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Friday July 14, 2006 // By Sarah

Road Trip to St. Louis, July 2006

“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”
-Kurt Vonnegut

Sandy is in charge of instigating adventures for our family. I’m a creature of habit, and my general instinct is to follow the map, keep to the schedule, and go back to wherever we went the last time. Most of the time, I still maintain, my way is a pretty good way. But sometimes, his way can be kind of magical.

It is lunchtime, just south of Springfield, and Sandy suggests that instead of pulling off at a a highway rest stop Steak ‘n Shake, we try for a small town non-chain restaurant. I’m skeptical, as we’ve tried this before and gotten stuck in strip mall hell. My skepticism is justified by our first stop, Auburn, IL, where the only people in evidence are three surly teenagers on bikes and all the stores are closed.

Further down the state highway, a sign reads “Tourist Attraction: Maggie’s Restaurant.” We take the turnoff, arriving at what appears to be a huge bar. It’s closed. Further still, another sign reads, “Tourist Attraction: Chubby’s Grill.” We pull over at a diner on another semi-deserted street. A little girl is riding her scooter up and down the sidewalk, but nobody else seems to be around. The Chubby’s sign announces” “God is Amazing!”

Once inside, Sandy inquires about the section of the menu set aside for “horseshoes,” and the waitress says, “y’all aren’t from around here, huh?” Apparently, the Springfield area is known for its horseshoe (and smaller ponyshoe) dishes—bread, meat, cheese sauce (or gravy), and fries. Sandy gets a chicken ponyshoe.

We ooh and ahh over the glamour shots of the the girl with the scooter that cover the wall of the restaurant (she’s the owner’s daughter) and chat with the only other patron, an older gentleman who turns out to be a pastor from a neighboring town. He gives us advice about where to watch out for state troopers trolling for speeders.

We arrive in St. Louis a few hours before we need to get to our friend’s house, and Sandy begs to go to the top of the arch. There’s a long line into the building, and I start to think we should ditch the whole idea before we get stuck waiting in another long line for tickets. But twenty feet into the building, a woman walks up to us and says, “do you need tickets?” “Yes,” we say. There’s a moment of confusion as we realize that she’s not actually from the arch. She’s just some lady. “Can we pay you for these?” Sandy asks. “Oh, don’t worry about it! I’m running a bus tour and a bunch of people didn’t show up. Oh! They’re timed tickets, and they’re for right now, so go get in line!”

On our way home, Sandy and I, emboldened by our success at Chubby’s, get off the highway in Collinsville, IL. Collinsville is biggish for a small town, and Sandy can see a Main St. on our map, so we head that way. We turn onto Main St., drive a few blocks, and find our way blocked. By a summer festival. By the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle Summerfest Birthday Party and Car, Truck, and Bike Show!

We park and wander in, immediately joining a water balloon contest and winning a ketchup taste test (prizes include ketchup posters). Moments later, a man yells “Do you like bananas and chocolate and peanut butter?!” and runs up to Sandy with a concoction of some kind in his hands. “Here! Take this! Tell your friends!” He gives us a paper cone filled with a kind of crepe. A banana, chocolate, peanut butter, whip cream crepe. It is delicious.

There are times when it makes sense to stick to the map and stay close to the highway. But I’m increasingly comfortable giving that up for the prospect of a great adventure, or even just a chicken sandwich smothered in cheese fries and a goody bag full of bizarre ketchup industry propaganda.

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