Voices from the Heartland

Trip Start Sep 09, 2009
Trip End Sep 18, 2009

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Flag of United States  , Ohio
Sunday, September 13, 2009

After our wanderings through the back country of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, we realized that on day 4 of a 10 day trip to California, we better say goodbye to Ohio and pick up the pace if we were going to get there.  So, it was inevitably back to the interstates.  After our "free breakfast" at the motel with the inevitable Fox news playing in the breakfast room, we got on I-74 going west.  The morning passed with the help of satellite radio and soon we began to think of lunch.

Of all the food choices available on interstates, far and away our first choice is Cracker Barrel. ("Good ol' Cracker Barrel") They have a winning if perhaps a bit hokey formula with their brown western style one story buildings with a wide front porch lined with rocking chairs, an imposing raised hearth stone fireplace dominating one end of the uniformly huge dining area, and those walls festooned with "memorabilia" - old framed family portraits in fading guilt frames, ancient tin advertising signs and canisters, deer heads, wooden snow shoes with leather straps, rusting tools - all redolent of a long gone past except of course for the very current American flags. Who gets to roam the country buying up all that stuff? And is there a warehouse of it somewhere?  ("Could you guys send over an old caste iron skillet and a warped mirror with fading gold paint?") 

And, decor aside, the food is good.  To us, they are as close as a chain will ever come to "home cooking."  They have great chicken and dumplings, fried catfish, collards, sweet potatoes, okra, stewed apples - all the stuff grandmas of 100 years ago used to make. And it's not bad!

All that nostalgia is combined with modern management, however, and the service is super efficient.  We were seated near the huge stone fireplace which was unused on this summer day. A folded up wheelchair was stowed on the hearth. Our pony-tailed server, Sabra, was there the moment we were seated to take our drink order. She was dressed in her uniform of a blue oxford shirt and brown apron (pockets in front for straws and the like.) I ordered ice tea ("Sweetened or unsweetened?" - This chain hails from the South.) When she returned, we noticed two gold stars embroidered on her apron.  (We were noticing stars it appears on this trip.) Other servers had other numbers of stars on their aprons. "What do the stars mean?" I asked, gesturing towards her apron.

"Oh, that is what level we are."  And then looking down at the two stars, "Oh, this must be an old apron.  I'm a level three server now."  The last sentence said with a touch of pride. We then moved to ordering.  I was torn between a breakfast special that included sausage and the catfish lunch. 

"What do you recommend?" I asked Sabra.  

"The sausage is great!" she replied quickly. "Why when I was pregnant I ate it all the time.  And then after I had the baby I still loved it.  Not like a lot of other things I craved that I couldn't stand afterward."

 "Sounds like a good recommendation to me."  She then went off to the kitchen to place our order.  Before long, though, she was back to check on us and, after we said we were fine, she pulled a photo of a little boy and an older woman out of her apron pocket.  "This is my boy.  His name is Dayton."
"Like the town in Ohio?"  

"No, it's spelled D-A-T-O-N."

"Is that your mother with him?" I ask pointing to the woman in the photo.

"No, it's his daddy's great aunt.  She takes care of him sometimes.  She's got a little nursery school.  He's such a special baby.  Not sure I would even want to have another one.  He is so wonderful."

"Well, with his great aunt, you have 4 generations in your family now."  (Thinking of the great-great aunt of little Dayton who is still running a nursery.)

"Actually, for awhile we had 5. His great-great-grandmother was still alive when he was born.  We got a picture of all of us.  But she died a couple of months later.  She was 107!"

"Have you worked here for awhile?" we continued. She was seeming to want to continue the conversation.

"Oh, about a two years.  Before that I was in St. Louis to study interior design.  Went for one semester.  Then I ran out of money, though, and came home." She shrugged a bit. "And then I had the baby....... Now I am studying massage therapy.  I only work part-time.  They are good about scheduling people here. All in all, life is going good." 

After lunch, it was back in the van.  We continued to move right along and by mid-afternoon we were approaching the bridge over the Mississippi River that would get us into Missouri. Speeding along at 65 or 70 mph it is hard to read signs and as we sped past an electronic sign board the words "1 hour delay" caught my eye but not the details of where this might be.  Our road was quite clear so I figured this must refer to one of the other roads that were coming up and was a warning not to take them.  We had hit a massive traffic delay in Brooklyn when we left home but since then we had not slowed down once.  Well, there was not much we could do about a delay anyway.  If we followed the advice to "Seek Alternate Route" we would spend a lot of time "seeking" I imagined.

Well, as luck would have it, when we got closer to the St. Louis area, traffic began to pile up, then quickly came to a near halt. We were crawling along at 2-3 miles an hour. We had no idea what was up.  It was Sunday afternoon. To try to solve the mystery, we turned on our c.b. radio which we still had from the trip to Central America when we had had it installed as a necessary means of communication.  Truckers still use c.b.'s even in this cell phone age and in such situations chat back and forth with any news of what is happening.

Turning on the radio, there was a burst of static and then a voice came on.  "What the fuck is goin' on?"  Our question precisely.
"Another day in paradise, driver," came the answer. 
"Didn't you see the sign?" from another voice.
"No, what sign you talkin' about?"
"The bridge is one lane up ahead. Construction.  You didn't see the sign?"
"Well driver, you ain't no professional driver then."

 Once the reason for the delay was established, they moved on to other topics.

"Check out that chick on that big ol' Harley!"  We looked around.  No Harley's in view. A minute or two later, though, a black behemoth of a motorcycle came into view going the other way. Indeed, there was a curvaceous blonde, hair streaming down her back maneuvering it through the traffic.

"Hey driver!  Am I coming through?" from another voice.

"Loud and proud!" from a female voice which set off a few interested comments which was followed by a warning to a specific trucker about a "4 wheeler" coming up on his tail.  Always good entertainment for surviving a traffic delay!  We soon passed the delay and were rolling across Missouri. We reached our campground in Columbia well before dinner. 

The campground was adjacent to the fairgrounds.  No fair going on but there was a steady stream of cars leaving the grounds as it had been the starting point for a bicycle ride to benefit MS that day.  Also, there was a college intra-mural baseball game that evening in a rather nice baseball park.  Strolling around the campground we got into friendly conversation with a couple who were going east.  They gave us good advice about "the trail ahead" as they had taken the same back roads across Kansas that we planned to travel the next day. They were small towners from Illinois just across the Mississippi from Missouri.  They were interested and somewhat shocked by our stories of life in New York.  How could we possibly live without a car?  How do we get groceries home? New Yorkers can be strange creatures to the rest of the Country!

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