subway last summer and wound up on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Coming home from Mississippi two weeks ago, we just got off at an exit, started taking back roads, and wound up just south of Memphis.”

“Our friends just shake their heads,” said Debbie.  “We have this huge collection of 99-cent toothbrushes, because we would go out for a ride, end up spending the night somewhere and have to go to the dollar store and buy a toothbrush.”

This was a breath of fresh air.  Almost every day we meet Americans who express envy at our walk and lament that they never quite get around to seeing their own country.  Sonny and Debbie demonstrated that it was perfectly possible just to get on the road and go.

Sonny and Debbie in Shoals

With Sonny and Debbie in Shoals

We had lunch at the Gasthof, an Amish restaurant in the nearby town of Montgomery.  We hadn’t realised until we walked through it that Indiana, like Pennsylvania, has a sizable Amish population.  Although many of them make their living as farmers and construction workers, others have developed a highly lucrative sideline running buffet restaurants in converted barns, serving up the sort of simple, delicious home cooking that used to be a staple of Midwestern kitchens and diners but which has now largely died out.

We joined long, snaking lines of ferocious Illinois pensioners here for the day on coach tours, shovelling their plates full with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pork chops, stew and vegetables from the buffet, before going back for great towering cliffs of cheesecake and lemon meringue pie.  Elderly Amish women in traditional frocks and headscarves bustled around the tables nagging us to eat more, and pouting theatrically when we attempted briefly to decline the offer of dessert.  Only when we had roughly doubled our body weight and were in need of a system of pulleys and winches simply to stand upright did they finally, and reluctantly, allow us to leave.

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