Growing up in a small-business family has forever shaped my perspective. I have a deep and abiding respect for main street businesses, and admire their determination, tenacity and never-say-die attitude — basically their grit.
My daughter and I spent last week on the road. We were taking a motorcycle tour of Southern Utah and the Grand Canyon via Highway 89. I vaguely remember as a kid traveling south via 89 after leaving the interstate at Nephi. My dad talked about how nice it would be when the interstate was done and we’d be able to cut several hours off of the travel time to St. George and on to Las Vegas.
However, I don’t think anyone thought of the long-term consequences for the shopkeepers in all the little towns along Highway 89 like Marysvale, Circleville, Orderville and others.
As we cruised down 89 the first stop on our five-day tour was to be Ruby’s Inn, just outside of Bryce Canyon National Park. Our late afternoon departure from Salt Lake City was just about perfect. Fluffy white clouds and blue skies bid us fair journey as we headed south. Unfortunately, outside of Fairview, it started to rain — and with only occasional breaks, continued that way for the remainder of the day and into the next.
Dry and warm in our room at Ruby’s, we didn’t notice that the rain continued on through the night. As we contemplated breakfast and the rest of the day, we couldn’t help but notice that the rain was relentless in its desire to spoil our parade. Nevertheless, after breakfast we loaded up the bikes and rode into the park. Like many other visitors to Bryce that day, we took photographs, visited the vistas and enjoyed the park — we were just a little soggier than we had expected.
After a couple of hours we mounted up and headed to points farther south. The rain pounded us until we hit Kanab. I couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t a single word of complaint as we splashed through our first two days of the trip. Every time we stopped, my daughter would talk about how much fun she was having on our “adventure.”
Some of the little towns along the highway were doing better than others. I was impressed that so many of them seemed to be going through what looked like a rebirth. Main streets seemed to be scrubbed and polished, likely reminiscent of better times. It’s my practice, when possible, to gas up or stop in the little cafes that are typically part of these small towns. If there are three or four pickup trucks out front, it usually means the food is pretty good. (Locals drive pickups and don’t usually go “out” to eat unless the food is good.)
Last year, in Austin, Nev., some friends and I stopped at the Toiyabe Café for lunch. We were returning from a motorcycle tour of the Oregon Coast. As mentioned above, my friends and I usually opt off the interstate whenever possible. Austin is on the section of Highway 50 dubbed the "Loneliest Road in America." In it’s heyday, silver mining was this part of Nevada’s claim to fame. In fact, some of those little towns boasted some pretty impressive population numbers for their time.
As we enjoyed a delicious hamburger and a cold milkshake, I asked the owner what kept her place open, since there was obviously no real industry to support her town. She said, “It’s Highway 50 and folks like you that keep us alive these days.”
The Nevada Department of Tourism has created a passport that encourages travelers to get off the interstate and experience something a little different. They encourage you to stop in each little town along the highway, visit a local merchant of some kind, stamp your passport, and collect a souvenir by sending in your completed passport at the end of the trip. I didn’t realize that $5-6 here and there along the route was actually keeping many of these businesses alive.
I was very impressed with how the Main Street businesses along Highway 50 and the state of Nevada worked together to implement what is likely a very inexpensive, but effective program to help the small-business owners in that particular part of the state.
Last week as we rode down 89 it was obvious which communities were really struggling, which were surviving, and those few that seemed to be thriving. Of course, being in the backyard of a national park doesn't hurt some of the communities we drove through.
I did find it interesting at one gas stop, when asking for directions, one of the old farmers suggested that we jump back on the interstate to save a few miles, “Otherwise you’ll have to drive through a bunch of little towns.” (To be honest, he could have just wanted the likes of us out of town — and the quicker the better.)
No wonder main street business owners need so much grit. It felt like the little towns were getting sabotaged by one of their neighbors.
I’m always impressed with the resilience of main street businesses, particularly those in small towns in out-of-the-way places. I guess our ride through the rain could serve as a reminder that owning a small business isn’t always peaches and cream. Nevertheless, the rain eventually stopped and we had a wonderful time on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The payoff for sticking with it made the day and a half of rain somehow feel worth it. I wonder how many main street business owners feel the same way.
Next time I’m on the road, I’m not going to forget that grit only goes so far — main street needs customers to stay alive, and I’m happy to be one of them.
As a main street business evangelist and marketing veteran with more than 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about leading people and small-business issues for lendio.com.