Pyle did much of his prospecting in the newsrooms of local papers, picking up tips on where the good stories were waiting in each new town he visited. He carried in his car, along with his carefully annotated AAA Hotel Directory, a wooden box in which he filed leads, contacts, clippings—the raw material for future columns. His editors occasionally put in requests. “I don’t like that idea,” he said to a suggestion that he take a look at the impact of government relief efforts in one small city. “It sounds too important!” But he did take a look, and the resulting series was set in North Platte, Nebraska. He wrote another series, about the drought in the upper plains, that was good enough for Scripps-Howard to nominate for a Pulitzer. (It didn’t win; the war is what finally earned one for him.)
Pyle traveled with one suit, three neckties, a supply of ten-cent white cotton socks, and a Borsalino felt hat that he finally lost on the set of a Joan Crawford movie, one more reason to hightail it out of LA. He would report for a few days, collecting material for several columns or more, and then hole up in a hotel room to write them in batches. He spent seven days in Monument Valley and the Four Corners region, and then, sunburned and nursing a cold, spent the next week in an Arizona tourist cabin writing about it: twenty thousand words, enough for three weeks of columns.
The job wore on him, a hole with his name on it that he had to fill every day, and he was irked by friends who regarded it instead as a permanent vacation. “One story a day sounds as easy as falling off a log,” he wrote in one column. “Try it sometime.” He tried to build up what he called his “cushion” of columns, the more weeks ahead the better, and to plump that cushion he sometimes told stories from his own life—sometimes serious (his columns about his mother’s stroke brought her sympathetic get-well wishes from across the country), and sometimes not (one of his most popular pieces documented his struggle with a recalcitrant zipper on his trousers).
When Pyle wrote about himself it was almost begrudgingly, as if he couldn’t quite figure why anyone would be interested in the life of a no-account bumbler like him. He was a “funny little hothouse man—no chest, no tan, no muscle” in one column, “scared to death at meeting strange people” in another, and in still another he imagined what a historical marker might say in his birthplace of Dana, Indiana: “In his later years Mr. Pyle rose to a state of national mediocrity as a letter-writer, a stayer in hotels, a talker to obscure people, and a driver from town to town.”
But that, of course, was why he was such a good reporter, and why the people he met found him so easy to talk to: he knew it was the story that mattered, not him.
Pyle’s star dims a bit each year, as his original readers—those who eagerly turned to his column during the war to learn what life was like for the soldiers overseas—gradually die off. So sparsely visited was the museum in his childhood home that, in 2009, the state of Indiana cut its funding and demoted it from the ranks of state historic sites. His typewriter is now in the state museum in Indianapolis, and his home is open by appointment only, tended by volunteers.