I picked Heather up from work around 4pm Wednesday afternoon, and we headed out of town. The plan was to drive overnight to Atlanta, in order to maximize our time spent on the coast over the weekend. It was a good plan, if better in theory than execution, but we’ve done this sort of stupid thing before.
The trip was uneventful through Minnesota and Wisconsin. By Madison, I was on my 9th shot of espresso for the day, so things were looking up. Having just seen Radiohead a few weeks ago near Madison, we decided to start a Radiohead retrospective. We argued for a while about whether OK Computer came before or after Kid A. We argued about the meaning of ‘Creep’. (I say it’s about your average self-hating, insecure loner, she says it’s about a creepy stalker. I know I’m right.) We had to listen to ‘Lurgee’ twice while I tried to pin down what exactly I was crying about that time I was driving around my old neighborhood in Chicago late at night, listening to that song. By Rockford, we had made it to The Bends, and had to listen to Thom Yorke singing, “She looks like the real thing; she tastes like the real thing,” two or three times before agreeing that it might be the best song ever, then moving on.
Around 10pm, a little ways south of Rockford, I got out my travel journal and started jotting observations about Illinois. First of all, their towns seem to use some kind of buddy system, as if they were scared to be out there in the middle of nowhere all alone. There’s Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Rock Island-Moline. Also, once you get past Rockford, you enter what is more appropriately the south than the midwest. Long ago, we had decided that Chicago was technically not part of Illinois, and that the rest of the state was actually part of Kentucky.
If you don’t mind, I’ve taken the liberty of redrawing the map in accordance with my theory. So, you’ll see that the large tangerine-colored state is the territory now known as Kentuckinois. The salmon-colored state near the top remains as a tiny remnant of the original Illinois, and contains mostly Rockford and various tollbooths along the interstate. The lime-colored state along Lake Michigan encompasses what is now officially named Chicagoland. All other midwestern states remain as is (for now). I think you will all agree that this is a great improvement on United States cartography.
Somewhere further south in Kentuckinois, I decided to write a new website. I have ‘humpregistry.com’ written in my notebook, but on second thought, it’s not such a great idea. After that, I decided to write a book. Then I wrote down two other undoubtedly excellent ideas, but I managed to write one on top of the other (it was dark!), so they are unfortunately lost forever. Around 1am, I told Heather, “Father Hennepin gets me hot.” She replied, “Yeah. I know.” We decided maybe it was time to stop and take a break.
We pulled off the freeway at (Champaign-)Urbana, and found a 24-hour grocery store called Schnucks. As we were crossing the front of the store with that funny quick!-where-are-the-bathrooms? walk, this guy stopped us:
UrbanaBoy: Hey, did you girls just get back from that show?
Me: What show? (Taking a full 10 minutes to realize he’s referring to my Realistics tshirt) Oh, no. We’re just driving through.
UrbanaBoy: Where are you from?
Me: Minneapolis. We’re headed to Nashville. And Savannah.
UrbanaBoy: What do you think of Illinois?
Me: Um. Are you from here?
Heather: It sucks!
We peed, then went in search of snacks. We were not disappointed, as Schnucks is apparently the store for stoners. There were six or seven aisles of snack food. I didn’t get a store map, but if I remember it correctly, it went:
Aisle 1: Produce.
Aisle 2: Chips. Nuts.
Aisle 3: Candy. Cookies.
Aisle 4: Canned Goods.
Aisle 5: More Chips! Pretzels!
Aisle 6: Pop (they call it ‘Soda’. Ha.)
Aisle 7: Munchies! Even More Cookies! Want Some Peanuts?
Aisle 8: Toilet Paper.
Aisle 9: Holy Crap, DORITOS!
And so on. By the time we got to the register, we were in barely-restrained hysterics. Then, standing in line, surrounded by a bunch of just-a-little-off people, we both had that moment where you think, ‘there is something very very wrong here, and I need to escape.’ So we did. With our snacks, of course.
Back on the road, it was my shift. I’m really terrible driving at night, something about being sleepy and not seeing very well that makes for a surreal, video-gamelike experience rather than safe, defensive driving. But I was doing fine, and Heather dozed off for a couple hours. I woke her up to see the giant roadside cross in Effingham, which is lit well enough to be seen from outer space, so that even alien life can come to find the one true path. I listened to Amnesiac twice, because I felt bad waking her up again to switch CDs. Finally, round about 4:15am, we crossed into Kentucky, and decided it was time to stop for a meal, and what better place to do it than Paducah?
We pulled off at the first exit, figuring there’d be about a million roadside diners open in the middle of the night. We were wrong. Heather experienced the thrill of victory when she sighted a Bob Evans, then felt the bitter agony of defeat when she realized it was closed. Still hopeful, we got back on the highway and headed to the next exit (because, yes, Paducah is so large a metropolis, it has itself three whole exits on the interstate). This exit had a couple truck stops, a closed McDonald’s, and a Waffle House. There was no question about it: Waffle House.
Now, I have to admit, I have a thing for Waffle House. No, I had never been there in my entire life. They don’t even have Waffle House in Minnesota (this is pancake country). But every time I see a Waffle House, I have to point it out. And in the south, that’s at almost every exit. See, the thing about Waffle House is the logo. Tell me it’s not great. It’s like the ugliest logo ever designed, and it would make for the best tshirt ever.
Also, their restaurants look like see-through trailers. What’s not to love?
So, we went inside. We got some funny looks, but I’d have been mad if we hadn’t. The cook and the waitress were standing behind the counter, just waiting for new
victims customers, because it was 4:30am and they were chatty and sick to death of each other. There were a couple other trucker-types sitting at the counter, shoveling eggs and toast into their mouths silently. I picked a booth right in the middle of all the action, so we could get the full experience. We giggled at the placemat menus. We thanked the waitress, who gushed about our hairstyles for far too long. Heather showed me the bottle of salsa, labeled ‘Casa De Waffle.’ I told her to steal it, but she wouldn’t. That girl has scruples, or something. I ordered the only thing on the menu I could eat, and even that was a stretch: grilled cheese. Then I saw that they had cheese grits, and how could I resist? Cheese grits + Waffle House + Paducah + 4:30am. You understand. Heather got the All-Star Special ($4.99): 2 eggs, grits, toast, jelly, waffle, and bacon.
As he finished each item, the cook guy would yell, “Eggs over easy! Order up! Take me out back and shoot me!” or “Grilled cheese! Order up! Take me out back and shoot me!” I dumped the quarters from my wallet onto the table and headed to the jukebox. What I found there was almost too wonderful to relate, but I’ll try: the first twenty or so selections were all songs
about the Waffle House.
I am not joking, even though you suspect it is too good to be true. Since you obviously require proof, I have done some investigation, and am beyond ecstatic to be able to offer you the following: Jukebox Favorites and It’s a Waffle House Christmas. And now you know what you’re getting for the holidays.
I treated the lucky customers of the Waffle House to ‘844,739 Ways to Eat a Hamburger (At the Waffle House)’ by Billy Dee Cox, because I had been staring at the sign on the wall with the same message on it, trying to figure out if there was real math involved, or if they had just made that shit up. My food arrived while I was typing in my next selections, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, followed by ‘Stand By Your Man’, and then ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.’ It was a southern triple-play par excellence. I returned to the booth to find Heather rolling her eyes, and a bowl of grits with an unmeltable slice of american cheese on top. I ate it anyway.
I never wanted to leave the Waffle House, because it was the most perfect place on earth, at least for that moment. But we had places to go, and a state line or two to cross before we reached our destination.