Food, folks and fun

Posted by jdg | Monday, April 07, 2008

While vacationing, I have always had two rules: (1) stay off freeways; and (2) never eat at a restaurant where you can also eat at home. We broke both these rules on our way home from our exotic vacation in southern Indiana last week. We had been in the car for five hours and somehow we were less than 100 miles from where we'd started that day. We were driving through Kokomo, Indiana looking for a place to eat where we couldn't also eat at home. This proved more difficult than usual, because apparently no commercial activity occurs in downtown Kokomo; the only places that served food had no windows and also served watery cocktails to down-on-their-luck prostitutes. "We didn't get here fast, and now there's nowhere to take it slow," Wood lamented.

"The Beach Boys who didn't go crazy or drown were liars," I replied.

On our way out of Kokomo, we drove past a McDonald's PlayPlace and Juniper saw it out her window. "What is that?" she asked in a voice Coronado might have used to ask his Zuni guide about some golden city on a hill, had he ever found one.

"Oh nothing," my wife and I answered in unison. I had been hoping to make it all the way to Das Dutchman Essenhaus (broasted chicken! children charged $1.00 per year! 29 varieties of pie!). But after an hour of Gram crying and Juniper still pestering us about the place with the tubes in the windows, we said, "Okay, it's a place with food that's not very good for you, but if you can have good manners for a little while, if we see one we'll stop there." With the baby refusing to sleep in the car and somehow managing to cry while still sucking vigorously on my wife's pinky finger, we high-tailed it to the interstate, postponing my dreams of vacationing in the Amish country for another day.

By the time we got to Auburn, Indiana, the kid had been exhibiting exemplary manners so we pulled off the highway at the first sign of a McDonald's. It was dark. The car jerked along the asphalt from stoplight to stoplight, past the same American landscape planted just off every freeway cloverleaf, the same comforting signage, the same hotels beckoning with their familiarity, the same soaps in their bathrooms, the same bedspreads in Maine and New Mexico. It was night already, and dark, but the road was strung with bright lights, and my wife gulped air and grabbed my thigh the way she does when a car in front of us has jerked to a sudden stop or a deer lingers on the edge of the road.

"It has a Playland," she hissed with relief.

Inside there were old men eating sundaes by themselves, groups of high school kids packed snugly into booths. We ate hamburgers next to a woman six years younger than us who had six more children than us, all named Carly. They were sweet and held Juniper's sticky hand as they climbed together into the giant multicolored ventricled spheres of death. Then a birthday party full of 12,000 8-year-old girls ended in the adjacent glass chamber and they all clamored into the structure behind my tiny daughter. My fists clenched but I waited to see her wide-eyed and climbing around inside. A few minutes later one of the Carlys escorted her back down the entrance. "She was scared to go down the slide," this sweet little Carly told me.

"When I'm bigger I'll go down the slide," Juniper said at the table. She dipped apple slices into caramel she called "chocolate mustard" and got it in her hair. A half hour later we will be just a few hours from home and she and her brother will be sleeping soundly in the darkness behind us.

This morning, as we drive to school, I ask her what she's going to tell her friends she did on vacation, thinking fondly of all the hiking and swimming, or perhaps the night I took her out to the hill by the lodge and showed her all the stars she'd never see from Detroit, pointing out Orion and the spoons.

"I went to the place with the tubes," she says.