Highways are a great way to get places. Just zoom along without interruption, until you come to a town, and the reduced speed limit, a stop light, sometimes just a stop sign, something to alter the tempo and rhythm. Interstate highways are even better. Long, slight turns, gentle inclines, are the only diversion from the straight stretches of impersonal raceways.
We’ve made the trip though the Midwest a dozen times. Speeding through stretches of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, parts of Ohio, South Dakota, Nebraska and Colorado. We’ve gone rocketing from the southern edge of Michigan all the way to the northern most point of the Upper Peninsula, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee. Oddly enough, we’ve been through these states so many times and I still have no idea what they look like. Oh, I’ve seen glimpses, and snapshots but they could be filled with aliens, or zombies, or angels and saints I wouldn’t know.
There is something sterile about riding in a cabin, wrapped in air conditioning, music coming from six speakers, just rock and roll baby. If it weren’t for the bugs slamming defiantly into your windshield you have no proof that there is life outside of your car. Traveling that way begins to generate its own reality. Landscape and farmland whizzes past your windows like a television program. Occasionally a McDonalds, or Holiday Inn Express will pop up, a temporary distraction, but they all look the same. You’ll never say, “Oh, what an interesting Cracker Barrel.”
I like to travel, but it takes its toll. Life shrinks to a small area and I become the center of the universe. It gets lonely.
Whenever we can we like to stop at a small, locally owned restaurants. It can at least provide some clue as to what a place sounds like, in some cases it will provide a clue into what a city smells like, how it tastes, you can tell how they look at life.
East Moline Illinois is a city that has seen more prosperous times. It is a city that has embraced it’s rust belt roots, it’s blue collar history. Narrow streets are lined with aging houses, short squat buildings occupied by an odd assortment of tenants, tattoo shops, vaporizer sales, Mexican food restaurants, liquor stores, little markets selling groceries, used car lots and mechanics. If you drive across town on Highway 92 you can see it all.
We stopped at a little pizza place, Frank’s Pizzeria. It was almost invisible from the street. Housed in a white brick building, the windows were high in the walls and you couldn’t see inside. But, we rolled the dice.
Inside was chaos. Tables pushed together, filled with the people, the noisy sound of happy conversations, laughter echoed from the walls, the low, tiled ceiling. We let it wash over us, we were obviously outsiders, tourists, long hair, gym shorts, road weary faces, tired from the distance and isolation. Nobody even noticed us, or if they did they didn’t care.
“Do we just seat ourselves?” I asked one of the waitstaff that was hustling to the kitchen.
“Anywhere.” She said, she looked at me with the smile she probably used for lost children and misbehaving puppies.
We sat at the same table as a much older couple, obviously regulars, who didn’t care we had taken the seats just down the table from them. He had a walker parked next to his chair and she had an oxygen tank feeding a tube that ran to a cannula under her nose.
Their conversation was soft and polite, they spent a lot of time thanking each other for going out for a meal. It had a magic that softened the coarseness of the drive. When they left they carried out a big bag of leftovers, they had fried chicken and the servings were so large it would have taken three people to eat it all. I stood up so the gentleman could get past.
“You don’t need to do that.” He told me, his voice soft, polite, he didn’t want to inconvenience me.
“It’s ok. I take up a lot of room these days.” I said patting my stomach.
“We’re members of the belly club!” The woman told my wife, with a warm smile. They both thanked me and made their way to the exit.
We were alone at our table and the sounds and smells of East Moline surrounded us, washed over us, easing us back from the outer space of interstate travel. Welcome back to terra firma with a pizza and a cold beer.
Family is not limited by relationship, family runs through the heartland, to the coasts, it is defined by a shared moment in time. It is a light that burns across centuries, across continents, it ties us together, we need each other. Community is our last hope. It only takes a small space in time to figure it out.
This post is republished on Medium.