Peter T. Kilborn

America: Stories for The New York Times


Weekends with the President's Men

ST. MICHAELS, MARYLAND

JUNE 30, 2006--JUST an hour and a half from Washington, across the 4.3-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge, or less than 30 minutes in a government-issue Chinook helicopter, is the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the primly groomed waterside village of St. Michaels.

    St. Michaels has begun to lure V.I.P.'s who, some boosters would have it, could propel it into the gilded realm of the Hamptons and Nantucket. But that will take a while. There's little for the young — just a few bars and no beaches or nightclubs — and these new householders are too circumspect and perhaps too old to be showcasing their excesses, baubles and abs.

    One is Vice President Dick Cheney, 65, who paid $2.67 million last September for a house that resembles a wide, squat Mount Vernon. Another is his old friend Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, 73, who in 2003 paid $1.5 million for a brick Georgian that was last a bed-and-breakfast. Among other recognizable owners in the area are Tony Snow, President Bush's new press secretary; Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's presidential campaign manager in 2004; Nicholas Brady, President George H. W. Bush's treasury secretary; and John S. D. Eisenhower, a writer and historian and the son of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

   St. Michaels, population 1,200 within the city limits and perhaps a thousand more in the same ZIP code, sits on the wrist of a peninsula that bends deep into Chesapeake Bay. With two broad clawlike fingers, spotted and wrinkled by coves and creeks that reach beyond the town and down to Tilghman Island and Nelson Point, it is a place of waterfront sunsets and white sails, of oysters and crabs, of birding, fishing and hunting, and of affluent retirees, tourists and weekenders. Most, like the Cheneys and Rumsfelds, are past 50…

    With many less luminous who have made their marks in business, medicine, law, government and the military, St. Michaels is too proud and indifferent for celebrity gawking. "They're just people living in town," said the Hawaiian shirted bartender at the Carpenter Street Saloon, who thought giving his name would be indiscreet. "They're not the first important people living in town, and they're not the last. They're just here."

    The town is beginning to contend, however, with 21st-century perils to its composure. After eight years of resistance, construction will soon start on a development that will bring around 250 new homes and swell the year-round population by about 50 percent. In summer, traffic is choking and decivilizing Talbot Street, the only road through town. Housing developments are crowding Tilghman Island, once almost exclusively home to fishermen — or watermen, as they're called.

    One morning in May, Francis Zeglen put on a khaki windbreaker and his wife, Georgia, a turquoise sweater for a shopping stroll along Talbot. They were in a crosswalk when a light-brown pickup knocked them down.

    Urged not to move, they were lying there blinking, Mr. Zeglen, 76, on his back, Mrs. Zeglen, 78, on her side. The Rev. Mark Nestlehutt, a tall young sailor and the rector of Christ Episcopal Church, hurried over, not solely on a spiritual mission. He is also chairman of the town's Advisory Committee for Traffic Planning and Pedestrian Friendly Streets — which, in a place with a speed limit of 25 miles an hour and few hot-blooded young drivers, they usually are.

    The Zeglens were treated at a hospital in nearby Easton, he for a broken left arm, she for immobilizing bruises, and drove home to Philadelphia the next day. "I turned and looked," Mr. Zeglen said when he gave his own account of the accident, "and he just kept coming." The driver of the pickup was charged with failure to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk. It had been a more eventful morning than most, the first pedestrian accident in 23 years — at least the first that the town manager, Cheril S. Thomas, could recall.

    In St. Michaels, you also don't see much of the one-upping of Joneses or architectural bullying found in showier coastal resorts. The old farm families and the wealthy weekenders like the Rumsfelds and Cheneys look out over acres of lawn rolling down to the sea grass and their own private docks. But the homes are hidden down two-lane roads with cunning yellow signs on utility poles that say, menacingly and untruthfully, "No Outlet," and then down driveways shrouded by trees and lined with thick and impenetrable hedgerows.

    The houses have names. Mr. Rumsfeld's is Mount Misery and is just across Rolles Creek from a house called Mount Pleasant. On four acres, with four bathrooms, five bedrooms and five fireplaces, built in 1804, the Rumsfeld house is just barely visible at the end of a gravel drive.

    Thomas M. Crouch, a broker at the Coldwell Banker office in town, says one legend attributes the name to the original owner, said to have been a sad and doleful Englishman. His merrier brother then built a house, and to put him on, Mr. Crouch supposes, named it Mount Pleasant.

    But there is some historical gravity to the name, too. By 1833, Mount Misery's owner was Edward Covey, a farmer notorious for breaking unruly slaves for other farmers. One who wouldn't be broken was Frederick Douglass, then 16 and later the abolitionist orator. Covey assaulted him, so Douglass beat him up and escaped. Today, where the drive begins, Mount Misery seems a congenial place, with a white mailbox with newspaper delivery sleeves attached, a big American flag fluttering from a post by a split-rail fence and a tall, one-hole birdhouse of the sort made for bluebirds — although the lens in the hole suggests another function.

    Less than two miles from the Rumsfelds', past Southwind, where the late James A. Michener wrote much of his epic novel "Chesapeake," Church Neck Road dead-ends at private Fuller Road on the left. About a quarter-mile up, past grazing cattle and sheep and four other homes, is Vice President Cheney's nine-acre place, Ballintober.

    The house, built in 1930, is rambling and white. It has a five-car garage, a pool, stately formal gardens, a laundry chute and large, glass-walled waterside rooms for entertaining. Coldwell Banker's real estate listing called it an "individually designed dwelling." It is also unapproachable. "The last time I went up Fuller Road," Katie Edmonds, an agent at Meredith Real Estate, said, "S.U.V.'s came out of the woods at me."

    Neighbors also complain about federal security agents' shutting down Church Neck Road to let the Cheneys pass in their speeding brigades of shiny black S.U.V.'s. But they don't complain much, because the newcomers are thought to be good for property values. If the Cheneys and Rumsfelds are willing to buy here, after all, who wouldn't be?

    St. Michaels was traditionally a center of farming, boat building, crabbing and tonging for oysters. For 100 years, it has also attracted older, upper-crust retirees from Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia who buy waterfront sites and, more recently, century-old houses downtown.

    The second-home owners cannot vote in local elections, but their needs, whimsies and appetites set the tone of the town. Approaching St. Michaels, Route 33 — the only way in or out — passes a lumberyard's lawn full of rocking chairs. In the town itself, where 33 becomes Talbot Street, a flag hanging from one store declares, "Quilters welcome." There are at least 20 bed-and-breakfasts downtown or nearby, no neon signs, no stoplights and, except for the plants and waist-high pink ceramic flamingos that the Acme supermarket features in front, no obstructions blocking sidewalks.

    Except for the Acme, shops on Talbot cater to people with money to burn: the Calico Gallery, St. Michaels Candy Company, the Cultured Pearl, the Scented Garden, Rings & Things, Gourmet-by-the-Bay (an upscale food shop and caterer that has made Thanksgiving pies for the Rumsfelds), Justine's ice cream parlor, Flying Fred's Gifts for Pets. Bistro St. Michaels and 208 Talbot are expensive restaurants.

    Only Big Al's — an emphatically lowbrow seafood and souvenir shop where Joyce Rumsfeld, the secretary's wife, comes in for bushels of cooked blue crabs — breaks with the Laura Ashley look of St. Michaels. Two small picnic tables sit out front, and the proprietor, Al Poore, offers sandwiches of crab cake for $5.95, soft crab for $6.95, oysters for $5.95 and fish for $4.95. Mr. Poore, who is 71 and about 6 foot 4 with a thicket of tousled gray hair, sinks like a ball in a catcher's mitt into the cavernous black leather easy chair in his memento-strewn office at the rear of the store. He opened it in 1968. "When I came here," he said, "there was one place where you could stay overnight. Now we've got one on every corner."

    Merchants say they're wary of intruding on the privacy of the Cheneys and Rumsfelds, but they do it anyway. "I'm a businessman," said Mr. Poore, a registered Democrat who voted twice for George W. Bush. "I probably mention them to customers five or six times a week. They bring a lot of prestige."

    Paul Gardner, the front office manager at the $250-to-$700-a-night Inn at Perry Cabin, a plush waterside resort at the far end of town, said, "We've had Rumsfeld in for dinner." Once last year, the Cheney Chinook landed near the inn's laundry and maintenance facility. "We're very pleased to have them in the area," he said.

    Some people view the new neighbors less cordially. On Railroad Avenue, which the Cheneys and Rumsfelds use to reach Church Neck, Cassandra Harrison, a mother of two who waits tables and cleans houses, was resting on the stoop of her one-story white ranch house.

    She is grateful that the air space above the Cheneys' house is blocked. "It's a no-fly zone, and that's good," she said. "But I'm not happy. I don't think society's liking them so much." Ms. Harrison, 23, voted for the first time in 2004, she said, "just because I did not want him. I don't think that they tell us the truth."

    But that is a minority view in Talbot County, which went 61 percent for Mr. Bush in 2000 and 58 percent in 2004. Support for the war in Iraq is waning here as it is most everywhere else. But the great majority of Mr. Nestlehutt's 790 parishioners, he said, are "tolerant," live-and-let-live urban Republicans, not hard-core social conservatives. Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld, he said, seem to fit right in.


Scottsdale Journal; Alive, Well and on the Prowl, It’s the Geriatric Mating Games

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA

MARCH 7, 2004--More than 100 merry widows in glittering dresses and golden, high-heeled shoes and men in string ties and saddle shoes step out from their Buicks and Fords at the senior center in downtown Scottsdale. In the auditorium, the lights go down low and the band hits fast-stepping strains of Gershwin and Porter.

    A man's tremors from Parkinson's disease stop cold when he clutches a woman in black leather pants for a Viennese waltz. Betty Seely, a widow who is 75, jitterbugs in snappy synchrony with Dennis Murray, 64, her regular partner. He spins her out and reels her in, making her wide purple skirt swirl as high as her waist.

    A whistle blows. It's Ladies' Tag. Single women surge from the sidelines to cut in on the single men. Beatrice Miller, a widow somewhere past 60, sits it out. ''I'm not looking to get married,'' she said.''I would have to get a toy boy. Anyone older than me would be too old.''

    Love and loneliness and a little lust, too, are in this air -- old love, new love, the love of dancing and touching. People in their 60's up to their 90's, more of them single than married, come for the joy of the dance. And if a liaison ensues, ''well,'' said Betts Carter, 66, a divorcée at a dance in Mesa, ''that's just a plus.''

    The elderly go dancing in the Phoenix area every night. They are not alone -- as many surveys have shown, romance and lovemaking thrive among about half of Americans in their 60's and beyond.

    In proliferating Internet chat rooms and forums, in medicine cabinets of sex-enhancing drugs and wrinkle creams, in cruises just for them, in dating services and newspaper personal advertisements under ''Seniors Seeking Seniors,'' in shacking up instead of remarrying, romance in old age has come in from the cold.

    ''We can still appreciate a nice bod,'' said Joan Shafer, the widowed, 75-year-old mayor of Surprise, a fast-growing town northwest of Phoenix. ''Just because we are the age we are, it doesn't mean we don't have fantasies.'' Mike Baumayr, an advertising executive in Phoenix who specializes in the elderly, said, ''You now have permission to be sexual.''…

   But if anything is putting a damper on elderly romance, it is this: women's slim pickings. As Ms. Miller of Scottsdale would put it, single men are scarce, and toy boys -- healthy, ambulatory men in their 60's -- are scarcer still.

   The 2000 Census found 20.6 million women 65 and older and 14.4 million men, or 10 women for 7 men. In Sun City, near Phoenix, the median age was 75, and there were three times more widowed and divorced women than unattached men.

   ''There are places where there are five women for one man,'' said Frank Kaiser, 68, a retired advertising man in Florida who writes newspaper columns for the elderly and has written a book, ''Have Sex Like You Did 50 Years Ago.'' ''So you got four women who are left out there in that little equation, and they know it,'' he said.

   Removed from the equation, whether by choice or by chance, many find they can readily do without men. ''I had lunch with about 40 senior women today,'' Mr. Kaiser said. ''I don't think any one of them would want to trade their cat for a man. One thing they've told us is how randy these 70- and 80-year-old guys are, and that's not what they're looking for.''

   Jean Horrock, 70, joined the 450 elderly men and women in the ballroom of the Venture Out RV resort in Mesa one Saturday night. ''You just don't have time for a man full time,'' she said.

   ''I've spent a lot of years learning to be single,'' Ms. Horrock said. ''You don't want to learn all over again how to live with a man. People are looking for friends, but they're not looking for commitment.''

   In Maricopa County, around Scottsdale and Phoenix, with nearly 400,000 people 65 and older, most mobile and healthy, it is the lure of the tango, more than dating services and personal ads, that rouses the elderly out of their La-Z-Boys.

   ''See this room?'' said Richard Greene, 86, vice president of the committee that organizes the twice-a-week senior center dances in Scottsdale. ''The only reason you see this room is modern medicine.''

   ''Every single man's here to meet another woman,'' said Mr. Greene, whose partner and cohabitant, Ruby Eldridge, is president of the dance committee. ''But hardly anybody gets married here.''

   ''They develop intimate relationships,'' he said. But remarriage, he said, is fraught with complications, like eventual inheritances of children and risks to pensions and alimony of widows and divorcées. Rather than mingle assets, a newly coupled man and woman hold onto their old homes.

   Nornee Smith, 67, and Lee Swanson, 79, live minutes apart in Mesa and see one another most days. Ms. Smith, the widow of an F.B.I. agent, is an Arizona state senior pool champion and has exuberant and wavy gray-white hair. She wears the long shirts and billowy blouses of a Texas cowgirl on a Saturday night. Mr. Swanson is a twice-divorced, retired aerospace engineer and preacher with a thin gray strip of a mustache. They met at a dance.

   ''I asked her for a dance,'' he said. ''And then she gave it to somebody else.''

   ''So he got mad,'' Ms. Smith said, ''and that got my attention. We're a couple now.'' They go dancing three or four times a week.

   ''He and I are extremely close,'' Ms. Smith said. ''We travel together.'' Last summer, they drove 9,500 miles in 102 days in his motor home. ''The way it works, with children and family, it works better to stay single,'' she said.

   One inviolate rule of conduct at dances is that single women do not cut in on men who are spoken for or married. Another is that married men who come without their wives -- few wives come without husbands -- are fair game, at least for a dance.

   Still, there are tensions. ''See this lady?'' said Donald Hector, 67, a retired junk dealer who comes alone because his wife is largely confined at home with arthritis. He nods toward tall and willowy 70-ish woman, the one in the tight leather pants.

   ''She's a seducer,'' said Mr. Hector, one of the most sought after, nimble-kneed dancers here, whom the women call Santa Claus for his ample white beard. ''She'll get one guy, and she'll be watching around for the next guy she's going to get.''

   The shortage of single men is a recurring problem. Tim Miluk, human services manager at the Scottsdale center, said, ''Guys that didn't have that many dates in high school are very popular now.'' Some women, he said, want the center to adopt the latest innovation of area ballrooms, an event that excludes women with regular partners. It's called an Angel's Dance.



If Your Cart Can Go 50 M.P.H., Who Needs Golf?

SUN CITY GRAND, ARIZONA

FEBRUARY 22, 2004--Late one recent afternoon, 28 golf carts were lined up in front of the fitness center and library at the Sun City Grand retirement community here, like horses outside a saloon. But only one carried golf bags. Otherwise, they bore little resemblance to those purring motorized wagons that ferry duffers around at speeds little faster than feet.

    Dealerships call them golf cars. They can come pinstriped and enameled in the colors of Hades, with halogen headlights, rear-view mirrors, turn signals, coolers, ornately designed roofs and tasseled canopies, heaters, trunks, all-weather enclosures and simulated wood dashboards. They sell for $2,500 to $13,000, and some drivers soup them up to go 50 miles per hour.

    ''They're the greatest thing,'' said Elaine Treftz, 67, who was carrying a plastic foam ''noodle'' that she uses in her water aerobics class. ''A noodle and a golf cart are a must in Sun City Grand,'' she said. ''The carts get you all over. They get you to all the events. I can even get to the grocery store and Walgreen’s.''

    In the sprawling gated and retirement communities of Arizona, Florida, California, Texas, Georgia and the Carolinas, people in their 90's are cruising around in golf carts that have never carried a club, often on public roads and at illegal speeds.

    Palm Springs, Calif., has golf cart lanes on its roads. Parking lots in the three adjoining Sun City retirement communities outside Phoenix -- Sun City, Sun City West and Sun City Grand -- have designated spaces for golf carts. In big retirement communities like the Villages in Florida and Peachtree City, Ga., the second car is usually a golf cart.

    New houses' garages often come with room for one car and one golf cart, and a 110-volt outlet for recharging. Most carts are electric, but in many communities up to half run on gasoline. Gas-powered carts cost pennies a gallon to operate, while electric models can run all day on one charge.

    Not everyone here with a golf cart is interested in driving fast, but there is a secret society here of people who do. ''That's the Senior Hot Rods,'' said Donald Hultgren, 64, a retired schoolteacher. ''A lot of these guys, they'll adjust the governors up to 40 miles an hour, and that's too fast.''

    Six years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spurred wider use of the carts by establishing a new category of motor vehicles: low-speed vehicles, which are permitted to go up to 25 miles an hour on public roads with speed limits of up to 35 miles an hour, provided they are equipped with safety devices like seat belts, rear-view mirrors, and headlights and taillights. About half the states have signed on and are allowing local communities to permit low-speed vehicles and designate the roads they can use.

    The Arizona Motor Vehicle Division, which requires driver's licenses and registration for carts that use public roads, says it has registered 28,804, 85 percent of them in Maricopa County, where the Sun City communities are located.

    ''But that number seems small,'' said Cydney DeModica, a division spokeswoman. Many more unregistered carts operate along private roads, she said.

    Edward Kozlow, 77, a retired dentist from Dearborn, Mich., works out at the recreation center at Sun City Grand. He had a stroke eight years ago that left him with a limp and rendered his left hand useless. He had to stop driving, he said, so he relied on his wife to get him around.

    ''I lost her last year,'' Dr. Kozlow said. ''I couldn't do anything anymore. I had to do something.'' To be licensed to drive a cart in Arizona, a driver needs only one functional hand and one functional foot. ''I took the test and I passed it,'' he said, and his life was revitalized.

    There is no official census of the nation's golf carts. But three companies -- E-Z-Go Textron, Yamaha and Ingersoll-Rand, manufacturer of the Club Car brand -- make most of the carts at plants in Georgia. The carts are sold in fleets to golf courses, with smaller numbers of fancier and often speedier models marketed to individuals through dealerships.

    Ronald Skenes, the marketing and communications manager at E-Z-Go, the leading producer, said the three companies sold about 135,000 last year. ''It's a growing market for us,'' he said.

    Golf-course carts go no more than 15 miles an hour, but Mr. Skenes said that when the courses renew their fleets every three to five years, dealers buy the older models and spruce them up for resale to consumers.

    Drivers shop at places like Buggies Unlimited in Nicholsville, Ky., which sells golf-cart gear by mail. ''Only 20 percent of our business is golf-related,'' said Paxton Mahan, the shop's vice president. He sells wheel covers, lift kits to raise the cart chassis so it can run on bigger wheels, faster motors, decals, floor mats and gun holders for hunters.

    Richard Steward, president of Golf Car Portal, a Web site listing dealers, cited the four-wheel-drive Bad Boy Buggy, built on an E-Z-Go chassis. ''The thing is so powerful it will climb a wall,'' he said.

    Like most owners here, Bob White, 78, who moved from Overland Park, Kan., has customized his cart. He has a Kansas City Chiefs license plate on his 1993 Yamaha and a Chiefs flag flying above it. On the dashboard, there is a temperature gauge, a gas gauge and a compass. ''You get lost here,'' he said, ''because the streets go around in circles.''

    Mr. White, a widower, lives in a ground-floor condominium with a garage big enough to accommodate his PT Cruiser and his golf cart. ''Taking the cart on the roads here can be treacherous,'' he said. ''They cut you off. They don't even see you. You try to stay in the right-hand lane, but I was run into the curb.''

    Because the carts usually have no sides, safety is a big concern in retirement communities. ''When there is a crash of a golf cart and a conventional vehicle,'' Ms. DeModica of the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division said, ''the passengers of the golf cart are extremely vulnerable. They always get the worst end.''

    Steve Pohle, a co-owner of an E-Z-Go dealership in Sun City, estimated that three or four people die each year in golf-cart accidents in the three Sun City communities.

    Outside the recreation center at Sun City Grand, Paul and Sharon Corradi, retirees from Brecksville, Ohio, were settling into their rebuilt Yamaha after a taking a swim.

    ''It's like having a convertible,'' said Mrs. Corradi, 58. ''It's like living it all over again.''

    ''I don't even use it for golf,'' said Mr. Corradi, 63. ''I like the sensation. You just get in them and go. We've fooled around with drag racing.''

    Mrs. Corradi said, ''We'll be coming back from the pool, just joking around.''

    ''Or,'' Mr. Corradi said, ''1 or 2 in the morning. We don't do it right here. You could run over someone who's older.''


VANISHING POINT; Bucking Trend, They Stay on Plains, Held by Family and Friends

REYDON, OKLAHOMA

DECEMBER 2, 2003--Tornadoes, droughts and the brutal busts after gas and oil booms have chased people from western Oklahoma for decades. Settlement after settlement has crumbled into the red-slate soil. Others hang on, barely.

    In Reydon, population 161, a turtle crosses Main Street unscathed.

    And yet after 70 years of flight from the rural Great Plains, a resolute core of people just will not go. They are people like David and Berla Barton, both 45, owners of a three-bedroom white stucco bungalow on Fifth Avenue, where spider plants hang over the patio, an orphaned black calf lies in a shed and eight fishing rods line a wall of the garage.

    One Sunday at noon, cars pulled up and dogs yelped. Michael Barton, 17, stopped watching car races on television with his brother Zack, 15, to take the carrot cake he had made from the oven. Mrs. Barton loaded the kitchen counter with mashed potatoes, corn and a beef roast from the crockpot and arranged chairs around the long oak dining table that her father, Joe Handke, had built.

    ''Grandma, Grandma,'' said Maddie, coming in from Cheyenne, the county seat 18 miles away, with the Bartons' oldest son, Chris, and his wife, Janet, both 23, and their infant son, Trent. Four years old, possessed by her plan to be an angel ballerina on Halloween, Maddie asked: ''Do you have a purple dress? With wings?'' A daughter, Sarah Barton, and her boyfriend, Justin Batterton, both 21, arrived from outside Cheyenne.

    As the plows of depopulation and decay slice through the Plains, these are the people who remain. Many would never think of moving. Some are too old or unskilled to have a choice. Many families -- like the Bartons, the Yowells, the Calverts and the Lippencotts in Reydon -- have members who do go away, for the Army, maybe, or college, and then come back to build new generations.

    Blessing or trap, the lure invariably is family -- the family ranch, the homestead, the business, the assurance of help with a job. Sociologists and demographers do not know whether families like the Bartons are the stragglers of an exodus who will finally be swept away, too, or whether, like the survivors of fires and floods before them, they will adapt and hold on.

    ''You have a general regional trend of depopulation,'' Leonard Bloomquist, head of the sociology department at Kansas State University, said. ''But you do have families that are making viable communities and carving out a niche for themselves.''

    One old reason to stay -- pursuit of the bigger-is-better American dogma of progress and growth -- fits Reydon like a glove on a goat. ''They make a conscious choice of what kind of lifestyle they want,'' Mr. Bloomquist said. ''They just don't want to go to the maximum-achievement approach. A lot of this is tied to a pioneer spirit, to making a go of it.''

    In polls of Great Plains communities, Jim Sylvester, director of survey operations at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, asks people why they stay. ''Forty percent say their family keeps them there,'' he said. ''That's the big one.'' In urban areas, he said, 40 percent say their jobs are No. 1.

    To make it in Reydon, people rely on one another. Bonds among families and neighbors supply the economic energy that used to come from small farmers, big employers, government offices, Main Street services and stores and, ages ago, streams of new settlers.

The Make-Do Economy

    In this make-do economy, you pay a mother-in-law something to baby-sit, just not a lot. You leave a note when you enter an unlocked house and take something. Pauline McNeil, 80, the retired postmistress and widow of a carpenter, sews. ''I don't charge for it,'' she said. ''Someone will say, 'I've got a pair of pants that's too big.' ''

    No one need buy maternity clothes. They are delivered to the doorstep, worn and dropped on another doorstep. In Reydon, families put the surplus from backyard gardens inside the post office door, for others to take. Cousins fill in for cousins who call in sick. You try to get a job with a telephone company, utility or oil field company, because then you get a truck to take home.

    Families squabble, but with three people per square mile in Roger Mills County, they need not cross paths. ''If there's someone you don't get along with,'' Mrs. Barton said, ''you just don't go by their house.''

    Places like Reydon have ''high social capital,'' said Curtis Stofferahn, a sociologist and co-director of the Center for Rural Studies of the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University.

    ''In the Plains, it's a sustaining feature of life,'' Mr. Stoferahn said. ''It's built on reciprocity and trust. You do favors without expecting you will be repaid, but you know you will be repaid by someone.''

    People who linger can be said to have made an economically irrational choice, said Karl Stauber, chief executive of the Northwest Area Foundation, an organization in St. Paul that promotes ways to foster community revival. In this view, he said, ''anyone with any get-up-and-go has already gone.''

    ''There's another way to look at it,'' Mr. Stauber said. ''These are folks who value family and an economically simple life. People are taken care of. What you see are decentralized, informal systems that sometimes deliver services better'' than growing communities with government services and large employers.

    Still, for these places, there is a breaking point. ''Schools close or you can't get an ambulance,'' Mr. Stauber said. ''Opportunities become so limited, people have to choose between subsistence and leaving, and they leave.''

    Stuart and Kimberly Sander in Cheyenne, population 718 and dropping, fear facing such a choice.

    ''We wanted to give our kids the same opportunities we had,'' said Mr. Sander, who is 34 and senior vice president of Security State Bank. ''Out here, people are more content with what they have. I have a good job. I'm home every night to see my kids. I'm very happy with that.''

    But all around the county, schools keep shrinking and consolidating. ''They're just not doing your kids a service,'' Mr. Sander said. ''I'm very worried about this place, this bank, what this town will be.''

The Town

    The families of Roger Mills County live in an America without trains, planes or buses, and an hour's drive to a road with more than two lanes. The county, with a population of 3,300, has lost 30 percent of its people since the oil bust of the 1980's.

    Reydon has five streets going north and south and six going east and west, including Main Street. The post office, the firehouse, the American Legion building and Kay Danks's tax preparation office are clustered at the east end of Main.

    In the middle, across from Shirley Dyer's abandoned gasoline station with a tornado-wrung roof, is Tennery's beef-jerky plant. At the west end is the cinder-block Hilltop Cafe, with a 7-Up sign in front. The Wednesday special is brown beans, ham and coleslaw, for $2.95.

    These days, the seven tables with 36 seats fill up at noon, with retirees, hunters, oil and gas field workers and cowboys from the ranches. At one table, Coby Lippencott, 28, and Jerry Burks, 44, dug into burgers and fries. Both raise cattle and work as natural-gas compression mechanics in the oil field. Mr. Lippencott graduated from Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Mr. Burks finished high school.

    ''There's always a reason people come back here,'' Mr. Lippencott said, ''not just because they want to. There's parents and grandparents that leave them something. My family's been here forever. We farm and ranch. The reason people leave, if they don't have parents or grandparents to help support them, then they leave. By the time I graduated from college, my grandparents bought a house and some land. Somebody had to live in the house. It was free. It always comes back to grandparents.''

The Family

    David Barton is a wiry man with thinning hair and a laugh that bursts like a thunderclap. As a student at Reydon High School, he found part-time work in the oil field. ''I worked at night,'' he said. ''I was making more money than the teachers.''

    A year after he graduated, he married Berla Handke, a classmate. Mrs. Barton quit nursing school so they could move to the oil fields of Wyoming. She became pregnant with Chris, so they returned to the oil fields here.

    ''Things were good,'' Mr. Barton said. ''We bought a house, new vehicles.'' Sarah was born. A week later, Mrs. Barton was in the hospital with an infection. Mr. Barton visited. ''He said, 'Honey, I just lost my job,' '' Mrs. Barton said. ''He went on unemployment.'' They lost their home.

    ''We had to sit down and rethink our position,'' Mr. Barton said.

    With the 1980's oil bust, 14 percent of the county bailed out, but the Bartons stayed. ''It got to where it was more important to be close to home than to be away and make plenty of money,'' Mr. Barton said.

    The ad-hoc economy kicked in. A farmer gave them a house for a year, rent free, in return for cleaning it up. Mr. Barton became a hunting guide in the fall and a carpenter in winter. Mostly, though, he trades cows and calves. He drives up to 300 miles a day tending cattle scattered over 4,000 acres he leases.

    In a typical year, he earns about $16,000. Some years, when cattle prices plunge, he earns less than $10,000, and one year in the 1990's, he made nothing. In down years, he exchanges farm work and carpentry for cattle feed. ''Or if I'm running a little short,'' he said, ''my neighbor will sell me some hay and let me pay when I sell my calves. You can make a man-to-man deal for a vehicle and go ahead and pay when times get good.''

    Eight years ago, the Bartons had saved enough to buy their current home, for $4,500. It needs a new roof. But with a bedroom for each boy, its wood stove, outbuildings and patio, it is an amiable middle-class home that could be anywhere.

    Still, with four children, making a living was a struggle. So five years ago, Mrs. Barton went to back to school to become a licensed practical nurse.

    Now she earns about $22,000 a year working in the maternity ward of a hospital in Clinton, 62 miles away.

    With that and good cattle prices, the Bartons are having a good year. Mr. Barton cleared $28,000 this summer raising and trading calves. They are passing the windfall around.

    They bought Michael and Zack $2,000 Kawasaki motorcycles. They bought the clapboard house next door for $7,500. They are renting it for $400 a month until one of the children wants it.

    Janet and Chris are now settling into the make-do economy. Chris had gone to college for a year expecting to become a teacher. But he dropped out to take a full-time, full-benefits job as a lineman with the Northfork Electric Co-op in Cheyenne.

    With a mortgage and a third child due soon, he has to hustle for other jobs. ''I own a hay truck,'' he said, ''and in the summer time, I'll haul square bales of hay. In the fall, we cut firewood and haul it to Pampa, Tex., where they don't have trees. I help a guy in a taxidermy shop. We mount deer, bobcats, coyotes, elk. We build fences.'' He and his partner won a bid this year to clear neglected lots in Cheyenne for $1,500.

    Soon Janet is going to work, too. She has started classes to become a licensed practical nurse, like her mother-in-law.

    Everyone else in the family works. Sarah is a loan office secretary at a bank in Sayre, about 40 miles away. Michael and Zack have after-school jobs as farm hands that pay $5 an hour, plus meals on Saturdays.

    Michael and Zack, unlike many of Reydon's young, expect to remain nearby. Next year, Michael plans to go to a vocational-technical college to become a mechanic and welder. He doubts he will live in Reydon, but does not expect to move far.

    Recruiters from Duke University in North Carolina have urged Zack to consider applying. He shrugs. He is thinking of somewhere cheaper and closer, and then a career in nuclear medicine, provided he can practice no farther than Elk City, 34 miles to the east-southeast.

    Mr. Barton said: ''The main reason people stay is because it's where the family is. A lot of parents, if they make a place for their kids, they come back.''

    ''It's just normal,'' he continued. ''It's just normal to be here. If you're not accustomed to a real expensive lifestyle, you haven't lost anything.''


Where Scorpions Roam, and Snowbirds Flock

QUARTZSITE, ARIZONA

FEBRUARY 10, 2003--Desert or not, trafficalong the busiest one-mile stretch of Main Street here can take half an hour to pass. Motor homes towing pickup trucks choke gas station entrances. Septuagenarians in shorts amble fearlessly between busy intersections. Waits for a table at Silly Al's restaurant stretch to an hour.

    ''The thing you have to learn when you come to Quartzsite, you have to learn patience,'' said Bob Cast, 64, a deli owner.

    Approached on Interstate 10, Quartzsite unfolds as a surreal sandscape of metal boxes packed side by side in town and scattered like buckshot over thousands of acres of Sonora Desert.

    To nest there with Cinerama sunsets, among scorpions and coyotes, saguaro cactuses and thorny salt cedar bushes, campers pay the federal Bureau of Land Management $25 to park for two weeks and $125 for the six-month season. Nearly all are retirees.

    A post-9/​11 fear of flying, new concerns about war with Iraq, a surge in baby boomers retiring in their mid-50's, the country's numbing cold this year -- all of these seem to be pushing a human tide into Quartzsite. Two hours west of Phoenix, four hours from Los Angeles, Quartzsite is an old Gold Rush town where the population had dropped to 11 families by the 1950's.

    It has since become winter's busiest, slowest-moving and by any known measure biggest destination for refugees with homes on wheels.
Quartzsite might seem like the middle of nowhere, except to travelers who, like turtles, have time to spare and their homes on their backs.

    ''We're closest to everyplace,'' Willard Meyer, 71, a snowbird from Lander, Wyo., said. ''Yuma, Parker, Lake Havasu and Blythe, Calif. Joshua Tree National Park in California is only 120 miles away.''

    The number of permanent residents is about 3,000, but in the high season, January and February, 100,000 to 175,000 vehicles carrying twice as many snowbirds are parked here every day. Tourism officials estimate that one million people from the seven million households that the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association in Reston, Va., says own R.V.’s, settle here for at least a few days at some point during winter.

    But reliable statistics are hard to come by. Mayor Verlyn Michel says two million people have already come or gone this season, and he predicts a record 2.25 million by spring. ''It started in 1964 with camping and rock hounding,'' or hunting, he said. ''Then they got the idea to sell rocks off their pickups. Now we have 77 R.V. parks.''

    Quartzsite's growth jibes with sales of recreational vehicles.
Ken Sommer, spokesman for the vehicle association, said that last year the industry sold more than 300,000 vehicles, 20 percent more than in 2001 when the recession slowed sales. ''On top of that,'' Mr. Sommer said, ''our experts are predicting a 5 percent gain in 2003.'' That would be the most in 25 years.

    These snowbirds are largely a patriotic crowd that plants American flags outside vehicles beside folding chairs and all-weather green rugs nailed down with foot-long spikes. Except for the steps into their motor homes, no one need raise a foot to stroll through town. There's little athletic activity, other than hiking, and little for children to do.

    ''This is a talk-about-the-weather, talk-about-sports, talk-about-your-motor-home type of town,'' Paul Winer, owner of Main Street's Reader's Oasis bookstore, said. ''There's no structure to the town, no association that coordinates it.''

    But there is some organization. ''We have a thriving Senior Singles community, widows and widowers, with dances every night of the week,'' Mr. Winer said.

    Except for their ubiquitous white Nikes, Quartzsite's campers have long passed the peacock season of fashion-alert youth. But whatever the state of their veins, they cling to the diets of youth. Quartzsite's busiest restaurant and bar, Silly Al's, specializes in multiple-topping pizzas and beer. The new McDonald's is bustling.

    ''Reading glasses is our main thing,'' said Kitty Shipley, 61, who with her husband, Dick, 62, moved their motor home and sales tent to 46 sites last year and stayed longest in Quartzsite, November to March. Along with gloves and socks, they sell a lot of back scratchers and Jiffy Seats. ''It's a cane to walk with,'' Mrs. Shipley said, ''and when you get tired, you open it up and sit down.''

    Among the many desert encampments is a nudist colony. Two well tanned, rumple-skinned men were scrubbing down an R.V., and a woman was playing catch with a Labrador. The colony is 1,000 feet from and in full view of a community of retired executives from the Antelope Valley in California.

    The 13 couples there have homes costing $100,000 and up. Frank Heard, 61, has a new Windsor with a double-door refrigerator, an electronic toilet and cherry-stained cabinets. ''The sticker on it was $271,000,'' he said. The campers have placed their homes in a circle around a fireplace. They gather there for potluck suppers.

    Rather than hook up to utilities in R.V. parks, desert campers like these use generators and batteries for electricity and propane for cooking. Forming interminable lines, they take water from community spigots and dump sewage at community depots. At some sites they can flag down water wagons and ''honey trucks.'' The honey trucks, circulating among the encampments playing jingles like ice cream trucks, drain away sewage.

    Many retiree-campers reside all year on their wheels. When summer comes and temperatures here soar, they bail out for Calgary, Alberta; the Rockies; and the Great Lakes.

    ''I don't have a house,'' said Bill Mapes, 76, who worked for the highway department in Nebraska for 43 years. ''I got a 36-foot Cruisemaster motor home with a slide-out,'' a section of wall that can be pushed out to expand a room. ''That's a Class A motor home. It's got a 454 Vortec engine in it. It makes about eight miles per gallon going down the road pulling my pickup.''

    Mr. Mapes's wife, Virginia, operates the Best of Everything Beauty Salon at the Main Event, a 100-acre site of vendors and parking lots, the biggest of three big concentrations of vendors. She can pack up and move in a day.

    Quartzsite seethes with rampant, mostly good humored and little regulated entrepreneurship. Six years ago, Mr. Cast left Eugene, Ore., to visit here. For $285,000 he bought four acres with a coin laundry on it just off a corner of the town's biggest intersection.

    ''I put in the smoked meat store with a deli and a propane dealership,'' he said. He planted a double-wide home just behind the shops. ''I think we're sitting on a situation where we have the potential to be something big,'' he said.

    From Lynn, Mass., Mr. Winer, the bookseller, is a gray-bearded, long-haired sartorial jolt. Fifty-nine years old, he wears a cowboy hat, suede boots, three turquoise necklaces and a thong. On chillier days, he adds a T-shirt.

    He said he and his wife, Joann, started out here 12 years ago in a 10-foot-square tent with three boxes of used books. Today his jerry-built store, big as a small supermarket, carries 80,000 titles, mostly old paperbacks. ''We were lucky,'' he said. ''Snowbirds are the reading generation.''

    More than 2,000 itinerant vendors have set up tents beside their vehicles in Quartzsite. Eight sell R.V.'s. They also sell Polish dogs and Dutch dogs, dug-up blue bottles, aircraft drills and holding tank ventilators for R.V.'s. A sign on one of two barrels in front of one shop advertises, ''Quartzsite summer wear'' -- men's and women's satiny thongs -- for $1 each. The other holds $1 ''winter wear'' -- satiny briefs and panties.

    From his family's quartz mine near Custer, S.D., Carl Scott has hauled in two 18-wheeler loads near one of Quartzsite's few monuments, a white-painted camel made of automobile wheel rims. For $1 a pound, he sells mostly 2- to 10-pound chunks that customers cut up and polish and sell for many times more back home. He is offering a boulder of rose quartz the size of an old Volkswagen. ''I'll sell that for $6,000,'' he said.

    Promoters call the activity swap meets. True swapping is rare, but it happens. ''I have a large meteorite I'm trying to interest somebody in,'' said Bob Kleinschmidt, 72, of San Diego. ''It's in the neighborhood of 100 tons. It's in southern Nevada. I staked a claim to it.''

    With Quartzsite's growth, longtime visitors like Greta Knudsen, 69, and her husband, 70, complain of a decline in the rock hounding and swapping that was its original lure. Full-timers from Brooklyn, the Knudsens have traversed the country 25 times and have come here on vacation and now in retirement for 18 years.

    Sunning outside their camper, they looked lonely. The score of rock hunters they once gathered with here have died or moved on. ''I used to like it here a lot more,'' Mrs. Knudsen said. ''Now you see a lot of junk. I collect dinosaur bones for my grandchildren. They're a lot more expensive now. You can get a dinosaur tooth for $28. I used to pay $10.''

Nuns Bring Hope to a Destitute Town in Mississippi

JONESTOWN, MISSISSIPPI

NOVEMBER 20, 2002--With the harvest nearly over, bits of cotton residue scatter over the roads. The smell of frying chicken drenches Main Street. Men without jobs dig under the hoods of old Pontiacs, trying to make them run again. The scene here could be from any of the mostly black, mostly destitute towns at the core of the Mississippi Delta.

    Except for the gray-haired woman in a sweatshirt and jeans, coaching teenage boys in a game of flag football. The woman, Kay Burton, is white, robust as the Idaho farmers she grew up among, and a Roman Catholic nun.

    Sister Kay, 65, a member of the Holy Name order, is one of four nuns from faraway states who live and work in Jonestown, a community of 44 whites and 1,660 blacks 50 miles south of Memphis.

    In the 1980's, a half dozen orders of Catholic nuns looked around the country to see where they could be most helpful, and they began sending members into the Delta, with the support of the Diocese of Jackson, Miss. Since then, several hundred nuns have settled in communities like Tutwiler, Tunica, Marks, Rosedale and Jonestown -- places that whites had deserted with the desegregation of schools.

    With little fanfare and no government help to speak of, these sisters help reinforce the town's crowded and underfinanced public schools. They are also nurses, doctors, counselors and community organizers. They build medical clinics, nonsectarian preschools for the youngest children and houses with Habitat for Humanity volunteers.
They provide the towns' only refuges for many children to do homework or make decorations for Halloween. They organize programs for teenage girls as alternatives to becoming pregnant.

    Using church and private donations -- nothing from government agencies -- they have opened a new brick Community Education Center in Tutwiler with a big gymnasium. In Jonestown this year, they opened a Montessori school for children ages 2 to 6.

    People say the sisters keep their towns afloat in the face of the Delta's intractable poverty. Lavorn Burnett, 51, and her husband, Donal, 52, own a service station next to Jonestown's cramped City Hall. They use the health clinic of Manette Durand, 60-ish, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

    A nurse practitioner, Sister Manette is the only health care provider in town. ''She can do everything but cutting,'' Mrs. Burnett said. ''She takes time to talk to you. You can call her if you're having a problem. You can talk to her like friends. She gives you the advice you need to make a decision.

    ''And Sister Kay, Sister Kay has this carpentry class. She teaches the kids through working. One kid built a porch for his house. I don't want you to think I'm glorifying the nuns. It's just what we've seen here.''

    Judy Phillips, manager of a community preservation program at Mississippi State University that oversees a grant to renovate a long-abandoned school, said, ''I can't think of any entity that is more important to Jonestown than the sisters.''

    More than local churches, businesses or government agencies, Ms. Phillips said, ''they are the true support net within that community.''

    Viewed by the usual measures of community health, Jonestown sits on the floor of the nation's cellar. The 2000 census deemed half its families poor, compared with 9 percent nationwide. The median family income was $15,750, nearly $27,000 less than the national median.

    In communities with 1,000 or more people, Jonestown had the second-highest rate of single-mother households, 32 percent, after Ford Heights, Ill., near Chicago. The median age of single mothers here was 21. The national median was 35.

    More than half of the adults in town do not work, the census found. One reason is education. Fewer than half the adults over 25 have high school diplomas. Another reason is transportation. Almost one in three households do not have a car. There is no public transportation.

    ''Some of our folks have never had decent shoes on, so they have impaired feet,'' Sister Manette said.

    She trims corns and nails and bathes patients' feet in a whirlpool. She treats many knife and gunshot wounds, too, and the chronic diseases of the poor, like hypertension, diabetes and osteoarthritis.

    However bleak, the statistics obscure crosscurrents of pride and resilience. ''We don't have any suicides,'' Sister Manette said.
After falling for years, the population has grown 38 percent in the last 20 years. Jonestown's cottonseed oil mill has survived the many mill closings in other Delta towns. New jobs have opened in the casinos of Tunica County, 35 miles away, to which young mothers here commute on casino-financed buses.

    The gauges of poverty apply to the Burnetts in some ways but not in others. They are qualified for food stamps and welfare but never applied. They economized with chicken, they said. They reared their five children in a three-bedroom trailer behind their service station. Four of the children have finished college, and one is still attending. The Burnetts said the sisters helped steer the children through school and beyond.

    The nuns and the Burnetts worked together to develop newspaper routes to deliver The Clarksdale Press Register. ''The children would come in in the evening and roll those papers up and get them to the readers,'' Mrs. Burnett said.

    Mr. Burnett said, ''If the nuns hear of something the community can benefit from, they try to get you into it.''

    Across Main Street from the Burnetts' business is Uptown Brown, a take-out barbecue shop. Bennie Brown, 49, the second-generation owner, has just opened a youth center in the shuttered school.

    With sports programs there, Mr. Brown wants to steer young people ages 10 to 18 from the drugs sold openly here. Sister Teresa Shields of the Holy Name order, who runs tutoring and social programs for children in kindergarten to sixth grade, helped organize the center and is a member of its board.

    The nuns have touched Mr. Brown in another way, too.

    ''I think the Lord was calling for this work to be done,'' he said. ''But the people here hadn't made themselves available. By watching the nuns, they inspired me to be involved in a ministry. I learned to put my whole self into what I learned from them.''

    Three years ago, Mr. Brown was ordained a Baptist minister. A year later he became pastor of St. Paul's Ministry, one of Jonestown's five churches, all a century old and none of them Roman Catholic.

    Townspeople know of no Catholics among them, other than the nuns. When Bishop William Houck of the Jackson Diocese invited the nuns into the towns, Sister Kay said, ''he told us we were not to evangelize but to educate.''

    ''We're teachers,'' she said.

    Sister Kay lives in a large, white stucco house two blocks from City Hall, next to the new Montessori school, where two sisters from Clarksdale teach. Her bedroom is next to the kitchen. Volunteers, often college students on vacation, stay in a dormitory upstairs and in two rooms downstairs.

    Scattered about are three pianos, four electric keyboards and four computers, all donated. In the living room on many evenings, about 30 teenage participants in Sister Kay's Girls to Women program settle around the living room to recite poetry, perform skits, watch videotapes and begin planning careers.

    A large sunny room in back is Sister Kay's classroom, with four tables joined in a square. Teenage students come in for tutoring. Older people stop in for help in earning high school equivalency diplomas.

    ''My purpose is to promote the idea that as people become educated, they will volunteer to help others when we pass on,'' Sister Kay said.

    Often, economists and sociologists suggest that Delta towns once rooted in agriculture have outlived their purpose with the mechanization of farming. They suggest that the young move to communities with more jobs and that the towns be plowed back into cotton.

    Valid or not, it is not a proposition that engages the nuns. ''There are 600 children in elementary school here,'' said Sister Teresa, 57. ''Whether they eventually leave or grow up here, they deserve the best.''

A Huge, Boat-Hurdling Carp Is No Mississippi Fish Story

TUNICA, MISSISSIPPI

AUGUST 26, 2002--Five miles west of downtown Tunica, over the grassy levee that keeps the floods out of town, the fishermen who had gathered by the banks of the Mississippi were telling tales of crazed fish as big as hound dogs that leap out of the water and hit boaters on the head.

    ''This year there's a gang of them coming into the boats,'' said John Robertson, who helps out at a bait shop at Charlie's Landing, a fishing camp. ''If you're down there fishing, they'll jump over in the boat to you. I had one guy, it hit him and busted his mouth.''

    In the next fishing camp over, Jack Bryan, who had joined some friends for breakfast beers at Big Roy's, a tavern, said: ''It started about two, three years ago. What I was told was, some of these fish ponds got flooded, and they spread all over.'' Two weeks ago, he said, a flying 48-pounder split a buddy's lip.

    The men were sober. The tales were true. The fish were carp.

    Grass carp, bighead carp and the neurotic silver carp -- giant, prolific species all originally imported by catfish farmers in Mississippi and Arkansas two decades ago to control detritus and unwanted plant and animal life in their manmade ponds -- have escaped in floods into the Mississippi, and have begun showing up as far north as Iowa and Illinois.

    ''They are thick as fleas in Mississippi tributaries,'' said Bill Reeves, chief of fisheries for the State of Tennessee.

    These carp lack any touches of style, like a swordfish's elegant fins or a sturgeon's scoopy nose. The grass carp ''is like an aquatic cow,'' said Jack Killgore, a fisheries biologist at the Army Corps of Engineers' Waterways Experiment Station, a research center in Vicksburg. ''It just grazes.''

    Now a more recent arrival, the black carp, is stirring alarm from New Orleans to Ontario. Also known as the snail carp and the Chinese roach, the black carp is a bottom-sucking ogre that can grow five feet long and up to 150 pounds. It gorges on mollusks -- including parasite-infested ram's horn snails, which can populate ponds and infect the catfish with wormy yellow grubs. Teeth in the back of its throat grind up its prey like garbage disposals.

    The various carp species, imported from China, Russia and Vietnam, are banned from fish farms in several states. They are edible but largely uneaten here, except by some Asian immigrants for whom they are a dietary staple.

    Most farms get along without them, said Hugh Warren, executive director of the Catfish Farmers of America, a trade association in Indianola, Miss., but a sizable minority believe they must have them. Several farmers in Arkansas breed small numbers of sterile black carp for sale to catfish farms in Arkansas and Mississippi.

    As yet, none is known to have escaped a pond for the wild, but after two years of pressure from many states' conservation and natural resource agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service on July 30 proposed adopting a rule designating the black carp an injurious species. On Aug. 3 it issued a similar ruling for the northern snakehead, a predatory Asian fish that has been found in Maryland, California, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

    ''The probability is high'' that the rule will be approved for the black carp after a 60-day comment period, said Ken Burton, a spokesman for the service. Opponents, he said, ''would have to present very convincing arguments, because all the evidence goes the other way.”

    The rule would ban the importing and interstate shipping of the carp, although states that now allow them, like Mississippi and Arkansas, could continue to do so. The agency cited other ways to control

    The rule would ban the importing and interstate shipping of the carp, although states that now allow them, like Mississippi and Arkansas, could continue to do so. The agency cited other ways to control snails on catfish farms, using chemicals and less invasive snail-eating fish. But some farmers say nothing works like black carp, and they intend to fight the ruling.

    In the political storm that is brewing, the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association, made up of natural resource agencies from 28 states and four federal agencies, favors such regulations. State and federal agriculture departments tend to oppose them.

    ''I've talked to both of our senators personally,'' said Mike Freeze, a black carp and bass farmer in Arkansas. ''I know both are opposed.'' The industry has formed a formidable lobby.

    The earlier invasion of Asian carp into American waterways, before injurious-species regulations had been written and long after a ban would have any effect, presents a major conflict. It not only sets commercial interests against conservationists and ecologists, but also pits the interests of one business, catfish farming, against the interests of another, the sale of mussel shells to Japan to make cultured pearls.

    In Mississippi, catfish have become the state's fourth-biggest crop. Like the casinos that have opened along the Mississippi River, catfish farms have helped sustain a region of the country, the Mississippi Delta, that ranks with Appalachia and Indian reservations in unemployment, poverty and disease. Workers who have lost jobs on mechanized cotton plantations find jobs at catfish processing plants.

    Mr. Warren of the Catfish Farmers of America said 395 Mississippi farms raise catfish in 111,500 acres of water. They represent more than half the nation's cultivated production of catfish. Some farmers also raise a hybrid striped bass for restaurants. ''And there are people that grow catfish that also grow carp,'' Mr. Warren said.

    But as the grass, silver and bighead carp already in the river grow and proliferate, conservation agencies are finding them no easier to control than alewives, round gobies, the zebra mussels that have stacked themselves along the Mississippi and across the Great Lakes, and the sea lampreys that latch onto fish and suck the life out of them. Carp hug the bottom of the muddy Mississippi, and nobody knows how many there are.

    Day by day, fishermen have lately been reporting sightings of the once-infrequently seen silver carp springing like torpedoes from rivers in the Mississippi basin when outboard motor boats pass. ''It's common behavior to jump when frightened,'' Dr. Killgore of the Army Corps of Engineers said. ''One clipped my ear.''

    For a couple of years, bighead carp have been piling into the nets that Bill Lancaster of Sunflower, Miss., sets out for native catfish and buffalo fish. ''They've gotten more and more and bigger and bigger,'' Mr. Lancaster said. ''I caught some bigheads last year that weighed over 70 pounds. They tear enormous holes in your nets.''

    As they head north, John Chick, director of the Illinois Natural History Survey's Great River field station near Alton, Ill., said, ''Individuals have been seen up around Iowa and Wisconsin.'' Their next stop could be the Great Lakes.

    Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission in Ann Arbor, Mich., an organization of the governments of the United States and Canada that seeks to prevent pollution and ecological damage to the Great Lakes, said the fish were ''scratching at our door.''

    ''They're very large, they're voracious eaters, and they're very well suited to the climate of the Great Lakes,'' Mr. Gaden said.

    Jerry Rasmussen, coordinator of large river activities for the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association, which petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service for the ban against black carp, said, ''Two bigheads in the 50-pound range have been found in Lake Erie.'' Mr. Rasmussen said Asian immigrants might have put them there.







Swarms of Dying Mayflies Bring Good News

McGREGOR, IOWA

AUGUST, 2002--Mayflies don't bite. They don't sting. They don't have mouths, so they don't even eat. They can live with that because they die in a day.

    But in that one day, they do mate. In an unheralded and sometimes annoying consequence of cleaner waterways, mayflies are mating and dying in greater numbers than they have in half a century. The insects have been swarming in such volumes this summer that they have to be shoveled from riverside streets and scraped from bridges with snowplows.

    Fifteen times this summer at twilight, Randall A. Grady, the police chief in this little Mississippi River town, said he had to dispatch an officer to turn off the street lights so as not to attract the mating flies. One night, he said, the officer had to put on a raincoat because there were so many winged missiles in the air.

    With layers of slippery, dying mayflies on the streets, people here say an evening stroll can be perilous. The dead flies coat the decks of boats. Mornings after a big swarm, merchants have to power-wash the corpses from their windows.

    ''They build up, layer upon layer,'' said Cathy Corpian, who has a bookkeeping and telephone answering service here. ''They're greasy. They stick to you. They stink. They smell like dead fish.''

    But Ms. Corpian added, ''They're good.''

    The mayflies might be a hassle, but their presence signals a revival of sorts for the Mississippi. ''They are an indication of the general health of the river,'' said John Lindell, district manager for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in nearby Marquette, Iowa.

    Arwin Provonsha, curator of insect collections at Purdue University, agreed. ''They are kind of like the canary in the coal mine,'' he said. ''We've had such serious problems with water pollution. Lake Erie was close to dead. We were having big problems with the Mississippi and other big rivers.''

    Peter M. Grant, editor of the Mayfly newsletter and a biology professor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, said the return of the mayfly was a result of efforts over the last several decades to rid lakes and rivers of pollution caused by sewage and farm runoff. Long stretches of Midwestern waterways are finally clean enough for mayfly larva to burrow into the mud and hatch in large numbers.

    Mayfly experts do not keep comprehensive records of insect swarms, and they do not contend that the nation's great rivers and lakes have been rid of contaminants. Farm chemicals still flow into much of the Mississippi, and states still ban swimming in the river when bacterial wastes reach unsafe levels.

    Nevertheless, Mr. Provonsha said that this summer, ''we are seeing mayflies coming back to levels we haven't seen since the 1950's.''

    Though the mayfly population has been growing slowly over the last decade, this year's hordes are so big that swarms from Lake Erie have appeared on weather radar in Erie, Pa., and near Cleveland.

    Ronald L. Benjamin, fisheries supervisor in the LaCrosse office of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, linked the resurgence of the mayfly to efforts to keep sewage out of the rivers. ''We have made major changes and improvements in how we handle wastes,'' Mr. Benjamin said. Mayflies, in the larval stage, feed on plants and organic waste but high volumes of waste suffocate them.

    Mr. Benjamin said large cities along the Mississippi have put in new sewer lines to keep human waste from being washed into the river along with runoff from storms. Small communities have built water treatment plants and installed public restrooms near boat ramps.

    Mayflies are susceptible to water pollution because their larva live on river beds for two to three years, growing and molting about 20 times before surfacing as short-lived adults. The insects, which can grow to an inch in length, have bulging eyes, two pairs of translucent, vein-lined wings and two or three filamentlike tails.

    Mayflies, also known as shad flies and fish flies, tend to hatch and swarm two or three times a year, from May to September. But in summers like this one along the Mississippi, there can be many hatches.

    Once hatched and aloft, the males seize females and mate on the run. The male promptly dies. Each female drops thousands of eggs into the river and then dies, too.

    Mr. Provonsha said mayflies, along with stone flies and caddis flies, make up 80 percent of many fish species' diet, so as mayflies disappear, so do fish. Fish are healthier along much of the Mississippi, with declining levels of mercury and PCB's, but it is too soon to see whether the resurgent mayflies are leading to many more of them.

    By all accounts, fish have been feasting this summer, especially trout, the mayfly's No. 1 predator. ''It's a great boon to fish and other critters who depend on them,'' said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi, an environmental group based in Minneapolis.

    Fishermen may have less to cheer about. With a glut of the real thing to dine on, it is a rare trout that goes for painstakingly tied flies. ''They wreak havoc on fly fishermen,'' Mr. Clark said of the mayflies. ''How are the trout supposed to know your fly from the tens of thousands of all the other flies?''

    People here have taken steps to thwart the bugs. The insects are less attracted to pink, sodium vapor bulbs than fluorescent and incandescent bulbs, so some communities have begun switching the bulbs on their bridges. Homeowners have also started turning off their porch lights at night.

    But nobody seems too unhappy. People may not like the mess, but they like what the mayflies represent. And the alternatives are not particularly attractive. ''There's a way to get rid of them,'' Mr. Provonsha said. ''Just pollute the water."


A Torrent of Sludge Muddies a Town's Future

INEZ, KENTUCKY

DECEMBER 25, 2000--As Prentice Maynard was leaving for work before daybreak on Oct. 11, he noticed that Coldwater Creek was unusually high as it flowed under the bridge he took to the road.

    By 7:40, when his wife, Janice, left their trailer for her job in town, the creek was an eerily still, glistening black goo that could hold a stick upright.

    ''I thought, 'It's like pudding,' '' Ms. Maynard said. ''It was overflowing the stream bed. At 4:45, when I got home, it was over the driveway.''

    For three days the goo rose and spread. It swamped gardens and lawns along the six miles of Coldwater Creek in eastern Kentucky and coated its banks and bottom and those of neighboring 15-mile Wolf Creek to thicknesses of up to six feet.

    Ms. Maynard's pudding was 250 million gallons of coal-mining sludge. And it created an environmental disaster, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, suffocating aquatic life -- salamanders, frogs, fish and big snapping turtles -- as it moved downstream. It has also worsened the economic disaster in this backwater pocket of central Appalachia, where, with the din of tank trucks and pumps running constantly, the cleanup is only half finished.

    The slurry of watered-down coal particles, dirt, rock, clay and traces of heavy metals had burst through the bottom of the A. T. Massey Coal Company's lifeless 72-acre, 2.2-billion-gallon waste lagoon, which sits atop this Appalachian county's struggling and now terrified hollows.

    For five hours starting just before midnight, 10 feet of the 90-foot depth of the lagoon raced through abandoned underground mines, smashing concrete seals the company thought strong enough to contain a spill, then shot out two mine entries and into the creeks.

    Briefly before the spill, this place had some hope in the pending arrival of two new employers. On high ground six miles away, a casket company is expected to open a shop that might employ 30 or 40 workers, and in two years, a maximum security federal prison will open and employ about 200 local people.

    Now any future employer will have to weigh the risks of another visit of sludge. ''We were making some progress when this disaster hit,'' said Garry R. Lafferty, the county's deputy judge executive, its second-highest-ranking administrator. ''It really backs you up.''

    Martin County's torrent of sludge was more than 20 times the volume of the Exxon Valdez's crude oil spill in Alaska 11 years ago. Among coal-mining spills, it was twice that of its biggest forerunner, 28 years ago in Buffalo Creek, W.Va., which killed 125 people and swallowed 500 homes. This time, though, no one was hurt.

    A touchy issue involving industry, jobs and the environment, it drew a few headlines but little national interest.

    As the spill rolled into 100 miles of rivers and streams, clogging water treatment plants and forcing schools, restaurants, laundries and a power plant to close before dispersing at the Ohio River, Gov. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky, a Democrat and former coal mine operator, declared a 10-county emergency.

    Inez, population 470 and sinking, is where President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his War on Poverty in 1964. ''I was a college kid then,'' said John Kirk, a lawyer in town who has filed a class-action suit for 200 homeowners against Massey and its local subsidiary, the Martin County Coal Corporation. ''What Johnson did, more than anything else, was give an injection of optimism to this little place.''

    In the 1970's, coal companies swooped in, leasing and buying hundreds of square miles of rolling hills and valleys. The land below ground became honeycombed with tunnels and shafts. With strip mining, mountaintops became mesas.

    In return, the industry delivered wages, jobs and home-building. According to Ron Crouch, director of the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville, coal mine employment leaped nearly tenfold, to 3,156 in 1980 from 364 a decade earlier. The county's population rose to 13,925 from 9,377, before beginning a gradual decline.

    Incomes, once just above half the state average, reached the average by 1980. Middle-class homes and new trailers sprouted near eastern Kentucky hovels along Coldwater and Wolf Creeks. The poverty rate, more than 50 percent at the start of the War on Poverty, fell by half.

    But automation took away mining jobs and the price of coal began to plunge, to just over $20 a ton today from nearly $40 at its peak. The boom began to fizzle, and today, mine employment has dropped below 900, while wages have slipped. And with no one yet willing to buy into the path of another spill, home values along the two creeks have collapsed.

    Just why the October spill happened, in particular why the seals broke, is still being investigated.

    By most accounts, a computer operator noticed that a conveyor belt carrying coal had stopped. Workers who were sent to check it found sludge from the lagoon pouring into a cavity, like water through a bathtub drain, near the shore on one side. From there, said Fred Stroud, the E.P.A. official at the scene who leads the federal cleanup, the sludge roared through the Swiss cheese of underground mines near the lagoon walls, breaking through the two sets of seals.

    Mr. Stroud said one stream then poured out of one mine entrance, over a ravine and into the head waters of Coldwater Creek. He said the other appeared to have run a longer course through the mines, slowing down as it spilled into Wolf Creek.

    The man on the hot seat here is Dennis Hatfield, president of Martin County Coal and the son of a retired local miner. He lives nearby with his wife and two children and teaches Sunday school. It is rare to hear an unkind word about him, if not about the company he runs. ''He frogged and fished in the creeks,'' Mr. Lafferty said.

    Mr. Hatfield has been deeply apologetic. Partly under orders from the state, which has cited the company for engaging in unsafe practices, Martin County Coal is picking up the cost of a cleanup, estimated at $40 million to $60 million. ''We've got 500 people and 300 pieces of equipment working on this cleanup,'' Mr. Hatfield said.

    Within hours of the spill, he was on the phone to homeowners in its path, offering motel rooms, groceries, driveway clearing, topsoil for the ruined gardens and new bridges.

    The company attributes the spill to an act of God, a claim that stirs derision in this heavily Baptist community. Mr. Hatfield is less certain. ''I don't know what happened,'' he said. ''I don't think anybody else does.'' With lawsuits building against it, the company has taken some extra measures, like installing a Massey public relations man.

    The company bought a used four-wheel-drive vehicle so Prentice Maynard can reach his trailer and the red barn where he keeps 20 beagles, and leased an apartment for Janice Maynard, who says she is too frightened to return home. But she calls the gestures meaningless. ''I want them to buy me out,'' she said. ''I want my life back.''

    Up Coldwater Road from the Maynards, closer to the mining site, Glenn Cornette, a 66-year-old retired strip miner, and his wife, Shirley, 60, feel similarly. Their trailer is next to that of their daughter and son-in-law, Patty and Edward McGinnis, and near the crumbling little house where Mr. McGinnis was born.

    Around 3 that October morning, Mr. McGinnis was getting ready to give his wife, Patty, a ride to Grandad's Diner, where she would begin preparing breakfast for early-rising miners. On the road outside his trailer, Mr. McGinnis said he saw a company guard watching the rising creek.

    ''I asked him,'' Mr. McGinnis said, '' 'Have you got a pond break?' He said, 'We got one seeping a little bit. It's just a seep. It will be all right.' ''

    Later, when Mr. Cornette arose, he said he told his wife that it looked like mud to him. ''Steam was coming off of it,'' he said.

    As daylight broke, the sludge kept rising and flooding the land where he raises vegetables. ''I caught a big turtle that was going for high ground,'' Mr. Cornette said. A footlong snapper, he said, it was caked with mud. ''I took him in and washed him off,'' he said, and then put him in an unaffected stream nearby.

    Mr. Cornette leases the company a patch of his 90 acres for $1,065 a year. But with fears of another spill keeping them up at night, he and his wife want out. ''I'm afraid of what's left up there,'' Mrs. Cornette said of the nearly two billion gallons still in the lagoon.

  nbsp; This was not the lagoon's first big leak. Six years ago, more than 100 million gallons, mostly water, escaped, doing little damage. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, a Labor Department agency, found inadequate sealing around the lagoon. The state fined the company $1,600. A plan was prepared with the federal agency to reinforce the lagoon, and the company agreed to adopt it.

    ''We followed up with a pretty thorough analysis,'' said J. Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary and head of the agency. But no one has established yet whether the company actually complied with the plan or whether the federal regulators checked to see that it had. ''Obviously we weren't thorough enough,'' Mr. McAteer said.


In Libraries and Cemeteries, Vacationing With Ancestors

WORMELSDORF, PENNSYLVANIA

AUGUST 19, 2001--This former cigar-making village in eastern Pennsylvania is hardly a tourist site, but it gets a steady stream of summer visitors. They stroll through the cemetery with its weather-pocked headstones, some inscribed in German and more than 200 years old. At the edge of the graveyard, the little Tulpehocken Settlement Historical Society is building an addition to accommodate the rush of callers like Wayne and Beth Ilger.

    ''We are looking for Jacob Ilger, my father's father's father's father,'' said Mr. Ilger, 45, a chemist on vacation from Abbott Laboratories, near Chicago. The day before, the Ilgers came up dry at the state archives in Harrisburg. Here, about 14 miles west of Reading, they were leafing through church records, immigration records, birth records, tax records, deeds and old newspaper files. ''We know he moved to northeastern Ohio as part of the westward march,'' Mr. Ilger said.

    After two hours of digging, the Ilgers had one of those eureka! moments of genealogical sleuths. In church marriage records, they discovered another Jacob Ilger, presumably the father of the Jacob Ilger from Ohio. He had married Catharine Weinel at the Trinity Tulpehocken Reformed Church in Womelsdorf on Aug. 12, 1812. Next the Ilgers plan to hunt down the forebears of the elder Jacob Ilger.

    No one keeps track of the vacationing family archivists, toting cameras, satchels of notebooks and detailed family trees as big as gas station maps, who are prospecting for ancestors. But the nationwide boom in their numbers, fueled by the explosion of information on the Internet, shows no signs of abating.

Not only are people combing their family trees like never before, they are hitting the road to do it, particularly in the summer, in search of a physical, more personal connection to the past. Most of these visitors to local historical societies are researching their ancestry.

    The Maritz Marketing Research Company near St. Louis reported last year that 60 percent of Americans were at least somewhat interested in tracing their origins, up from 45 percent in 1995; 30 percent of those surveyed said they had drawn family trees. The Learning Company in San Francisco says it sells 2,000 copies a week of its Broderbund Family Tree Maker software, a research tool introduced in 1997.

    The Internet's message boards, family news groups and genealogical services are its second-busiest destinations after the sexually oriented sites. Searchers log onto ancestry .com, genealogy.com and the Mormon Church site FamilySearch.org, which reports that its database is approaching one billion names. It says it counts more than eight million hits a day.

    Their research leads them to places like the Ipswich, Mass., Public Library, on Boston's North Shore, where each summer the traffic grows. ''It's unbelievable,'' said Paula Grillo, a librarian there. Last month 83 people signed in to be escorted to the library's archives, where they searched birth, marriage and death records that dated to 1630.

    In rural Sussex County, Va., Circuit Court Clerk Gary Williams, said, ''We get one or two people a day and more every year.''

    In Bristol, R.I., the Rogers Free Library keeps ships' passenger lists of early immigrants, 1790 and 1850 census data and bound histories of eminent families. ''It's mostly Midwestern people coming in,'' said Joan Prescott, the library's director. ''They go away happy.''

    In Womelsdorf, population 2,559 and settled in 1723 by 15 German Protestant refugee families from the Palatinate, things are no different. ''It's a big, big business, very big,'' said Earl W. Ibach, 70, the historical society's volunteer librarian. Visitors often spend $30 for genealogical essays and maps, meeting half the society's annual budget of $20,000.

    Theodore and Mary Smith of Lakewood, Pa., were spending their 38th wedding anniversary in the research room of the Berks County Court House in Reading. Mrs. Smith is 70, her husband is 83.

    ''His Smith is all done,'' Mrs. Smith said, so they were looking into the records of her maternal grandmother, Anna Cronan, who lived on Ninth Street in Reading.

    As Mrs. Smith read a tattered will, her mouth dropped.

    Anna Cronan, she discovered, was the daughter of Joseph Spuhler, a German. ''So I'm not 100 percent Irish, as I was always told,'' Mrs. Smith said. Mrs. Cronan married an Irish plasterer, Thomas Cronan. Mr. Cronan, another document showed, died at home of dropsy at 52 in 1904. Mrs. Cronan died the next year, of multiple carcinoma at 54. They left 11 children.

    The inventory of Mrs. Cronan's estate, made up mostly of seven two-story brick rental houses, showed a value of $12,332.27, or more than $200,000 in today's dollars. ''She was rich!'' Mrs. Smith declared.

    Counties and towns in some colonial states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia and Pennsylvania have been more diligent than others in collecting and preserving records.

    Few clerks and librarians complain about the visitors. For many of these offices, genealogical record-keeping pays for itself. The Berks County County Court House collects $1 a page for documents sought by mail and $10 to conduct a limited search for a name.

    There, Larry Medaglia, the register of wills, has put millions of birth, marriage and death records on a Web page he launched in November 1997. Last year, Mr. Medaglia said, he received $35,000 in copying fees, twice as much as three years ago. ''That pays the salary and benefits'' of an aide who searches the documents, he said.

    Settled in the 18th century primarily by Germans, then by the Irish, by Scottish and Eastern European factory workers and lately by Hispanic immigrants, Berks County keeps one of the nation's deepest troves of ancestral records.

    Besides the court house, documents can be found at the 3,000-member Berks County Historical Society, at the 1,100-member Genealogical Society of Berks County and in the collections of private genealogists like David Adams, descended not from the Massachusetts Adamses but from Johannes Heinrich Adam, born in 1410 in the German duchy of East Friesland.

    Two years ago, Mr. Adams moved to Reading from San Francisco and bought the 28-room Queen Anne house of William Luden, the cough drop titan. Now 67, Mr. Adams has packed the first floor with the histories of 300 families. He has also collected family Bibles, many inscribed with accounts of births and deaths; marriage and baptismal certificates; more than 200 years of newspaper clippings; and original land deeds. Mr. Adams, the former president of the California Genealogical Society, charges clients $10 to come in and work for up to four hours.

    One client, Florence Heydt, has filled her family tree back more than 200 years. Mrs. Heydt, 77, is a Kline on her father's side and a Rothermerl on her mother's. On trips to Germany she uncovered the first of each line to come to America. Records included the 1792 confirmation record of Conrad Andreas Klein. ''I've been to the church,'' she said. ''I've seen where he was baptized.''

    Hooked by the success of her quest, she is now tracking down friends' lines. At Mr. Adams's house she was searching for birth records of the German-American forebears of a house guest from France. ''His mother is French,'' she said. ''His father was my husband's uncle.''

    But there are many dead ends. Mr. Adams cited a Lutheran pastor who wrote in 1746, ''I hereby baptize these 36 children whose names I can't remember.'' And it is not just the forgotten names, it is the changed ones, too -- the Brauns who have become Browns and the Schneiders who have evolved into Snyders.

    But the amateur genealogists keep digging, to find some story behind the mere dates of births and deaths -- revelations of a slaveholding past, hidden criminal records, genetic diseases, out-of-wedlock births.

    At the historical society in Reading, where 90 percent of the visitors research families, Traci Brough of Mechanicsburg in Cumberland County is investigating her father's family, the Potteigers, the first of whom came from Germany in the 1770's.

    Since Ms. Brough began her work, she has discovered Potteiger men marrying sisters of wives who died in childbirth. She learned that her mother and father are third cousins. On a birth certificate, she found the mother recorded as ''single.'' Along with many distinguished Potteigers, she found Harry Potteiger, who died weighing 456 pounds and was laid out for viewing in his yard because he could not be lugged inside. And she uncovered several Potteigers who died in a Harrisburg lunatic asylum.

    ''I have members of my family who don't want to talk about any of this,'' Ms. Brough said. ''They say it's private.'' But energized by the Internet, she is plunging on.

    ''There must be 20 Potteigers who are researching on the Net,'' she said, ''and most of us find leads to Berks County. It has become an obsession to see how many I can find. I've got almost 4,000.''


In Rural Enclaves of U.S., Cockfights Are Flourishing

ELLYVILLE, OKLAHOMA

JUNE 6, 2000--In urban America the blood sport of cockfighting survives only furtively, in seedy pits like one that the police raided in the Bronx on Saturday night. But the game remains far more entrenched in many rural communities like this one in Oklahoma, where cockfighting is legal and where on Friday night 200 people gathered in a carnival atmosphere to watch roosters tear each other apart and to bet on their fates.

    Cockfighting classes, instructional videos and books, newsletters and magazines help fuel a subculture and enterprises across the country. More than half the 170 pages of the May issue of Gamecock, a 62-year-old monthly magazine that claims 16,000 subscribers, are advertisements intended for cockfighters. Breeders from Connecticut to California offer proven winners for $1,000, untested cocks for $75 to $300, and a dozen eggs of winners' mother hens for $100 to $200.

    The magazines also run advertisements for drugs. A drug labeled Strychly Speed is the stimulant strychine, which the ad says ''speeds up the bird's reflexes, making him quick on the draw.'' Another, called Pure Aggression, can ''put an end to the fear of shock in those long, hard fights.''

    Through the advertisements and feed stores, a score of manufacturers sell gaffs and a wide variety of curved, razor-sharp knives, up to three inches long, for mounting on legs. The knives, costing up to $100, tend to kill faster than the cheaper, icepick-like gaffs, because they rip as well as pierce. Cockfighters maintain that the weapons simply deal a quick death to birds that would die in much longer bouts were they to use their natural spurs.

    Cockfighting endures legally in New Mexico, Louisiana and Oklahoma, which is home to more than 40 established back-road pits, and illegally in many other states. While betting is a misdemeanor, it is routine at the pits and ignored by most county sheriffs.

    All states allow breeding of the birds, which are then sold to states where fighting is legal or to the Philippines, Guam, Mexico and other countries where the sport is popular or, in states where it is outlawed, are hustled out to the woods and urban back alleys for illicit lethal combat. From coast to coast, farm-supply companies sell trainloads of vitamin- and nutrient-enriched feed for fighting cocks.

    In the last few years, though, cockfighting has become a target of animal protection advocates, who call it barbaric and unambiguously cruel, the only sport since the states banned dog fighting decades ago in which animals are bred solely to kill one another.

    Two years ago the Humane Society of the United States helped opponents of cockfighting in Arizona and Missouri win ballot initiatives that outlawed it.

    Early this year the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting, largely with $100,000 in financing from the society, gathered more than 100,000 signatures for a referendum on a proposal to ban the fights and punish violators with fines of up to $25,000 and jail terms of up to 10 years.

    And on Capitol Hill, more than 180 House members and more than 40 senators are sponsoring bills to prohibit the interstate shipment of fighting cocks.

    But for now, anyway, the bouts continue. Here in Kellyville, some 30 miles southwest of Tulsa, only a sign showing the small silhouette of a rooster marks the turn off Route 66 up a dirt road to the corrugated metal home of the Kellyville Game Club. In the club's glass-enclosed pit, two men step onto the dirt floor from opposite corners. Each cradles under one arm a fidgeting 2-year-old rooster with alert orange eyes.

    These are strikingly majestic birds, one of the Hatch breed, the other a Roundhead, with shimmering manes of orange hackle feathers and arching black tail feathers. But their heads, shorn of wattles and haughty combs, have become bobbing red knobs. Bound like a thorn to the nub of each of their severed spurs is a curved, two-inch-long steel gaff that can puncture heart, brain or lungs with the thrust of a heel.

    The birds are two of the 156, paired by weapons and weight, that will fight at the regular Friday night derby starting at 10 o'clock. Admission, restricted to members of the breeders' association and their families, costs $11. The 39 men who have each entered the required number of four birds pay participation fees of up to $75. The fees go into the purse, which is sometimes as much as $5,000, that will go to the owners of the four winning birds.

    In the pit now, the two men -- one in a red baseball cap, the other wearing a gray T-shirt -- begin the precombat ritual of thrusting their birds back and forth, beak to beak. The betting starts. ''Ten on the red hat,'' shouts one of 200 viewers in the six tiers of seats surrounding the pit. ''Twenty on the gray shirt,'' shouts another.

    The referee shouts, ''Ready, pit!'' The birds explode from their handlers' grasps and collide breast to breast, a foot off the ground. Beak grabbing beak, hackles flaring like porcupine quills, they bounce apart and then collide, again and again.

    The Hatch takes command. The Roundhead rolls over, then revives. He pounds the Hatch with a foot, spearing a lung. The Hatch fades, hunkering down and refusing to budge. As he coughs up drops of blood, his breathing sounds like footsteps on gravel. The Roundhead, fatigued but intact, wins. The Hatch is carried off, most likely to die.

    No one knows the full dimensions of this business. Sandy C. Johnson, an Ohio breeder who is director of administration for the United Gamefowl Breeders Association, with affiliates in 33 states, declined to disclose any specific figures but said cockfighting generated hundreds of millions of dollars a year in sales of birds, medicines, feed, and breeding and fighting gear. Alabama, Ms. Johnson said, is probably the biggest producer, just ahead of Texas.

    ''We estimate that Alabama has 11,545 farms'' that raise fighting cocks, she said.

    And Mark Urbanowsky, president of Blue Bonnet Feeds in Ardmore, Okla., said he and his competitors sold fighting-cock feed worth $25 million to $30 million a year to stores in Oklahoma alone.

    Among the industry's customers is Jeffrey Pearce, who has a fighting-cock farm on the outskirts of Sallisaw, Okla. Mr. Pearce moved to Oklahoma eight years ago from Oregon, where he and his father were breeders; his father-in-law is a prominent breeder in Texas.

    Mr. Pearce raises Hatches, known for power, and Blacks, known for speed, and also crosses them. He has all but sold out this year's production of 200 2-year-olds, for $150 to $175 each, largely to the Philippines and Guam.

    Starting at puberty, at 6 to 8 months old, Mr. Pearce said, each male bird (called a stag until its first molt, at the age of 2 years) is dispatched to its own two-sided, four-foot-tall metal A-frame hut. There it is tethered by a nine-foot cord, to keep it off the turf of neighboring males and so prevent injury from fighting.

    Across Mr. Pearce's closely groomed field of huts, 200 stags strutted and crowed the other day, pecking at the grass and their feed. Unlike inexpert breeders, Mr. Pearce said, he does not drug the birds to instill greater aggressiveness. Rather, he said, good care produces the toughest, healthiest fighters.

    ''We don't make them fight,'' he said. ''Their sole purpose in life is to fight.''

    Larry Oliver, lawyer for the 7,000-member Oklahoma Gamefowl Breeders Association, said of the birds, ''They just don't like each other.''

    George R. Day, who raises 100 cocks on a 250-acre property near Mr. Pearce's, said the opponents of cockfighting did not understand the sport's meaning in many rural areas. ''You have people who have never lived a rural lifestyle trying to impress their values on us,'' Mr. Day said. ''It doesn't mean they're right. It just means there are more of them.''

    To the Humane Society and the state's anti-cockfighting coalition, the sport is beyond justification, unlike killing for food. ''We have this as a top priority,'' Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the society, said of opposition to the sport.

    With their game and their livelihood under attack, members of the Oklahoma breeders' association are engaged in legal challenges against the coalition's referendum, trying to stall it for at least a year beyond this November and gain enough time to kill it through lobbying.

    The coalition could succeed: opposition to cockfighting has become politically dicey. Cockfighters contribute to political campaigns, and, like most Oklahoma officeholders, Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican, has been staying out of the dispute.

    ''He really has not taken a position,'' said John Cox, a spokesman for Mr. Keating. ''I don't think he sees a lot of merit in cockfighting, but there are a lot of business interests in the state that have to be adhered to a little bit.''


In Rural Areas, Interstates Build Their Own Economy

EL RENO, OKLAHOMA

JULY, 14, 2003--Night and day, 18-wheelers roll on and off the scale outside the one-room yellow brick weigh station beside Interstate 40, just west of Oklahoma City. One afternoon, they were hauling lettuce and two-by-fours, frozen turkeys, cars and paper towels, just about all the things that Americans use and consume.

    ''In the middle of the week, I would say we run 300 trucks an hour through here,'' said Bart Howard, an officer of Oklahoma Motor Vehicle Enforcement.

    His electronic gauge showed truck after truck registering more than 65,000 pounds and many close to the 80,000-pound legal limit. At one point, so many were lining up that they began clogging the Interstate. Rushing out to wave them on, Mr. Howard said, ''Stopping these trucks would shut this economy down.''

    The economy that Mr. Howard monitors has grown to become a mighty institution much like those that rose beside seaports, rivers and roads. Fed by the prosperity of the last decade, the 46,567-mile network of limited-access federal roads that make up the Interstate System is a linear economy-on-wheels, a distinct and self-sustaining 51st state, in a sense, that generates life and commerce along shoulders and evaporates four or five miles beyond them.

    Because of economic transfusions from the Interstates, ''we now know that the depopulation of rural America stopped in the 80's,'' said David Schulz, director of the Infrastructure Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. ''Companies said, 'Look, I need to have a single floor for my plant. All my materials come in and my products go out by highway.' '' So they installed their plants by the road, hired trucks and found willing workers in once-isolated old farm towns.

    Over the last eight years, the miles that vehicles traveled on Interstate highways rose 20 percent, to 2.8 billion. The freight carried in trucks surged 80 percent in the 1990's and to 65 percent of all freight, according to the American Trucking Association. The money paid to carry that freight accounted for 87 percent of the total, dwarfing ships, planes and trains.

    But this is a cruel and impatient economy, too, draining life from communities that are too small, too slow, too uninspired or too far from an off-ramp to compete. Across Arkansas, for example, the 2000 census found that all but one of 13 counties touching Interstate 40 grew in the 1990's, and that 4 had doubled in population since 1960, when the road was opening. But of the 11 counties just beyond the 13, 6 lost people or stood still. In the depressed Great Plains west of Oklahoma City, five of the six counties on the I-40 gained people. Four of the five bordering those counties lost them.

    The Interstate System began with President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. By the end of the 1960's, it had laced up the nation, coast to coast, border to border. For many Americans, it has shattered its promoters' promises of safety, efficiency and speed. It has devoured inner-city neighborhoods, sucked out their industries and sped the sprawl of suburbs. Boston, Washington, Atlanta and Los Angeles choke on its traffic.

    But it has also matured to become an economic powerhouse. A 1,000-mile trip along I-40 from Memphis to Little Rock, Oklahoma City and Amarillo to little San Jon, N.M., suggests that in rural areas where a fifth of the population still works and lives, the Interstate has acquired a life of its own, connected to the big cities but apart from them, too.

    Along these roads are the nation's newest jobs, homes and businesses and its lowest unemployment. In the 1990's, they gave birth to food-souvenir-gas travel plazas as big as supermarkets, cookie-cutter motels, casinos, shopping malls, second cities of old cities at exit ramps and immense, 100-acre depots where trucks are sold, scrubbed, serviced and scrapped.

    At many I-40 exits, illuminated logos of McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Waffle House, Phillips 66, Citgo, Total, Conoco, Comfort Inn, Days Inn, Super 8 and Best Western have sprung up like lollipops on 100-foot-tall sticks. Heirs to the old Burma Shave signs, billboards hustle the Hog Trough Liquor store near Clarksville, Ark., and Huckleberry's Pig Out Palace barbecue in Henryetta, Okla. Just off the exits, often tucked out of sight, are its more muscular businesses -- factories, meat-packing plants, warehouses and distribution centers.

    This is a resilient economy. Trucks, many carrying materials for the depressed manufacturing economy, have recovered a little from a 15 percent slump in their freight last year, according to the American Trucking Association. But most of the service businesses along the road were not affected by the downturn.

    In Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle, the unemployment rate has fallen to 3 percent from 3.5 percent last year. Each of the two counties that include Amarillo grew 16 percent in the 1990's, faster than the nation's 13 percent gain and far more than the Panhandle as a whole. It is easy to see what helped.

    The Interstate has consumed this dry and wind-blown city, becoming its principal commercial artery. Every couple of blocks, exits dip onto parallel roads lined with malls, museums, motels and farther on, truck services and distribution sites. City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce sit at the intersection of I-40 and the terminus of I-27.

    Other communities have found a strategy to exploit the Interstate economy and keep themselves afloat by building second cities at exit ramps.

    With its coal and oil fields running dry, the population of Henryetta, Okla., fell 27 percent over four decades to 5,872 in 1990. But in the 1980's, a McDonald's opened at an I-40 exit that spills onto one end of Main Street. Through the 1990's, a Wal-Mart, motels, an Arby's, a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Taco Mayo moved in.

    From the McDonald's exit, Main Street winds west two miles to a second exit with a service station that caters to truckers, two restaurants, including the Pig Out Palace, and a Super 8 motel that has parking for trucks.

    With the growth of off-ramp businesses, Henryetta's population has edged up to 6,096. More important, these businesses pay a 9 percent sales tax, of which the city keeps half. It uses the money for its police and fire services and for repaving its neighborhood red-brick roads.

    ''Interstate fall-off business is what keeps this town going,'' said Gayle Machetta, loan officer at Henryetta's First National Bank. ''Our culture revolves around cheap and quick.''

    Cheap and quick businesses and the low wages they pay, however, are among the less-admired benefits of the Interstate economy. ''When they were putting in I-40,'' Clyde O. Estes, the bank's president said, ''all these country towns were saying they would dry up. Instead what we have is a lot of motels and fast food.''

    The second-city strategy is newer to an exit marked Seminole, between Henryetta and Oklahoma City. The city of Seminole is 12 miles south of I-40, in the middle of a county whose population, ravaged by the Dust Bowl, plunged nearly 70 percent from 1930 to 24,894 in 2000.

    The decline began abating a few years ago, and the exit shows why. Three years ago, the Seminole Nation opened a travel plaza there, with a gas station, convenience store, a souvenir shop and fast food. In October the tribe added a casino, doubling the size of the plaza.

    ''We're getting local people, truck drivers and people on vacation,'' said the manager, Jeannie Silva.

    Across the road is a much older business, the Catfish Round Up restaurant and its RV park, that is profiting from another phenomenon of the Interstate economy. The park attracts new residents of the road -- itinerant workers who move families and trailers thousands of miles from job to job.

    One day at noon, 23 of the park's 27 pads were occupied, nearly all by construction workers. Among the tenants were Sherry and Thomas Jello who moved in May from Jacksonville, Fla.

    Mr. Jello, 40, is an operating engineer and a supervisor for a contractor who is demolishing an automobile plant near Oklahoma City. He earns about $22 an hour, $3 an hour more than he can usually earn in Florida. ''We'll probably stay here until September or October,'' Ms. Jello, 28, said. ''Then it's back to Florida, or Paducah, Ky.''

    Once, communities vied for I-40 off-ramps, aware that being bypassed would bury them. But some communities that won exits are no better off than they were in the 1960's. Just off the exit to McLean, Tex., on a piece of old Route 66, two abandoned motels have been consumed by weeds.

    McLean, population 830, down 19 from 1990, has a Texaco station on the highway, a bank, a small grocery store, a school and a barbed wire museum that attracts a trickle of tourists. But Main Street is nearly deserted.

    ''A lot of restaurants and service stations went out when the highway came,'' said Jane Herndon, who went to the local high school and has operated an insurance and real estate business on Main Street for 45 years. I-40, she said, had drawn off the young, leaving a median age of 50. ''There was no one young to say, 'Well, I'm going to put a station in,' '' Ms. Herndon said.

    Farther west, on the Texas-New Mexico line, is an exit ignominously numbered 0 and spooky little Glenrio. Two, perhaps three families live there behind the shuttered clutter of the old main thoroughfare, a three-block stretch of old Route 66 that boasted the first and last motel in Texas and a service station that dispensed gasoline and whiskey. Two service stations opened at the exit to lure travelers, but only swallows use them now.

    It is on the outskirts of bigger cities, usually 100 to 150 miles apart, where the Interstate economy crests. To Little Rock, Oklahoma City and Amarillo, it brings what analysts call ''economies of agglomeration.'' Shoppers and travelers get variety and rock-bottom prices from concentrations of big and intensely competitive stores.

    ''I know I'm going to be able to get an incredible variety of products,'' said Gerard J. McCullough, a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota. And, he said, ''I'm minimizing my transportation and search costs.''

  &  Besides shoppers, the Interstate economy brings, most noticeably, the thundering trucks. The trailers are the nation's new warehouses, a phenomenon of the 1990's. They deliver goods and materials when industries need them, saving them the burden of storage.

    The Galloway exit outside Little Rock opens to a sea of trucks and trucking establishments. The diesel-fuel signs dwarf signs for gasoline. The one motel caters to truckers. The lots are cluttered with truck washes and shops offering 30-minute lube jobs. In the late 1990's, two immense dealerships, as big and splendid as any that sell cars, opened at the exit to sell Freightliner and International trucks.

    The Freightliner dealer has 25 three-story service bays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    ''We've got a drivers' lounge with big-screen TV where they can take a nap while we're working on their trucks,'' said Richard Allred, senior vice president and manager of the dealership. ''Seventy percent of our business comes off the Interstate.''


Gentlemen, Start Your Lawn Mower Engines

MANDAN, NORTH DAKOTA

JULY 12, 2000--Perhaps it is the tedium of watching the grass grow just to cut it down and watch it grow some more. Perhaps it's just something about men and their motors. No one seems to know why it is happening now. But all across America, men have discovered new thrills at the throttle of the snail of gasoline-powered locomotion, the riding lawn mower.

    From Bergholz, N.Y., to Buda, Tex., from Troy, Ohio, and Stillwater, Okla., to Cut Bank, Mont., Damascus, Ore., and this brawny town across the Missouri River from Bismarck, men and the rare woman are off to the races on souped-up, decal-coated John Deeres, Snappers, Dynamarks and Murrays. Some as stocky as their machines themselves, they whip around dirt tracks at speeds routinely exceeding 30 miles an hour and sometimes 60.

    ''This is going to go over big time if somebody doesn't get killed,'' said Larry Freisz, 61, a fan at the races around a 480-foot dirt track at the Dacotah Speedway here on Saturday. Poking along at four or five miles an hour in the solitude of the prairie west of Mandan, Mr. Freisz mows five acres of grass around his home, so he was taken by the speed of the machines here.

    ''Those two mowers over there?'' Mr. Freisz said. ''They're just like mosquitoes. They're here and they're gone.''

    The racing inspires puns. ''The mow the merrier,'' the United States Lawn Mower Racing Association advertises, in the ''mowdowns'' of the ''mowlennium.'' A group in Ohio calls itself the Dewberry Mudboggers, and one in Alabama, the Dixie Outlaws.

    Although the mowers' blades are removed, these machines still have a modicum of menace. Somebody might indeed get killed. Through their trade association, the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, in Alexandria, Va., the companies that produce 1.6 million riding lawn mowers a year will have nothing to do with racing and have adopted a resolution opposing it. ''We're concerned with the use of the equipment as it was manufactured to be used,'' said William G. Harley, president of the institute.

    Here, 40-year-old Richard Bohlman, operations director of a medical center 200 miles away in Tioga, won the biggest event, with eight men starting and four finishing the 20 laps. The instant Mr. Bohlman crossed the line, his mower threw a rear wheel. The machine flipped, pitching Mr. Bohlman, who weighs about 250 pounds, 15 feet in the air. He seemed to hover there spread-eagled, then landed on his side in the dirt. Ashen and aching, he walked away.

    Like stock car racing, a decades-old institution in many suburban and rural communities, lawn mower racing is becoming a regular sport. Local newspapers report the results. Local businesses sponsor many of the racers. Races in Stillwater draw thousands of fans; the one here drew 200. Evidently starting in the late 1980's as a Fourth of July event on wide subdivision streets, contenders are now organizing circuits, scheduling weekend races town to town.

    Donald Gienger, a machinist at an Ingersoll-Rand factory in Bismarck, formed the North Dakota Lawn Mower Racing Association only last year. He drew six drivers to its first race, in Mandan. On Saturday, 12 showed up for the first of six events scheduled across the state so far this year. Thirty racers have signed up for one on July 4 in Wildrose, N.D., population 193. Other circuits have formed in Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington State and upstate New York.

    Lawn mower racing's biggest boost has come from the Gold Eagle Company in Chicago, which makes a gasoline additive called Sta-bil. Eight years ago, Gold Eagle executives formed the United States Lawn Mower Racing Association to promote Sta-bil. The association now claims 500 member racers for whom it has organized more than 20 regional events this year, the most ever, and a national championship in Mendota, Ill., on Labor Day. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more racers belong to groups, just a year or two old, unaffiliated with the association.

    One secret of the racing's growth is its economics. To enter, contestants pay a small fee, $15 or $25. There are no purses and typically no betting. ''We have no desire for filthy lucre,'' said Larry Sandoval, 62, who edits the newsletter of a racing group in Stillwater. Bruce Kaufman, a public relations man and president of the national association, said, ''We race for trophies, bragging rights and glory.''

    More important, the mowers are cheap, opening a vast new horizon for the adrenaline-enriched and mechanically inclined. Racing mowers cost a fraction of the $10,000 or $20,000 spent to buy and prepare a stock car racer.

    Most are long-retired machines that racers rebuild to meet four or five levels of classification, from stock racers that still cut grass, but race with blades removed, to ''factory experimental'' machines on which the platforms intended to cover the blades are strictly decorative.

    Mr. Bohlman, who had the accident here, said that one of his two racers is 28 years old. ''My uncle bought it for me when I was 12 to mow the grass on my grandfather's farm,'' he said. Long after, ''I dug it out of a rock pile'' and fixed it up for racing.

    Wayne Storick, a 35-year-old contract laborer, bought his mower for $100. ''I cut my grass with it and then tore it apart,'' he said. ''I put a centrifugal clutch in it'' so he doesn't have to shift gears. ''I made my own intake manifold and cam shaft.'' He installed an external oil pump and brakes from a snowmobile.

    ''I've always liked working with engines,'' said Mark Steinwand, 33. ''I like making stuff go as fast at it can.'' A machine operator at the Ingersoll-Rand plant, Mr. Steinwand bought his mower from a farmer last August. ''He pulled it out of his tree rows. I got three lawn mowers from him. I gave him $50 for all three.''

    Mr. Gienger, the machinist, who owns four mowers, said: ''They're the guys who always wanted to race and couldn't afford to. If they missed their call for professional racing, this is their venue.''

    Any silliness to the notion of racing a riding lawn mower evaporates as a race approaches.

    In Mandan this weekend, grim-faced men donned the required safety apparel -- long-sleeved shirts, long pants, gloves, over-the-ankle boots and full-face helmets. On their machines, each had a switch, to be tethered to their belts, to stop the motor if they fell or were thrown. Racers cannot drug their machines with speed-inducing additives.

    On the announcer's command, ''On your mark, get set, get ready, mow!'' they dashed to their machines and roared off. Round and round they went, hunching over their steering wheels. Thundering into turns, they hiked out their bodies barely touching their seats, from one side, then the other. Lean, lanky younger men had the edge in maneuvering and dodging, the bigger men in keeping their wheels down.

    In all four races, machines spun into the center and returned, or died with dropped chains and burst engines. ''The big men won,'' said Mr. Gienger, who, with Mr. Bohlman, was one of them.

    Then came the tamer, double-elimination one-on-one drag races, and another close call. Wayne Schultz, 34, a farmer from Streeter, Okla., 90 miles east of Mandan, had finished third in his class in the earlier race.

    In the first heat of the drag, he lost to Donovan Hoffer, 27, a heavy-equipment operator from Bismarck. With the flash of orange lights starting the second, Mr. Schultz's mower did a wheelie, leaping up on its rear wheels. But instead of folding back down on him, still in the seat, it stood there upended, and Mr. Schultz walked away.

    ''You really got to be a good defensive driver,'' Mr. Gienger said. ''You have to be very level-headed about it. There's a huge level of risk.''


Boom in Economy Skips Towns on the Plains

MOUNTAIN, NORTH DAKOTA

JULY 2, 2000--From above, the state of North Dakota is a quilt of wheat and prairie grass stitched by rows of cottonwood, ash and elm trees, two-lane roads, many dirt, and railroad tracks. Every seven or eight miles beyond the few big cities, the tracks link 100-foot-tall, century-old clapboard or galvanized metal grain elevators. Alongside the elevators are towns, laid out in five or 10-block grids, and beyond, farms and ranches.

  nbsp; But little moves down there. In every second or third town along these tracks, the school, the city hall, the elevator, the bank, the American Legion Hall, the farm tool dealer, the general store of the 30's and the convenience store of the 80's, birds are the only tenants. In many of these communities, only a bar and a church hang on, along with a few homeowners who are too old, too poor or too proud to move, or, who simply prefer the solitude.

    Like towns of the West that turned to shells once they were stripped of their gold, new ghost towns are sprouting over much of the Great Plains.

    In North Dakota and well beyond, across thousands of old rural towns in the broad belly of the Plains from Eastern Montana and Western Minnesota and the Canadian border down through Nebraska into Kansas and Oklahoma, the nation's long run of growth and prosperity has blown right by.

    The contraction is most pronounced in North Dakota, one of only three states, with Connecticut and Rhode Island, to lose population in the 90's. In Ardoch, N.D., population 49, the city hall is padlocked, its windows boarded, its electricity meter still, its clapboard facade unpainted for decades. The bar closed a year or two ago.

    Headstones in the cemetery commemorate Yankee settlers until the early 1900's, when the harsh climate chased the survivors west. Newer headstones mark the deaths of Polish settlers and their heirs until the 1990's. The Poles, too, have moved on. Ardoch's only new inhabitants are sugar beet workers from Mexico.

    In Pisek, a largely Czech town with 113 people, 17 fewer than in 1990, the bank is no bigger than a one-car garage. A notice on the door, posted a year ago, announces new hours. It is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. The Jelinek family's general store survives, though it loses money and has stopped selling clothing and shoes. ''Just your older people reside in these small towns,'' said Elaine Swartz, the assistant postmaster.

    All that remains for Warsaw's 40 or 50 citizens, descendants of Polish immigrants, is the one bar, Tork's Polski Dom, and at the corner of two county roads, the surreal 100-year-old St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church, an opulent red-brick, gothic edifice with a 143-foot spire, a gilded cross on top. Visible for miles, it rises from the prairie like a cathedral, taller than any tree or grain elevator.

    The church can seat 700, and once it did. ''We're holding our own at 345 parishioners,'' said the pastor, the Rev. Damian Hils, but only because he draws them from as far as Fargo, 110 miles to the south. He worries about more losses. ''Almost all my parishioners are farmers,'' he said, ''and some have had to sell out.''

    It is true that many western Plains communities, in Colorado, Nevada and Utah, are bustling with the fervor of Silicon Valley. Towns outside growing cities are reawakening as they join the transition to the next ring of suburbs. Still other once-sinking towns along major highways, like Interstate 80 that slices east and west through Nebraska, have revived with convenience stores, gas stations, motels and restaurants.

    But the population of the core Plains states of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas, grew at half the 9.6 percent increase of the nation as a whole in the 1990's. Growth of most cities far exceeded state averages while the rural population shrank.

    Funerals in many of these towns outnumber baptisms two to one. Accelerating a process that started decades ago with the mechanization of farming and the depletion of oil fields and mines, the livelier economy elsewhere has shunned investment in the towns and drained off the young to jobs and opportunity in Omaha, Fargo and Pierre and beyond, to Denver and Minneapolis.

    ''There is a sorting out going on,'' said Alan Barkema, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City, Mo., and at the bank's Center for the Study of Rural America. ''Across a vast sweep of the heartland, rural communities are not keeping up. The sad truth of the matter is that some are not going to survive.''

    In hardest hit North Dakota, which lost 5,000 people in the 90's, to 634,000, visits to a score of communities in the northeastern corner yield stubborn survivors and inspired boosters. For $1 each and two years free of local taxes, the city of Minto (population 560 in 1990 and 519 in 1998) is selling 90-by-150-foot housing lots that a developer abandoned provided buyers put homes on them within a year. Six of about 40 lots are left.

    But throughout the four-county area, only the city of Grafton grew, about 5 percent to 5,117, from 1990 to 1998. In North Dakota, said Curtis Stofferahn, a rural sociologist at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, ''There's a real concern that we're probably seeing the last generation on the land.''

    In Nelson County, one of four counties in the northeastern area and 45 miles west of Grand Forks, the population shrank 17 percent in the 90's, and more would be gone were it not for federal largess. Last year, the North Dakota State Data Center at North Dakota State University in Fargo reports, the government dispensed $11,858 per capita in Nelson County, $6,246 above the national average, for defense, farm, flood, retirement and other programs.

    One worn-out Nelson County town is Whitman, population 89 in 1998 and 63 in 1990. Whitman looks crisp and orderly, with the 10 or 15 homes of Norwegian descendants with small gardens and weed-free lawns. But unpaved Main Street is dead. Silent at one end stands the old gray elevator. On one side of the street is an open lot, long cleared of its stores. On the other is an abandoned one-truck firehouse and a shut-down strip of three weathered, one-story shops.

    Just up from Main Street, a high-spirited yellow dog, the only creature in view one afternoon, guards a one-story brick structure, the Whitman Community Center. A window has been broken, and inside, ceiling tiles rot in puddles on a linoleum floor. Across a dirt path from the center is Sarnia United Lutheran Church, immaculate and white.

    Leland Skjervem, 75, a retired farmer whose Norwegian immigrant grandfather settled in Whitman in the 1880's, said the community center shut down about four years ago, the elevator eight years ago, the school 10 years ago and long before that four bars and two general stores. He cannot buy anything close by any more. ''Everything gets to be farther away all the time,'' Mr. Skjervem said. ''The need isn't there for these towns.''

    But Mr. Skjervem (pronounced SHER-vem) can still go to the church. A sign out front says that Pastor Sue Mackey performs a service there three of four Sundays a month. From 1992 through last year, its annual report shows, the church buried 11 members and christened four. Twelve people attend services now, he said, compared with 35 eight years ago.

    The towns' demise matters, their advocates say. With safe streets, dawn-to-dusk work, and large and stable, church-going families, they became a model of the American self-image.

    ''They are who we are,'' said Bonnie Turner, director of a Lutheran organization in Grand Forks that counsels the rural poor and distributes food boxes. ''And they're blowing to dust.''

    Even now, says Father Hils in Warsaw, ''the kids have a wholesomeness about them, a goodness. They invite us to the prom. You know they wouldn't do that if they were up to anything bad.''

    They are healthy places, too. In predominantly rural North Dakota, the Department of Health and Human Services reports, 63 percent of people 85 and older can still get around and take care of themselves, the highest level in the nation. North Dakotans also have a lower incidence of the nine leading causes of death than the national averages, with one exception -- suicide.

    What growth there has been in North Dakota has been almost entirely confined to Fargo and Bismarck. All but six of the state's 53 counties lost population in the 1990's, Census Bureau and state estimates show, and five counties lost more than a fifth of their people.

    The decline feeds on itself, said Richard Rathge, director of the state data center. ''It reduces your potential for renewal,'' he said. Faster cars let people bypass Main Street to shop at far-off discount stores. Better roads and buses let counties close schools and whisk children out of town to consolidated schools farther and farther away.

    The state's widely scattered population, with fewer than five people per square mile in 26 counties, makes it all the harder to rally local economies the usual way, by courting employers with assurances of work forces.

    Here and there, communities have invested in telecommunications to help new businesses exploit the Internet. But the tide of decline is overpowering. ''Most people recognize what is going on,'' Mr. Rathge said. ''The frustration is how you deal with it.''

    Well to the north of Nelson County, against the borders of Minnesota and Canada, is Pembina County and this village of Mountain, where the population has slipped from 134 a decade ago to about 120, including 40 residents of the town's only new institution, a home for the elderly. Mountain is and remains entirely Icelandic, the largest Icelandic settlement outside Iceland. Headstones outside the still-vibrant Vikur Lutheran Church bear names inscribed in Icelandic.

    After Gene Gudmundson, 50, finished Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., he resurrected his father's and homesteader grandfather's farm in Mountain, bought more land and raised wheat, barley, pinto beans and sunflowers on 990 acres. He and his wife, Helen, 42, a contract administrator at the Cavalier Air Force Station, built a home in 1978, expanded it six years ago and have four daughters.

    But buffeted by debt, the lowest wheat prices in 30 years and seven years of ruinous drought and floods, the Gudmundsons are considering leaving Mountain for new jobs once their two younger daughters, now teenagers, finish high school.

    In the dreary, daylong drizzle of a few days ago, they auctioned off their farm gear -- plows, swathers, cultivators, combines, planters, herbicide tanks, loaders, five tractors and six trucks. ''You get tired,'' Mrs. Gudmundson said. ''It's not worth it.''

    Among the Gudmundsons' neighbors, Leslie and Delores Geir own 1,000 acres where Mr. Geir's great-grandfather began with the 160 he was given under the Homestead Act. They have two girls, Diane, 16, and Laura, 10, and a son, Chris, 15. To make ends meet, Mrs. Geir is an aide in the home for the elderly, and Diane works there part time.

    All the Geirs still have hope. Chris intends to be a farmer, and Diane hopes to settle on a farm. ''There is no better place to raise a family,'' said Mr. Geir, 47. ''When my kids were little,'' Mrs. Geir said, ''I could let them play alone outside. The dog would stay with them. I would call the dog to find out where they were.''

    But the inertia of decline has begun to intrude. Mr. Geir went to school in Mountain, and there were 10 children in his class. As the population fell, the school was closed and students were sent by bus to school in Edinburg, 16 miles to the south. With further decline, that school, too might go. ''Laura had seven kids in her fourth-grade class,'' he said.

    In Mountain, the forces of decline have chased away the optimistic spirit of America. ''The future is pretty dim right now,'' said the mayor of Mountain, S. Douglas Hanson, a gravel truck driver.

    Marabeth Hunter, the postmaster, said: ''We don't have anything now. Just the one bar, the cafe that's open half days, the old folks home and the church. I wish we had stores here, at least one. You have to run 16 miles to get milk.''


North Dakota Town's Payoff For Hard Lives Is Long Life

ASHLEY, NORTH DAKOTA

JULY 31, 2003--In this tidy old faraway place, small lawns without fences mimic 1940's haircuts, shaved just an inch high. Chris Maier mows around his newly painted and shingled two-bedroom ranch house and grows tomatoes, peppers and onions in back.

    Mr. Maier is quick-witted, quick-footed, a little deaf and 91. Yet reaching 91 in Ashley, 100 miles south of Bismarck along two-lane roads, hardly merits a toast.

    ''My dad was 89,'' said Mr. Maier, who like most other people here is descended from Germans who fled Russia more than a century ago. ''My mother was 87. I got a sister who died last year, a little over 100. I have a brother who is 98 and a brother 87. Another brother died last year. He was 92.''

    In January, Mr. Maier lost his wife of 67 years after she turned 90. He takes just two over-the-counter painkillers a day, for his sore knees.

    Whatever the travails of old farming communities of the Great Plains, with population decline and temperatures that swing 120 degrees from January to July, something about these places produces triple-digitarians even as people plug their arteries with sausage, strudel and dumplings soaked in gravy.

    Survivors of scarlet fever and smallpox epidemics, the Dust Bowl and the Depression, they have been cracking 100 at least since 1950. The 2000 census found that McIntosh County, where Ashley is located, had the highest proportion of people 85 and older among the nation's 3,142 counties. North Dakota had the highest proportion among the states.

    The census found that Florida, Pennsylvania and West Virginia had higher proportions of people 65 and older. But many of their elderly die in their 60's and 70's; North Dakotans tend to keep aging. The census found 162 North Dakotans 100 or older, also near the top among states in relation to the total population.

    These North Dakotans may be biological artifacts, the recipes for their health beyond bottling or replication by baby-boom office dwellers in big cities and suburbs. Clean air; going slow; patience; a low-cost, low-stress economy for all but active younger farmers; decades of heavy lifting outdoors; keeping an eye out for one another; long stable marriages; an absence of sharp differences in income and wealth all may contribute, people here speculate.

    Except for houseflies and the volunteer ambulance, nothing much hustles in McIntosh County, population 3,390, and Ashley, its seat. Driving up to intersections awash in prairie dust, cavernous General Motors sedans of the 1970's and 80's linger because no one worries about pulling out first.

    Retired wheat farmers and ranchers, now settled in town, can walk the three or four blocks to Ashley Drug, the Super Valu grocery store, the bank, the churches, the Ashley Medical Center (a combined hospital, nursing home and assisted living home), Link's True Value hardware, Kirk's Detour -- a bar with ashtrays that no one uses -- and the Dakota Family Restaurant.

    Every morning at 8, the older men of Ashley gather for 75-cent coffee at a table in the Dakota's front room. Older women gather in a room in back. Until 10 or 11 a.m., they come and go. The women discuss grandchildren, food, health and farming, the men politics, sports, health and farming. They kid a lot.

    ''These guys came over on the Mayflower,'' said Jim Carlsen, 72, retired director of emergency services in Sturgis, S.D., and an outcast, he said, as a Swede. ''This one came on the Pinta. Schlep, tell him about your relationship with Moses.''

    But the real business of the tables is watching out for one another. ''The cafe is where the networking takes place,'' Klaes Welch, the county director of social services, said. ''If somebody doesn't show up for coffee, it would cause a lot of chatter, and someone will check on him.''

    One reason for the high numbers of elderly here is that a lot of young people have left. McIntosh County's population slid nearly 16 percent in the 1990's, while North Dakota's hardly grew. But the old who grew up and stayed here also live longer than most other Americans.

    A decade ago, the National Center for Health Statistics found that North Dakotans lived to an average of 78, two to three years longer than the national average then. Lately, a look at the McIntosh County courthouse's death certificates shows, lifetimes here frequently stretch past 80.

    Last year, 51 people died in the county. A woman reached 100, and a man, 99. Excluding a baby who died at two weeks, 27 women died at an average age of 85, and 23 men died at an average age of 80 -- exclude a 41-year-old rancher who froze in a blizzard, and the average was 82. The ancestries of most were recorded, and all but one were German or German-Russian. The exception was a Swede.

    ''They live longer in the Great Plains States,'' said Richard M. Suzman, associate director of the Behavioral and Social Research Program at the National Institute on Aging in Washington. ''Community and neighborhood are important. So is the level of positive integration, neighborliness, looking out for others. Close-knit communities can be oppressive at one level. But they're also associated with higher life expectancy and better health.''

    The theory of the ''healthy immigrant'' might apply here, Dr. Suzman added. Many forebears of McIntosh's elderly were themselves émigrés from Germany to southern Russia. Then, facing conscription into the Russian army in the 1880's, the boldest and hardiest fled to the Plains.

    ''My great-grandfather walked miles across pasture to stake a claim here,'' Tony Bender, 44, editor and publisher of the Weekly Ashley Tribune, said.

    High school diplomas and college educations are often correlated with longevity. But of the 51 people who died last year, 33 stopped school before the ninth grade and one -- the woman who died at 100 -- stopped after the third. Most completed rural elementary school, but were then needed to work on the farms.

    Gerontologists say high-fat diets shorten lives, but there is little evidence here that fat, salt, sweets or cholesterol struck down many of these people before 80. Heart disease accounted for three times as many deaths last year as cancer, the second leading cause; diabetes was a factor in 14 of the heart disease deaths. But diabetics died at an average of 83 years; one made it to 98.

    Esther Eszlinger, 78, said concerns about calories and fat never intruded upon her meal planning. ''You ate what you had,'' she said. Even today, Mrs. Eszlinger said that like many women, she has two kitchens, the extra one for canning. ''You can can sausage. I have peaches and pears, chicken and canned hamburger. I canned wild goose last year. When you come to my house, I can have dinner done in a hurry.''

    Dr. Udom Tinsa, who grew up in Thailand and has been Ashley's principal doctor for 26 years, said, ''The diet surprises me. ''They have a high meat diet, but they live long.''

    A reason, he thinks, is decades of heavy exercise. ''They're strong,'' he said. ''They don't sit in an office. They live with nature.'' After passing farms on to children and moving to town, he said, ''they go out to help their children work.''

    Swatting the air over her coffee, Esther Hildebrand, 78, said, ''These kids these days will never amount to much because they don't want to work.'' She and her husband Clifford, 77, have always kept busy. ''Big gardens,'' she said. ''Big yards. We milked 18 cows. Canning. We make our own sauerkraut. I can everything. Pumpkins. We've got stuff in our own food cellar going back to '96.''

    Wednesday night is German night at the Dakota. Last Wednesday, the menu was two pieces of chicken deep fried to the texture of asphalt shingles, sliced and boiled carrots and potatoes, two fat round dumplings, and strudel, pie or ice cream.

    Having finished his dumplings and gnawed his chicken down to dry bone, the Rev. George Rueb was working on a bowl of chocolate and vanilla ice cream.

    At 86, retired and twice widowed, he was a little down. ''This past January,'' he said, ''I had pneumonia. I was supposed to have a hip replaced, but I had a heart attack. After the heart attack, I was in the hospital again with another pneumonia.''

    Pastor Rueb was one of 11 children of poor farmers. As a baby, his older sister, fed only mother's and cow's milk, died of starvation. He would have died too, he said, if not for the milk of a horse.

    ''I was in the seventh grade,'' he said, ''when my dad said, 'I need you home.' I did not go to theology school but I took courses at home by mail.'' As a teenager, he became an assistant to an Assemblies of God pastor. At 20 he began his own congregation. His first marriage lasted 60 years.

    McIntosh County makes aging easy. At the Sinclair gas station, the attendant washes windshields. Attendants at the Super Valu carry groceries to cars. Buses from the senior center provide rides to doctors in Bismarck.

    With little crime, doors stay unlocked, car keys stay in ignitions. ''For my job, there's not a lot of action,'' said Chief Brooke D. Bundrock, at 26 Ashley's only police officer. ''We do a lot of community policing, public service, helping the older people. I had a call where an elderly lady wanted me to shut her neighbors' gate because they were away.''

    Ashley's elderly live on fixed incomes, and many are poor, but the Social Security check goes a long way. The nightly special at the Dakota is $5.99. Greens fees for a round on the city's nine-hole golf course are $8, or $15 for all day. Rents are low. The county sheriff, Paul J. Peters, who is 26, pays $200 a month for a four-bedroom house with a garage and a large lot for his family of five.

    Homes sell for an average of $30,000. ''The property tax on that home would be $544.35 a year,'' Delbert Heil, the county tax director said. Outside the towns -- Ashley, Wishek, Lehr and Zeeland -- farmers are exempt from property taxes.

    In the towns, owners of 197 of the 1,900 homes receive a state homestead credit on property taxes. Those with incomes of less than $8,000 pay nothing, and those with incomes up to $14,000 pay reduced rates.

    Because of homeowners' fixed incomes, Mr. Bender, the publisher, said, ''it's hard to ask them for more tax dollars.'' But he said they have gone along with a special tax assessment to fix city streets. After all, they may be still driving on them when they have to be fixed again.


U.S. Cracks Down on Rise In Appalachia Moonshine

ROCKY MOUNT, VIRGINIA

MARCH 23, 2000--Grinning seditiously, a prominent citizen of this Blue Ridge foothills town takes from his kitchen refrigerator an illegal gift from a moonshiner friend: a syrupy red liquor in a quart jar packed with grapelike damsonberries. He offers a taste to his visitor. It is a brandy, sweet and silky.

    ''Damson's the best,'' he says.

    Next he selects a half-gallon jar of heart-stopping white lightning, as clear as vodka. Shaking it, he points to the ''bead,'' or head. Bubbles that form a thick, beery bead indicate toxic contamination from sleazy stills that use old car radiators to condense the vapors from cooking and fermentation. But this bead is wafer-thin. ''Look,'' he says. ''No lead.''

    It might all seem a quaint act of hospitality merely appropriate to this town of 4,400 that likes to boast of being ''the moonshine capital of the world,'' here in a southern Appalachian region that over the last two centuries has produced more moonshine than any other in America.

    But to a task force of state and federal agents brought in to fight it, the illicit whiskey of Rocky Mount and the surrounding area is little other than the work of big-time criminals -- a new generation of moonshiners who in many cases have transformed the smoky little woodsmen's stills of legend and song into efficient distilleries, some capable of producing thousands of gallons of liquor a week.

    The task force, applying the muscle of federal law rather than weaker state anti-moonshine statutes, made its first arrests earlier this month. Three people were charged with illegally distilling alcohol, and many more arrests are expected.

    Rocky Mount is the hub of the trade, which investigators say operates here in Franklin County, in three or four nearby counties in south-central Virginia and just over the line in North Carolina.

    Most of the illicit brandy is the work of exacting hobbyists, and seldom leaves the area. But moonshine whiskey, mass-produced at as much as 150 proof or even more and with little attention to health or safety, is growing as a product of interstate commerce. Even after a decade of unmatched national prosperity, resilient pockets of poverty provide ready markets -- in this case, throughout much of the East -- for a low-priced, illegal high.

    Once a sideline of dirt-poor farmers who made whiskey in 50-gallon stills to get by, moonshining is now carried on here with 800-gallon stills, sometimes 5 or 10 linked like railroad cars, in a well-organized, high-profit business. Government investigators say hundreds of thousands of gallons of moonshine a year flow over the highways from Virginia and North Carolina, free of all state and federal taxes or regulatory scrutiny.

    Moonshiners produce whiskey for as little as $3 a gallon, the investigators say, then package it in six-packs of gallon plastic jugs, a thicker-gauge variation of milk containers, and sell it, unlabeled, for $10 or $12 a gallon to nip joints, shot houses and the back rooms of bars in Philadelphia, Richmond, Washington and Baltimore. The bars then sell it for as little as $1 a shot, much less than the price of lawful whiskey.

    Though the investigators do not know how much the moonshiners as a whole earn from their activity, the business here has grown big enough to draw a response from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

    About two decades ago, the bureau, turning more of its attention to the control of guns and explosives, largely abandoned its pursuit of untaxed liquor, an effort that had dated from the 1920's and Prohibition, when organized crime delivered vast amounts of moonshine to the nation's speakeasies. Two years ago, however, the bureau was called in by the alcoholic beverage control agencies of Virginia and North Carolina, bodies long frustrated by public tolerance of bootlegging and by local courts that treated moonshining much like speeding violations.

    Together, the bureau and the two state agencies organized Operation Lightning Strike, to fight moonshiners unlike those of decades past.

    ''What you've seen over the years,'' said Bartley H. McEntire, the federal agent in charge of the investigation, ''is a shift in how they operate.'' Rather than selling their liquor themselves, Mr. McEntire said, ''these organizations use hired hands and hired transporters,'' or bootleggers. ''They aren't your good ol' boys.'' Wily and resourceful, this new breed of moonshiner tends to be armed with night-vision goggles and two-way radios to help stay a jump ahead of the law.

    Federal agents' past efforts to fight moonshining in cooperation with state regulators have been largely fruitless. But this time, said Sharon Burnham, assistant United States attorney in nearby Roanoke, the investigation is much broader and tougher: for the first time, federal money-laundering statutes will be used as a weapon against moonshiners.

    ''Under the federal liquor laws, they're facing up to five years in prison,'' Ms. Burnham said. ''Under the money-laundering laws, they're facing up to 15 years.''

    In Operation Lightning Strike's first arrests, early this month, the agents charged a man with operating a 1,000-gallon still. Also seized were his two employees: a Mexican couple, both illegal immigrants who lived and worked at the site with their three young children.

    Profits from moonshining can be serious money here in Franklin County, where a waning of the textile industry and a decline in tobacco and dairy production have cursed the economy. Those profits have been a boon, too, investigators say, for a few enterprising and newly land-rich families whom the government has named, though not yet charged, as leaders of the local moonshine industry.

    For the most part, residents of moonshine communities see still operators as good people, said Allen G. Hudson, deputy director of the Virginia alcohol agency's Bureau of Law Enforcement. ''It's an awkward situation,'' Mr. Hudson said. ''They are good for the economy. They hire people locally and buy materials locally. We don't get a lot of cooperation, because they see them doing more good than we can do them.''

    William G. Davis, a former assistant United States attorney in Roanoke, is the area's leading defense lawyer for people charged with moonshining. Like many others in town, he acknowledges that illegal liquor is produced here. But the government, he says, has exaggerated the extent of it.

    What is worse, Mr. Davis said, is the investigators' manner. ''To me, it's the hobnail-boot approach,'' he said. ''They're riding roughshod over people, calling them liars. They are mean.''

    In one instance, agents shut down the Helms Farmers' Exchange, a farm and garden business that was one of Rocky Mount's biggest retail and wholesale concerns. It was owned by Ramsey and William Helms, brothers in their 50's, and it included a warehouse two miles outside of town on busy Route 40 West and an imposing red-brick store on Main Street downtown, just a block from the county courthouse and the sheriff's office. Agents say the brothers had a sideline in moonshine supplies that dwarfed their legitimate commerce.

    The government confiscated from the store and the warehouse 9,648 one-gallon jugs, 32 100-pound bags of sugar, 4 bags of rye and 14 boxes of Mason jars, and from Ramsey Helms's home a gun, radio scanners and a family photo album. Nine days after the raid, Ramsey Helms put a gun to his chest and killed himself. Since then, the agents have frozen $86,442 in William Helms's checking accounts and made a claim on 113 acres of his land, in effect a lien so that the government can sell it if Mr. Helms is charged and found guilty of ill-gotten gains.

    Stripped of their money, business and personal vehicles, and livelihood, William Helms and his wife, Bonnie, are living on the charity of friends, Mr. Davis says. In answering the government's court requests to search and seize property, the Helmses told the court that all the property ultimately taken from them had come from inheritances and from income earned through legitimate commerce.

    But the investigators' leading targets are 60-year-old Ralph D. Hale and several members of his family. The agents say that from 1990 through 1998, Mr. Hale and his wife, Judy, filed tax returns showing annual joint income ranging from $21,149 to $33,139. Yet, the government maintained on March 6 in an affidavit related to its request for a search warrant, Mr. Hale is the person code-named Hat Man in the journals of the Farmers' Exchange. According to the journals, Hat Man bought 17,925 100-pound bags of sugar, paying close to $700,000, and 2,710 bundles of one-gallon containers for which he paid $42,000. With the sugar, the affidavit said, he could have produced 179,250 gallons of illegal liquor, worth $1.8 million at $10 a gallon.

    The Hales have also amassed many assets, including land on which illegal stills have been found. Holdings that the government has frozen are mostly in Mrs. Hale's name, with the rest in the names of family members other than Mr. Hale. They include nearly 400 acres worth $681,900, $59,405 in mutual fund accounts and $54,991 in bank accounts.

    [Mr. Hale, reached by telephone on Monday, declined to comment.]

    Though choosing not to comment on those figures, Mr. Davis, who expects to represent the Hales in any criminal case, said, ''A whole lot of that information'' is ''incorrect.'' The allegations attempt to portray the Hales as ''monsters,'' he said, ''and it's not true.''

    In fact, in the minds of some, even admitted moonshiners are far from monsters, instead little more than a link to a proud tradition. Even as the government crackdown continues, Rocky Mount's business people are divided over whether to shun or celebrate the area's historic bond with moonshine. Brian G. Duvall, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, says one contingent has proposed building a moonshine museum and even producing boutique liquor, in a legal still.

    Ultimately, though, ''we need to get away from it,'' said David Furrow, a prominent lawyer here. ''It would be nicer if it were in the past, and we could say we used to be the moonshine capital of the world.''

    Whatever the Word, It's Against the Law

    Hardscrabble farmers and mountaineers, primarily in the forested hills of lower Appalachia, have been making whiskey illegally since the earliest days of the Republic, when the government began taxing it.

    Tax collectors call this illegal whiskey non-tax-paid liquor. Those who produce and consume it call it white lightning, rotgut, skull cracker, happy Sally or stump, but most often moonshine.

    Of unknown authorship, the word ''moonshine'' has applied for more than two centuries to whiskey produced in the light of the moon, out of sight of government agents.

    The Oxford English Dictionary traces its etymology to 1785, citing a reference that says, ''The white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex is called moonshine.''


No Work for a Bicycle Thief: Children Pedal Around Less

HANNIBAL, MISSOURI

JULY 7, 1999--These are exquisite days to ride a bike in this all-American, middle-American boyhood home of Mark Twain. Children can ride to school, to the Tom Sawyer Cave a couple miles south of town, to fish on the banks of the Mississippi, to play pitch-and-catch in a park.

    They can and they did, but they don't anymore. Hannibal's parks, riverbanks and schools are all but barren of bikes. Plastic riding toys cover the lawn of Ya Gotta Have It, which sells secondhand toys, but the few bikes are stored in the back. A recent late-afternoon tour of a subdivision yielded two people on bikes and four riding lawn mowers.

    As vacation approached for the 350 pupils at Oakwood Elementary School, only four bikes were parked outside. Kenneth Treaster, principal of the 950-student Hannibal Middle School, said, ''I can remember one kid riding a bike here in the three years I've been in this building.''

    As Hannibal goes, so goes the nation. In the shadow of a long, slow decline in cycling generally, the bicycle as a century-old symbol of childhood freedom and transportation is nearly extinct.

    ''Biking as a form for children to get from one location to another has become very, very rare,'' said Richard Killingsworth, a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

    Less than 1 percent of children ages 7 to 15 ride bicycles to school, Mr. Killingsworth said, a precipitous and accelerating decline since the 1970's. Only 2.5 percent of those who live within two miles of school ride bikes there, he said.

    For children, such analysts say, bicycles have been muscled aside by parental fears of crime and traffic, tight scheduling of organized play, television and computer games and disappearing sidewalks.

    This century's longest stretch of prosperity, with its abundance of part-time jobs for teen-agers that have put 16-year-olds into cars, has also conspired against the bicycle.

    ''I was talking about it over the weekend,'' said Cathy Carver, 42, who was having coffee at the Mark Twain Dinette late last month. At a garage sale, she said, ''they had a black 10-speed for $2.''

    ''Thing of the past,'' said Greg Henderson, 43, a grain inspector sitting at the counter beside Ms. Carver. ''Nintendo,'' he said. ''They'd rather do that than go out and ride a bike.''

    Ms. Carver has a daughter, 11. ''She's never had any desire to have a bike,'' she said.

    ''Now my daughter did,'' Mr. Henderson said. ''She had two bikes. But by the time she got to 12, she was done. She hasn't rode a bike since.''

    It is not that bicycles are disappearing. The industry reports robust sales of mountain bikes to mostly adult riders, of soft-saddled ''comfort'' bikes to aging baby-boomers and of recumbent bikes that let riders lie back to pedal.

    But the Huffy Corporation in Dayton, the nation's largest bicycle maker, reports that over all, industry sales of bikes have fallen from the levels of the 1970's and been flat at 15 million to 17 million bicycles a year for a decade. With the growth of the population, the per capita decline is sharper.

    And fewer people use the bikes they have. Elliot Gluskin, research director for Bicycling magazine, said the number of riders dropped to 43.5 million in 1998 from 56.3 million in 1995.

    ''We are living in a much less friendly bicycle environment,'' said Tom Doyle, vice president for research at the National Sporting Goods Association.

    There are few statistics on children who ride bikes. But no one denies that the number of young bike-riders has declined.

    Not so long ago, Diane Colbert, 38, and her husband, Jerry, 40, were glued to their bikes. Growing up in Bowling Green, 30 miles south of Hannibal, Ms. Colbert said: ''I had a 10-speed. I rode 15 to 20 miles a day. I was everywhere on my bike. You didn't have to worry who was out when.''

    But these days, safety is a big issue. The Colberts and their son, Jaron, 12, were holding a garage sale at their small ranch house in a sidewalk-free subdivision of Hannibal, and Jaron was trying to sell his bike, which he has outgrown, for $15.

    He would like another bike but can live without one. ''I'd like to ride to the place where I play baseball,'' two miles away, he said. ''But there's the traffic.'' So his mother drives him.

    Dylan Mardis, 9, who lives in another subdivision, has two bikes -- one he uses and one he has outgrown that a friend comes over to ride. His father, David Mardis, 45, said that as a child in Des Moines, he rode a bike a mile to school every day. ''I'd ride all over town,'' he said.

    Dylan said, ''I ride, too, every day.'' But he is not allowed off his own block, where his parents know all the residents. Mr. Mardis said: ''Parents are so distrustful of what society has done to children. Maybe that's paranoid, but it's real.''

    Such parental concerns, widespread in Hannibal, population about 18,000, may be overdrawn. No one seems to know of statistics showing crime involving bicycles other than thefts, which have been declining far more than the decline in bike riding. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that there were 165 bicycle thefts for every 10,000 Americans in 1996, compared with 318 for every 10,000 in 1980.

    In part because of the growing use of helmets, fewer people are dying on bikes. In the typical year, 2 percent of traffic fatalities involve bicycle riders.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that bicycle deaths fell to 808 in 1997 from 965 in 1980, exceeding the fall in bicycle sales. It says deaths involving riders under 16 have fallen far more, to 31 percent of all bike-riding fatalities in 1997 from 55 percent in 1980.

    In Hannibal, too, accidents are far more common for automobiles. The Police Department reports about 900 traffic accidents a year. ''We've had a couple involving bikes,'' Police Chief Albert L. Higdon said. ''But they're few and far between.''

    Chief Higdon is cautious when it comes to his own daughters, ages 9, 10 and 16. ''I won't let them go off on a bike without my knowing where they're at. I don't like them crossing a major highway.''

    Pat Janes, the principal of Oakwood Elementary, questions whether safety is a big issue with many of his pupils' parents.

    Half his pupils live more than a mile from school, he said, and are eligible for busing. Some, who live closer, walk. But so many are driven by parents that he said he has had to start dismissing those children five minutes early to avert congestion with the buses.

    Tight scheduling of after-school activities -- soccer, baseball, horseback riding, piano lessons and dance classes -- precludes riding bikes from one activity to the next. Beyond that, Mr. Janes said: ''Bicycles just don't seem popular. It might just be they need too much effort. Or maybe Mom wants her kids to sleep later.''

    With vans now shuttling them to school and playgrounds, and computer games to amuse them at home, children are getting fatter. Mr. Killingsworth of the Centers for Disease Control said 22 percent of American children are obese, twice the level of the mid-1980's. Nutrition is a factor, but so is inactivity. ''They're not even walking to a bus stop,'' he said.

    Ross Brownson, an epidemiologist at the School of Public Health at St. Louis University, said, ''Technology has engineered physical activity out of our lives.'' Highways and subdivisions have been built to accommodate cars, not walking or bike riding.

    ''We have to find a way to make our communities more friendly to physical activity,'' Mr. Brownson said. ''Bring back sidewalks and wider shoulders on the sides of roads and parks.''


Prosperity Builds Mounds of Cast-Off Clothes

PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND

JULY 19, 1999--Hour by hour, cars and trucks back up to the Salvation Army's warehouse loading dock on the edge of the prosperous East Side here and disgorge clothing. Skirts and parkas, neckties and tank tops, sweat pants and socks, a polychromatic mountain of clothes is left each week, some with price tags still attached.

    Inside the warehouse, workers cull the clean and undamaged clothes, roughly 1 piece in 5, to give to the poor or to sell at thrift shops. They feed the rest -- as much as four million pounds a year -- into mighty machines that bind them into 1,100-pound, 5-foot-long bales. Rag dealers buy the bales for 5 cents a pound and ship them off to countries like Yemen and Senegal.

    Nearly a decade of rising prosperity has changed the ways that Americans view and use clothing, so much so that cast-off clothes have become the flotsam of turn-of-the-century affluence. Americans bought 17.2 billion articles of clothing in 1998 -- a 16 percent increase over 1993, according to the NPG Group, a market research concern in Port Washington, N.Y. -- and gave the Salvation Army alone several hundred million pieces, well over 100,000 tons.

    And because so few people make or mend their clothes anymore, among the changes has been this one, in 1998: The Bureau of Labor Statistics moved sewing machines from the ''apparel and upkeep'' category of consumer spending to ''recreation.''

Selected Works

Nonfiction, Sociology
In the global economy, moving every few years is the route to the executive suite -- or mere survival.
From New York Times book on Class in America
Nonfiction, Travel

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