When you take a road trip, do you choose the fastest route from Point A to Point B?
If so, travelers William and Mary Lewis implore you to change your ways. And the perfect reason to do so sits in our backyard — Route 20.
The authors compare the “appeal and romance” of U.S. Route 20, which runs 3,365 miles from Boston to Oregon, to the historic U.S. Route 66.
“Get off the freeway and the interstate,” Mary told a group of about 50 people assembled at the Watertown Free Public Library recently for their speaking tour. “Meet the people.”
“Learn about your country,” added William.
They speak from experience. For the past 15 years, the retired teachers have been doing just that — traveling Route 20, stopping at small towns along the way, interviewing residents, and enlisting the help of librarians to research historic facts. The result? “Through the Heartland on U.S. 20,” a series of historical travel guides. Their three published guides focus on Massachusetts, Eastern New York, and Western New York. The books cost $29.95. They are currently working on a fourth book, due out in 2015, with a focus on the Route 20 towns between Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. The couple uses the AAA map of Route 20 as a basis for their travels.
Their guides serve five purposes: explaining how the road developed, unveiling the history of the towns along the way, uncovering “the firsts” in each town, identifying things to do and see, and revealing interesting stories about each town.
“People love to tell you about their hometown,” said William, a California native.
William and Mary love to share those stories. It’s evident in the energy between the two as they read excerpts aloud from their books, altering their voices as they retell the tales.
And there are so many tales. Did you know Thomas Mayhew built the country’s first grist mill in Watertown in 1638? Or that President Roosevelt was once in a trolley car accident in Pittsfield in 1902? Do you know about the generosity and holiday spirit that enveloped Ripley during Christmas 1983? In the latter, Mary acted out the voice of the little Ripley boy mesmerized by a townsman who dressed as Santa at the local school, which had become an impressive blizzard shelter full of food, activities, and Christmas carols for hundreds of displaced travelers.
The husband/wife writing duo, now age 84 and 86, are former speech and communication (not history!) teachers. They’ve taught more than 70 years combined in California. They’ve been married 57 years and have two children and six grandchildren. They met in California while coaching high school speech squads in 1956 and married a year later.
How did they get the idea to write the guides? After retiring in 1990 and moving to Bend, Oregon, the couple traveled a lot and was inspired by and curious about the small towns they encountered. They were doing some travel writing for newspapers and decided they’d rather write a book together. They considered several maps while narrowing the focus of their project. Route 20 was the longest, primary two-lane highway in the country and they thought it “pristine” because it included fewer miles on interstates than any other transcontinental highway. They loved the idea of creating a travel guide that encompassed the rich histories of the small towns dotting its path.
When asked what surprises people most about Route 20, Mary said, “They don’t know that it goes all the way to Oregon.”
They have a system for their reporting and writing: William takes notes while Mary conducts interviews. William also asks follow up questions. Then he organizes the material and writes an outline. After they write the book, Mary edits it. But before all that, the couple does exhaustive research using the Internet and town materials they request by mail. Then once they travel to the location, they rely on the librarians and living citizens of the towns to fill in their research with rich details.
“The thing we love most is meeting the people,” said Mary, who was born in Washington. “In each town, we ask folks if anything interesting has happened in their town.”
It was a pleasure to watch the retired teachers in action, said Joyce Kelly, of Waltham, who attended the event. As the authors read the animated tales, folks in the audience gasped at some parts and laughed at others. Upon the conclusion of each tale, the audience broke into applause.
“You could see the school teacher in them,” said Kelly, a board member for the Historical Society of Watertown. “They made the program a lot of fun.”
If you want to catch the Lewises in action — and learn fun facts about Massachusetts — check them out tonight in Westfield at the Westfield Athenaeum Library and Thursday night in Boston at the West End Branch Library. Both events begin at 6:30 p.m. Or catch them Saturday at the Goodnow Library in Sudbury at 2 p.m. They will also speak at various Massachusetts towns in June. Check their website for June speaking dates.