Longtime MCC readers may recall our best annual travelogues usually include photos from the restaurants we’ve visited in other states and the foodstuffs we’ve found that we don’t necessarily have back home in Indianapolis. We do enjoy sharing those moments, but you may have noticed their conspicuous absence from this series so far. We had looked forward to leaving home and hopefully leaving the year’s troubles behind for just ten days. The more we drove, the more we had to face reality: it was the same kind of 2021 everywhere in America.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. We were each raised in a household that couldn’t afford annual out-of-state family vacations. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. Eventually we tired of some of our self-imposed limitations and figured out how to leave the comforts of home for the chance to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
Technically not even 2020 stopped us. We played by the new rules of the interim normal and wandered Indiana in multiple directions as safely as we could. This year the long-awaited vaccines arrived. For 2021 we agreed we had to go big. Our new primary objective was Yellowstone National Park, 1500 miles from Indy…
The pandemic has been a horrid era for the restaurant business. Whether you’re an owner/operator trying and failing to balance the books and the pressing safety needs, a manager dealing with harsh demands from above and insurrection from below, or a staffer fed up with being treated like a disposable appliance by bosses and customers in competing measure…no matter where you are in the chain of culinary command, chances are there’re parts of your career that infuriate you like never before. And you can’t just take out your frustrations on the customers, no matter how tempted you are, because you’re held back by manners or bad Yelp reviews or American anti-murder laws or whatever.
So a lot of eateries haven’t been at their best lately. We’ve seen plenty of compromises and retreats here at home. Fast-food joints that now basically close for the day after lunchtime. Casual dining franchises that have become oversized takeout booths with dozens of tables they no longer need. Coffee shops that lock up and unlock and lock up and unlock depending on how many employees show up for work and how the neighborhood infection rate’s going. Last night we stopped at a drive-thru whose cashier informed us they were limiting everyone to five items per car. And then there’s the roll call of the dead. I’ve lost track of how many eateries have called it quits.
Times were just as tough beyond Indiana’s borders. Throughout the last week of June and into July we saw crews dealing with obstacles the best they could. Menus that once took up several pages were slashed to a bare-bones single sheet. Some menus were makeshift, handwritten lists with items scratched off as they ran out. Lone servers had to oversee entire dining rooms. Some places fared a lot better than others.
Maybe we should’ve simply bought lunchmeat and bread from nearby groceries all ten days, just left all those business alone and saved ourselves some hassles. But in years past, the food has often been one of our favorite parts of these getaways. As former restaurant workers ourselves with a combined 22 years between us, albeit pretty distant in our past, we like visiting classy and/or creative establishments, marveling at their talents and efforts, and exchanging funds and tips for the pleasure…if they’re in a position to let us in.
For the first five days of our trip, this is how mealtime went:
FRIDAY 6/25, BREAKFAST: We ate at home before takeoff. Who cares.
FRIDAY 6/25, LUNCH: We called time-out in Peoria, Illinois. Our first try was a bar called Po-Boys whose signage boasted New Orleans-style fixings. We walked in through the unlocked door but were duly informed they presently only serve dinner, not lunch. Daytime hours were for alcohol and machine gambling only, neither of which are our thing.
Our runner-up worked out much better: Hickory River Smokehouse, one of five locations in a Texas-inspired barbecue empire that got its start in Urbana in 1995. If you’ve been to a barbecue joint, you can imagine their menu. Service was fast and friendly; the meat and sauces nailed all the right notes. We skipped food photos because, well, everyone knows what meat and sauce look like. Nonetheless, thumbs-up.
FRIDAY 6/25, DINNER: After checking into our hotel in Cedar Rapids, we learned a family-owned Chinese restaurant across the street called Pei’s Mandarin would be closing its doors for good the following week after a 34-year run. We were of course strangers to this beloved institution, but we figured, why not pay respects on their last weekend ever, especially since it was a mere block away? Even though it was a Friday night, one of the worst possible times to visit a healthy restaurant, let alone one having its going-out-of-business sale for a community that loved it so?
Inside, the place was a madhouse. We were fools for expecting otherwise. The lobby was packed with folks sitting or standing, very little square footage left unoccupied. Above the host’s station, a chalkboard kept a running tally of all the items they were out of. It was not a short list. We gawked for three minutes without anyone so much as greeting us, let alone telling us how many hours it might be for a table to free up.
We retreated and drove the next block over to a Perkin’s, a familiar Americana chain in the Bob Evans/Waffle House tradition, but usually with killer baked goods. Alas, their signature dessert cabinet was mostly empty. The two servers on duty handled the half-empty dining room with infrequent visibility. After our first 400 miles on the road, we were okay with decompressing at the table while waiting for the food to take a bit longer than we’d hoped.
SATURDAY 6/26, BREAKFAST: One block the other direction from our hotel was Bea’s Cafe, bearing that name since November 2019. It was every bit the mom-‘n’-pop diner we’d imagined, in a good way. All aspects were tiptop, we discussed family and pets with our server, and the other cheery customers filling roughly half the tables were likely their regular crowd.
SATURDAY 6/26, LUNCH: After we finished with the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Google Maps pointed out a multi-ethnic little place called the Map Room and swore it was indeed a restaurant. My son confirmed, “We passed that earlier. It looked like a jail.”
Thankfully the Map Room was bigger on the inside in all the important ways, by which I mean the cuisine and not the tight elbow space. Raising the bar since their opening in June 2017, the Map Room prides itself on its burgers and booze. We can’t speak for the booze, but each burger is inspired by a different city across the continents. We had no complaints and would happily revisit if we ever make our way back to Cedar Rapids. This was, no hyperbole, my favorite meal of the entire vacation.
SATURDAY 6/26, DINNER: By the time we arrived late in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we were once again too fatigued to venture far, but every restaurant in the medical complex area around us had a packed parking lot except one: a strip-mall Sakura Sushi, probably one of zillions nationwide. 750 miles into the drive, we were beginning to prize speed of service above all other restaurant virtues. They didn’t disappoint on any level, though we were surprised that for some reason only a few other customers showed up the entire time we were there. I don’t get you, Sioux Falls.
SUNDAY 6/27, BREAKFAST: Time to fetch the donuts! A few miles west of the hotel was Flyboy Donuts, one of four family-owned sugar purveyors exclusive to Sioux Falls since 2014. We bought far more than we could eat in a single morning and awkwardly had to carry the leftovers in our luggage as backup snacks for the next several days. It was worth it till about Day Five. Short shelf life is the saddest drawback to the power of donut magic.
SUNDAY 6/27, LUNCH: Halfway through South Dakota it seemed logical to stop at Al’s Oasis, one of the most heavily advertised places along I-90 that we’d skipped on our first South Dakota tour in 2009. Its origins date back to 1919, when a German World War I veteran emigrated to America and opened a grocery outside Oacoma, back when cattle were a big deal ’round those parts. Today Al’s is a huge strip mall enshrouded in faux Western trimmings and enough roadside billboards in their name that it’s easy to write them off as just another Wall Drug but with less crappy merchandise. I wouldn’t know because we avoided the shops.
We were there for just two reasons: their restaurant and their smashed-penny machine, which allowed Anne to add to her collection. Whatever we ate, which we no longer remember, it was apropos of the region and its cowboy culture. The wait for a table was a bit long. Only half the tables were in use due to low staffing, as some taped-up MS Word paper signs warned us up front. Our server was the sort of older gentleman you might expect frying up the goods in the back rather than out ‘n’ about hustling for tips. Nevertheless, after a spell, we were fed.
SUNDAY 6/27, DINNER: Once again in Rapid City for the second time in our lives, we set our sights on Sickies Garage Burgers & Brews, which sounded like an awesome name for a restaurant with, like, pizzazz or attitude, even though we’d just hit up a burgers-‘n’-booze combo the day before.
Back home prior to vacation, after a long string of restaurant challenges I’d come up with a system to decide: how long is too long to wait for a table? The trick is to decipher their time code, which in my mind works out like so:
- “It’ll be about 15 minutes for a table” = “We’re fine, just need to wipe off a few more tables as soon we can, don’t fret none.”
- “…we’re looking at 30 minutes for a table” = “We’ve had better days, we’re just a bit crushed right now but doing the best we can, please bear with us.”
- “…maybe 45 minutes?” = “Tonight has sucked, it’s up to you if you wanna stay, but as soon as you’re gone, we’re all getting drunk on the clock.”
- “…about an hour.” = “WE ARE DYING HERE. I HATE MY LIFE. PLEASE END OUR SUFFERING OR JUST GO AWAY.”
The Sickies hostess told us it would be about an hour. We left without blinking.
I headed in the direction of the nearest strip mall — awful lot of those across America nowadays, as it happens — and, en route to one familiar name that we’d return to in a later city, slammed the brakes as I spotted the name of an old friend: a chain of limited reach called HuHot Mongolian Grill, one of those Asian near-buffets where you toss several raw ingredients into a bowl and a lineup of chefs cook it for you.
It may not mean so much to many an upscale reader, but during my son’s college years there was a HuHot down the street from his apartment that became one of his favorite places till he moved back home, where we don’t have a single HuHot within fifty miles of us. So this was like a reunion for his sake. Past the doors, their floor was trashed, their sauce station was a wreck, their tables were less than half full, and our college-age waiter was half-attentive and failed at basic drink refills. But at least there was no hour-long wait. Pyrrhic victory.
MONDAY 6/28, BREAKFAST: While my son slept in, Anne and I settled for the hotel’s free breakfast, partly for budget management purposes, partly to save energy for the long walk later, and partly to keep our own desires in check rather than risk escalating our cravings to the point where every meal had to be a special event. Also, as I recall this was the first and so far only hotel we’d ever seen boasting an automatic pancake machine, with a conveyor belt to cook the ‘cakes and chuck them out with crazy efficiency. Sometimes it’s the little things that bedazzle us.
MONDAY 6/28, LUNCH: Deep in the heart of Gillette, Wyoming, was the rootin’-est, tootin’-est little barbecue joint of our entire trip, Pokey’s BBQ by name. Only a single waitress was working, the kind of lady our age and size with a gruff voice that’s friendly to those who’ve merited it but don’t have to take no sass when menfolk get too uppity, but she’d do right by us as long as we kept our britches on. That’s their grilled kangaroo dinner in our lead photo. Yes, kangaroo. For well-heeled adventurous types, they also have ostrich, wild boar, python, and gator tail along with the more standard game.
Long prep times aside, our only other issue came hours later after the fact, through no fault of theirs. I overloaded on so much kangaroo that I took most of the spicy corn nuggets with me in a clamshell box. Hours later in the car, deeper into Wyoming, that spicy corn stench did not keep and had to be abandoned.
MONDAY 6/28, DINNER: We arrived in Cody after most businesses had shut down for the night but a few pizza places kept going. We walked from our hotel a few blocks west to Millstone Pizza Company & Brewery, which sounded fairly dignified. Despite many empty tables, the hostess told us it would be about an hour. We left without blinking.
We retreated a couple blocks and wound up at Pizza on the Run, with the kind of service you’d anticipate from a pizza joint staffed by so many teenagers that there weren’t enough tasks to keep them all busy. We ordered two thinly crusted pizzas, one Hawaiian and one standard meat-heavy pie but one-half covered in anchovies as a concession to me personally. The 400 miles since Rapid City had worn us down. Our defenses were low. It sufficed. We had a lot of leftovers to go with our remaining Flyboy Donuts. But not the anchovied slices. They’d make poor bedfellows with the spicy corn nuggets.
TUESDAY 6/29, BREAKFAST: The hotel’s free breakfast buffet was a block away in a separate building. We ruled that out because we had to get to Yellowstone early and beat the rush. At 7 a.m. sharp we zipped through a fast-food drive-thru for all three of us, only to be told they were out of forks, which made biscuits-and-gravy a bit of an eating challenge, except possibly to pie-eating contest champions. So we went through a competitor’s drive-thru, where I ordered just a drink for myself and then asked for a fork at the window. I received a confused expression and a spork. Good enough.
TUESDAY 6/29, LUNCH: We knew we’d be inside Yellowstone all day long and presumed we’d rely on their options. If you don’t bring along your own pick-a-nick basket, the park has restaurants in select locations within its boundaries. After our memorable experience with Old Faithful, our next stop was a couple hundred feet away at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge Geyser Grill, which didn’t open for the day till 11:30 and didn’t exactly serve at lightning speed once it did. Due to pandemic they offered takeout only, which we understood. With precious few picnic tables and benches outside, we ate in the car. The food quality was perhaps a notch above 1970s drive-in theater level, though my chicken burger was fresher than it had any right to be.
TUESDAY 6/29, DINNER: We spent the evening in the tiny town of Gardiner, Montana, nestled next to Yellowstone’s north entrance. By my count they had more restaurants than parking spaces. Our hotel clerk gave us a few handy tourism tips, named a few nearby eateries that were only open sporadically, and a caution that the hotel parking spaces would likewise fill up quickly, and to move our car was to risk having to relocate it somewhere much, much farther away for the evening. After the ten-hour Yellowstone travel experience, that sounded not remotely appealing, nor did a long walk to other dining options. We therefore settled for the restaurant right next door, Outlaw’s Pizza. We weren’t in the mood for pizza two nights in a row, but their mural ad promised meal alternatives.
Inside, the only open seats in their tiny dining room were at the bar, whereupon they broke all the news to us. They were out of pasta. They were out of salad. They were out of half their appetizers. But the two or three employees on duty would do their best with what was available. We again ordered a meat-heavy pizza, plus a couple of in-stock fried foods on the side, which Anne and my son barely picked at. It was an anticlimax to our amazing colossal Yellowstone day. But we understood the circumstances. The next morning in Gardiner we’d find other places running much the same gauntlet in the face of an overwhelming out-of-towner onslaught as entire battalions of families like ours wouldn’t stop flooding into the Yellowstone area and trying to do tourism as if 2021 were an ordinary year and nothing was wrong and everything was cured.
Out of curiosity I poked around online to see how Outlaw’s is doing. Their last several months’ Facebook statuses are a roller coaster ride of adjustments and compromises, of closures and reopenings, and of shortages and, every so often, little bits of ground regained. They’re hanging in there. And at least they’re trying to reach out and communicate. Sometimes that’s hard for small businesses to do, especially when it’s to ask for understanding or to call for help.
To be continued.
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[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]