I've seen the biggest of big cities and the smallest of small towns, all in the span of a 19-hour drive. While a trip from Seattle to Los Angeles was a zippy two-hour flight in the past, having my own car (at long last) necessitated a road trip across the length of the country. "Oh, what fun I'm gonna have!" I exclaimed as I drove south on Interstate 5, thinking I was going to see the Statue of Liberty, the Alamo, Gateway Arch, Wrigley Field and Epcot Center all on one swing.
I was dead wrong. In fact, between Seattle and Los Angeles are two blips named Portland and Sacramento, and that's pretty much it. Everything else was road and Texaco. My favorite FM radio stations were quickly losing signal as I drove further away from home, replaced by classic country music the twangy kind buzzing on the AM dials. I never thought I would grow to loathe Patsy Cline. Every once in a while (key word: while), a tiny settling of civilization would sprout up from the ground along the interstate.
The towns seemed quaint enough, and it was after seven hours of driving that I decided to stop for a meal. Although McDonald's and Denny's were ever-present, it was a small boxcar restaurant that seemed to call out to me, eagerly awaiting my patronage. For me, the charm of small-town USA was epitomized at Frank and Nancy's Diner in central Oregon. Talk about old-school.
Tabletops the kind of orange color you'd only see in shag carpeting. Car-style seating where the vinyl cover is split on one end, exposing a layer of foam cushioning underneath. The diner smells of coffee and cigarettes. A modest collection of family and visitor photos lining the wall in no set order. Strewn around are postcards from afar, crude crayon drawings from kids and humorous bumper stickers that my grandmother would chuckle at, if only she spoke English.
"Forget about world peace, visualize using your turn signal!" one read. And oh yeah, there's our old friend Patsy Cline on the radio again, belting away at some tune. So I sat down, and what do you know, Nancy, of Frank and Nancy's Diner fame, is my server. "Would you like some coffee, honey?" she asked with a smile. She seemed so fascinated by me, as if she had never seen anyone of my race before in her restaurant. She handed me the menu, written in longhand and protected by a three-hole-punched plastic sleeve.
It was a tough and arduous decision, choosing between the menu's five selections. But one stood out more than the others. Staring me in the face, deliberately displayed on the menu's marquee position, was Frank and Nancy's specialty, their forté of foods, their culinary coup de grace. It read, "Frank and Nancy's WORLD-FAMOUS' split-pea soup." It was so important that it warranted a red-inked asterisk on both sides of the text.
World-famous, eh? Right. And I'll bet some kid in Tel Aviv is saying to himself right now, "I must try Frank and Nancy's WORLD-FAMOUS' split-pea soup before I die." Praying to the gods that some day he'll be fortunate enough to journey all the way to Roseburg, Oregon. But what's so remarkably charming about Frank and Nancy is that they actually believe in their self-proclamation. "Oh sure," said the slight Nancy, "We've had people from all corners of the world try our soup: Idaho, Canada, Hawaii..."
She lists on and on, naming more worldly places where the zip code begins with the number nine. "But you see dear, we've added a little extra something that no other split-pea soup on the planet has," said Nancy, looking around cautiously like she was about to tell me who shot J.R. "Our secret ingredient...is love." Wow. The soup had me at hello. It seemed sacrilegious not to order it, so I agreed to a cup. "I know you'll love it," Nancy said confidently.
I figured that with the legendary status of the split-pea soup, Frank and Nancy would have a large batch ready for their waiting customers. But 10, then 20 minutes went by, and still no soup. Then I figured the soup must be made slowly, from scratch. My guess was that it took a while to actually split a pea. My soup finally arrived, along with a few saltine crackers. It brimmed with chunky goodness, filled with peas, ham and, well, more peas. And then came the taste test.
After all the buildup, I honestly expected fireworks to go off in my mouth. Instead, I got soup. It wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't worthy of global fame. Maybe Roseburg, Oregon's best darn split-pea soup would be more apropos. A little bit on the salty side, actually. And then I realized that Nancy was still standing there, awaiting a response from my taste buds. "Mmm," I semi-agreed. "This...why...this should be in the Smithsonian Institute! It's absolutely fantastic!"
Nancy got what she wanted to hear. She nodded politely and walked back into the kitchen. I was still a tad hungry, yet I had a satisfying meal. For such exquisite service, I left Nancy a $2 tip, then waved goodbye from my car. While I assume most people would like to go further in life than a cup of soup, I found it altogether charming that Frank and Nancy went out of their way to keep their customers satisfied with a little love, a big smile and a cup of world-famous soup.
It's their way of making their otherwise ho-hum town a little more meaningful. That, to me, is small-town America in the proverbial nutshell. It wasn't the grandeur of seeing Mount Rushmore on a cross-country trip that made a big-time impression it was experiencing small-town eloquence. Of course, I also felt privileged to have had soup that put Roseburg, Oregon. on the map. That is, until 15 minutes later down the interstate, when I saw another diner, and knew that I had to stop and try some of Mel's "KNOWN-THE-WORLD-OVER" corned beef hash.