Okay, enough about my pathetic love life. (Until the next blog, anyway, or maybe the one after that.) Today I want to discuss how Clay fans impact the economy during his tours. Specifically, the local restaurant industry.
Aside from all the stuff we fans buy on our travels (and don’t get me started on that-- the sales of Italian charms alone have probably burgeoned ridiculously in the past three years, if my compatriots are any indication), there’s also the question of where to eat when you’re on the road to and from Clay’s tour performances. One thing you quickly discover -- and I don’t know if it’s the case where you live -- you can always depend on Steak ‘n Shake. Many times as we were driving home bleary-eyed from some midwestern State Fair on the interstate at 2am, the only thing open, beckoning like a beacon in the darkness, would be Steak ‘n Shake. And lest you think it’s all about instant gratification: in case you’ve left an empty fridge at home, Steak ‘n Shake will sell you a can of chili that will be just as tasty a month from now as it is today. A consideration when you’re traveling out of state to your third concert in a week. Plus the food at Steak ‘n Shake is reliable and good and the service is never less than friendly. You can’t ask for much more than that. At 2am, anyway.
But, for me, a big part of the whole road trip experience is sampling the local cuisine, meeting the quirky residents, finding that unexpected culinary jewel in the wilderness, and, of course, trolling for that unique tacky souvenir. Because it’s not every day you run across an Elvis Presley toenail clipper. So, provided you’re traveling at a reasonable hour and want to be adventurous, here are a few fond memories. Hopefully they’ll inspire you to EAT LOCAL!
The Gardner Family Restaurant in Gardner, Illinois. Don’t be put off by the bad NASCAR art on the walls, the preponderance of senior citizens in trucker’s caps, or the side-by-side mother-and-daughter commodes in the bathroom (no stalls necessary for these enlightened folks!). This place has true ambrosia on their menu: The World’s Best Monte Cristo. Oh, they don't call it that, but that's what it is. Yes, sirree. Made with thick, spongy French toast, with just the right amount of cheese, turkey and ham (and not, dammit, breaded the way those Philistines at Bennigan’s insist on making it)...well, I wish I had one right now! I'm salivating just thinking about it.
Another small diner on the road to Indianapolis was willing to sell us, along with our omelets and hash browns, a life-sized ceramic golden retriever for $350. Why, I don't know. After we stopped laughing we restrained ourselves with difficulty from strapping it to the roof of the car. But it would have been worth it for the comedy value alone. (By the way, this was the same trip where we strongly considered climbing on the hood and stealing the Clay street banner in the parking lot across from the Indy State Fair. I still wish we’d done it -- surely the bail couldn’t have been THAT much, could it?)
Then, of course, there was the steakhouse in the stupifyingly huge Mall of America, where the greeter took one look at my Clay button and red hair and somehow came to the conclusion that I was Clay's mom. (This was amusing because one of my redheaded companions, similarly attired in her finest Clay wear, had been mistaken for her only an hour before.) Not thinking that I could probably score a free appetizer out of the deal, I said no. But what's a few autographs in exchange for a complimentary Bloomin' Onion, right?
Talk about unexpected pleasures -- just this past weekend, we stopped in Lawrence, Michigan, and just to show you that the most unpromising-looking place can yield a feast for the eyes: we got to experience the 5th Best Restroom in America. That’s right -- there’s an actual certificate on the wall in the ladies bathroom at the Waffle House of America on the Red Arrow Highway off I-94. And if you saw this bathroom, you’d know it’s TRUE. The opening of the door triggers mellow piano music (you know, like those late-night commercials you see for “50 Relaxing Classical Hits.” Or what you'd hear in an upscale elevator). Just about everything is white, and everything -- the sinks, the light fixtures, the stalls, the paper towel holders, even the toilet seats -- has hand-painted roses on them. Blue flowered wallpaper greets you (with a starry night sky painted above the stalls), and plastic rose trellises frame the mirrors, including a standing white oval full-length mirror in the corner. You feel as if you’ve wandered into a garden. Well, if you're the sort of person who has a commode in their garden, at any rate. “Yep,” admitted the waitress proudly when we asked her about it. “We were up against hotels and restaurants and all kinds of places in New York and California and all over the country, and we came in...fifth.” She shakes her bleached blonde head in wonder as if she still can’t believe it. And neither can we, but we’re sure glad we stopped.
Oh, and the food was really good, too. Not to mention the Roy Rogers salt and pepper shakers we bought in the gift shop. Don't you love it when people go that extra mile, especially when they don't have to?
(How I somehow ended up, during this same trip, onstage at a local waterfront club singing at the mic with Mark Farner, lead guitarist of the Grand Funk Railroad, is probably a story for another blog.)
Speaking of the great state of Michigan -- for two years in a row on the way to the Clio concerts, we’ve made a point of stopping at a diner in the little hamlet of Climax. Just to say that we did. I can’t report much about this place except that it has a condom machine in the ladies room. And what else would you expect in a town called Climax? Too bad we probably won’t have a reason to stop there again this year. Clay, shame on you -- see what you’ve done by not touring this summer? You’re keeping us from Climax (ing).
So...do YOU have any cool travel stories? Guilty pleasures? Incredible finds? Let’s hear ‘em!