This year's World Tour began on Route 66. Yes, The Highway Formerly Known As U.S. 66 has long since been decommissioned, and most of it has already been swallowed up by roads in the Interstate system. But in eastern Oklahoma, the road, presently designated State Highway 66, not only still exists but is a perfectly reasonable (not to mention less expensive, what with tolls and all) alternative to Interstate 44.

I wasn't on old 66 to save ten bucks in tolls, though; I was taking an informal inventory of the small towns that remain. And most of them appear to be at least somewhat healthy, if more than a trifle weatherbeaten; the ones which have designated turnpike exits, or which serve some other function (like county seat), will probably hold up for quite some time, while the ones closest to major cities (Luther, near Oklahoma City, and Bristow, southwest of Tulsa) will eventually transmogrify into suburbs.

Which is all very well and good, and I didn't give it another thought until this week, when I pulled into Floyd County, Virginia, a little bit of heaven along the Blue Ridge which may well have troubles of its own. Floyd is nowhere near any sort of turnpike or Interstate; it's a good twenty winding miles from I-81, more if you don't know the way (fortunately, my host for the duration does really good spur-of-the-moment maps), and the tiny county seat, also named Floyd, is home to barely 400 people, smaller than almost anything along Oklahoma 66.

Capitalist dogma dictates that places like Floyd must adapt or die. And the halting, tentative path toward survival, in Floyd's case, means becoming ever-so-slightly countercultural: mass-produced textiles and such are giving way to the products of artisans and craftsmen. The trick will be to pull this off without attracting scene-chasers and other unsavory sorts who will treat Floyd as the artistic Flavor of the Month and then disappear, leaving behind higher rents and disillusioned townsfolk. It helps that Floyd's natural terrain is simultaneously beautiful and unforgiving: those who are drawn in by its picture-postcard photos must learn to live with the fact that you just can't go around the block and pick up a box of widgets. In the winter, you might not be able to go around the block at all.

Still, I think Floyd is up to the task. Already there's a live music festival ("Floydfest"), which last year drew 10,000 people over three days. In a county of 14,000, this is a major accomplishment. And there's enough of a regular music scene, mostly devoted to what the radio-production types call "Americana", to attract repeat visitors. I'd love to see this work, partly because I have friends there, but mostly because I really hate the idea of small-town America being bulldozed and Wal-Marted out of existence. And if Floyd can be saved, maybe so can some of the wide spots along old 66.

The Vent

24 July 2003

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