Saturday, December 22, 2007

Of truckstop cafes and other surprises.

Here it is, the weekend before Christmas. A limited amount of Christmas spirit, at least as the retail industry would see it. I did some shopping -- for others and myself. And I have a little more to do tomorrow, and then I am DONE! But you know, I'm having a better Christmas even without all the hype and hoopla.

Today, I went to Atlanta to pick up some citrus fruit from a friend. On the way down, I stopped at a truck stop to pick up some water. I was fairly well impressed. This particular one (part of a national chain) was very clean, didn't smell like forty ashcans, and even had (are you ready?) fresh fruit at the checkout. That's a concept completely foreign to our area's largest convenience store chain. From what my friends tell me, several chains in Georgia carry fruit at their checkout. So I got my apple today too! I plan to write a letter to the owner of the local chain and ask him if that's something he'd consider implementing in his stores.

On the way home, I got in a mood for meat-and-three. If you're not sure what that means, "meat-and-three" is when you get some entree (usually off a list of about 4 or 5 options) with up to 3 sides -- can be veggies, but not necessarily. Well, there's always Cracker Barrel for that type of food, and there were a couple on the way home, but I just didn't want to stop there -- especially given that one of them was located at the Commerce exit.

Commerce, Georgia is home to a buttload of outlet centers. Any other day, it's fairly congested, but for the weekend before Christmas? No way was I even considering getting on that road. So I saw a sign for a couple of truck-stop restaurants a short distance away. One was a different location of the chain I'd visited that morning. So that gave me hope that I might get something fairly healthy.

My father drove a truck for about a year when I was in my teens -- and he loves truckstop cafes and Waffle Houses. Awful Waffles have their place, but not exactly my favorite eatery. It has to be before 11 AM or after 11 PM before I'll consider the Waffle. Daddy loves the places that aren't normally on everyone's list of must-eat-here --- not dives, mind you. Just overlooked places. He always said, "You know, if you're ever on the road, you can get a good meal at a lot of the larger truckstops...." I would smile politely and roll my eyes in my head.

But then a few years ago, I'd had a rather nice experience at one. Some friends and I decided to have a late breakfast before we went to an amusement park. The only place that we could find was at a truckstop (a large chain). We were pleasantly surprised -- they had great omelettes! So today I figured, "What the hell? At worst, I can get a salad, right?"

That's exactly what happened. They didn't have a meat-and-three, and the buffet touted on the sign existed no more. But they did have a nice selection -- nicer than you would think. Mel's Diner it was not. Color me very pleasantly surprised! They had a nice variety of appetizers, salads, grilled items (beef and poultry), sandwiches, breakfast stuff, even a good listing of desserts (more than I would have guessed). Even a sugar-free cheesecake -- say what? I ended up getting the grilled chicken BLT salad -- a nice grilled filet, salad mix, tomato, a couple of slices of bacon, olives, onions and even fat-free dressing.

I'm not sure why I was so surprised. Sometimes those off-the-beaten-path places can be the very places you need to be -- and so it was with me today. I did a little shopping but not as much as I'd planned. The mall exit was backed up to the interstate -- there went that. And the outlet exit was not as bad but traffic there is always nightmarish. I would have just about lost my mind today in those spots. Instead, I ended up in a place where I could slow down for a few minutes and enjoy the simpler things: a kind word, good food, friendly conversation.

And one of those little, off-shot places is part of the story behind this season: "But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah -- too small to be among the clans of Judah -- from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times." (Micah 5:1 NAB) The little places -- exactly where we need to be.

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