Alan and I popped into an impromptu farmers market one Saturday morning. The market wasn’t impromptu so much as we were – being newly local meant we’d missed the hidden messages of its advertising. There were signs everywhere and even notices in the local papers, but no location was ever mentioned. Or when there was a location, it was given only in code: next to where the Big Boy used to be. It was assumed that if you were from ’round here you’d know the deal.
I’ve always wondered about the habit of pinning a location on something that no longer exists. I have a hard enough time with directions to deal with deliberate booby traps to my arrival, but it keeps the riffraff out I suppose. Alan is convinced it’s a local thing – when he first moved to Ohio now a decade ago, that’s how everyone gave him directions. No street names, no north or south – just turn left where the Office Max used to be. If he’d ask which actual direction that might be, the person would stand there and squint, orient themselves toward the sun, look over one shoulder, hold out their arm like a bike signal, and then say East. No, WEST!! Yeah, west… I think. He’d thank them politely, then look it all up on a map.
Those were the days before GPS nestled in a warm corner of our pockets, though out here it rarely works anyway. Cell networks weave a large ring around the country, connecting its outskirts but rarely venturing inside. Riffraff, and all that. Out here, landlines rule the ground. And before landlines, it was the ground itself that ruled. The streets were named for their terrain – South Ridge, Middle Ridge, and North Ridge roads divide the county neatly into thirds; South River Road and Arcola Creek Drive mark the waterways that connect them. There are no north-south or east-west divides, just undulating tree-studded passages that link one location to another.
It may have been intuitive at one time, though it isn’t so terribly practical now. In one area the street curves around so far that it intersects itself and the street sign is identical in both directions. When we drove through the intersection one day, I told Alan defiantly that this is why I can never find my way around. How in the hell are you supposed to know which way to go when the street itself double crosses you?? It’s this way, Alan said simply, pointing the way ahead as if it should be obvious. He has a farmer’s sense of direction just as he has a farmer’s sense of everything else – he knows through intuition.
I have none of this magical fairy unicorn juice myself. I can only marvel at those who possess it. I am lucky enough to get from point A to point B intact. While some people try to take the shortest path, I routinely take the path that is least likely to get me lost. One detour, or around here a painfully common occurrence, a train stuck on the tracks, and I get derailed, ending up someplace that is not at all where I’d once hoped to be. My goal quickly shifts from arriving at point B to being anywhere at all that looks somewhat familiar so I can find my way back to point A and call it a day. I blame the crooked streets, I blame the technology that cannot save me from my own shortcomings, but mostly I blame all the places that never seem to stay where they once were.
Throughout the decades there have been some attempts to modernize the ways and means of our country streets, adding numbers to names in an attempt to make sense of it all – but that only adds to the directional havoc. When the street signs don’t depict what people out here call them, a lost soul like mine hasn’t got a chance.
I’ve survived by mostly being a passenger, going along for the ride in the laid-back sort of way that I embrace most things in life. It may add a few stops to my hardware store trip, but I make it home in the same amount of time – ushered through secret back streets known only to the locals, and of course to Alan.
For what it’s worth, it’s how I’ve discovered the best parts of the country, by riding shotgun on someone else’s journey. That’s how I found Fowler’s Mill, an actual stone-operated mill that grinds locally grown wheat and corn. The walls inside of its wooden barn are stacked high with five and ten and fifty pound bags of every kind of flour imaginable. It fed our bread-baking, pizza-making, sourdough habits from that day forward, enhancing both our skills and our girth.
It’s how I learned to love Robinson’s Apple Barn, filled with seasonal fruits and vegetables, wildflower honeys, and racks of freshly baked pies. Alan and I would swing by on a sunny day with a giant bowl of salad, two forks and a blanket and pick out a pie to top off our picnic. One day we chose a tart cherry pie, still warm, from the wire shelf. We drove to a sunny green pasture and soaked it all in. When we dove into the center of the uncut pie we found it filled with pineapple wedges, and not a cherry insight. Oh well, you can’t derail a good picnic with a misplaced fruit. Perhaps it was where the cherry pie used to be.
And speaking of pies, this was also how I discovered Jefferson Diner, the godmother of the diner scene. It is a tiny sliver of a place, packed to the brim with square flecked tables and round chrome barstools. The chairs are sparkling blue and silver vinyl that look like they were upcycled from an old amusement park ride. The insides are lined with faux wood paneling and wall-to-wall frames of newspaper clippings and old photos. The undulating ceiling tiles are painted bright blue and white, a cover for the stains of water and wear most likely hidden beneath.
The people are a cross-section of all walks of life – on that day a politician grabbing lunch in his suit jacket and tie, a distracted mother with her young kids in tow, a hunched old man dining with his barely younger brother sporting identical Fu Manchus. At one point, in the middle of a bite of a noon omelet and hash browns, the older man’s leg fell off from the knee down, clunking onto the floor in a loud plastic thump. A nearby waitress made a joke and handed it back; he might be needing it again soon. The man shoved it back on with a hearty laugh, his mustache vibrating with his belly.
The brothers finished up and left a tip, a fiver that got blown to the edge of the table from the bustle of nearby movement. It hung on precariously as Alan and I shared a piece of warmed peach pie, and right as it was about to finally let go and float to the ground, it was whisked up by the waitress in the same motion that gathered three water glasses, a coffee cup, and a half-used packet of grape jelly.
Mostly what you need to know about the Jefferson Diner is that the food is earthly, the pies are ethereal, and the secret that only the locals know is that the white bread – and only the white – is homemade. Only out-of-towners ever ask for rye.
I brought my dad to the diner for his birthday one year. He’s always a fan of a good sandwich, and an even bigger fan of pie. He ordered a reuben – on white bread, at my insistence – and gave it his hearty approval. But when he took a bite of a slice of warmed apple pie, his eyes got misty. Just like my mom used to make, he said wistfully. Some things take you home, no matter where you’re from.
When we left, I discovered that the road was closed and the train tracks were blocked again. I had to navigate our way back by myself, no trusty pilot to guide me. I meandered through the undulating tree-studded passages, zigzagging past the farmer’s market and then the orchard, crossing the double-crossed street, and then passing the magical spot where the Big Boy must have been. It took us twice as long to get home, but it’s all good – you can’t derail a hearty lunch with a lousy tour guide. In the end, the memories will take you farther than the meandering ever will.