Travelogue: Blue Highways

I've just returned from the AWP conference for writers in Minneapolis. Figuring out what and where to eat was an important part of each day. Fortunately, the Hen House, a popular, local restaurant downtown, was close to my hotel and served food meant for long, intense days—giant plates of eggs, hash browns, cinnamon French toast, omelets, bacon and sausage.

Eating there brought back memories of the 70s when my mother, brother, sister and I made treks from Milwaukee to visit our grandparents in Missouri.

Another Hen House restaurant was off Interstate 55 in Gardner, a place where the air smelled ripe and the flat farmland of north-central Illinois, southwest of Chicago, stretched away from the highway.

The restaurant had red-checkered curtains. The water tasted like soap. The matchboxes had a drawing of a hen on a barn over the words Love One Another. A gift shop in the back sold items of a barnyard theme—stuffed chicks, ashtrays shaped like roosters, and wooden, painted figurines of hens, pigs and tawny, heavy-bellied Jerseys, symbols of our pilgrimage from the city to the country.

I ordered a tenderloin sandwich as big as the plate and settled between two small white buns with pickle slices and ketchup. After eating, Mom grazed from our plates (a few bites of tenderloin, a piece of crusted bread, a wilted pickle), and we used the bathroom once more before climbing into the car with a single goal—to reach the Illinois-Missouri border before mid-afternoon. There, we would cross the Mississippi River and look down at it with the excitement and relief of seeing an old friend, again.

Some days I wish I could pay a visit to that child's life of curiosity, fearless of reality—the joy of colors, textures, and experiences carrying the day. Instead, our days are all about the modern notion of succeeding more, living a better life, fulfilling our potential, doing more in 24 little hours. (You know the messages I mean.) Maybe we're better off just living the day we have in as good a way as possible.

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