Category: Stories From the Road

End Loop

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 24

End LoopBack on the road, I realize a little too late that my vanilla cream soda has a cork rather than a screw cap. “This is why they offered to open it for me back at the candy store,” I say, showing Brent.

“Oh,” he says. “Look in the center consol. There’s a tool.”

I just blink at him for a moment and wonder what else he’s hidden away in the Jetta all this time. Sure enough, there’s a Swiss Army Knife-like tool, packed so Brent-like in its original packaging despite its use. I get my soda open and wash down my fudge as Brent says, “I’ve been thinking…”

This’ll be good.

“I think we can fit in the State Fair.”

“We have time?” I ask, savoring my soda.

“If we take the right roads from here, we’ll have a solid chunk of time to do it–unless you have things to do back at the apartment.”

“I’m pretty much packed,” I say, wondering if that’s true, and realizing that it wouldn’t be the first time I traveled with a variety of wet, clean-ish clothes.

End LoopWe agree to our no-dawdling rule and arrive at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, which is known for having the highest daily attendance in the U.S., and it’s also known, deliciously enough, for offering all kinds of food on a stick: corndogs, fried cheese, cheesecake, Twinkies, even beer.

In 1758, a fella named Elkanah Watson was born in Massachusetts. That was in the middle of the French & Indian War, which set up the colonists’ fight for independence in America. Well, in 1810, in order to promote better agricultural practices, Watson organized the first county fair in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He organized activities for men, women, and children so that the entire community could be included. Over the years, with industrialization, fairs have expanded to include carnival rides and the unveiling of new and innovative products. And today, the Minnesota State Fair is one of the largest in the world.

End LoopBrent and I strut down the main drag of the Fair in the intense Minnesota heat as zombie-like people wade passed us, looking wilted and some even appear to be wet. There aren’t any water rides, yet everyone looks drenched. We shrug it off, smelling the carnival-like aromas of sugar and fried food, and head immediately to our personal favorites—anything meaty for Brent, and for me, cheese curds with yellow mustard followed by the milk dispenser.

End LoopThat’s just gross,” Brent says, but he agrees to wait in the milk line with me.

“It’s the greatest booth since sliced bread,” I say and we laugh. I pay a dollar for a cup and I’m allowed to have it refilled as many times as I want.

“Two percent or four?” I’m asked. Yeah, I like this place.

We head into the Kemps Creamery exhibit, which is blissfully air conditioned, and proceed to learn some fast facts, milk a fabricated cow, and sidle up to the milk bar. For this adventure, we also get some ice cream on a stick. Score!

End LoopWe round through a kiddie area where Brent finds Math on-a-Stick. Truly this state fair has everything on a stick. Math on-a-Stick encourages kids (of all ages, apparently) to play with math concepts through games and activities. I drag Brent away from the math and we find our way to the St. Paul’s own Summit booth with beer flights on a stick. And that’s when I hear a familiar voice over the loudspeaker. I can’t quite place the voice and, knowing that this fair is huge, I start to feel it’s improbable that I’ll track down its origin just by looking. It’s a woman’s voice, and I’m zeroing in on it in my mind and then it suddenly comes to me: It’s Mollie B.

End Loop“Mollie B!” I tell Brent, wide-eyed, and, knowing the voice, I now know where to look. We approach the stage nearest to Summit, and there she is, Mollie B herself.

“I don’t recognize her,” Brent says.

End Loop“You’ve never watched RFDTV?” I ask, and then I remember this is Brent. I start talking fast. “Okay, while you’re busy watching scifi all-the-time, there’s also a channel on TV called RFD-TV; it’s rural television. Mollie B does a Polka show on Saturday nights, the Mollie B Polka Party, that my parents are crazy about.” He frowns at me, so I go on. “Make that face all you want, but she’s our age; she sings, dances, plays a number of instruments—sometimes simultaneously–and she travels around filming polka dances for her show. She’s even got a Polka cruise. And that’s her! My parents are gonna flip. I’ve got to get them souvenirs.”

End LoopBrent guards our beer on a stick, which I know is disappearing as I stand in line to get t-shirts. Mollie’s on stage talking and I’m filming away with my trusty phone because my family is never going to believe I’m standing so close to her, and that’s when Mollie B suddenly looks my way. I wave like a crazed fanatic dufus, which I am, and she stops what she’s saying for a moment, catches a laugh before it can escape, and then gets back to her speech. It’s totally true; I have it all on film. T-shirts in hand and dignity mostly intact, I return to Brent and what’s left of the stick beers. And maybe it’s the heat, or our incredible brush with fame, but Brent and I soon realize the heat is getting to us.End Loop

“Where were those misters?” I ask.

“This way,” he says. We wander away from the music pavilion, zombielike, toward the open air shower heads we’d seen upon our entry. We find one and hop in, beer and all. The shower heads, for all the water they’re spraying at us, are just misters after all and aren’t cold or refreshing enough, not like the ones at the Minnesota Zoo, so we hop out and decide to track down some final cold items on a stick before leaving the fair. It occurs to us that we’ve now joined the ranks of the wilted, soggy zombies we’d seen upon our entry. We look at all the pretty new arrivals walking into the Fair, fresh as daisies, and Brent and I laugh at ourselves. “Get a good look,” we say to each other. “We’re your future.”

We make our exit and get back to Brent’s with just enough time for me to shower and change clothes before heading to the airport. As fun as it was to get this way, I can’t sit on a plane in this wilted, sticky, zombiefied condition.

With that done, and my belongings literally thrown back into my suitcase, we head out into rush hour traffic toward MSP. Just before the turn onto the highway, the Jetta’s check engine light turns on.

“Look at that,” Brent laughs. “I wondered when that would happen.”End L

“Looks like 1908 miles,” I say, and we discuss sliced bread, the underground bar, Truckhenge, Trampled by Turtles, the Volkswagen spider, the giant cottonwood tree in the road, and all of our things done and things learned in these 1908 miles.

We arrive at the airport, somehow on time, and Brent stops the car outside my flight company. He sighs. Somehow, after all this, it just seems too early to be done.

“This just loops around, doesn’t it?” I ask after a moment, pointing to the airport road.

Understanding flashes across his face. “It does,” he confirms.

Even as I ask, “Do you think we could go around again?” Brent is already putting the Jetta back into gear for a victory lap.

And just like that, with goofy grins on our faces, Brent and I drive off into the loop.

~The End~

Jody BrownMy heartfelt thanks goes out to all of you for reading this saga, sending me comments, and for the encouragement to “write the next segment, ASAP!” I appreciate your excitement for this crazy road trip through the middle of our great country. And, of course, very special thanks to Brent for his enthusiasm, driving skills, photographs, and for thinking up this trip and asking me to tag along.

May all your adventures include joyous wonder. Go forth.

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


This Side of EerieTerminus & GatewayI’m thinking about salt and idioms. That is, I’m thinking, “This is where Brent earns his salt.” (Actually, the idiom is to be worth one’s salt, dating back to those good ole ancient times when Roman soldiers were either paid in salt or paid money specifically to buy salt. Historians have late-night arguments over this, while still more historians join the fray claiming that Greek slave traders in ancient times sold slaves for salt.) In any case, I’m thinking about salt as currency, historians in fisticuffs, and the curious way Brent greets each roadside stop with enthusiasm and gives each one its due exploration. This Side of EerieAnyone else would quit while we’re ahead and would drive straight through to Rochester, or would cut out a stop or two in order to make good time. Anyone else—but then, anyone else would have been antsy about spending a week in the car in the first place. It takes a different kind of person to plan such a trip, a person of commitment and fortitude, and of those, few dare to stay the course.

The Dreams of MenSo, here I sit in Iowa, knowing I’m in the company of someone with the right combination of patience, attention to logistics, determination, and sense of adventure–someone well suited to road exploration. I’m sitting in good company.

Imagination is King

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 23
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

It’s a hot, sunny morning outside in St. Paul as Brent and I sit in his kitchen, running through our options. It’s my last day in town, our road trip was a complete success as we arrived back safe and mostly sound, and my laundry is currently dirtying up Brent’s washer since my clothes have done some serious living lately. But my flight doesn’t leave MSP until 7 p.m., giving us ample time to plan a local venture.

Imagination is King“Do you remember the candy store?” Brent asks.

“The yellow one?”

“That’s it.”

“Is it open?”

He laughs. “It’s open this time.”

A year, maybe two ago, we drove through the rolling hills of Minnesota on our way to a candy store that sounded too good to be true, but Brent said they had the best root beer. After a lazy day adventure, we arrived to find the giant store was closed and wouldn’t open for the season for another week. So, of course we hung out in the parking lot and watched through the windows as workers restocked shelves and readied displays. I was preparing my argument for knocking on the door “just to have a look and not to buy anything, I swear,” when Brent reminded me we had a Wes Anderson movie waiting for us at a historic theater. I have yet to step foot inside the candy wonderland.

“Or we can go to the State Fair,” Brent tosses out there.

“Everything on a stick? Hmm, that’s tough,” I say. “But, I want to do both.”

“You can’t do both.

We negotiate this, based on Brent’s argument of Time-Space-Relativity in relation to getting to the airport on time and my argument of Sure We Can.

“Well, we’ve been to the State Fair before,” I say. “But I’ve not been inside the giant candy store.”

Candy store it is. And after a hearty breakfast of junk food, we’re on our way.

Back in the Jetta—you’d think we’d be sick of it by now—we remind each other what happened the last time we tried to go to the candy store, about finding a sinking barn that we decided looked as if a giant had stepped on it. And then there was this long, lolling road through two fields where we could see what I can only describe as a giant armadillo up ahead.

I laugh as the scenery rolls by. “I remember saying, ‘Is that an armadillo?’”

Brent agrees. “From far off, I had no idea.”

Turns out, it was not an armadillo, which are not native to Minnesota, but a massive snapping turtle with an armored, spiky tail and a shell nearly two feet tall. The turtle was crossing the road–and making good time about it, too. Brent stopped the car to give the turtle room, and we just stared in amazement. We had driven most of the day without another car in sight, and now suddenly there were about five cars behind us, all of us waiting for this giant turtle because Brent had stopped the car mid-road. When the turtle got by the Jetta (the same Jetta), I cheered, “Go, turtle, go!” which prompted this massive creature to turn around fully and look at me, eye to eye. I half expected him to wear little glasses and say hello. We drove on, and Brent and I spent the rest of the trip to the candy store coming up with the perfect name for such a turtle, a dignified and masterful name: Mr. R. Sullivan. And the mind of this writer began weaving a children’s book.

Back at present, we drive along Highway 169, following a long span of bright yellow farm fence that leads to the yellow barn.

Imagination is KingMinnesota’s Largest Candy Store, which is part of Jim’s Apple Farm, is barely contained in a long yellow barn that seems as though someone expanded it, one section at a time, about six times. The heat of the day is surging and we’re excited to get inside to some candy and air conditioning, but we take some time to check out the pumpkins and to threaten each other with the watering hose in the parking lot before finally setting foot inside.

Imagination is KingAnd what awaits us is astounding. Immediately to the right are rows and aisles and tables and shelves of brightly-colored candy, sectioned off by type from hard candies, caramels, flavors of taffies, chocolates, lollipops, gumballs, European candies—over 3,000 types of candy from around the world–as far as the eye can see. In front of us is a section of homemade pies, jams and jellies, brittles, and fudge, and also a section of meats and jerkies. To the left is a section of glass grocery refrigerators filled to the brim with multicolored sodas.

Imagination is KingThe story goes that what began as a family-owned business, Jim’s Apple Farm, expanded into selling candy to offset a couple bad apple years. (Hopefully with the Minnesota-developed Honeycrisp, those days are far behind us.) And now, it’s still family-owned, cash-only, sans website and sans telephone though it does have a Facebook page, and the business has grown and grown.

Imagination is KingThe building is filled with happy nostalgia (Pac-Man Band-Aids!), delicious discoveries (orange fudge!), and new favorites like candies in the shape of Pixar’s Minions. There’s even a shelf of puzzles in their own section among the candy. And in the corner sits a full-size TARDIS, the Doctor Who time machine that travels between worlds. Brent and I, clutching our prized candy and root beer, run to it and act out crash scenes and do our favorite monster impressions.

Imagination is KingEverywhere we look is something we remember from childhood, something that evokes a memory big or small. For me, a slogan I memorized at a Pennsylvania amusement park (Idlewild?) comes to mind: “Where Childhood is Eternal and Imagination is King.”

Imagination is KingAnd in the middle of what feels like an action-packed candy store, I pause and muse that Brent, with all of his reason and rationale, and I, with my heart leading the way, both explore our surroundings with childlike wonder. And with that acknowledged, I dive back into the fray.

–We’re not done yet! The final episode is coming soon!

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

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 22, Segment 21, Segment 20, Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Home Away From Home

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 22
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)
America’s roads have been our home for this journey—well, the roads and Brent’s Jetta, which is filling up with state maps, brewery t-shirts, a bent peacock feather, and a good layer of sand and soot. Over the miles, we’ve listened to the hybrid folk of Trampled by Turtles, the fast-talking lyrics of Dessa, and the zombie epidemic survival stories of World War Z. As we cross into Minnesota, the tenth and final CD of the zombie war is wrapping up, and it’s been a doozy of a story. But before you think we filled our entire road trip with sound, let me remind you that there have been wonderfully long stretches of road that we spanned in silence, listening only to the wind and the sound of our own thoughts, which is the beauty of traveling with an introvert. The ability to sit in peaceful silence is an old art, I think, and Brent and I are masters of the craft.

What we’re slow to master, but certainly practicing, is the ability to find good road food. By good, I mean local, tasty, somewhat healthy, and best of all: There when we need it. So far, we’ve thrived on classics from Mom-and-Pop shops when we could find them, gas station fatty salty cheesy [and in Brent’s case] bacony snack foods when we couldn’t, and the nightlife of the Applebee’s chain that we turned into two days’ worth of bellyfuls when there was nothing but 80 miles of road ahead. And after days and days of this, the pattern is about to change, because where we’re going, we will feast like kings.It’s dark by the time we arrive in Rochester, Minnesota, and of all the amazing places we’ve been these last few days, Rochester is different. I lived here for a good twelve years, and Brent lived here a bit longer than that. He’s since moved to St. Paul, and I’m now located out of Pittsburgh, but Rochester is still our home away from home.

Home Away From Home

Rochester had once been a great hub for IBM, which now has a smaller presence but is still located on a sprawling campus of buildings paneled with blue glass that is known simply as Big Blue. According to Wikipedia, “As of 2013 the company held the record for most patents generated by a business for 22 consecutive years.” [Brent holds two.] Wikipedia mentions some company inventions/developments that perhaps we’ve heard of, such as, “The Automated teller machine (ATM), the floppy disk, the hard disk drive, the magnetic stripe cardUniversal Product Code (UPC)…” etc., etc., etc. All right here in the plains of Minnesota.

Beyond IBM, Rochester is known for the Mayo Clinic, which got its start after a series of massive tornadoes (two F3s followed by one F5) destroyed much of Rochester in 1883, prompting local physician Dr. William Worrall Mayo, his sons William and Charles, along with Mother Mary Alfred Moes and the Sisters of Saint Francis to start a hospital that is today part of the Mayo Clinic.

In 1907 Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer invented a new system for keeping records and for moving them quickly throughout the hospital via a system of conveyors and tubes. Hospitals worldwide have kept their eyes on Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic and have been implementing Mother Mayo’s practices ever since. Thanks to a sharp bread knife and fumbling fingers, yours truly has her very own Mayo Clinic patient number and a half dozen tiny stitch marks on my right index finger to remember the occasion. I can tell you from experience that as you walk down the hallways of Mayo from one specialist’s office to another, the second specialist has already learned of your situation and is ready to talk with you when you reach their door.

We hop off the highway and approach Rochester from the south. When we get to the big corn water tower on our right, we smile knowing that dinner is just ahead. “The big corn” is a 60-foot water tower on the site of what was the Libby plant, now Seneca Foods. [And as true locals put it, you always give directions in reference to what was there, and then maybe mention what’s there now if you get around to it.] I remember that when I first arrived in Rochester, I organized the landmarks according to where they were in relation to “the big corn,” a funny habit that I keep to this day.

We hit downtown and park the Jetta, and as we step out on the streets of home and stretch our legs, I hear someone calling my name and I turn and see my friend James locking up the patio of the Grand Rounds Brew Pub. (I haven’t set foot here in five months, and this is what happens. That’s home.) James crosses the street to us, gives me a hug, and the three of us catch up for a few minutes. “Business is good!” he tells us as he heads back to it, and if we’d been a little earlier on our entry into town, we could have eaten at the Grand Rounds before they closed for the night. (The last time I was here, they featured a salmon dish that was out of this Home Away From Homeworld.) As it stands, we’ll head to Newt’s for some late-night food.

when I bump into my friend Ellen, the talented violinist, on the patio. Ellen is part of the duo Thomas and the Rain, who have been playing music together for years. “You’re here?” she says and hugs me. “I thought you were on a road trip in the middle of America.”

“We’re still on it,” I say. “We just drove into town.”

We catch up for a minute and then Brent and I head on our way, but just before we do, Ellen elbows me and says, “Hey, can I bum a candy cigarette?”

Home Away From HomeDo you see why we love this place? We head up to Newt’s, sidle up to the bar, and proceed to pig out. I get my favorite: beer battered fried chicken salad with buffalo sauce. Brent gets a giant burger and I help him eat his fries. Full and happy, I check the time and note that we have very little of it before Forager closes.

“It’s over by the highway?” Brent asks.

I nod. “Where the Good Foods Store used to be,” I say. “You’ll see.”

Home Away From HomeWe drive the handful of blocks away from downtown and closer to the highway and make a right. There before us is the backlit sign I had seen on Facebook. “There it is!” I say, and I can’t keep my excitement down. Back when I was getting ready to move to Pittsburgh, this place was just an idea in my friend Annie’s mind and the subject of excited chatter in the building where my writing studio was next door to Forager’s architect. Months and months (a year?) later, and after many Facebook progress reports from a variety of local artists who were brought in to apply their talents, here it is, right in front of me.

We get inside with enough time for me to a have an original draft beer (and Brent to have a soda) and for me to explore and try to stay out of trouble (I only went into the employee area one time, and that was with express permission).

In addition to being a brew pub, I discover that Forager has a wood-fired oven and what they call a Pop Up Kitchen, where any potential restaurateur can try their hand at running a mini-restaurant from kitchen to register to see if they truly like the work before applying for a business loan.

We close the place down, and hop in the Jetta, aiming for St. Paul. And I think that, for all of its familiarity, this home-away-from-home in the middle of America never fails to surprise. At the rate Rochester is growing, generated by thinkers and innovators coupled with artistic doers, I could spend a dozen more years here basking in great friendships and swimming in the concept-to-reality momentum. I pick out the stars in the night sky above and think about how very American it all is.

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

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 21, Segment 20, Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

What Lies Ahead

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 21
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

We’ve been posting all sorts of pictures on Facebook, and we’re getting quite a reaction. It’s prime vacation time and our friends are checking in from exotic world locations—Paris, Rome, the beaches of Mexico–and here Brent and I post from, well, the middle of the road in America and I daresay we’re surprising everybody with the stories we’re finding. Stories of bread-slicing machines, giant ice cream cones, gold mines, happy gnomes, balls of string, underground pubs… America is full of surprises.

At the moment, we’re tracking down a smiley face water tower and a Jesse James marker before we reach Des Moines and make the turn north [toward dinner!]. It’s past lunchtime right now, so we stop for gas and find fuel in the form of pizza and sandwiches, and I’m so hungry I agonize over what to get. I finally decide on a sandwich. Then I stare at Brent’s pizza as we gorge in the parking lot.

“How’s the pizza?” I say.

“Good,” he says with his mouth full.

“Really good? Because it looks really good.”

“You shoulda got pizza,” he laughs.

“There wasn’t any plain,” I say.

“Well,” he shrugs as if that explains it, and finishes the pizza without sharing a bite.

“Well!” I scoff, and he laughs again.

“How was your sandwich?” he asks. Nice distraction technique.

“Good, but I ate it all,” I say.

“Yeah. We’ll feed you again in Rochester.”

I smirk at him, because he likes to say that to me. It’s not that I eat a lot—okay, sometimes I do. But it’s more that Brent gets so focused on the task at hand that he completely forgets to eat. A true engineer, Brent can survive on nothing but soda and chips for days. Part of our friendship has been built around the necessity for me to plan food breaks, coupled with Brent’s patience to “stop the bus” long enough to eat. As we hop back onto I-80, it doesn’t escape me that this time Brent was hungry, too. That was a good stop, even if I didn’t get any pizza.

smileyAs we close in on Adair, we again take up listening to World War Z as we enjoy the Iowa sunshine and deep blue sky. You’d think the sunny afternoon and the spooky zombie war would be a contradiction in terms, but Brent and I find them both to be rather full of hope.

When we reach Adair, as we expect, we easily find the smiley face water tower. One can’t miss it—it’s golden yellow, cheerful, and right off the highway. What Lies AheadWhat we didn’t expect are the myriad people who drive past us on the small side road and honk, wave, and whistle at us as we take our usual array of serious photos. We could be journalists at this point. Or maybe pet photographers (with a good deal of training.) What Lies Ahead

The Googs gives us the vague impression that the water tower has been smiling for decades, simply for the purpose of being cheerful and welcoming. And Wikipedia says Adair is “humorously known as the ‘happiest town on Earth.’” So, as more random cars pass us and people wave, I’m sold. Adair is awesome. (And there’s still more to see!) What Lies Ahead

We get back in the Jetta, planning to turn a couple streets according to Sally the Map App and arrive at the Jesse James marker. But when we reach the place where the marker should be, lo and behold, there’s nothing there. Sally strikes again!

We stare at an open field (with no marker!) and theorize where it could be. Personally, I think we missed it. I must have blinked at the wrong time or turned my head or something. Brent is methodical; he’s sure we didn’t miss it.

What Lies Ahead“Let’s backtrack and start again,” I say just as Brent says, “I think it’s further.” We try my way first (of course we do) and it doesn’t work (of course it doesn’t), but we’re able to rule out a strange turnoff that seemed to lead to railroad tracks. We then try Brent’s way and we find the marker. We hadn’t missed it because it was never behind us; it was always ahead.

What Lies AheadThe marker is on a little knoll and has its own small driveway off the road, which allows us to spend a little time here without worrying about being in the roadway. The marker, a plaque, denotes the first train robbery made by Jesse James and his gang in 1873 just to the southwest of Adair. To pull off the robbery, they had removed a small section of train track—the very section that has been placed behind the plaque and yours truly is lounging on it. What Lies AheadAnd the plaque itself, which is mounted on a train wheel, has a story of its own: Years ago, it was stolen. And it wasn’t until the thief’s house in Ohio burned down that the marker was found and returned.

What Lies AheadWe’re Googling this story as a Cadillac suddenly pulls up the small driveway and a man and woman emerge to join us. This is a first. We’re usually alone at these roadside curiosities.

They tell us they’re retired, originally from Boston and heading back that way, and that they’d heard about this marker and just had to stop. We tell them the story about the Ohio thief and Brent shows them the write-up from on his phone.What Lies Ahead

“Now, that is interesting,” the man says.

The four of us share road and weather stories before climbing back in our cars and heading on our separate ways. I can’t help but feel a certain kismet at finding this marker a little later than we expected, yet just in time to meet some kindred spirits–or maybe, in time to meet a version of our future selves. Brent and I widen our eyes at the thought of it. It seems the road never fails to offer surprises of its own.

Back to the Zombie War, and onward to dinner!

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

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 20, Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Another Way

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 20
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

“There’s 75th,” I say, spotting the small sign among the overgrown greenery of the countryside.

“No, we’re going a different way,” Brent says, and drives on.

“We’re overshooting it?” I ask, dubious, because this is not Brent’s way.

“Yes,” he confirms.

This is intriguing. Brent has a plan—he always does—and whatever it is, he considered it from all angles. Random questions swirl in my mind and a couple even sneak out of my mouth before I stop, mid-question, remembering that I’m dealing with an introvert. Q&A with this particular introvert is much easier than this, more intuitive; the only requirement is using the fewest words possible. I instantly clam up, and just watch him and wait. And sure enough, in a moment he tells me exactly what I want to know. “There were instructions online that recommended it. The direct road is iffy, unless you’re in a truck,” he says. “We’ll only overshoot it by about a mile. I have alternative directions on the list.”

I consult the seven-page list of roadside stops and find the alternative route. “It would help if you’d let the navigator in on the plan,” I say.

“I just did,” he says, pleased with himself. We make a couple lefts and suddenly we’re on a gravel road, picking our way between Iowa fields. The road seems not quite two-cars wide, and it’s got the terrain of a well-traveled farm machinery path.

“I’d hate to see the iffy road,” I say as we bump and lurch along. Brent agrees.

We approach a tree line on our left and travel up a slight grade, but only slight. We’re scanning the horizon and stealing glances at the Jetta’s mileage gauge. “I don’t see it at all, do you?”Another Way

“Nope,” he says.

It’s not every day you find a tree in the middle of the road, and we discuss how grand, or perhaps cute, this tree might be. “Do you think it’s a hoax?” I ask.

“Maybe,” he shrugs without concern. “Seemed legit at the time, but I thought we’d see it by now.” We discuss this, and it’s not lost on me that we’re both chatting happily about being sent on this possible wild goose chase in the middle of Iowa. And really, why not? It got us off the beaten path.

Inching along, we crest the little grade and suddenly the tree we’re seeking is directly ahead of us. Now, we expected a sort of landmark tree between these fields, one that, despite the passage of time no one wanted to cut down, an interesting tree that would charm us as it must have done to the Iowans who circled the road around it. This tree is not what we expect; this tree is huge.

Another WayBrent stops the Jetta about ten yards from the intersection, just in case someone would come by, and we sit staring, blinking, then staring some more. “That’s a tree,” I say, as I stare and blink.

Brent agrees, “That’s a tree.”
We exit the Jetta and walk the distance, listening for distant signs of life but hearing only the breeze rustling in the fields and the gravel crunching under our feet. According to, this is a 100-foot cottonwood tree, grown from a walking stick planted by a surveyor in 1850. I dug up this fact via the ever-helpful Google (as I searched for roadside tree hoaxes a minute ago), and Brent and I marvel that there was no telling it was even here until we crested that little slope.Another Way

The gravel road rings around the tree, making a sort of traffic circle with roads jutting off in four directions. There are even stop signs to allow for right of way, and the circle itself seems to have a lot less gravel than the straightaways, all of which suggest to me both heavy travel and roadside fun–and all with a hundred-foot tree smack dab in the center.

Another WayThe more we look around, touch the tree, and photograph it, the more it seems not to have grown up from the ground but to have landed here, set apart and at its full majesty. It seems a trick of the mind, like an M.C. Escher design. And there’s not a soul around to tell us we’re not dreaming. I breathe in the scent of sun and earth and flowers and I switch perspectives, imagining a satellite view of where we stand, like pins on a map in the fields in Iowa while friend and family pinpoints pop up all over the world, and I want each of them to share this feeling with me, the feeling of wonder and potential.

This is why we road trip. This is why a person drives into the unknown and decides to get out of the car. Here we stand in the middle of America and it seems that reality is not the same anymore. And that means we’re standing in a world where anything is possible. Another Way

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

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

This Side of Eerie

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 19
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

This Side of EerieWe’re on the west side of Iowa, driving east toward a giant Volkswagen spider, the Jetta windows rolled down. I’m digging in my purse, and finally find what I’m looking for: the red packet of candy cigarettes we got back at Fort Cody in Nebraska. I open the pack.

“You’re really going to sit there smoking a candy cigarette?” Brent asks.

“Yeah,” I say, making a declaration of it because I’m funny like that.

He looks thoughtful for a moment. “Gimme one,” he says.

This Side of EerieI oblige, and we sit with our candy cigarettes as the wind whips around us in the car. We’re giddy and gritty and feeling like champions of the road, so I take a picture of us like this. As I post it to Facebook, a friend’s post catches my eye. “Hey!” I say. “We’re stopping in Rochester for dinner, right?”

“I hope so.”

“My friend’s brewery is opening there, today. They’ve been putting a lot of work into it. I didn’t know when they were going to open, but today’s the day. We’ve got to show our support.”

“Okay,” he says. “What’s it called?”


I look over our list of stops yet to make. There’s a whole page of Brent’s scrawly writing. I’m not sure we can add a deadline to the list. “Think we’ll make it?” I ask. “We can’t dawdle.” With that last part I mean Brent can’t dawdle.

“I hope we’ll make it,” Brent says. And then he says, “No dawdling,” implying me.

“Right,” I say, returning the ball to the proper court.

With that settled, we find our exit and I chomp up my candy cigarette. Suddenly I realize how tired I am. The afternoon heat isn’t helping the sleepy feeling. On our quiet side road, we look for a town and I start daydreaming about a siesta.

“Okay, now watch,” Brent says after a few glances at his mileage markers. “There should be a hairpin turn…”

This Side of EerieWe find it, curl the car around to the left, and there, under a tree in the middle of a neighborhood, is the Volkswagen spider. Someone actually took the time to remove the tires from a Volkswagen Beetle, replace them with giant pipe-like legs, then hoist the car about 10 feet off the ground. It’s neat, and creepy, but still neat. And creepy.

“You go,” I tell him, yawning. “I’ll stay here. I can’t take pictures, anyway.” My phone is still on the floor of the car, whining about being too hot and refusing to work ‘til it cools down. “I’ll watch you from here,” I say.

This Side of Eerie“Okay,” he says without hesitation, and hops out of the car. Three seconds later I follow him out, having processed multiple thoughts simultaneously, the way only computers and dreamy brains can do. My first conclusion: It’s up to me. Brent doesn’t care if I sit in the car or not, and I know he’ll never think a cross thought about it. I also know he needs someone to take his picture with the spider. Second conclusion: We’ve come this far. This road trip was never about the destination; we could have flown to Denver easily enough to see Trampled by Turtles play at Red Rocks. Instead, we drove the long way around—indeed!–in order to explore. And I certainly didn’t travel the long way to Avoca, Iowa to sit in the car.

This Side of EerieI exit the Jetta and cross the small street in four paces. Brent is standing under the spider contraption, taking pictures straight up. I sit in the grass underneath it and look up. From this vantage point, it’s especially impressive.

Otherwise, it’s quiet here in Avoca. Birds are chirping, but there’s no noise from the nearby houses, none from what looks like a trucking company down the lane, and just a few buzzy bugs from the green field to the right. Beyond the field, there are some workers tending a bonfire, but no real sound coming from that direction, either. The bugs and birds keep it just this side of eerie.

“What is this thing?” I ask. “Why is it here?”

“I don’t know,” Brent says, snapping pictures with his trusty camera. “But I like it.” Snap. Snap. “Here,” he says, handing me the phone from his pocket. “Get one of me running from it…”This Side of Eerie

Did I ever tell you that Brent was in a spider movie once? He was an extra in a Christopher R. Mihm film called The Giant Spider. He’s officially listed as an “associate producer,” but if you ask Brent, he’ll tell you he’s “screen candy.” (Brent’s part in the movie is to make out with a hot girl at a drive-in.)This Side of Eerie
I get up, take his phone, and the next thing I know, Brent and I are running around the yard, striking poses and one-upping each other’s ideas. We’re yelling, “Get this! Get this!” while pretending the spider’s chasing us, that we tripped and have to roll out of its way, that we’re trying to sneak up on it. Occasionally, I steal a glance at the house closest to us, waiting for someone to run out and stop us. But no one does. If they’re in there laughing at us, they’re stealthy about it.This Side of Eerie

This Side of EerieRejuvenated, and with my sense of wonder restored again, Screen Candy and I hop back in the Jetta, ready to experience more of what myopics mistakenly call America’s “flyover country.”

“When I have a house,” I tell Brent, “I’m going to set something up in my yard and watch the tourists flop around.” He just looks at me. “It’s going to be awesome,” I laugh and roll my hands over each other, plotting.

Now if this were a movie, we’d be driving off into the sunset having escaped the spider’s clutches, not realizing that it’s watching us and readying for the sequel. As it is, we’re driving east, straight into our next adventure.

“Tree?” Brent asks, getting me back on track again.

“Tree,” I concede, as we begin our search for a tree in the middle of the road. We drive off, leaving the giant spider safely in our rear view. Or do we?


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

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Terminus & Gateway

Terminus & Gateway#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 18
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

We leave Omaha behind, crossing the Missouri River into Council Bluffs, Iowa, where we’re tracking down a giant railroad spike. Map App Sally is completely unreliable at this point, having sent us to the Omaha Zoo over and over again and calling it a different landmark each time, but now she’s getting worse: Terminus & GatewayShe’s developing an attitude. Warnings pop up on my phone that it’s dangerously hot and I need to shut down immediately or else, so I do and set it down on the air vent by my feet. Now I’m navigating the old fashioned way with my eyes and a map while Brent uses his chill, un-snarky phone.Terminus & Gateway

We find the 56-foot yellow spike easily, but we’re pretty confused about where we are. Council Bluffs is nowhere near Promontory Summit, Utah, where we learned as kids the Union and Central Pacific railroads were joined together. The wide, grassy expanse around the spike is deserted, and the railroad tracks behind it don’t seem to be connected to anything, giving this place an awesome and quiet creepiness. Terminus & GatewayIt’s also convenient for lounging in the sunshine on the tracks while we take it all in and puzzle it out—until Brent and his camera turn on me. (I need to take that camera away from him.)Terminus & Gateway

I return to the spike, Brent and camera in tow, and we push our faces as far as we can between the fence rails around the base in order to read the signage there. All it says is something about the “Eastern Terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad.”Terminus & Gateway

Terminus!” Brent and I extract our faces from the fence and look at each other in horror. Fans of The Walking Dead understand our terror at this veritable end of the line as we look for Rick and Daryl to be in a jam and for Carol to start blowing things up. When none of that happens, we instead do zombie imitations in the yard around the spike. Then we run for it, straight into the cornfield beside the Jetta, and do our best man-and-woman-with-pitchfork (American Gothic by artist Grant Wood) faces.Terminus & Gateway

We hightail it away from Terminus, and I find that my phone is still too hot to handle. Meltdown seems imminent as Brent drives us toward a bridge and insists I take pictures of it through the moon roof because he’s too busy driving to do everything. I insist I’m busy, but he doesn’t listen. He gives me his camera and I think, “Heh, heh, heh,” but after a little more protest (sheesh, I’m turning into Sally), I do as I’m directed, snapping pictures of the red and yellow spikes on the Broadway Viaduct as one of us says, “Are you getting this?!?” while the other one says, “Slow down! I got it!”

Terminus & GatewaySafely across the Viaduct, I can now figure out what the heck just happened. According to the Googs on Brent’s cool phone, the artwork on the bridge is called the Council Bluffs Gateway, designed by artist Ed Carpenter who worked for four years with the installation team getting the red and yellow 111 light poles tilted into place. Nighttime images of the Gateway are even more stunning.Terminus & Gateway

Next, I read some golden railroad spike history and find that there’s a controversy over whether the rails were joined at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869 or at Comanche Crossing near Strasburg, Colorado on August 15, 1870. As for the spike at Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Googs says it’s possibly a relic from the movie Union Pacific commemorating the eastern Mile Marker Zero.

A movie relic?? Despite being tricked (Terminus strikes again!), we continue our eastern drive full of pride to think about our country’s unification by the railroad line, wherever/whenever it may have happened officially. Our transcontinental railroad allowed for the expansion of ideas, business partnerships far and wide, massive distribution of foods, and travel and exploration across this great land of ours.

As for our own exploration, Brent and I are hunting down a Volkswagen spider…

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

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 17Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Omaha Familiar

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 17
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom) 

Omaha FamiliarWe follow Sally the Map App’s cranky instructions for finding a giant spaghetti fork and find ourselves, instead, at the Omaha Zoo–smack dab in the middle of the zoo parking lot with no fork in sight. Brent uses The Force instead and we find a Little Italy village of houses near downtown and park the Jetta in the residential courtyard.
Omaha FamiliarTo our left is a 13-foot stainless steel fork with spaghetti in its tines. We sit in the car for a moment, deliberating, and one of us deduces that, “Look, if they didn’t want us to take pictures of it, they wouldn’t have put it there.” I’m not sure which of us says that, but it sounds an awful lot like me. That settles it, and we get out of the car. For most of our shenanigans up to now, we’re pretty much on public property or have the owner’s express permission. Today we’re in someone’s yard, without permission, in the interest of discovery and trying not to look like troublemakers. We walk a fine line.Omaha Familiar

The fork is named Stile di Famiglia in Italian, or Family Style in English, named for the serving style of passing and sharing large plates of food around the dinner table. It was made by artist Jake Balcom, and commissioned by the Homeowners Association of the Towns of Little Italy. It’s whimsical, and evocative of a time when “several Italian family restaurants defined the social life of the neighborhood,” according to an Omaha public art website found by the Googs.
Omaha FamiliarEven the neighboring houses with their large windows, flower boxes, and close placement to each other resemble a gathering of intimate friends around this fork and pasta.

We peel ourselves away and start our search for a bronze Chef Boyardee, but Sally sends us to the zoo again, a backtracking, we discover, of about 20 blocks.

“We’re seeing a lot of this parking lot,” Brent says as he turns us around.

Omaha Familiar“I’m checking us in on Facebook,” I tell him. “There, we’re at the zoo parking lot,” I show him my phone. Now it’s official. We vow to plan a return trip to Omaha just to see the zoo and especially the Desert Dome, which is visible for miles as we drive in Omaha.

Omaha FamiliarAgainst Sally’s protests and our own excitement at spending a day at the zoo, we head toward downtown, stop in the beautiful Visitor’s Center where they let us touch things, and find Chef Boyardee outside the ConAgra campus in its wide plaza, the ground of which seems to be winking at us—the ConAgra Foods logo.

Omaha FamiliarThe story goes that Chef Ettore “Hector” Boiardi was born in Italy, and followed his brother to the Plaza Hotel in New York City where Ettore worked his way up to Head Chef. In 1915, he directed the catering of President Woodrow Wilson’s wedding at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. But the Chef’s story, according to Wikipedia, is only getting started.
Omaha FamiliarThe Chef opened his own restaurant in Cleveland where he was known for sending his guests who would ask home with milk jars filled with his spaghetti sauce. In the 1920s, he helped his inlaws, who owned a chain of local grocery stores, to engineer his canning process and put his Italian foods on the shelves locally and beyond with the help of their wholesale partners. To keep up with demands, they opened a factory in 1928, and ten years later, production was moved to Milton, Pennsylvania where greater quantities of tomatoes and mushrooms could be grown.

Omaha FamiliarThen—hear this–during WWII his factory was commissioned to produce army rations for the Allied troops, requiring the factory to run 24/7 and earning the Chef a Gold Star Order of Excellence from the U.S. War Department. When the war ended, it was decided that they sell the company rather than reduce production so that no jobs would be lost. That’s decency in America, and it’s a chord deep inside each and every one of us.

There’s a lot more to the Chef’s story: the unacknowledged Order of Lenin award, the sale of the company, investment in steel mills, money lost and gained, television commercials… How it came to Omaha the Googs wouldn’t say, but then, don’t all things eventually come to Omaha?Omaha Familiar

ConAgra Foods acquired the brand in 2000, and in 2011, artist John Lajba completed this 6-foot bronze statue of the Chef that he describes as possessing “class and a lot of charm.”

The bronze Chef is purposefully placed. He’s not in the plaza center and is not up on a pedestal, but is standing, ground level, on the edge of the circular plaza, facing any and all activity that may gather there.

Omaha FamiliarWith the statue’s kind face and with our familiarity having grown up on all things Boyardee, Brent and I find ourselves hugging the statue as if we’ve run into a long-lost relative on the streets of Omaha.

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

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Vantage Points

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 16
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Somewhat awake now and with bellies full of roadside leftovers, we pack up the Jetta in the sunny morning in Lincoln, Nebraska, set on making it to Minneapolis by day’s end. We should get there, unless we do something silly. Perhaps we’re being ambitious.

There are three states, hundreds of miles, and plenty of America to learn between here and there. Today’s plan is to find a spaghetti fork, a coffee pot, a spider, railroad spike, and if we’re lucky, a tree in the middle of the road, and still reach Minneapolis tonight. I review the list with Brent, looking to trim the fat, but after everything I say he says, “We’re not cutting that.”

“Spaghetti fork?” I question.


“Block head?”

“We’re so close to it.”

“Volkswagen spider?”

“Jody,” he sighs, “We could cut everything, but not Volkswagen spider. That I want to see.”

“What’s a stamp ball?” I ask, eyeing the list.

“A big ball of stamps,” he says. Of course it is.

“Well, looks like everything’s in,” I say. Brent nods.

Vantage PointsWe’re tracking down a giant masonry head, which doesn’t seem like it’ll be too hard to find. The giant head sits atop the Ogallala (there’s that word again!) Aquifer. This is the Groundwater Colossus by artist James Tyler, and though it’s supposed to sing and so far this guy’s silent, we’re pretty sure this is it–unless there’s another giant head of blocks in Lincoln.

Vantage PointsI think about the Colossus of Rhodes, and how I never knew America had a Colossus of its own—other than the Marvel super hero. I post our #MericaTour progress on Facebook, and look up to find Brent trying to pick Colossus’ nose. Rhodes never had this problem. Luckily, our silent Colossus has some interesting surroundings or I’ll never pull Brent away. On Colossus’ right is a giant painted light bulb, and on his left is a wide, gurgling fountain. Vantage Points
We splash around in the fountain and take thoughtful pictures with the light bulb before climbing back into the car.Vantage Points

We’re not even out of Lincoln yet when a truck in front of us hauling sand manages to dust us with it. Our windows are down, and there’s sand all over the place inside the Jetta. I brush the puddle of sand from my lap and look at my sooty face and hair in vanity mirror.

My nicely showered self is a thing of the past, which, technically, was a thing of the past once I jumped in the fountain back in Lincoln. But now I’m all gritty, too. Brent navigates around the truck. “Well, there goes today’s photos,” I say. We have a good laugh about it.

We drive to Omaha and stop for gas at the giant coffee pot on our list, which, luckily, is a gas station, too. There are a lot of these Sapp Bros. travel stations in Nebraska, but this is the only one with the giant coffee pot on the property. We don’t get coffee, strangely enough. I buy a giant travel mug and fill it with hot tea, and we nearly buy a cool Chuck Norris driver’s license, but decide against it after much deliberation.
Vantage PointsVantage PointsInstead, we gas up and mill around the parking lot studying our vantage point to the giant coffee pot, rea
lizing we can get the best view if we walk across the quiet side street.

Quiet my—Assuming we can get across the side street, that is. It’s strangely deserted until we need to cross it on foot, then it’s suddenly and dangerously full of 18-wheelers traveling both directions. Vantage PointsWe wait and wait and finally get across, take some photos with Brent’s direction as the road is suddenly silenced, and then wait to return across the once-again super busy street. “This is so very Frogger,” I think.

Dodging death and alligators (okay, not alligators), we head back to the relative safety of the lily pad, I mean Jetta. As Brent drives us around the parking lot back toward the highway, I post the initial entry for these “Stories from the Road” on my blog, promising to write out our adventures in full (promise kept!).

As we approach Omaha, I’m repeating the Charlie Daniels “Uneasy Rider” lyrics, “If I went to L.A., via Omaha…” when my Google search tells us that Boys Town is nearby. I relay the cross streets to Brent, who frowns. “That sounds familiar,” he says. Sure it is. “Where is the stamp ball?” he asks.

I check the itinerary and find that he’s right. “Same campus,” I tell him. He grins. In a few minutes we’re driving in tree-lined circles on Flanagan Boulevard around the quiet Boys Town campus.

There’s no stamp ball or signage in sight, so we decide to go in to the Visitor’s Center. Inside, we chat up the lady in the gift shop, who gives us campus maps and shows us the incredibly cool mini-stamp balls (softball size) that the kids make for charity.
Vantage PointsVantage PointsAs I carefully choose one signed by Alexis with a Love stamp right on the top center, a couple enters from a side doorway and the man asks, “Aren’t you worried that someone will make a bigger one?

“Well,” the gift shop lady says cheerfully, “It’s over 600 pounds, with 4.6 million stamps. With stamp prices today, it’ll cost about…” she lists a figure that’s in the billions. And because it’s numbers I instantly forget it, but it’s impressive. The couple starts to browse and Brent asks where the original stamp ball is located and scrutinizes his map. The lady says, “Right through this doorway.” She points to where the couple had entered.

We look at each other, shocked that we don’t have to cross the campus to get to it. It’s right here! There’s no major security. You can walk right up to it, touch it, take goofy pictures and everything. Only in America.

Vantage PointsI pay for my Alexis stamp ball and we head through the doorway. “I’m sending two more to ya, Hank!” the gift shop lady calls into the wide hallway. At the end of the hall ahead of us is the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps, collected by the stamp club in Boys Town in the 1950s. To the right of the ball sits Hank, a retired local veteran (who neither works here nor is a volunteer we find out, but is just hanging out, which is his custom). At the moment, he’s sorting stamps. “Where are you from?” he asks us.



Vantage PointsVantage PointsHank tells us his service company and says, “There were some nice guys from Pennsylvania there with me.” We talk about Pittsburgh together, and he insists we can touch the stamp ball. So we do. Hank is good at egging us on. Together, we spread silliness all around, and eventually have to say farewell to Hank and to the gift shop lady as we head out to see the Dowd Memorial Catholic Chapel where Father Flanagan is laid to rest.

Vantage PointsFather Edward J. Flanagan started his home for boys around the time of WWI, and moved the home to where we’re standing, at what was formerly the Overlook Farm back in 1921. According to, “Since 1917, Boys Town’s mission has been to give at-risk children and families the love, support and education they need to succeed. Because we firmly believe that regardless of background and circumstances, every child and every family has the potential to thrive.”

The site goes on to say: “He had a dream that every child could be a productive citizen if given love, a home, an education, and a trade. He accepted boys of every race, color, and creed. Father Flanagan firmly believed, ‘There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.’”

“I can’t believe we’re standing here,” I tell Brent, feeling the immensity and the importance of the work that was/is done here.Vantage Points

For his mindset, Father Flanagan was called a visionary. And though he was born on Irish soil, not American, Father Flanagan’s vision of opportunity over birth status is as American as it gets.

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

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Night Life

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 15
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

It takes a Trampled by Turtles album, a Dessa album, and a couple chapters of the zombie war (or a little over two hours) traveling along I-80 before we reach the turnoff for Hastings, Nebraska.

We head south and welcoming us to town is the Hastings Applebee’s, brightly lighted against the night sky. Back in Kansas City, days ago, we’d done a search for nightlife and Applebee’s, headquartered there, was the first thing Google found.

“Look, nightlife!” I say to Brent.

That same Google search is what landed us at Boulevard Brewing Company the next morning so, well done, Googs. Brent glances at Applebee’s and suppresses a smile. “Nightlife,” he acknowledges, and drives on.

Two things are weighing on us right now: the need for adventure and the need for sustenance. We’re on the road to see and do new things, which usually means letting go of the familiarity and comfort of chain restaurants. As self-declared road champions, Brent and I prefer the discovery of local fare and off-the-wall places and we only patron known chains as a last resort, when we’re on our last legs or when we plan poorly and nothing else is open.

At the moment, though, adventure is winning out over food. Brent and I are on a mission to find Kool-Aid, and Wikipedia tells us we’re in its birthplace.

We keep driving south, following Sally the Map App’s directions, and suddenly it feels as though the town has slipped away and we’re just heading into darkness. “Where’d the town go?” I ask.

Brent shrugs. “We’re at the lake,” he offers.

I do a quick Google search. “There are 25,000 residents here,” I tell him. “Where did they put them all?”

We round a bend and suddenly an orderly city plan springs up beyond our windshield, with a good 25 blocks’ worth of grid-laid streets.

Between us, we start referring to Hastings as two separate towns. There’s the “north side,” behind us with our old buddy Nightlife and the Visitor’s Center, and this “south side” of orderly city blocks, both connected by the dark, barren curve of the road around Lake Hastings. Brent and I look at each other and then to the stretch of traffic lights, concrete city blocks, and golden street bulbs lighting our path. We smile and start counting down the streets toward the museum address.

Night LifeThe streets are easy to navigate and we easily find the Kool-Aid Museum, where, to our surprise, there’s enough street light to take pictures. Our first photos almost pass as daylight takes, even though it’s after 9, Central Time. We can’t go inside the museum, but there’s plenty to read on the building’s placards and posters, and we fill in the rest with the help of Wikipedia.
Night LifeThe story goes that inventor Edward Perkins of Hastings, Nebraska created a liquid concentrate called Fruit Smack in his mother’s kitchen. Then in 1927, to reduce shipping costs, Perkins discovered a way to remove the liquid from Fruit Smack, leaving only the powder, which was renamed Kool-Aid. And though Perkins moved Kool-Aid’s production to Chicago in 1931, Hastings still celebrates its invention with its annual Kool-Aid Days every August.

Night LifeAs any successful artist, entrepreneur, business owner, cowboy, adventurer, musician, brewer, traveler, writer, etc., will undoubtedly say, in creating anything, there is failure. It comes down to what you do with that failure. I close my eyes and imagine Perkins in his mother’s kitchen, and all of his stages of experimentation along the way. For Edward Perkins and Kool-Aid, this is where it started, the desire, the belief, the drive, the problem solving, and the refusal to give up, right here in the middle of America, in Hastings, Nebraska.

Night LifeAs Brent continues with his pictures, I search the posters and finally find what I’m looking for. “Berry Blue!” I burst out in a wave of memory and I start talking fast, as if I’d just drunk the deliciously sugary stuff. “That was my favorite! First it was orange, and I thought it was the best, but then Berry Blue had this blueberry/lemon combination and I couldn’t get enough of it…”

Brent lowers his camera and looks at me in contemplation. “I liked orange,” he says evenly, and goes back to his pictures. Brent took childhood seriously.

For all the obvious reasons, nighttime sightseeing is peculiar. Here on the south side, we’re eerily alone. With the wind picking up just a bit, it’s as if we’ve slipped through time.

Night Life

View across the street

Returning to the car, Brent wants to find some Kool-Aid Man footprints in cement, Hollywood Walk of Fame style. They’re needle-in-the-haystack to me, which, now that I’m tired and my mind is silly, is an intriguing phrase. Variations of the “needle in the haystack/bundle/meadow” reference date back to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and before that, to a 1532 speech given by Sir Thomas More. To me, the phrase never described an impossibility. I remember hearing it as a child and thinking, “But you know the needle is there. So just keep looking.” Simple as that. Just like liking orange.

“The footprints aren’t out here at random,” Brent reveals. “They’re at the Visitor’s Center, back up on the north side.” We have a starting place. And between here and there, there’s not one food-like place open that we can find. It might be Nightlife after all.

Sure, the Visitor’s Center closed hours ago, but we lurk around the building in the dark, trying to see inside. I return to the flagpole while Brent searches among the bushes. “If one of these passing cars would just call the police on us,” I say, “We could ask the officers where the footprints are…”

“Found ‘em!” Brent suddenly shouts. Haystack needle.

Night LifeNext to the bushes that line the parking lot is a slab of cement, with no real lighting on it and certainly no giant Kool-Aid Man statue pointing at it. (I suppose most people show up in the daytime, so they don’t need such markers.) Triumphant, and without needing to wait in line, we put our feet inside the giant footprints and Brent does his best Kool-Aid Man imitations.Night Life

I’m delirious with hunger by the time we get to Nightlife, which is mercifully close by and the only place still open, so I order way too much food and even some more to go.

“You still have cinnamon rolls in the car,” Brent protests.

[Yes, I’m a road forager. I think it’s the hallmark of a good traveler.] And Brent may roll his eyes as my to-go cheese sticks arrive, but tomorrow morning we’ll sleep through our continental breakfast in Lincoln, feast on these Applebee’s cheese sticks and leftover cinnamon rolls from the tire caterpillar gas station, and we’ll laugh about how clever we are.

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

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

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