#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 3
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We breakfast at Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, a narrow dining car packed with people listening to the sizzle on the griddle while taking in the aromas of bacon and coffee. This place has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983, one of the first diners to be a registered historic place. According to their website, the designation “helped preserve the diner during urban re-development with in the city of St. Paul.”Minnesota and Beyond

I sit next to a stranger who is a regular guest. He’s ordered his usual, without carbs because he’s watching those. My breakfast arrives: a Belgian waffle with a side of fries. The waitress looks at him and laughs as she sets down my carb-on-carb feast. It tastes so good I could cry.

Minnesota and BeyondWe finally hit the road around the crack of noon because my travel buddy Brent has this all planned out and this is actually on time to him. It’s a typically beautiful Minnesota summer day with a bright blue sky as we leave the Twin Cities, headed for a giant gnome in Iowa. I make it as far as a giant barn/tourist info stop across the MN/Iowa border where we pick up free maps before we climb back into the car—Brent’s VW Jetta that is, in a way, our living quarters for the next 2000 miles or so—and I fall asleep. I sleep through miles and miles of flat farm fields and wind turbines, and I’m grateful to my carb-on-carb-induced sleep because those wind turbines kinda creep me out.

I wake up to find myself surrounded by turbines and Brent jokes, “It’s windy here because somebody put all these fans up.” I laugh and I don’t mind if the turbines hear me. That’s the defiance of living on the road.

Minnesota and BeyondWe get to Reiman Gardens, next to the Iowa State University in Ames, and sheepishly talk to the lady at the front desk about tours because all we really want to see is the giant gnome and can’t seem to admit that. We wander the gardens, happy to be out of the car, pass the butterfly rooms, enjoy a steamy tropical room with a mini-train running through the foliage, and finally wander outside and (admittedly) we take a route off the beaten path to the giant gnome, Elwood. He’s the world’s largest concrete gnome, and he seems happy to see us.

Minnesota and BeyondAfter a quick stop for coffee in the gift shop because sightseeing is tiring work, we hop back in the car and head to a town called Kelly, Iowa, to see a haunted phone booth. Yes, you read right. Supposedly, the phone will ring if you step into the box, but we were too busy pretending to be on the phone for that to happen. While Brent takes pictures, I dial the number from my cell phone but get caught. Minnesota and BeyondI dance around anyway and tell him to answer it, that it’s ghosts. Brent then calls the number as I start to wonder if maybe a retired couple lives in the yellow house across the street, a couple who watches the booth and dials the number to welcome people to town. Mystery solved. Or perhaps it’s just ghosts.

Minnesota and BeyondWe drive to Polk City, where there’s rumored to be a tree in the shape of Mother Mary. We drive past it twice, looking curiously at every tree in a mile-long area and finding trees that look like frogs and horses and one that looked like Spock, but no Mary. And then suddenly, there she is. Newspaper articles I find somewhere online say that she arrived naturally over time. There are flowers at her feet that people have left for her. We take pictures, and I place my hand on the tree, reverently careful not to touch her.

Minnesota and BeyondBack in the car again and as our official navigator, I play around on Google. (We have a list of stops, thanks to Roadside America and Brent’s logistical obsession with trip-planning, but there are patterned holes in the agenda for off-the-cuff extras, and man, I find a doozy.)

“Where to now, Chewie?” Brent asks me.

“Stop calling me Chewie,” I say.

“Stop hiding your face in traffic,” he says. Yeah, touché. 

Minnesota and BeyondI check with Google, which I’m now affectionately calling The Googs, and find that we’re within range of a place called Chillicothe, Missouri, where sliced bread was first sold. Brent and I just look at each other. We can’t pass that up. He puts the car in drive and follows the cross-country roads I find with his paper maps and some help from my Map App, and the old VW Jetta heads us toward sliced bread.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.