Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Great Voice Silenced

By Paul Gerald

JULY 28, 1997:  EKUK, ALASKA -- I was working on a fishing boat in Bristol Bay when I heard Charles Kuralt had died. It was the Fourth of July, and from now on, whenever our nation's birthday comes along, I will think of him. He knew this country better than anybody because he knew the people who live in it, and the loss of his voice is a loss to all Americans.

Up here in Alaska, I am surrounded by exactly the kind of people Kuralt would have felt right at home among. Around me are fishermen, mechanics, native Alaskans, college kids from the West Coast, drifters from everywhere, people of the sea. There's nothing fancy about the place -- we're miles from the parts of Alaska that any tourist would ever visit -- and there's nothing fancy about the people. But get them started telling stories, and you'll be up, with the sun, all night long.

There's no road to Ekuk, but there are more stories here than anyone could ever know, and people with stories were what Charles Kuralt was all about. He lived a life many of us dream about, traveling around the country, meeting people and seeing things, and getting paid for it. But what we should envy him for, and learn from him, was his ability to find the extraordinary where most people would only see the ordinary.

When he came through Memphis last year to give a speech, he told us about a night when he and his photographer were driving their RV down another back road and went under a huge banner that read, "Welcome Home, Steve." He said they drove a few more miles, neither saying a word, and then shrugged at each other, turned the RV around, and went back to wait for Steve. They found the whole family sitting around the dinner table, waiting for their son who was due home from Vietnam. "We never saw Steve," Kuralt said, but they got to know the folks waiting for him and benefitted from the cooking that had been done in Steve's honor.

That is the great lesson we should take from Charles Kuralt's life: Every now and then, just jump off the planned road and do something unplanned. America does not exist on a television screen or in fancy color magazines. America is all about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in a place whose natural beauty is as great as any place on Earth.

If you have driven across the plains of eastern Montana, walked the rocky beaches of New England, climbed the Great Smoky Mountains when the rhododendrons are blooming, canoed the Everglades, spent a night wandering New York City or Las Vegas, or fished for king salmon in the rivers of Alaska, you have seen America.

But to hear America, spend an extra minute or two getting to know your waitress, or eat in a small-town truck stop instead of an off-ramp McDonald's, or sit next to a good heckler at a minor-league baseball game. You'll get much more entertainment and insight than a lifetime of watching TV could give you.

Of course, Kuralt was a man of television, and if you can find videos of his old On The Road shows, check them out and spend an evening with him. You'll be surprised and entertained, as I was through a lifetime of watching it. Or go out and buy his last book, Charles Kuralt's America, which is a perfect example of his attitude and a highly recommended read. In it, he spends each month of a year in a different place, each time choosing a place that's perfect at that time. He wrote about New Orleans, but he went there in January, "simply to eat," and when he saw Mardi Gras getting started, he split for Key West. Down there, he wrote about the boats and the people who build and drive them rather than the spring-break parties. He went to New Mexico to see thousands of birds arrive. He went to North Carolina to hear the old-timers tell stories and watch them live the old way. And when he went home to New York City, he just wrote about the people in his neighborhood restaurant. There, he said, the whole city showed itself, because of the characters coming through.

I have tried, in these travel columns, to recommend cool places for you to visit. The truth is, you can throw a dart at a map of this country and hit a cool place. People, including myself, often make fun of Nebraska, for example. But there is something fundamentally impressive about the amount of corn grown in that state, absolutely awe-inspiring about the ocean of grass growing in its central regions, and downright pleasant about the farmers and small-town people who endure its 100-degree summers and bone-rattling winter winds. And that's not even to mention the overwhelming experience that is a Cornhusker football home game. Even in Nebraska, one may be inspired.

Go for a trip this weekend. It doesn't matter where. Just pick a direction and go. And take your time. Drive small roads, visit local museums, and never drive past a historical or scenic marker. But most of all, get to know somebody new. I have long held that the amount of fun you have on any given day is 95 percent determined by the people you're hanging out with, and new people are like a breath of fresh air. Just think how nice it is when somebody shows an interest in who you are or what you're doing. So go on out and show the same interest in somebody else. I guarantee you'll be rewarded.

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