Even though I don’t care much for cars and prefer my bike or walking in town, I do enjoy a road trip in a car. (I also love bike trips, but they get harder and harder to do as I get busier and busier)
We just drove to Little Rock to visit our daughter and her husband for Thanksgiving. Like so much of the highway system in the USA, there were a lot of big box stores like Walmart, Home Depot, Target, as well as the ubiquitous fast food joints and gas station with convenience stores. These places are soulless, and it really depresses me to see that so many wonderful places in our country have become so identical and so dull.
The only way to experience something special, local, and unique, is to take some time and take some side roads. The trip today was more in the “practical” than the “exploration” category, so we weren’t trying to experience places as much as just get there. However, I had a minor meltdown as we drove across the great Mississippi River going from Memphis, TN to West Memphis, AR. I had somehow convinced myself 2-3 hours east that there MUST be a lovely riverwalk parkway with nice local shops and offering the chance to get a little exercise, think about Tom Sawyer, and enjoy a nice meal.
Boy, was I wrong! It was an industrial hell with cars and trucks, construction, McDonalds, and–on the upscale end of things–an Applebee’s. Complete soulless crap like almost everywhere else on the interstate highways but with lots of added stress and pollution. I got grumpy and tired and mad, pulled into a rest stop, and asked my VERY PATIENT wife to drive for a while.
We kept going towards our destination, and I just made general grumpy sounds to her. Then we saw a sign to a state park, which seemed fun. When she turned off the main road, the sign indicated that it was 12 miles to Perkin, AR. Depressed, I said that we should just continue, but she drove on. She figured that we’d spend some time in the park and try to find a local cafe.
We’ve always driven our (now grown) kids crazy by always looking for the local cafe. No McDonalds for us! These excursions often fail, and then we end up at a Wendy’s (so I can save face by at least not going to McDonalds!). One thing we discovered several years ago is to look for the pickup trucks in front of the cafes, restaurants, or diners. The best local places are often not too much to look at and even look pretty junky. However, the pickup trucks will always give away the hidden gems inside.
In 1993, our family of four drove from Madison, WI to Utah, via the Badlands. This brought us through South Dakota. As always, I refused to stop at a soulless fast food joint or pseudo restaurant, so we left I-90 and drove several miles to a nice little town (whose name I forgot). There must have been at least a dozen pickups in front of a boring white building that said something like “home cooked food”. We walked in, the pay phone on the wall rang, and one of the big guys with a cowboy hat said that “it’s for you!”, followed with laughter by everyone in the restaurant. They seemed to be having a town meeting, with men were at one large table and women at another.
When we were seated and ordered our food, one of the guys leaned over and asked “where you from?” We answered Madison, Wisconsin, at which he asked “what do ya do?” That made me gulp for a moment. Even though I had spent many years in saddle shops and even working on a ranch, I had just completed my PhD in biophysics with a dissertation “Theoretical and Experimental Studies of Peptides and Proteins”. The major emphasis was quantum mechanical calculations of NMR spin-spin coupling constants. Not exactly good dining table chit chat with the guy with the cowboy hat and his friends.
Just as I was about to lie completely and embarrass myself in front of my wife and girls, I remembered that I had just started a new postdoc, and we were taking this trip before I really got into the project. This postdoc was with a fantastic scientist and person (and friend!) named Tony Stretton. It was something completely different for me (which I highly recommend to anyone in science!) and was focused on studying the neuromuscular basis of locomotion of the nematode Ascaris suum. Translated to the guy in the diner, “I study how parasitic worms work”.
I hit the proverbial home run! It turns out that most of the guys there were hog farmers, who dealt regularly with Ascaris infections in their hogs. He first asked me which species and if it was the one that lived in the intestines. After I confirmed that was the same worm we work on, he told me about all the things that they do to minimize infection (use a concrete floor, keep everything clean, and move infected hogs away from others). I told him that we wanted to come up with better ways to control them by understanding more about how they move, essentially exactly the same thing we told NIH in each grant application! We became fast friends and chatted for the whole meal with the group. They even wished me well and told me that they hoped my research went well!
I thought of this story from the past as we sat today in the “A & A City Cafe” in Perkin, AR. It had a bunch of trucks in front when we drove up (they were gone when I took the photo, because we got there close to closing time). I asked them what they recommended, and they suggested a pork BBQ sandwich. Wow, was it fantastic!! Along with homemade coleslaw and onion rings, I bit into that sandwich, and all of my previous grumpiness and Applebee’s funk disappeared. The owners were friendly and were very happy that we somehow managed to find them.
The state park was closed, but the 24 mile round trip to the A & A City Cafe was more than worth the detour!