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Route 20 Report #6

There may be no better way to get to know our country than to eat breakfast at local, small-town diners.

At a diner in Arco, Idaho (pop. 849), our friendly, efficient 30-something waitress told us she’d “moved to the city” (Idaho Falls, pop. 60,000) for a few years, but she said, smiling, shaking her head, gazing out the big front window at what looked to me like a desolate sweep of nothing, “I missed home too much.” Everybody loves some place.

At a diner in Lusk, Wyoming (just 8 miles west of Node), we sat in a booth waiting for our breakfast watching as a half dozen patrons—older men in cowboy hats—stopped to talk with, pat on the back, a very old man, clearly demented, sitting at a table, clearly his spot. The waitress checked on him periodically. He talked to everyone and no one. Every two or three minutes, he’d laboriously lift himself from his chair, grab his cane, then think better of it (or forget what he was doing) and sit down again. And then another person would come over and greet him. He was part of the community.

At Friendly Corner in Laurel, Nebraska, when we asked for a menu, the rosy-cheeked woman who motioned us to any table, said “we’ll make anything you like. Just name it.” So we did. Payment was by donation, a jar on the counter. She didn’t even mention that. She and her husband ran a faith-based ministry for local kids, and the restaurant supported that. Because some people live what they believe.

At the Green Arches diner in Brocton, New York (from a hill above town you can see across Lake Erie to Canada), a woman “from over the ridge” and two of her daughters tease and banter with each other as they fry bacon, flip pancakes and chat up customers. All the kids (there are nine from two marriages, or maybe three) live in town (pop. 1,426). The guy at the end of the counter looks like he stepped out of the pages of a Richard Russo novel. The place is so damned homey that you forget it’s not your home. You kind of want it to be.

And yes, okay, there was also the touristy, conspicuously consumptive artery-clogging breakfast buffet at the duded up Irma Hotel in Cody, where our booth was next to a table of a dozen tour bus retirees. The men tucked into hubcap-sized plates of chicken fried steak smothered in country gravy. The women picked at little salads.

And then there was this counter-only diner that looked like something bad could happen (or did happen) there. The woman behind the counter ignored us. We were the only ones in the place. Everything about her screamed I just got out of prison don’t fuck with me. Finally another lady, a little grandma, stuck her head out of the backroom. We asked for a piece of pie. “It’s not very good,” she said, setting down a plate with a slice of cherry. She was right.

2 comments

1 Gary P Cornelius { 10.13.18 at 5:48 pm }

Enjoyed your piece about small-town cafes. I feel the same way and always watch for out-of-the-way places when I travel.– gary

2 Lauren { 10.14.18 at 10:35 pm }

I became a big fan of breakfasts. Did not have a bad (or even mediocre) breakfast at ANY small-town cafe anywhere!

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