IT'S ALMOST CLOSING TIME, WHICH IS GIVE or take a few minutes of 8 o'clock, depending on whether any paying customers are still dawdling behind the bread stand or hovering near the beer cooler. Cleo is counting the day's receipts. As the proprietor of Rhoads' Food Mart and Gas Station, Cleo figures his daily ritual is the best economic indicator around and "a far sight better than any of that horsepucky I hear on television."

The take is divided into three stacks, the first being banana republic money, the second being carbon paper money and the third being good ol' green. The banana republic stack of food stamps looms over the carbon paper pile of credit card flimsies, which towers over the green.

Cleo Rhoads, who has been around for some time, needs no other indicators from Wall Street, the Federal Reserve Board or any of "those government yo-yos running the zoo back East." The government people can tell him he is the beneficiary of the longest sustained economic recovery in history. Cleo doesn't see it. All the evidence he needs sits in those three stacks in front of him. These are troubled times, and he reckons the grief spreads far beyond the Northwest woods and his oceanside outpost at Pacific Beach, Wash., population 900 souls and shrinking.

I'M TRAVELING THE BACK ROADS AGAIN, AS I did in 1980, the summer of the Iranian hostage crisis, hyperinflation, the Great Midwestern Drought, Carter's collapse and Reagan's reassuring smile. This time I'm starting on state Route 109, which winds precariously down the Pacific coastline south and east from the Indian village of Taholah toward the small timber port of Aberdeen. A month from now I will cut around Cheat Mountain in West Virginia and then follow a groaning truck up the last pass before dropping into the lowlands outside the city everybody frets about, Washington.

The journey will take me through small-town America, an America isolated in the great void between the freeways, an America that often feels left behind and forgotten, an America where the old are getting on and the young are getting out, where the bridges were built by Herbert Hoover and the sense on Main Street is that the great city on the Potomac hasn't paid much attention since. In some ways, it is a trip into a lost past. The down-home values and old American virtues remain, but the scenes along the road are not quite Norman Rockwell paintings. They have become more sad than nostalgic.

It is no surprise to find that small-town America is wasting away, perhaps dying. Between 1983 and 1985, the population declined in more than half of America's rural counties. But traveling along the back roads in 1987, I get the eerie sense of something spookier -- that the American economy is unraveling from the bottom up.

The road begins in the Northwest, where burly loggers are out of work because a generation of their urban cousins cannot afford the white picket fence of the American dream, a new home. The journey meanders through small towns where smelters are closed because copper comes more cheaply from Chile; through places where oil from Saudi Arabia is cheaper than oil from Colorado mountain shale; through the great American breadbasket, where farmers are in trouble even though they produce more grain on less land than at any time in history. The trip nears an end in West Virginia, where grizzled miners while away their days on unpainted front porches because their coal is no longer needed to forge steel for what once was the Gibraltar of the strongest economy on earth, America's heavy industry.

This isn't the road the presidential candidates will take in their over-organized odysseys during the next 15 months. In America, power follows the freeways, not the two-lane roads. The candidates will airlift right over Cheat Mountain with nary a glance out the porthole windows. On the ground, they'll take the pulse of an interstate skeleton. All the flesh necessary will be found and duly pressed in well-advanced Hiltons off cloverleaf lefts. A great nation's respiration will be checked in air-conditioned Ramadas off cloverleaf rights.

The candidates will come back armed with polls and bolstered by red-white-and-blue hoopla, telling us they have seen the folks. But they won't have tapped the budding wisdom of a blushing 10-year-old girl in Grand Junction, Colo., even though she will have to live with the candidates' six-lane tunnel vision longer than they will. The candidates will be so much the worse for having missed the trip, and so will we.

Seven years ago, people in small towns were angry about hostages, inflation and a crippling drought. These days, anger is not the hallmark. The folks feel let down. They are worried, ill at ease, confused, uncertain, even disconsolate.

How do you explain to Fannie Ellen Wheeler, a Missourian who has just about seen it all in her 94 years, this thing about selling arms to the Iranians, followed by an attack on American boys by the Iraqis, followed by a response that maybe her America should help the Iraqis defend themselves against the Iranians to whom her America sold weapons?

How do you explain to Cowboy Jack Steinmitz, a pretty smart guy who has sold cattle out in Dodge City, Kan., for 40 years and done pretty well at it, thank you, those newspaper headlines that say we've managed to run our foreign debt up higher than the combined debts of Brazil, Argentina and Mexico? Especially when he reads the next day that those Latin-American debts are going to bring down the banks that finance the farmers that feed his cattle?

The folks in small-town America don't want Ronald Reagan hounded out of office for all this. But they don't feel he has lived up to his billing, either. Cowboy Jack says he'd be satisfied if Reagan would stay awake when he sees the pope, maybe get a little more sleep before he sees Gorbachev again and keep a low, cowboy-sunset profile the rest of the trail home. Most people I talked with on my journey felt as if the country is bungling along without a president anyway. Unlike Cowboy Jack, almost all of them voted for Ronald Reagan -- twice. "He seemed like he'd take care of things," says Sandra Ohm, the mother of that blushing 10-year-old girl in Grand Junction, Colo. Now she just shrugs. She's looking for a Democrat next time, but won't let her hopes ride so high again.

DOWN THE ROAD FROM CLEO'S PLACE, WINDING SOUTH along the gray coastline of Washington State, Route 109 is two lanes, narrow and slick. On the left, the endless rains nourish a false front of forest spires grasping at a melancholy heaven; on the right, they color the long, low ocean swells leaden.

Around a bend, where a dark canopy of monarchal forest trees briefly closes in above as a reminder of grander days past, the first of the timber company's roadside signs comes into view, a modern variation on the old Burma Shave signs that once lined back roads:


The road curves through another 500 feet of green.


Another stretch of roadside forest.


Around the next bend, it's not hard to understand why folks around here are beginning to think they were born in the wrong 50 years, that maybe the vaunted American Century they had heard so much about ended early. The signs along the road are a corporate setup for a bleak moonscape of clear-cut land that stretches as far as the eye can see and even reaches back deceptively behind Route 109's thin row of live green fencing. Tiny Douglas fir are pushing their way through the slash and past the gnarled stumps, several years away from Christmas-tree size, decades away from framing American homes.

A few miles from here, at another clear-cut swath, men with barrel chests and soft hearts have left a single giant tree standing. Atop it sits an eagle's nest. The eagle has gone, but the men have found it harder to move on. My last time through, in 1980, the loggers, with no trees wanted, were reduced to collecting ferns for city florists in Seattle and Portland. Now the men are cutting firewood for tourists who come for the short summer beach season. They also hear the news about our national economic progress, but don't call it recovery to be splitting alder, a forest weed, instead of felling the mighty fir.

The past seven years have not been good ones here, despite the optimistic sounds from the economists back East. Aberdeen, a port city that has taken to shipping logs directly to Japan, where different men do the milling, once was a wide-open and rampaging timber town of 20,000. Now the joke around the bars is that the economy is so bad Aberdeen is down to five resident hookers. The punchline is that three of them are virgins.

The tales of woe sound like stories from Appalachia. Across Grays Harbor, where the log ships start their long journeys, Pacific County is thinking about bankruptcy. Sheriff Jerry Benning complains he can't answer distress calls after midnight because the county can't afford to man the phone lines, let alone the sheriff's cars. He was only half-joking when he warned a reporter: "Tell the crooks to say out. We're going to vigilante law down here." Half-joking is right. No sheriff's deputy answered the phone and none showed up when a shotgun-toting man invaded a beach-side motel in the early-morning hours recently.

The sheriff, like Fannie Ellen and Cowboy Jack, has trouble understanding Washington talk -- like trickle-down. The only things that have trickled down here in seven years are timber-tax revenues, down from 33 percent of the county's budget to 1 percent, and federal revenue sharing, down $250,000. A couple of items have trickled up: the county's liability insurance, up $250,000 this year alone, and the county's phone bills, up $214,000 since deregulation. Benning can look across the Columbia River into Oregon's timber country for some consolation. Astoria has stopped prosecuting burglars who make off with less than $1,000. Can't afford it.

The Pacific Northwest's timber industry has lost 50,000 of its 160,000 jobs since my last visit, and those workers who held on took a $4-an-hour pay cut after a bitter strike last summer. If anyone would be helped by that, it might seem to be Janie Purkey and her husband, who run the Grayland Moving and Storage Co. in Aberdeen. Janie sits in a little warehouse office across the railroad tracks. She just laughs when asked if business is pretty good with all those people moving on.

"When people leave here," she says, "they sell everything they've got to buy gas."

THE ROAD HEADS SOUTH THROUGH OREGON AND THE verdancy of the Willamette Valley. The farmers are in trouble because migrant workers won't come north out of fear of another Washington, D.C., innovation, the new immigration law. Timber is uncut for want of users; strawberries are rotting for want of pickers.

Then it's into the hot, dry Northern California mountains, where one of the leading industries is overheated radiators. My contribution to the economy is a vapor lock, which means five hours in Yreka with Richard Finwall, the owner of Finwall's Diagnostic and Auto Repair Center. Finwall knows I want to make the nighttime run over the lonely high Sierra plateau, dropping into the desert at Susanville. "Watch out for the bucks," he says in cheerful farewell, offering me his home phone for the late-night tow-truck run he has made before.

The only lights I see in the next 140 miles are deer's eyes, mesmerized, locked on my headlights. It is unclear who feels a greater threat to whom. Susanville is an isolated California outpost and a backdoor entrance to Nevada, where it's clearer who's at risk from the mesmerizing lights.

IN RENO, THE LIGHT SHINES ALL NIGHT. THE BLAZING NEON both entices and punishes the soul, a phantasmagoria of passion pink, electric blue and artillery-burst magenta designed to sandpaper raw nerve endings into pleasure points and create insomnia as a vacation cure for stress.

The town is booming, the green-felt business up 14 percent in the first quarter of the year. The locals say it was the mild winter and a healthy economy. Psychiatrists have another theory. They say the psyche yearns for a quick roll of the dice when the good ol' green gets harder to come by.

The city folks are drawn to this small-town gambling spa like moths to lights. But in 1987, I sense a haunt among them: Get it now, because the dry rot along the back roads is creeping quietly into the American superstructure, and we're next.

High above Reno, tucked in the Sierra Nevada on the perilous back road toward the state capital of Carson City, a relic of the little Old West town, Virginia City, sits dug into a cliff out of which men once pulled tons of silver ore. Mark Twain worked on the newspaper here, chronicling the adventures of Nevada men even more given to violence than their mobster descendants.

Virginia City has turned a little touristy. The favorite haunt is the Bucket of Blood Saloon. Aside from the long bar, where Twain and less reputable characters drank their redeye, the main attraction is a huge bay window perched over the precipice and looking east at a Nevada unmarred by casinos.

The last time I came through town, an old crone, her wrinkled face a dime novel of many roads traveled, gazed out the window at a far-off desert mountain range, burned brown but painted with sunset colors she clearly preferred to the Reno kind.

Striking up a conversation was not easy. Pretty, ma'am. What mountains are they?

Her voice ground like gravel in a placer mine. "Sum Mor Mountains," she growled.

Indian name?

She shot me a quick sidelong glance, the kind reserved for city boys, and the gravel now sounded as if her gnarled fingers were grinding it through the beer can she clutched: "Sum Mor Mountains, Slim. You get out there, if'n you can, and get over the top and you find some more mountains, and then yonder there's some more mountains.

"There's gold out there, too, a far sight more than Reno and Vegas got. Just not too many men left who's man enough to look."

There's a road through the Sum Mors, a desolate 300-mile stretch from the outskirts of Reno to the troubled town of Ely on the state's far side of the moon. Nevadans call it the loneliest road in America, a barren byway where the hills hide the secrets of microscopic gold as well as the secrets of the Cold War, where old outposts like the town of Frenchman remain Rand McNally reality but have become desert mirages, where the signposts become moving targets for the spookworks of the soul and the "Ely 238" milepost has a bull's-eye bullet hole in the top loop of the eight.

There are nine ranges of mountains before Ely, each dropping down into broad, bleak flatlands with names like Railroad Valley, through which no railroad ever has passed. In the flats beyond the Stillwaters, a pilotless plane -- a bit larger than a cruise missile -- booms suddenly out of the desert's dancing heat rivulets, passes no more than 30 feet overhead and disappears into mystery around a red mesa.

Just over Mount Airy Summit, MIDAS-F, a badly piloted Caddie, roars past at 90, skids onto the sandy shoulder to miss a heifer seeking better open-range scrub and then races on.

It is evening in Ely, and, in the distance, the huge cold smokestack of the now-dead Kennecott copper smelter looks like a giant staff flying no flag, Kennecott having taken Ely's future beyond the red, white and blue. In desperation, the city fathers are touting the town as the terminus of the loneliest road in America, which is akin to hustling Timbuktu as the tourist haven of the Sahara.

On Saturday morning the biggest of Ely's half-dozen fraying casinos, the Nevada Club, is so empty you can hear each nickel clank into its slot. Judy Briggs, the day-shift dealer, stands alone, smoking a cigarette. We play head to head for two hours and talk, which is nice because blackjack conversations usually top out at nothing more serious than whether to take a hit on 16.

Judy was born here, and she is worried about her daughters and her home town and her country, in that order. The conversation and the cards flutter back and forth quietly.

The microscopic gold mine down the way at Alligator Ridge, discovered by men still willing to go out and look for real gold so fine you can't see it with the naked eye, is helping out. Judy busts, hitting 12 with a king. Half-a-million ounces of gold, $200 million worth, and they're talking a billion. But the mine produces only 100 jobs, nothing like the smelter.

I stop on 12; she busts again. The town is taking in Nevada's maximum-security prison, and the construction work should help. But Judy is worried about her daughters. "It's not the prisoners," she says, busting for the third straight hand. "Maximum security is maximum, isn't it? It's the welfare drifters and the hangers-on that worry you with the kids."

Judy shuffles. "Why do towns like Ely have to go through such agony? We got all these people who want to work. What's wrong, anyway? Why do the copper companies have to yield to some foreigners the way Detroit yielded to Japan? What's wrong with our country?"

I don't know. Will some politician come to Ely to answer her? Judy tucks the cards back into the blackjack shoe. Makes no difference. She is worried about her kids and thinking about moving on, down the loneliest road, which is away from home.

SALINA, UTAH, AND A MORMON BROCHURE AT THE SAFARI motel offers tips on How to Choose a Wife: "Make sure she likes violets, roses being for status-seekers . . . Can she sit simply by a mountain stream? . . . Does she make the sky seem bluer when she stands on a hilltop?" The hilltops are red rimrock on the way out of town, heading for Grand Junction, Colo.

IT WAS A BIG EVENT IN AUTOMM OHM'S LIFE WHEN RONALD Reagan came to town. Still, she is pretty honest about it, more candid than a lot of older folks whose memories get lost in the narrow gap between reality and imagery these days. Being only 3 years old at the time, she won't say straight out that she actually remembers seeing him. Not for sure, you know, the way it is on television.

But Automm was there all right, propped high on her dad's shoulders, golden curls catching the same fiery streaks of a Colorado sunset that emblazoned the white cowboy hat and hero's smile of the next president of the United States.

It's been almost seven years since Reagan visited Grand Junction, a calculatedly obscure airport photo opportunity during his reach for the White House. Automm is 10 now, and she's been told over and over how her home town went wild that day, how she waved her "REAGAN" sign above her dad's head, how the adults shouted and cried and waved their own signs that said "TAKE OUR OIL SHALE" and "DON'T FORGET US."

Automm is a pretty smart kid, keeps up with things. But she can't be expected to understand photo opportunities. All she knows is that the hero waved that white hat, holding it just right for the cameras, framing it against the painted western panorama of Grand Junction's Book Cliffs. Then he got back into his big white airplane and flew off into the twilight, and back into Automm's television box, where he has remained ever since.

Just about everybody in Grand Junction, including Automm Ohm's parents, Michael and Sandra, voted for their hero. The town went a little crazy: The big oil-shale boom came shortly after Reagan got his new job, and people started saying the little Western Slope town, which had a population of 28,000, might grow as large as Denver. The big bust came a year later. Reagan didn't take their oil shale, and he seemed to forget the folks who had cheered him so wildly. Grand Junction became a little Houston -- an oil bust town that suffered all the more because of its size.

Jobs were gone, houses were going at half-price and, when they didn't go at those prices, the people went instead, in the middle of the night.

Things didn't go too well for Automm's family, either. They moved to Phoenix, which everyone seems to try when the air goes out of the balloon in western towns. Automm liked it there. They had computers in the school, and she learned to play the flute in the school band. But Phoenix didn't pan out.

So the Ohms came back last Valentine's Day to the place where their roots are and where, seven years after the big event, the unemployment rate is still 15 percent. Michael Ohm has gone back to Mesa College to learn a new trade, giving up construction work to become a machinist, which he hopes will make things easier in the long run. And, on this particular day, Automm is helping her mother with the wash down at the faded Orchard Mesa Laundromat ("If the dryer don't start, just open and shut it again").

Automm has grown lanky and pert, with sun-burned cheeks that turn still pinker when she blushes, which occurs when her mother nudges her to tell a stranger what she thinks about the man she saw out at the airport.

"I think he's pretty good," Automm answers reluctantly, with a look that says for goodness sake, Mom, he's the only president I've ever had.

Sandra Ohm rolls her eyes because that clearly isn't what she has been hearing from her precocious daughter.

"But he seems ding-y," Automm adds.

"What do you mean, ding-y?" Sandra Ohm persists.

"Mom! Don't you think it's ding-y to say you've seen a Clint Eastwood movie and now you know what to do when some crazy person takes a hostage?"

Sandra Ohm shrugs because Automm clearly isn't going to say another word. But no matter. She is saying in very clear 10-year-old language what more mature folks are saying in vaguer ways all along the road. They simply can't stay mad at the man in the white hat with the big friendly grin and the aw-shucks tilt of the head. Not even in Grand Junction. But they wonder where the promise went.

After Reagan left, an elaborate new air terminal was built at Walker Field, which, along with the new high-rise Hilton Inn and the fancy Ramada Inn, stands as a testimonial to unbounded optimism. Karla Pond works in the airport's second-floor cafeteria, and, while she'd like to switch her vote to a Democrat this time around, she isn't mad at Reagan, either.

Karla has a sense of humor about man's follies. She should be working up in the classy third-floor restaurant, she says, except they didn't have enough business to keep it open, so now it's just a big dead space with a view. And in the kitchen, the air conditioning doesn't work. It's not much fun working in a kitchen with no air conditioning, but Karla still thinks it's funny.

"You know why that air conditioning doesn't work?" she asks. "Because it's one of those new-fangled solar-energy machines. Can you imagine? Building this terminal to take all the oil out of those hills and then putting in an air conditioner that uses solar energy that doesn't work?"

She thinks the whole thing was a pipe dream anyway, and Reagan shouldn't have come in here and encouraged the idea, and Exxon, the oil company that spent millions before pulling the plug on the day folks around here still call "Black Sunday," shouldn't have either.

"It's going to be 50 years before they take the oil out of that shale," she says. "Fifty years." And the words conjure up the vision of being born in the wrong half-century again, that Grand Junction will be mustering up the go-go attitude for another big boom about the time the Douglas fir seedlings are ready for the mills that might reopen in Aberdeen.

Downtown, Bill Galletly, the Chamber of Commerce man, is doing his best to put a good face on things. "We're in the final phase of the shakeout," he says, although there still are 3,500 for-sale signs on houses here.

A little farther up the road there is a "Town for Sale" sign outside Gilman, which turned ghost town when the bottom fell out of the zinc market. Grand Junction will do better than that. So will the Ohms. In the meantime, however, Automm misses playing her flute in the band. Her new school can't afford one.

OVER THE MOUNTAINS, AN 11,200-FOOT PASS THROUGH John Denver's Rocky Mountain High, past Buffalo Bill's grave and into the endless Great Plains en route to Dodge City, Kan. An overnight stay in Lamar, Colo., at the Cow Palace Inn, "Home of the Celebrity Two-Shot Goose Hunt Club."

The news in The Lamar Daily News is wide-ranging. The police-beat column leads with the theft of Pearl Kern's garden hose, valued at $20 and heisted sometime between 7 a.m. Sunday and 7 a.m. Monday. The lead local-interest story out of Washington is a presidential bill-signing ceremony giving national historical status to the Santa Fe Trail. The Daily News notes that the president and Errol Flynn starred in a 1940 film called "Santa Fe Trail" and quotes the president from the Oval Office: "Errol Flynn and I were never so courageous as we were in that movie."

DODGE CITY, WHERE COWBOYS AND FARMERS SHOT IT out a century ago over conflicting visions of the Old West. Today you could take Jack Steinmitz, Cap Proffitt and Tom Badger out Wyatt Earp Boulevard to the gravelly knoll just beyond the city limits of Dodge, and each man would gaze out over the modern high plains vista of southwestern Kansas and see a different vision.

Steinmitz would see cattle everywhere, more Herefords and Angus and Charolais than there are people in all of Dodge. He'd draw in the perfume of cow dung, and his lungs would fill with the sweet smell of success. In his lifetime, Cowboy Jack has auctioned off $2.5 billion worth of cattle, fattened on good Kansas grain, and, at 66, he can see no end in sight. Steinmitz is an American classic, a magnificently successful cowboy businessman with a Barnum and Bailey certainty that next year's show will be bigger and better. Forever. He radiates confidence that he can ride above anything. And maybe he can -- just as some rode out the Depression years in high, Cowboy Jack style.

Proffitt, a raw-boned, weathered man of 38, would look beyond the herd and see a lifelong dream shattered. Out there in the limitless plains are the 2,000 acres Proffitt, a farmer who raised the grains that fed the cattle, will never have back. Like so many others, Proffitt succumbed to the farm-belt hype of the '70s -- bought, borrowed and bought more, shooting for the moon, and then watched the collapse, watched it all go back to auctions and banks. He is a proud man, not a welfare case, a man with a wife and two kids to feed. He works now in the feed yards below. But the cow dung clinging to his boots and jeans does not smell so sweet.

Badger would look beyond the cattle, too, zeroing in on the great centipede-like irrigation sprinklers drawing up water from a huge underground lake none of the men has ever seen. The Ogallala Aquifer may be the largest "lake" in America, stretching a thousand miles under these plains from South Dakota to Nebraska, through Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle into Texas. Badger, 43, a soil conservationist, knows that since the farmers learned how to tap the Ogallala 25 years ago they have been drawing it down as much as a foot a year, 20 times as fast as the rains replenish it. He also knows that if the Ogallala goes, this land will return to what it was -- dusty, dry plains.

Cowboy Jack doesn't do much thinking about the water problem. He's a today man. And on this day he is cruising in his polished black Lincoln Continental -- the blue Kansas plates say "COWBOY" -- taking me on a tour just as he did seven years ago.

"Look at that," he says as we pass the immense ExCel processing center, the "fab" plant where fattened cattle are waiting complacently in a fenced and circular chute. "We're sittin' 1,542 miles from New York and 1,574 from San Francisco. Today, 25,000 cows will go in this end and come out the other end hamburger, sirloin and Kansas City strips. Day after tomorrow, housewives will have 'em in both cities."

At city center, where the old Santa Fe Trail dead-ends near Boot Hill, we pass another landmark, a statue of the citizen who made this place great, greater than Earp and Bat Masterson and all the other boys of legend. Staring back down the trail is a full-size bronze of an old Texas longhorn, a tough, sinewy creature that could survive the dry-land foraging and long cattle drives of a century ago. His sirloins were not as marbled and tasty.

"Great animal," Cowboy Jack says. "Almost went extinct. But we're not going back to him. Hell, we got crossbreeds from Europe and all over, Charolais and Gelbvieh and ones with names I can't even pronounce, let alone spell. Science marches on, you know."

Then Jack is in a hurry, off to radio station KGNO. He's a man-about-town who does 15 radio shows a week, all on cattle prices, which are bigger news here than Ollie North.

Down at Wilroads Feed Yard, a finishing yard where the cattle get a "rough ration" of corn and hay before heading to ExCel, Cap Proffitt doesn't worry about water either. He no longer needs the thousand-foot irrigators and well pumps that probe deeper and deeper into the Ogallala for water to grow corn.

Cap is not a bitter man, and he blames himself as much as anyone for losing the farm. "I listened to all those damned-fool farm experts, all those damned-fool government experts, all those damned-fool bankers, and I was the biggest damned fool of all. You can't imagine the agony you go through. You just try like hell not to give up, and then one day you're ready."

Cap was a farmer, not a banker. And he figured when it came to the end he could just give back what he had added, the expansion stuff, in trade for his bank debt. That was another "damned-fool false impression." The bank took it all.

The pity of it is that he had wanted to leave that farm to his kids. Sure, he'd read about the Ogallala, and how the water was going so fast it might not be there by the time they were ready to take over. But you know the newspapers. You can't believe all that stuff. Cap's a today man, too.

Tom Badger, the soil conservationist, was talking with an old-timer the other day, a fellow whose father had come here in the 1870s. The place was so dry, the codger said, there was only one tree within 10 miles of Dodge. It was up in a place called Horse Thief Canyon, and that's where they went for the hangings.

Now Badger looks around and sees the cottonwoods everywhere, the fields green, all done with scarce water that men have diverted from drier and drier rivers and brought up from the Ogallala. Badger is not an alarmist. He doesn't believe the studies that say the Ogallala might be dry as early as the year 2000.

"Funny thing," Badger says. "Modern problems might save modern man from his own technology. Energy costs are getting so high a lot of farmers around here can't afford to drill as deep as they were a few years ago. They're going back to dry-land farming just like the old days. That could stretch the aquifer out for another generation, maybe 50 years."

Fifty years. It's late, and I'm driving out of town, wondering if the dilemma and paradox of the American '80s aren't captured best right here in Dodge City with these three men -- Steinmitz, riding high with no end in sight; Proffitt, brought down and struggling for a more modest dream; and Badger, trying to look beyond into a different and uncertain future.

I'm following a refrigerator truck carrying an ExCel load East. Coming toward me are the lumbering 12-wheelers with their on-the-hoof loads ready for fattening on irrigated corn. The heavy perfume makes me drowsy. The car radio is tuned to KGNO, and Cowboy Jack is talking in the rapid-fire voice of an old auctioneer. Grain-fed is holding at $74 a hundredweight, close to top-dollar. Things are good.


One of the huge irrigation sprinklers spatters a stream of deep Ogallala water across my windshield. I wake up fast.

MID-AMERICA, THE LITTLE COLLEGE TOWN OF PITTS-burg, Kan., en route to a special place in Missouri. Margaret Engle, who used to be the book buyer at Pittsburg State, is talking about the recent graduation ceremonies and reminiscing, a trifle sadly, about the good old days. "It all started downhill in '69 when they went to disposables," she says.


"Paper. Paper-acetate graduation gowns instead of those nice cloth gowns we used year after year."

But the '60s were rough times, too, she adds, mentioning the rebelliousness. Did you have riots out here in Pittsburg? "Oh, no, no, no. Streakers. We had them sitting on the roofs, running through the yard. Everyplace. I even had one run naked through the bookstore." Still, she seemed to like it better then.

SOUTHWESTERN MISSOURI, DOWN COUNTY ROAD K AND into Liberal. The only pay phone in town isn't working right, hasn't been since the spring floods. So every time I try to call Mae Bell I get the same wrong number, answered by a patient, pleasant lady about Mae's age, which is 78 now. She finally suggests that, while it's no trouble to her, I might save a lot of quarters if I would simply walk over to Mae's house, which is only two blocks away on Maple Street, and that's the way most folks do things in Liberal anyway. I should have known that.

Seven years ago Liberal was just fine print on the map of Missouri. Very fine print, having a population of 644. But, on Labor Day, it seemed the proper place to go. Jimmy Carter was 100 miles up the road in Independence, needing everything he could get and trying to get some of it in Give-'Em-Hell Harry's home town. Independence and Liberal. The lure was inescapable.

The cornfields around town were burned dry by the Great Drought. But there was Willis Strong, up to his elbows in printer's ink even on the holiday, trying to keep things going during hard times at the four-page Liberal News. Mae Bell dropped in, mostly to talk, because, since Bob Suschnick had felt compelled by economics to close down the soda fountain at his drugstore, people didn't have anyplace to just meet and talk. That was a pretty hot issue in Liberal in 1980, along with the drought that had caused the tomatoes not to set in Mae's garden.

Mae Bell didn't hold it against Jimmy Carter for choosing Independence that day, although she ended up voting for Reagan. But she said Carter might have learned more in Liberal, like how people live on $175-a-month pensions when their tomatoes won't set. She had wished he would bring along that young television man, David Brinkley, because he had it right when he said the politicians "all live out there together in somethin'-or-other heights in Washington, D.C., and have forgotten how the rest of us live."

It would be nice to report that things look better in Liberal seven years later. But it's still a hard go, even if the population sign has edged back up to 701.

Willis Strong has finally given up on the local paper and print shop, which he sold to a chain operation last September because "the cost of ink has just gone too high and nothing's really been the same since the drought." He's been looking for a job, but mostly helping his parents who got hit hard during the spring floods. "Got too much water or not enough water around here," he observed.

At the little white house on Maple, Mae Bell welcomes me like an old friend, sitting me down by the Scribner and Sons piano she got in high school 60 years ago. As to politics, she doesn't have much to say about Reagan except she wishes "he had put some better people around him." But she does have her doubts. She figures the pension checks in Liberal are up to about $250 and wonders if Reagan thinks that is any easier to live on. Those politicians get pretty isolated from real life.

The Iran-contra hearings? No. She never got into the afternoon television habit because of "the swearing and everything" on all those soap operas. "I was brought up to be a lady," she says with a pixieish smile that doesn't belie the truth of it.

The soda-fountain problem never really got solved, though Mae doesn't blame Bob Suschnick for that because the economics weren't there. Afterward, Mrs. Perry opened a place for a while "but then she passed away." There's a nice little restaurant on Main now, the Tin Shop. But it isn't quite the same. So Mae is concentrating on the problems of the elderly. At 78, she cooks each Tuesday night and takes the free meals up to the school for the old folks.

Out on the edge of town there is a new spot called Connie's Place. It isn't Mae Bell's kind of place, but Connie Brady keeps it plenty respectable just the same. Connie serves an occasional burger but mostly Miller Lite and Coors to farmers who want to talk over something more than coffee. She keeps the TV going for the ball games and dominoes as a participant sport. The air conditioning is by ceiling fan.

Connie opened her place three years ago, but she has been here since 1957 and watched the population sign go from 732 to 712 to 644. She doesn't put much stock in the climb back to 701. Neither does Burton Riley, a 71-year-old retired farmer who sips his Lite and says "you can't hardly raise corn around here anymore."

Rita Shafer, who is in town from Texas to visit her grandmother, drops by, and the talk turns to the old days of fishing for bass and catfish in Mellor's Pond before someone drained it to get water for the corn. And the still older days before the coal mine closed up and the brick factory went under in nearby Oskaloosa. And how to keep Liberal going.

That's when the talk gets serious. Burton went to school in Oskaloosa, and it had "maybe 150 or 160 kids then." Now Oskaloosa is down to 18 or 19 families, and the kids are bused over to Liberal. Then there's the town of Leroy. Leroy is gone altogether, except for the cemetery, which is about four miles away.

Rita looks pensive. Her grandmother, Fannie Ellen Wheeler, is 94, has a troublesome case of arthritis and lives in Liberal's Golden Homes apartments. But like Mae Bell, she is one of the town's stalwarts. Because no one else will do it, Fannie tends to the Leroy cemetery. The cemetery might not be very impressive, with the gravestones starting to tilt this way and that, but Fannie has a lot of friends and relatives there.

Connie, who is 50ish, divorced and has her children raised, shakes her head. "I'd leave here in a minute if I had anyplace to go and anybody to go with," she says.

Burton frowns. He doesn't wish any ill on Connie, but he thinks that would be very bad for Liberal. Still, his mind is elsewhere. "I don't know what will happen to the cemetery when Fannie's gone," he says. Then there won't be anything left at all in Leroy.

ACROSS THE MISSISSIPPI AT CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO. THEN another near-dead town, Steeds, Ill., once a thriving river port where Dred Scott was held in the courthouse dungeon. Across the Ohio into Kentucky below Cairo, a tough river town suffering: It must be so because even the Snooker Club is boarded up. When you can't play pool in Cairo, times are bad.

A waitress in Kentucky is young and pretty, but dinner is verbal combat, her hill accent so strong I don't understand her until dessert. "Kentucky is beautiful," I say in farewell, trying to keep it simple. "Yes, sir," she says, "I think so too." Then she pauses in deep thought. " 'Course you can't tell beautiful from homely if you only seen one place."

ON TO WEST VIRGINIA. THERE IS something telling about people who come to a hard land and name their settlements Man and War and Justice -- or Peewee and Crum and Cheat River. All these West Virginia hamlets have dwindling populations, mostly under 500, with the exception of War, which is holding at 2,000.

The names are reminders of great dreams with bitter endings, small dreams with bitter endings, maybe even bitter dreams with bitter endings.

There is nothing new in the misery and poverty of West Virginia, except perhaps its position at the bottom of the ladder in the decline of American industrial dominance. King Coal came first in the march up that ladder; it comes first in the tumble down. For lifetimes, this has been a land of 20 tons a day and the company store, of women aging in their teens at the wail of a siren, of strong men in front-porch rocking chairs gasping from blackened lungs.

They say American industry could be fueled for another 500 years by the coal buried in West Virginia, the western end of an underground highway of the black sedimentary rock beginning in the wallows of England, wending deep under the Atlantic and emerging in these hills.

But now healthy, strapping young men sit rocking, too, waiting for far-off Arab sheiks to get so greedy they dangerously tilt the world's oil-based economy again. They wait for the politicians and the scientists and the environmentalists to do something about acid rain. Then they will go back down in the holes again, willingly, in search of dark dreams.

One glance at the divorce-court column of the Clarksburg Telegram tells more about poverty here than a hundred sociological studies:

Pamela J. Starkey, married ten years, two infants, granted a decree on grounds of desertion. Child support: $75 a month; alimony, $50.

Melissa Christine Bell, 21, married three years, two infants, granted a decree on grounds of cruel and inhuman punishment. Child support, $50 a month; alimony, $10; return of her maiden name.

In nearby Terra Alta, which sits a half-mile high among green hills in Preston County, the town's name also implying dreams that soared beyond the high-sulphur coal buried nearby, Bob Teets chronicles the human tragedies, the wasted lives and the eternal hopes of his neighbors. For a while he ran the local newspaper. Now he sits at home with a small computer, writing other stories. His book, Killing Waters, described the great 1985 flood, when the Cheat River and dozens of others raged out of control, taking 47 lives and destroying 5,000 homes.

Teets and his wife, Cathy, live in a Thoreau setting on the edge of town, their home nestled among cool shade trees, a picnic table set next to a babbling brook that empties into a broad, placid pond where bass and bluegill and shiners play, and a pair of mallards visit each summer.

But their Walden Pond is an anomaly. Along Main Street, old-timers stare curiously from front porches that open onto the roadway, no lawn in between. One street lower, Front Street, which borders on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad tracks, the West Virginia story is still more visible. Stores are boarded up, Watson's Feed closed, Round Top Carpets out of business.

"I don't know of a single person in this county who is doing well," Teets says, with unemployment running at 15 percent. He smiles ruefully. "Washington used to come for our aid. Senators and congressmen and all kinds of VIPs came up here to avoid the summer heat. But that was a long time ago. Now we go to Washington. It's hard-hat heaven, with all those construction jobs. It bothers some people that the government town is booming when no place else is. West Virginians are stubborn. Some won't go just for that reason."

And some can't.

Down Main Street, at the last old white house before the cemetery, Pete Baker sits on the porch with his wife's grandfather, both slowly rocking. Pete is 38 years old, father of two children, and the latest victim of what his wife, Vicki, calls the Baker Curse.

Pete didn't go into the mines until he was 32, and he had reason. His Pappy had been a miner, starting when he was 14, and the pay was 36 cents a ton. Twice he barely escaped death. The second time, working what they call a dog hole, dynamite blew up in his gut. He survived, but he never worked again, never was the same. Pete's younger brother, Steve, went down in the mines. A rock fall broke his back, paralyzed him, and they said he'd never walk again. He did. But he isn't the same, never will be.

In 1982, two years after Pete Baker made his own decision because he needed the $14 an hour to feed his kids, he moved slowly down the same tunnel in which his brother had been injured. He was about to set a roof bolt when a four-foot slab of rock broke away. Pete doesn't remember much after that, just coming to on the tunnel floor and knowing his leg was broken. It was more. The shock had knocked him instantly unconscious. But the rock had struck him flush in the face, skittering down his body and landing on the leg.

They told Vicki her husband was in the hospital with "a few scratches." When she got there, she saw that he "just didn't have any face at all." Months of bone-pinning, plastic surgery and rehabilitation followed. The face came back, remarkably well, but the kids "were taking a lot of abuse" about their "funny" father. Six months ago, after four years without a job, Pete Baker suffered a massive heart attack, which the doctors attributed to stress and worry about his family.

Now, Pete Baker is recovering again. He sits on a front porch like most of the unemployed men in this town, rocking and thinking. Christopher, his 13-year-old son, knows what he wants to be when he grows up. A miner.

Bob Teets thinks it's ironic -- not racist, surely not meaning to apply any blame for the accidents -- that the mine in which the Baker brothers were injured is owned now by the Japanese. And that the big money is in Washington, hard-hat heaven, the booming city that is supposed to solve problems along the two-lane roads in West Virginia.

"It'll come back," Teets says. "I'm an optimist. Like most Americans. But things are really turned around, aren't they? Did you know that railroad prices are up so high that coal can be brought to the East Coast from Poland cheaper than from West Virginia?"

In the distance, a Chessie whistle blows. But down by the boarded-up stores on Front Street, the train rolls right through Terra Alta -- population 1,946 -- without stopping, headed down to Washington. ::

William Prochnau is a former Washington Post reporter and the author of Trinity's Child, a novel. He is writing a book about the role of war correspondents in Vietnam.