Off the Beaten Path: Great stories discovered on the road to small towns

Most passersby will smugly inform you that Kerby is a podunk place with poor prospects. Although he hasn't yet been to the historic hamlet in Josephine County, Brad Herzog figures it has a rich tale to tell.

"I can go to a town of 25 people and I promise you there is a great story there," says the big-time hunter of small-town America. "You just have to look from the right angle and take your time."

Herzog, 38, who was in the Rogue Valley this past week as part of a swing through the Northwest, is a gifted author of several books, the latest being "States of Mind," an excellent chronicle published by Simon and Schuster about 18 of America's nook-and-cranny communities.

We're talking about colorful villages like Freedom, Wyo.; Comfort, Texas; Justice, W.Va.; and Hope, Miss.

It's a great read with shades of John Steinbeck's "Travels With Charlie" and William Least Heat Moon's "Blue Highways." The chapters are tasty bites of life you want to chew slowly to get the full flavor of each small burg. Small wonder it leaped to No. 2 on

Joining Herzog in his annual two-month journey on the open road from their home on California's Monterrey Peninsula are his wife, Amy, 37, and their sons, Luke, 6, and Jesse, 5. They were traveling in a Winnebago in search of the rich color and history found in the nation's curious corners.

Since 2000, the couple have traveled each summer stateside to gather information for books and magazine articles. He also writes a monthly column for

The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association has selected the Herzogs to represent it as the national "Explore America" family. Winnebago Industries provides the sleek gas-powered 38-foot Winnebago Adventurer, although the Herzogs pay for the gas.

"I honestly don't know the gas mileage but for a house it gets good mileage," Brad quips of the new vehicle.

For the writer, places like Kerby provide fertile soil for the Americana he seeks.

Incidentally, Kerbyophiles — I am one by virtue of having spent my formative years there — could tell him the fair village, founded in 1856, was called Napoleon early on. Legend has it that its founder, James Kerby, figured every Josephine needed a Napoleon.

Colorful communities like Kerby are fading away across the nation, he says.

"Small-town America is dying," he laments. "I like the idea of capturing a snapshot of them before they are gone."

Hailing from the Chicago area, Brad and Amy were high school sweethearts who graduated from Cornell University. He majored in psychology; she in human development and family studies.

He worked as a sportswriter for 18 months for the Ithaca (N.Y.) Journal, then became a freelance writer, doing mostly travel pieces.

"After we were married, we hit the road for almost a year in a Winnebago we had bought," he said of their 1996 trip in a 34-foot coach. "As a writer, a so-called chronicler of the world, I realized my world was very small."

Never mind the couple had never before traveled in what Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie in the flick "National Lampoon's Vacation" would have referred to as an "ArrrrrVeee." The Herzogs covered all 48 contiguous states in their 35,000-mile journey.

And they loved every minute of it. That RV trip resulted in "Small World," his first critically acclaimed book about small U.S. towns which included Rome.

That would be in Oregon, not Italy. To find it, head east and plan on driving all day.

"Along the way we also realized we're not meant for the big cities," he says. "It seems to me small towns are the way people are supposed to live."

Readers both, the Herzogs back in B.C. — before children — read books in their "natural" setting. For instance, they read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in Alabama.

"We read Mark Twain in Missouri, Steinbeck in California, Thomas Wolfe in North Carolina," he says. "That helped give us immersion and a sense of place."

Since the boys arrived, the family has been to 42 states.

"We love it," Amy says of their travels. "Brad likes looking at maps — he plans out our itinerary. But we often make changes along the way."

His latest book, "Greek To Me," which is expected to be published soon, includes chapters on both Athena and Troy, two tiny towns in northeastern Oregon.

"There is so much to see in America — we'll never see everything," he says.

But he promises one day they will check out Kerby, aka Napoleon.

That would make Josephine very happy.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or at

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