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The Herald, Friday, February 2, 1990
Plains just a town
My 1988 ride to the Florida Panhandle and back included a visit to a national landmark. Partly by design, but mostly by honest trajectory, I managed a half-hour stop over in Plains, Ga., the hometown of former President Jimmy Carter.
My trek home brought me into Plains from the south on Georgia highway 45. The hours before my arrival were spent rolling through some surprisingly boundless farmland. I nervously monitored the level in my last water bottle and hoped a place called Plains actually existed.
With very little warning, Plains happened. The "Welcome to Plains" sign marks the absolute beginning and end of civilization.
The heart of "downtown" is but a stone's throw away. There is a short strip of aging businesses off to one side, punctuated by a large billboard bragging that this is the home of our 39th president. Despite the billboard and the inordinate number of American flags on display, Plains is simply rural USA.
I shared Main Street with a single car bearing an Ohio tag. Like me, the three tourists in the car seemed a bit confused by the simplicity of it all, Is this it? Where's the rest of Plains, Ga.?
The general store was where it was all happening this Sunday afternoon. There were several cars in the dusty parking lot; I headed inside for some rest and refreshment.
I found that the locals reverently refer to Mr. Carter as simply "Jimmy." They have an enormous amount of respect for the former chief executive, and they love to discuss the subject with a rather smug satisfaction.
One man described the mob scene after Mr. Carter was elected. "Yeah, it was really something. When Jimmy made president, it didn't take two days before carloads of tourists were backed up bumper-to-bumper all the way to Americus. They were buyin' stuff and takin' pictures and carrying on like you wouldn't believe. Heck, I had two or three of 'em ask me for my autograph, just because I live here."
The man gazed across the highway and drifted away in thought as he relived Plains' finest hour. I looked across the road too, but I didn't see a thing. Try as I might, I could not imagine gridlock in this practically comatose village.
From the goods available at the general store, one might think that Cartermania was still in full swing. A generous portion of the shelf space is covered with Carter coffee mugs, banners, bumper stickers, pencils and post cards. There's enough to prove beyond a doubt that you've been to Plains.
I relaxed on the shaded front porch and exchanged pleasantries with the infrequent customers as they came and went. The last person I spoke with was a man who said he was a recreational bicyclist. He promised that I would love the ride from Plains to Americus.
It turns out that shortly after "Jimmy made president," the road from Plains to Americus was mysteriously widened. The locals debated whether the unexpected improvement was the result of some political back-scratching, or if the widening was needed to handle the influx of tourists.
In any case, U.S. 280 from Plains to Americus is now said to be the fanciest stretch of two-lane highway in all of Georgia. The traffic lanes are ridiculously wide, and there is a six-foot emergency strip beyond that.
I rode the miraculous highway into Americus, where I spent the night. Americus is only 9 miles from Plains, but it is light years removed. Americus is a bustling county seat with noise and activity.
I drifted off to sleep in Americus, still trying to imagine the tourism phenomenon in Plains. The story reminded me of the summertime chaos in Yellowstone Park, where families flock to see the wilderness. If that's wilderness, why is there a traffic jam?
Time has returned Plains to its natural state. It is now the way it was before "Jimmy made president."
The truth makes a better story. If the real Plains, Ga., could be the political launching pad for a president, then any American dream must surely be possible.
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